Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"You Don't Know Everything!"

I'm getting to know my limitations, and hope you are, too!


In the past week, I've had three different people (two after our services Sunday) come to me with what they thought was a compliment. The composite of the comments were, "It is really great when you get up in the pulpit and say what you don't know." What was meant in every case was an appreciation of my having to say at numerous times (including last Sunday's sermon) that "I don't know" how to explain or figure out some things in the Bible. In one case I was told how good it was for kids to hear that. 

We live in a community dominated by a university and featuring a new school complex, and in each place knowing things is not only celebrated, but graded. So, you might think that admitting you don't know something would be a bad thing. But, in this case, it is not.

This truly is a compliment, and I agree that it is important to be honest about what we don't know, what we do know, and what we can't know.

Of course, I don't mean to celebrate all ignorance, either in me or in others. But humility about what we know is both honest and hopeful. I grew up in a day when it seemed that pastors were always confidently asserting everything about all biblical subjects--and even some non-biblical ones.

I had preachers tell me that Jesus wore his hair in a modified crew cut--never shoulder length. After all the Bible says a man having long hair is a shame, and Jesus would never do anything that would shame himself.

One Christmas, a sermon on the virgin Mary asserted confidently that she would never have gone around wearing lots of makeup or tight jeans. I don't think she would have, either, but I'm not sure where we would get that in the text--and most of us were not thinking that we should replace the figure of Mary in the manger scene with a "Bible Times Barbie." 

Pastors told me that women wearing pants were in sin because they were wearing "things pertaining to a man." My grandma's polyester pantsuits didn't really belong on any man, but that's what they said.

And when it came to prophecy, "everyone" knew that the European Union (the "Common Market" back then) was the kingdom of the coming Antichrist. There were many other details we were sure of that just haven't proven to be true.

One of my pastors told me that, while we believed in God's sovereignty, we wouldn't talk about it because it was too confusing and not important. In his thinking, it was better for us not to know of God's ultimate control of all things. Instead, we would avoid those passages, and any talk of God's election. We actually had a tract around that referred to election in relation to salvation as "God votes 'yes,' Satan votes 'no,' and you cast the deciding vote!"

Then I went to college and seminary and learned that some of those things I had been taught so confidently were wrong--or at least not the only way to look at the Scriptures. Thankfully, I was encouraged to study, draw conclusions, and keep studying. The profs that influenced me most were both confident in what they taught, but also able to discuss those areas where there were different possible conclusions to draw and still be faithful to Scripture. In some cases, they were transparent enough to share how they had come to change their understanding of a matter based on further study of Scripture. The greatest gift they gave me was not a new set of answers (although they offered many good ones), but how to think through things, and the principles needed to gain understanding of the text of Scripture. 

I have tried to emulate that combination of diligent study and humility about my own conclusions. One seminary teacher wisely told me that, if I am the only person I know who holds a view, then I could be confident I was wrong. He said that based on the Holy Spirit's promised function of guiding us (the Church) into all truth, it would be prideful to assume that 2,000 years of church history could go by waiting for me to figure something out!

Practically speaking, my own awareness that there are others out there--and I am talking about you--who can check up on me, leads me to go as far as my knowledge of the text and subject can take me, and then to stop! And I'm grateful to have some "Berean" types in this congregation who examine the Scriptures to see if what I say is found in the text.

The hopeful part of this humility is that we have the ability to keep learning as we study God's Word. Only a supernatural book can have a finished text and yet have more and more that can be understood as we apply ourselves to learning from it. That is why my sermons change even when preaching a text I've preached before. Through my own study and the confirmations of commentators (living and dead), including our leadership, my own grasp of truth grows.

So, I'm thankful that you are OK with having a pastor who doesn't know it all, and is ready to acknowledge it. I'm glad that you have that kind of pastor--otherwise, I'd be out of work! Let's commit--all of us--to being lifelong learners, ready to assert the truth we know, and seeking to lessen the amount of truth available to us that we don't know. Let us also agree to let God be the only one who understands all things perfectly, and the only one who understands some things at all! As we see in Romans 11, his judgments are "unsearchable" and his ways are past finding out! Our confidence is that they are also holy, righteous, and good, and are meant for the joy of his people.