I remember reading a story where a student sitting next to Albert Einstein turned to him and asked, “What do you do?” Einstein replied, “I am a student of physics. What do you do?” The student replied, “Oh, I finished studying physics last year.”
I think it’s important to be reminded that as followers of Christ, and as believers of the Scriptures that reveal Christ, we ought to see ourselves as students on a continual journey of learning and enlightenment unto Jesus—the true source of all wisdom and knowledge (Col 2:2-4).
“Disciple” means one who is a student and a learner.
The Journey of Life & Death
The Christian journey is one of multi-lane freeways, straightaway interstates, winding single-lane roads through hills and valleys, and the occasional hike off the beaten path into the mysterious unknown.
It’s a journey that recognizes that need for constant change and evolution of thought and practice. It’s characteristic of life itself. It’s built into all of creation. It shouldn’t surprise us that it’s also common to our spiritual life.
And now that Christ has promised us resurrection life, we know that death is only a part of the journey. It’s even a necessary part of our spiritual growth. Remember what Jesus said to his disciples:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” Matt 16:24-25
If we’re going to grow on this journey with Christ, we must be willing to revise, adjust, and sometimes change our views and our living based on new insights into the Lord. We’re going to have to deny ourselves.
We may even need to give up what we discover to be broken, sometimes even idolatrous, theological and biblical frameworks, and allow the Lord to give us a new vision and understanding altogether.
Are You Willing to Grow?
I’ve met many evangelicals who dislike theological challenges, even seeing them as an evil intruder seeking to demolish their faith or the faith of others. This shouldn’t be if we’re on a true journey with Christ.
I will go so far to say that if there hasn’t been a change in you and your beliefs for some time now, you’re probably not growing in the Lord to the extent he desires. Change is a part of “growing” up into Christ.
As followers of Christ, we should welcome challenges. When we’re challenged and honestly receive that challenge, it causes us to rethink and reexamine our previous beliefs and living. It’s characteristic of a living faith that is always moving forward in the Lord.
I see this as a win-win for us. You will ultimately discover that either you were on the right track with your previous belief, thereby strengthening it all the more, or you will find that your belief and practice were wrong, and correct it according to new light and understanding.
And we should never let the consequences of that change deter us from making the necessary moves toward truth that sets us free to faithfully follow Christ. If we’re out of our minds, it’s for Christ’s sake.
Check Your Filters
I have found that one of the greatest hindrances to our spiritual growth are the filters by which we perceive and judge ideas that are new to us, or that we’ve simply been told are bad for us by people in our group that we trust.
Filters are meant to screen things out that don’t belong. But the more threads or restrictions to the settings on those filters, they can actually work against you.
What happens when our filters end up collecting valuable items that are perceived as trash by the filter?
Have you ever had an important email unknowingly get collected in your SPAM box? Have you ever found a diamond ring or some other valuable item in those filters of yours? It happens.
I believe this sort of thing happens quite regularly to Christians on journey with the Lord. How does this happen to us when it comes to theological challenges? And what can be done about it?
Preunderstanding & Presuppositions
Our spiritual growth is stunted when we do not recognize how much our own cultural context and situation in life has shaped our theological perspectives. Please stop and think about this with me.
I’m a white Southerner. I was raised in a small East Texas town with no black people in a dry (no alcohol) county. I grew up in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church that pledged to the Bible and the American flag during Vacation Bible School. This theological upbringing forged a commitment to reformed theology, Left Behind eschatology, and that women can’t be ministers in the church. And that’s just the beginning of it.
My wife grew up in a “King James only” congregation. This means that they only believe the “authorized” English version of the Bible should be read by Christians. Her tradition was even more dogmatic than my own. They forced girls to wear culottes at their church camps! (In case you don’t know, “culottes” are knee breeches first worn by men in the 16th century.)
Do you think these things impacted (and still impact) the way we think? Of course! And your own upbringing has shaped you as well. You need to acknowledge this if you wish to grow.
Our preunderstandings and preconceived notions that we bring to the biblical text and the Christian faith, (both consciously and unconsciously) greatly impact the way we think and live.
This preconditioning causes us to think that we already know and understand something about the Scriptures, making it harder to face the challenges that the Lord may be bringing our way to grow us spiritually.
Our own cultural context and formation is a subtle aspect of our preunderstanding. We can easily attempt to interpret Scripture according to our cultural norms, and miss the real meaning.
For example, if Jesus said, “love your enemies” (Matt 5:38-48) but our culture has already shaped our thinking on the matter, we must immediately interpret Jesus in such a way that does not conflict with our cultural norms.
What is the norm here in America? Well, some killing and violence is acceptable as it promotes security, democracy, freedom, etc. Therefore, your filters force you to privatize and dilute the teachings of Jesus. As a result, the Bill of Rights often ends up trumping the real Jesus and the rest of the New Testament.
So much for serving two masters (Matt 6:24).
Regardless of how Jesus lives this teaching out, and the indisputable fact that for the first three hundred years of church history Christians refused military service and rejected all forms of violence, we are tempted to conform Christ to our cultural Christianity.
Duvall and Hays write in their book, Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible:
Our culture is a combination of family and national heritage. You learn it from your Mom at breakfast, from the kids on the playground at school, and from television. It is a mix of language, customs, stories, movies, jokes, literature, and national habits. For Americans it is comprised of Big Macs, Barbie Dolls, Tiger Woods, and the Back Street Boys all mixed-in with George Washington, Babe Ruth, the Mississippi River, Walmart, and the space shuttle. (pg. 89)
Did you grow up in a big city or a small town? Did you grow up Protestant, Catholic, or some other tradition? Were you exposed to other cultural and theological viewpoints growing up? Have you ever spent any time outside of North America? Did you grow up in a healthy family? Were you rich or poor? Was your dad around? Did he show you love?
As it pertains to “love your enemies”… how often were you taught the teachings of Jesus in his historical context and shown how to live them out in your own? And I don’t mean the American Jesus version.
All of these things (and much more) matter when it comes to our cultural Christianity and learning how to navigate in the world on our faith journey. They add to the prefiguring of the settings on our filters.
For better or worse, our cultural context shapes our biblical worldview.
I don’t believe that everything we’ve ever been taught is entirely wrong, but we do need to recognize that our traditions and influences (good or bad) have added to the settings on our own filters.
Our preconceived ideas and our cultural baggage often keep us from knowing the first-century, olive-skinned, Palestinian, construction worker from Nazareth, that believed he was the Messiah foretold by the prophets.
Remaining Objectively Honest
It is true that being totally objective in biblical interpretation and in our Christian walk is impossible. However, simply being aware of our cultural upbringing and the filters that our own traditions have prefigured for us will help us to look afresh at the ancient Scriptures and consider how we might better follow the counter-cultural Christ in our own context.
I do believe that some basic historic presuppositions and settings on our filters should be used when choosing to walk the Jesus way. I recommend the historic Christian creeds, like the Apostles Creed.
This confession leads us to embrace the Scriptures as inspired testimony about God’s work in the world through Jesus of Nazareth.
Beyond this general confession of our faith in Christ, we ought to be open and honest with other brothers and sisters in pursuit of Jesus. In fact, Christians ought to be leading the world in exploration of wisdom and knowledge. We know the Source. What are we afraid of anyway?
This is only possible by being mindful of the filters guarding our hearts and minds. And adjusting those filters when it’s necessary for further growth.
Let’s be honest with ourselves and with one another. We have all been conditioned to read the Scriptures and follow Christ according to our own traditions and cultural norms. Have you checked your filters lately?
How have your filters been prefigured for the Christian life? What is stopping you from reconsidering certain challenges to your theological and biblical worldview? Pray the Lord will help you grow.
D.D. Flowers, 2012.