Each Wednesday evening I assist the instructor of a class for new believers in our church. Our text is a short book entitled “7 Basics” written by Beth Jones, who co-Pastors a church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. While the book is an excellent introduction to the Christian faith and is scripture based, the author begins each chapter with a quote from a respected Christian leader. Politicians, theologians, pastors, businessmen, each of these leader’s backgrounds is unique and disparate: from an 18th/19th century English politician who fought to end the slave trade, to a 20th Century leader of the American Civil Rights Movement; from a founder of a Christian men’s network, to a former President of the U.S.A.; from a Canadian theologian in the Anglican and Reformed traditions, to a Texas pastor of a Full Gospel church; and from a missions advocate and leading force in Fundamentalism, to a renowned expert on organizational leadership.
Great men all – yet still only men – none whose opinions and words are infallible. Yet two weeks ago, in response to a question about one of these quotations, I found myself overzealously trying to explain and defend it, without either first fully researching its initial context or judging its truth based on the Word of God. Though it’s no valid excuse, I’m not the first to make this mistake.
This is a predicament that every one of us faces every day. Christian and non-Christian alike, we hear or read “truth-claims” spoken or written by people we respect and, more often than not, we accept their words at face value without making the effort to research their validity, and we defend those words until we’re red in the face. Not only is this a lazy practice, it’s a dangerous one.
Even Good People, Honorable People can make Mistakes or be Misinterpreted
The focus of this discussion is a speaker’s fallibility – but before I even get into that, it’s important to realize the fallibility of the hearer as well. Sometimes a writer or speaker will intentionally take liberties with language, exaggerating a fact for emphasis. While this is a clever literary tactic, it has risks too – that a hearer or reader may take the statement out of context, or just outright misunderstand what they are saying. Take for example one quotation from evangelist and pastor Oswald J. Smith: “No one has the right to hear the gospel twice, while there remains someone who has not heard it once.” Obviously he was not intending to infer that we should not give an unsaved person more than one chance to be drawn toward God by repeating the Good News of Jesus’ message – but one could interpret it that way, if they didn’t know the heart of Pastor Smith to reach the whole world for Christ.
I was recently in a service where a pastor was speaking on the importance of knowing the nature of God; for if we truly understand God, we’ll not misinterpret the sources of good and evil circumstances in our lives. I don’t think there’s anything clearer in the Bible than these two facts: (1) Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow of turning. (James 1:17) and (2) that the source of all evil is from sin and the devil.
Yet, sometimes when we go through difficult and trying circumstances we humans forget these truths. Even the great Christian author and theologian C. S. Lewis, when faced with the fatal suffering his wife endured, misinterpreted the nature of God. Consider this quote as Lewis searched for answers: “Isn’t God supposed to be good? Isn’t God supposed to love us? And does God want us to suffer? What if the answer to that question is yes? ’Cause I’m not sure that God particularly wants us to be happy. I think he wants us to be able to love and be loved. He wants us to grow up. I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he makes us the gift of suffering. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see we are like blocks of stone out of which the sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel which hurt us so much with are what makes us perfect.”
The pastor recited these words strictly as an example of the great Christian’s failure to fully comprehend that it wasn’t God who brought the cancer that made his wife suffer and ultimately killed her, but the enemy. Yet sadder than Lewis’ misunderstanding of God in this one instance, was the reaction throughout the congregation as several “amens” appeared to affirm Lewis’ quoted words of exasperation. I sat perplexed at how so many Christians who had consistently heard from this same pulpit of the love of God and His desire only for their best, could still believe that their God would deliver to them “a gift of suffering?”
They (and I at times) fall into this trap by not giving adequate time and effort to seek to personally know God and His character as revealed in His Holy Bible. Instead, we take the shortcut of allowing supposed theological experts to describe God and His character for us.
Great people, honorable people go through difficulties and trials – and in moments of weakness they are prone to interpreting circumstances based on emotion and past experience rather than the truth of God’s Word. Great people, honorable people sometimes make mistakes – in words spoken or written, as well as in thought and action. That’s why God left us a safety net with which to judge every word spoken or written and every thought and action – His Holy Bible.
Fortunately as I drove home from the New Believer’s class three weeks ago, I realized my own mistake and had an opportunity to correct it. And the following week I prepared a hand-out that summarized each of the quoted leader’s backgrounds. Then I cautioned these baby Christians that every “truth-claim” about important issues of life needs to be judged by its consistency to God’s written Word. It doesn’t matter if the person making that claim is myself or another educator, a national or local leader, their own pastor, the Pope or any other person of great standing and reputation.