Saturday, December 27, 2008

Secondary Questions - Or, lessons from a homeless man's reading list.

In 2004, a man named Dan walked into the coffee shop where I worked in Grand Rapids. My co-worker took his order and I made the drink. While they waited for me to finish, she decided to make some small talk with this guy. “I’ve never seen you before. Do you work around here?”

“I don’t work around here or anywhere else,” he said.

“Oh. Well, do you live around here then?”

It was an innocent question, but she clearly didn’t understand that Dan was probably homeless. I hip-checked her out of the way and handed him his drink. He paid with a dirty dollar bill and some change, if I remember right, and began talking with me about education and religion. Unlike some of the other people I talked with in that neighborhood, his points were articulate, well reasoned, and truthful. He mentioned some books and asked if I had read them. Then he wrote the titles in beautiful cursive on the back of a concert flyer. “You’ll find these at the Grand Rapids Main Branch Library,” he said.

He told me that one of the books, The Art of Clear Thinking, didn’t have much to say. He really only recommended the chapter, “How To Not Be Bamboozled”. I found all the books on his reading list and read them over the next four months, but I remember this chapter best. “How To Not Be Bamboozled” warned against accepting false information in an age where information is so easily accessible. And mind you, this book was written in the 1950’s, way before the lightning speed at which we could all WikiTubeBookSpace. The author said that all information should be tested by three questions: “Why do I need to know this? Who is telling me? And what are their sources?” I won’t give you my book report summary of the chapter, but I want to point out the importance of further inquiry. It’s easy to hear something and assume that we have a complete understanding of both its context and credibility.

I’m awesome when it comes to acting like I understand everything. Reader’s Digest once had an article that explained how you could impress people at parties. I was ten and woefully insecure, so I ate this stuff up. The author’s strategy was to say truthful statements, but to say them in such a way that deceived people. Imagine someone asks you, “Have you ever read Dante’s Divine Comedy?” Instead of saying “No,” you can answer, “Not in English.” The second reply insinuates that you’ve not only read the Divine Comedy, but that you read it in Italian. But this is a party. You can move on to another circle of cocktails and leave that person to bask in the residual glow of your coolness.

I’ve spent the better part of the past five years re-training myself to not play that game anymore. It all started when I couldn’t get away fast enough and the person started asking questions that proved I was a phony. My Reader’s Digest-inspired cool (if such a thing were possible) couldn’t stand the test of secondary questions.

But secondary questions aren’t just a BS detector. What if every conversation you ever had sounded like a job interview? You have your set of questions for people to get the basic information of who they are and what they’ve done. But without context, do you really know the person? I recently filled out an application that asked me to tell them a little about myself. “What makes you tick?” it asked. I looked at the space given after the question and basically wrote in, “It’s a long story, but at least it’s not boring.” I couldn’t give a short, easy answer. If I had given an answer like, “I’m a writer,” and left it at that, their assumptions could lead them to a conclusion miles away from my meaning. In Nashville, when you say you’re a writer, most people immediately say, “Songwriter?” I have to tell them, “No, typewriter.” It takes another question for them to understand what I meant.

I’m learning to ask secondary questions when I pray. First, it’s important to ask questions that test the truth of what I may hear in prayer. 1 John 4:1-3 says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.” Just because I hear something while I’m praying to God, and just because it sounds like something God might say, it doesn’t automatically mean the word is from God. John encouraged people to ask questions that would test the spirit speaking to make sure the word came from God.

Then there are the questions I ask God to build an understanding of what He may require of me. I think He wants us to make an effort to understand, to learn and grow instead of passively accepting everything that comes our way. There’s a reason, I think, why James 1:5 encourages us to ask for wisdom from God. And the writer makes it clear that God wants to give you wisdom. But you have to ask.

If God were to tell you to get a new job, for example, does that mean you should get any job other than the one you have now? Or should you take a moment to ask, “Where do you want me to work?” That could save you a lot of frustration applying and interviewing at dead ends, which might cause you to blame God for making your life hard. And I’ve found that asking God the secondary questions doesn’t only give me clearer information on what He wants me to do, it also helps me to understand His heart, how He desires to give me good things, how He loves me enough to guide me.

Secondary questions help keep us from being bamboozled. We can see if the guy at the party is making himself look a lot cooler than he is in real life. We can see if God is speaking, or if a lying spirit is trying to deceive us. Information without credibility will eventually break down if you press it with questions. That sure beats having your thinking enslaved by lies.

Secondary questions also make space for a relationship. It’s the difference between a boss who only wants you to know your duty and a Father who wants His adopted son to become more like Him. Information without context is just trivia, and I don’t want my life to be trivial. Instead of asking the wandering homeless guy where he lives, you could ask him why he’s out of work. Who knows? He might give you a cool reading list.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Importance of Being Right – Or, a possible path toward unbelief.

Recently, I considered the topic of predestination. Unless we’re talking about the movie 12 Monkeys, I don’t typically like discussing the hopelessness of man’s decisions. The topic surfaced again when my roommates and I read about the atonement in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. One roommate took the side of particular redemption. I told him that I could only, at this point, agree with particular redemption after the fact. That is, I will only tell a person that Jesus came to specifically save them, that God chose them from before their birth for salvation, after they have already accepted Christ. And consequently, I will regard every unbeliever as one who may potentially accept Christ. My roommates and I talked for about an hour and a half on the subject. I finished my argument later by saying, “Even if I’m wrong, I can’t be mad. Nobody deserves to be saved. One person receiving salvation is more than the whole of mankind deserves from God.”

The conversation ended well even though we didn’t come to an agreement. As I washed the dishes afterwards, I smiled at the thought that a room full of opinionated men could still be humble in their beliefs. There were no assaults made against a person who didn’t agree with one side or another. We tried to come to an understanding based upon what we know of scripture and cared only that we lived our lives in a way that honored God. I haven’t fully adopted Reformed theology, but I am still thinking about the points made in its defense. I want to know more about God. In order to make sure that I don’t become stubbornly proud in my faith, I have to remind myself, “I don’t know everything.”

At the end of Stark Raving Obedience, I spent a little time writing about Blaise Pascal. In the book Pensees, he said that man is a point on a line and limited in his ability to comprehend either end of the line. Man cannot comprehend the extremes of anything in nature. There are numbers so big and small that we have yet to count them. The Universe continues to expand, and we have only begun to chart the vastness of it. On the other hand, scientists keep finding smaller and smaller subatomic particles. Some light and sound waves are too high or low for our senses, and maybe our machines, to register. Yet these extremes exist regardless of our ability to know them. Pascal’s argument was that some Being must fully comprehend these extremes. This was one argument he made for the existence of God. He said that it was man’s great joy to discover more of what God had put in place, but man must humbly recognize that he will never arrive at full and complete comprehension. This belongs to God alone.

Toward the end of George MacDonald’s Lilith, the narrator struggles to understand a truth Mr. Raven tells him. Apparently, the narrator is in a dream, but everything seems quite real. He doubts that his senses deceive him. Everything feels real, so how could it not be real? If his current surroundings were a dream, how would he know if he ever truly entered the waking world? Mr. Raven explains, “Thou doubest because thou lovest the truth. Some would willingly believe life but a phantasm, if only it might for ever afford them a world of pleasant dreams: thou are not of such! Be content for a while not to know surely. The hour will come, and that ere long, when, being true, thou shalt behold the very truth, and doubt will be forever dead.”

I often think about Pascal’s picture of humble learning and taking joy in discovery. But does this mean that any skepticism of new understanding puts me in the wrong? According to MacDonald, it shows that I have a love for the truth, a truth I can never fully understand apart from God’s illumination. I want my knowledge to form a complete whole instead of a pile of facts with which I can agree. I want to learn, but I’m trying to reconcile what I have already learned with any new information. If I’m going to learn anything, I sometimes have to allow for the possibility that I’ve previously accepted something untrue. This is the hard part. So hard, in fact, that I need the Holy Spirit to help me change my thinking.

I take this very seriously because of how easy it is to resort to an “I’m right, you’re wrong” mentality. The danger in this attitude comes from a resistance to truth not previously understood. If it doesn’t make sense, it’s a breeze to disregard it as nonsense, right? Priests and bible teachers of Jesus’s day were arrogant in their knowledge of scripture, but they didn't see Jesus as the fulfillment of all those prophecies they had memorized. In John 8, they couldn’t recognize Him when He stood right in front of them. Jesus had come to the temple to teach and said in John 8:12-14, “Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness, but will have the Light of life.’ So the Pharisees said to Him, ‘You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true.’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Even if I testify about Myself, My testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.’”

Did you ever wonder why the Pharisees said, “You are testifying about Yourself; Your testimony is not true”? I think they were trying to trap Jesus with His own words. Three chapters earlier, Jesus said in John 5:31, “If I alone testify about Myself, My testimony is not true.” But then he says in verse 32, “There is another who testifies of Me, and I know that the testimony which He gives about Me is true.” This is why Jesus answered the Pharisees accusation by saying, “Even if I testify about Myself, My testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going; but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.” He knew that He was the Son of God, one in and with the Father, but these religious leaders had no understanding of the Trinity to know the truth when they heard it. It didn’t make sense, so they disregarded it.

My pastor pointed out that John 8 takes place in the temple court. The priests kept huge oil lanterns burning day and night to signify God’s presence in the temple. Here they stood, focused on the representation of God’s presence and unable to see God Himself standing before them saying, “I am the light of the world.” It probably would have been okay if they had responded by saying, “Huh? We don’t understand what you’re saying, Jesus. Why don’t you explain it to us?” The disciples said that all the time. But the Pharisees didn’t want Jesus to explain. They wanted to trap Him and prove Him a liar. They wanted to be right.

What did that leave them with? Unbelief, I think. Graham Cooke once said, “The Bible talks about ‘an evil heart of unbelief”. And it’s not that if you have unbelief, your heart is evil. What it’s saying is that the impact of unbelief on your heart is really evil. You commit yourself to a life of toil, struggle, and pain. It damages everything.”

What’s the opposite of unbelief? Faith. Then that probably means the impact of faith on your heart is lovely. I’m not going to say that thinking you’re right equals unbelief, and thinking you’re wrong equals faith. Put it in terms of the attitude you have towards knowledge. Is it arrogant and prideful? Then you’re in danger of unbelief just like the Pharisees in John 8. Is it humble, allowing for new understanding? I’d say that’s a good step toward faith.

Having said all that, I encourage you to both seek as well as stand firmly upon truth. People used to tell me that I had to be open minded. At the heart of their argument, they wanted me to admit that their version of truth was just as valid as mine. Which is funny because this meant they didn't think my explanation of truth was valid. I didn’t budge from my position that there is one eternal God. That not all gods were God. That truth was not relative. Absolutely nothing will change my mind about these statements.

So whether God knew (and therefore picked) who would be saved, or if He made a genuine offer of salvation to all, Jesus is the only way to salvation. I can stand on the truth of Christ and yet continue to learn more about this truth. At least on this, the roommates and I can agree.