Belief and uncertainty

I wrote in my philosophy blog about whether we are able to choose what we believe. The answer for most Christians will probably be, “of course”, but many secular philosophy students don’t understand how it could be. Aren’t we predetermined to believe what seems true to us? And don’t things seem true to us or not based on what we’ve been exposed to about them? We don’t really have the choice to see something that we don’t see, or vice versa.

My answer there was that we set the bar for how much evidence we will require before we believe something by our own choice. We decide how much proof is enough.

We also decide what kinds of things count as proof for us.

I think we do this constantly in our Christian lives, and we make mistakes in both directions. Sometimes we are too skeptical. Sometimes we are too naïve. Always, though, we have a tendency to be too arrogant. We are convinced, down deep, that we and we alone are seeing the world as it really is. All the other people around us don’t understand. “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.” Proverbs 14:12.

The biggest thing for us to come to terms with is that we simply don’t know much of anything for sure. We are at the mercy of our senses, of our experiences, of our culture. We are almost certainly wrong about a great many things we take for granted. This should make us all the more hungry for the God who is truth.

It is fashionable in our Christian world to suggest that our era’s most dangerous intellectual error is the rejection of absolute truth. I disagree. I believe in absolute truth: God is omniscient, and so whatever he knows to be true is absolutely true. However, in practical terms, we are not so blessed. We are almost certainly swimming in half-truths (including this one). It’s not that dangerous to give up the pretense of knowing things for sure.

In fact, in my strong opinion, it is when we get comfortable with the idea that it is part of the human condition to be slightly uncertain about almost everything that the claims of Christianity become really attractive.

Christianity is not merely a series of true doctrinal propositions. Christianity is a relationship with a Person who is Truth. The Bible is not merely factually accurate. It speaks to us with power. We encounter the Logos through the written Word. Absolute truth exists, but it is a Him.

Selfishness

I heard someone preach a sermon recently about selfishness, and how it is the root of almost all sin. I hear this preached a lot, by lots of different people. It depends on defining selfish as “wanting things for yourself”. We are exhorted to deny ourselves, which is taken to mean that we stop paying attention to our own desires and instead focus on glorifying God. This is the tough, mentally disciplined approach that God wants from us.

So, to summarize:

  • Selfishness is the root sin
  • Selfishness means wanting things for ourselves
  • We should stop expecting to have our own needs met
  • Instead we should only worry about glorifying God
  • A life of doing this will be disciplined and well-ordered and pleasing to God

While there is some important insight in this overall teaching, I think it’s wrong.

First, every Christian should go read John Piper’s book, Desiring God, and then rethink the points above.

Second, the Scripture itself does not, to my knowledge, name selfishness as the root of all sin, although I admit it gets close. It talks about idolatry and coveting and pride and fleshly lusts. Here is how I see the different meanings of these terms, in the context of this discussion.

  • Selfishness: wanting things for myself
  • Idolatry: looking to someone or something other than God to meet my deepest needs
  • Coveting: comparing what I have with what others have and then becoming frustrated that I have to live my life instead of theirs
  • Pride: making it my highest priority to manage my own happiness
  • Fleshly lusts: impulses for short-term satisfaction — I should ignore them if that would be better for me in the long run

James 3 and 4 also talk about something closely related to selfishness. James 3 speaks of “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition” and explicitly says that all kinds of sin spring up from these. James 4 explains that our strife with others comes from envying them and coveting what they have. The passage goes on, though, to point to pride and idolatry as the real culprits. The problem is not that we want things; it’s that we look somewhere other than to God to find them.

The biggest problem with the selfishness doctrine is that it leaves faith out of the picture. Instead of telling us to realize how much we need God, it exhorts us to need nothing. A more Scriptural approach would emphasize these truths:

  • We have many desires, some of them deep and some less so.
  • Some of our desires are for things that won’t really satisfy, so we need to have a healthy skepticism towards our desires.
  • God Himself is the source of all true satisfaction. We need to pursue him with all our hearts to find our needs really met. (“Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.”)
  • Once we trust in God, he will call us away from pursuing many of the things that we think will meet our own needs. The test of our faith will be whether we are willing to let go of what seems to satisfy us and trust him to bring us real satisfaction.
  • Sometimes, he will call us away from even having certain desires. Even that, though, will be based on our trusting that His wisdom is greater than ours, and that He has a better set of desires for us to have.

The practical consequence of these ideas is this:

  1. Have all the desire you want, but …
  2. Take all your desires to God. Believe with all your might that he and whatever he gives will truly satisfy you.
  3. Because you are trusting him to take care of what you want most deeply, leave it with him. Hope, but don’t pursue. Instead focus on loving God and loving others. Expect God to bring you the desires of your heart as a by-product as you live for Him.
  4. When others are needy, don’t tell them to get over themselves; rejoice with them that God cares about the desires of their hearts too.

The difference is really important. It is one thing to say to someone, “Stop wanting so much! Focus on loving God and others!” and quite another to say to someone, “Trust God to fulfill all your deepest desires! Focus on loving God and others!”

We all make assumptions

I wrote in my philosophy blog about why philosophy never seems to make much progress. Well, sort of. I describe a paper by philosopher Peter van Inwagen in which he says that philosophy is almost never able to settle arguments definitively. The idea is that every proof depends on the assumptions you start with, and people can always reject the assumptions if they don’t like where things are going. Furthermore, the most important assumptions in philosophy are things that seem intuitively self-evident to some people and not even true to others.

This leads to, and is part and parcel with, a view of knowledge which says we don’t start from a neutral point of view. To think well at all, we need a rich set of beliefs about the world and ourselves and truth and so on. No one makes progress by throwing out all his assumptions to start with. (Perhaps there is no assumption we cannot examine, but we cannot reexamine them all at the same time.)

In other words, life is not like mathematics. In math, we pick a few axioms – maybe just 10 or so – and then prove all sorts of things based on those axioms. All the rest of our mathematical knowledge unfolds from those axioms. Furthermore, it doesn’t really matter which axioms we pick, as long as we get interesting results.

Life is different. First of all, we can’t possibly reduce all the assumptions we need for thinking about real things to just a handful of axioms. Second of all, we can’t just pick the simplest or most interesting axioms, we have to try and pick the true ones. And that is the hard question – which axioms are really the true ones?

I think Christians should have this view of knowledge. It would affect how we defended and used Scripture. Instead of thinking of Scripture as a collection of facts and principles that we reason from – like a collection of several hundred axioms we use in doing our theological proofs – we would think of Scripture as a collection of (true) stories and statements and examples that are intended to push back against our network of pre-made assumptions. I don’t let Scripture teach me by clearing my mind and starting from scratch with no assumptions at all. I let Scripture push back on my ideas about life. I let it make me uncomfortable. I keep having to modify how I think to make it fit what I see in Scripture. Over time the Bible begins to mold the way I think to make it more Christ-like.

One cool thing about this is that we don’t have to make people agree with us first and then show them the Scriptures. We can carry the Scriptures right over to them in the middle of their muddled intellectual worlds and then let the Word begin to do its work.

Teaching and active learning

I had a moment of insight today about teaching. When active learning techniques work, it isn’t because they help students intellectually, it’s because they help students emotionally. If I break students into groups to discuss a concept among themselves, for example, it’s not because that helps them to understand the concept better, it’s because it helps them become more emotionally connected to the material. This goes against a lot of the things teachers say about active learning. But I think it matches what actually happens.

In general, I think that a surprisingly large factor in the learning process is the students’ attitudes towards the material moment by moment. I think the most gifted teachers are those who are highly attuned to that attitude, and instinctively aware of how it can be directed and nurtured on the fly.

Quality of life and suffering

In defending abortion, a lot of people say something like, “If this baby was born, what kind of circumstances would be grow up in? If it was going to be severely disabled or suffering horrible poverty, wouldn’t it just be kinder to abort it now? What kind quality of life would it have?”

One response to this is simply to express outrage that people would consider “playing God” by taking it upon themselves to decide whose life is and isn’t worth living.

Another response is to point out that no one would make the same argument for babies outside the womb. Ask them what they would do if they knew of a five-year old child living in extreme poverty, with parents who beat him. Would they say, “Well, his life isn’t worth living. Let’s just kill him and put him out of his misery!”?

I’d like to respond in a third way, and that is simply to point out that quality of life doesn’t depend much on the amount we suffer. Suffering makes life hard, but it doesn’t make it low-quality. Quality of life comes from joy. It comes from meaning. It comes from bringing glory to God.  Some Christians have endured great persecution and had even greater joy. Others have struggled with joylessness for a time, but still known their lives had meaning to God. If God takes pleasure in my life, if He is glorified in it, then it is a life well worth having. Look how much Jesus suffered! – and yet his life had as high a quality as it is possible to have.

Sometimes I think we make life harder for ourselves than we need to because we think the point is to avoid as much pain as we can. The point isn’t to avoid pain. The point is to live – to trust God and pour ourselves out in love for others, to “know Him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death”. I think joy comes from courageously being who we are called to be, without holding anything back. Can a child raised in severe poverty or with a debilitating physical handicap do that? Of course. I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m just claiming it will be worth it.

(My more philosophical take on this is over here.)

A political quote from Cal Thomas

My brother David posted this quote on facebook.

“But followers of Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, should not think that having the “right” person in office will somehow restore righteousness to a fallen and sin-infested world. How can a fallen leader repair a fallen society? He (or she) can’t. Only God can do that through changed lives. And lives can be changed only by the transforming power of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it has always bee…n so. As revivals of the past have shown us, the social impact was astounding. So if believers want to see a culture improved (fewer abortions, less drunkenness, fewer divorces, and so on), let their objective be to lead more people to Christ. Those converts will then be “transformed by the renewing of their minds,” and societal transformation will follow. It’s bubble- up, not trickle-down. The problems we face come from our forgetting God and worshipping the golden calf of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In material things and pleasure we trust, not God. That’s why He gives us over to the consequences of an unrestrained lower nature. Politics can’t redeem us from that.” Cal Thomas (Former VP of Communications for the Moral Majority in the 1980s)

He asked everyone to say what they thought about it. He plans on blogging about his own reaction tomorrow.

Here is my response.

I agree somewhat. But I think:
  • It makes it sound like we have no one converted right now. Sure, we should keep focusing on evangelism, and that should make an impact on society. But I think it’s a mistake to think that, because we are seeing society change for the worse, that therefore we haven’t been evangelizing enough. I’m sure we haven’t been, but I’m not sure this era is much worse than any other.

There are certainly times of revival when a bunch of evangelism happens and a bunch of conversions happen, but I think those are both more a product of the revival rather than a cause of it.

  • Although it is true that “These converts will be ‘transformed by the renewing of their minds’ and societal transformation will follow”, it does not happen very quickly on its own. Transformation at the level that affects society and politics is sometimes very slow.

We (the church) can speed it up by discipling one another more in the area of thinking politically and socially. That’s tricky, because we don’t even always know what we should be thinking about politics and society.

It’s certainly more complicated than giving people a scorecard for the candidates. We can’t think of discipleship in political areas as a means to an end — the end of winning politically — but as simply growing in our understanding of how Christianity affects everything.

  • If we are doing a good job of evangelizing, there will be as many liberal Democrats getting saved and growing as there will conservative Republicans. Therefore, the body of Christ will be frustratingly diverse when it comes to political convictions. In the long run, this will be a strength for us politically, as long as we are willing to work with it.
  • I very much agree that part of thinking Christianly is to realize that we do not belong to this world. We are citizens of another kingdom. Like Paul, we can use our earthly citizenship for the glory of God, but ultimately we do not belong here and our national identities are not our true identities.

Nonetheless, as Christians who anticipate Jesus’ return to earth to restore society, we should be foreshadowing his return by combatting wickedness and promoting goodness wherever we can.

  • Sometimes systems, cultures, and laws are set up so that they promote evil. We need to see that there can be a value in changing them.

Reasons for belief

Since Kate linked to my blog today, I guess I’d better post something here!

I have big plans for the blog in the future, but I am not ready to launch them yet, so I’ve been dormant this semester. Let me just post something brief about something I’ve been mulling over lately.

When I got saved, one of the most important things about the whole experience was the nearly palpable presence of the Holy Spirit during the process. I didn’t hear any audible voice, but I sure felt as though God were carrying on a conversation with me in my head. I asked questions and seemed to hear answers. I asked for help with the fear that had so often prevented me from coming to Christ, and the Holy Spirit sent waves of spine-tingling, overwhelming peace to combat it. At a key moment, I suddenly switched from thinking of Jesus as “out there somewhere” for me to believe in or not, to thinking of Him as face to face with me, by means of the Holy Spirit. Suddenly I wasn’t listening to myself asking “Do I believe in Jesus?” I was listening to Jesus ask me directly, “Do you believe in Me?”

Without all this supernatural stuff, I probably wouldn’t have believed.

So, in a sense, the foundation of my belief in God is the personal experience I had of his supernatural communication with me at the key moment.

Later, I was taught that if I was going to persuade others to believe, I wasn’t supposed to rely on my subjective experience with God, but on various measurable, objective evidences and arguments for the existence of God. That made sense: I couldn’t really share my own experience with others, but I could point them to the reasons they should believe based on logic or nature.

At the same time, and somewhat in contradiction to the first idea, I was encouraged to use Scripture when I talked to unbelievers, because the Scripture alone would convict them of its truth. In other words, if I used Scripture, I had hope that God would bring to them the same kind of supernatural conviction of the truth of the gospel that I had experienced. That seems pretty Biblical to me. The New Testament, in particular, seems to trace people’s faith back to a foundational experience of hearing the spoken word of the gospel and realizing, by God’s grace, that it must be true. For those who heard the gospel and were moved to believe it, the word was self-authenticating.

Then I went through a 20-year drought in terms of the subjective experience of God. Recently, with that drought apparently over, I have been rediscovering my original sense of the supernatural presence of God, and remembering how much of my early faith was always based on that kind of thing.

But is it right that my faith should be based on my own experience? It seems like that puts me at the center of everything instead of God. Yet putting my faith in measurable evidences isn’t really better. I don’t believe in Christ because I am scientifically or logically convinced: my faith in science and logic just isn’t that strong. Putting objective human knowledge at the center of everything doesn’t seem any more Christ-centered than putting subjective human experience there.

Some apologists argue for a “presuppositional approach”. According to them, we start by simply acknowledging our presuppositions — belief in the Bible, for example, is the typical one. Then, we believe other things on that basis. That makes sense to me, but still leaves the question of how I came to be sure of the presuppositions to start with.

The most recent insight that I’ve had is the value of thinking of my experience of God at salvation as a sign pointing to the God behind it. In fact, I can think of every human experience, everything that I can come to know as a human, as a sign to the God who is bigger than my ability to know.

The point is this: if God reaches me through a subjective experience, and through that experience points me to Himself, then I can transfer my trust from the sign itself to what it points to. There is a difference between what led me to faith, chronologically, and that upon which I rest my faith, ultimately. I came to Christ through certain human experiences, but I chose to interpret those experiences as signs of a God standing behind them. Then I put my faith in that God, not in the signs by which I came to believe in Him. Others have come to Christ by means of objective evidences in nature or logical arguments about a first cause or the fine-tuning of the universe. Hopefully, they too have transferred their trust from these specific evidences to the God to whom the evidences pointed.

Is this saying anything new? Or am I just putting the words in a different order? Just finding a new way to talk about presuppositional apologetics? I think this is new, and important, but I’m not sure. It’s all pretty complicated stuff.

Anyway, I think part of my calling when I talk to other people, both believers and unbelievers, is to help them notice the signs of Himself that God has put in their own lives, and help them interpret them properly, so that they can see to whom the signs are pointing.

A Christmas Meditation

(I wrote this for Kate‘s newsletter.)

==

A couple of weeks ago, I spent some extended time with God. I was in the middle of a potential tragedy in my life, and seeking for solace of some kind, for a reminder that God was in control and cared.

I started by singing some hymns. Specifically, Christmas carols. One of the songs I ended up singing said this:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

In my mind I couldn’t help picturing the scene: cold, still, lonely, silent. No one around for miles and miles. It sounds sad, but it didn’t make me feel sad. In my imagination it was beautiful and strange and other-worldly.

I felt as though God were giving me imagery to match my mood, and showing me the beauty in being there with Him. The next verse said:

Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Now the first Christmas, from the little I understand, may not have taken place in snowy December but in temperate March. Still, I can see why songwriters through the ages were drawn to the picture of God quietly invading earth on a clear, moonlit, freezing night.

A more familiar carol says this:

O little town of Bethlehem,
how still we see thee lie;
above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting light;
the hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight. 

and, in the third verse,

How silently, how silently,
the wondrous gift is given;
so God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him, still
the dear Christ enters in.

As I clung to God that day, I felt like those songs. My world was frozen at that moment in time. God was asking for me to just wait for the moment to come when he would quietly step in with His salvation.

* * * * *

Scripture paints a similar picture. Here is Psalm 147:16-17

He gives snow like wool;
He scatters the frost like ashes.
He casts forth His ice as fragments;
Who can stand before His cold?

Psalm 147 is a psalm of praise. When Jewish believers sang this psalm in the temple, they were acknowledging the fearful power of God. God’s is sovereign. God is transcendent.

Sometimes we come face to face with the universe and realize just how little we are. God is infinitely mightier than the universe. Winter turns to summer and then to winter again, but it is all part of God’s plan. Storms arise and subside, but nothing is ever out of his control.

Look at the same verses in context:

He sends forth His command to the earth;
His word runs very swiftly.
 
He gives snow like wool;
He scatters the frost like ashes.
He casts forth His ice as fragments;
Who can stand before His cold?
 
He sends forth His word and melts them;
He causes His wind to blow and the waters to flow.

Everything happens according to God’s decree. When he decrees winter, there is winter. When he decrees an ice storm, there is an ice storm. But it is all under control. The day comes when he sends forth his word to thaw the frozen ground. He sends forth his wind to warm the ice. Spring arrives.  Waters begin to flow again.

The Psalms were written to be sung in worship by God’s people in all sorts of circumstances. Their composers intended them to be taken not just literally but also as metaphors for the work of God in general. They expected people to relate the imagery to their own lives as they sang. Someone might sing, “Who can stand before His cold?” and think, “That describe my life right now. I am undone by the things that are happening to me.” Then they would sing, “He sends forth His word and melts them; He causes His wind to blow and the waters to flow,” and think, “I long for the day when God sends forth His word to melt the ice in my life. I long for the day when His Spirit will set the waters flowing again.” They would go on singing praise in hope of the deliverance coming one day.

Which brings us back to Christmas:

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming
from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming,
as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright,
amid the cold of winter,
when half spent was the night.

Here is one last song about God quietly stepping in to our cold world to save us.

           Welcome To Our World

==

The Christmas carols were:
In the Bleak Midwinter, text by Christina G. Rossetti, 1830-1894
O Little Town of Bethlehem, text by Phillips Brooks, 1835-1893
Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, 15th cent. German; trans. by Theodore Baker

John 8:12-20

Here is the passage:

John 8:12-20

Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in 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.

You judge according to the flesh;I am not judging anyone. But even if I do judge, my judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and the father who sent me.

Even in your law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. I am he who testifies about myself, and the father who sent me testifies about me.”

So they were saying to him, “Where is your father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my father; if you knew me, you would know my father also.”

These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; and no one seized him, because his hour had not yet come.

Theme and structure of the passage

On first reading, this passage seems to be fairly unstructured. It looks like this:

  1. Jesus says something really important about being the light of the world.
  2. The Pharisees challenge his claim.
  3. Jesus spends a lot of time talking with the Pharisees about their attitudes to him and his testimony.

In other words, it looks like everyone gets distracted. It seems to be one long rabbit trail leading away from verse 12.

However, I think this first impression is deceptive. I think there is a remarkable integrity to the passage. Every piece of it is important, and it all serves to drive home the same theme, the theme that Jesus is our light.

The light that is Jesus

Jesus says that he is the light of the world, and that everyone who follows him does not walk in darkness but has the light of life. What is the practical meaning of walking in darkness or having the light of life?

I would like to suggest that the passage makes most sense if we interpret the light / darkness here in terms of our understanding of life rather than our behavior. Jesus is not saying, “If you follow me, you’ll make good decisions and not stumble.” He is saying, “If you follow me, life will make sense for you. You’ll be able to grasp its meaning. You’ll know what you are here for.”

The light of the Pharisees

The Pharisees respond by saying “You are testifying about yourself, so your testimony is not true.” Of course they didn’t mean that they knew for sure that Jesus wasn’t speaking truth; they meant that what he said didn’t count as valid testimony. It didn’t follow their rules of what testimony had to be. It didn’t prove anything for Jesus to claim it.

The Pharisees were experts at argumentation and debate. They had established procedures, based on the law and on logical thinking, for getting at the truth. They were objecting here that Jesus wasn’t meeting their standard for evidence. There were rules for submitting your testimony to a court of law or a theological body, and Jesus wasn’t following those rules.

The Pharisees didn’t think they needed anyone to be the light of life for them. They already understood what life was about. Their light was their knowledge. Their light was their methodology for establishing truth.

When Jesus said, “I am the light of the world”, they did what they always did with claims like that. They judged it by their own light. They asked, “according to our methods for finding out truth, does this qualify?” It didn’t.

The conflict

The problem was, Jesus wasn’t submitting his claim to them for their adjudication. He wasn’t saying, “if you use your already-established system for discovering theological truth, you’ll find that a part of it is Me”. He was saying that he superseded their methodology.

I teach a philosophy class in which one unit is on proofs for and against the existence of God. Some people argue that God exists, others argue that God doesn’t exist, and there is a lot of disagreement. Yet, everyone seems to agree on one thing: we humans are capable of finding out the truth for ourselves, if we just look hard enough. The default philosophical view of rationality seems to be that we can start from an unbiased, neutral standpoint, carefully sift all the evidence around us, and come to a measured and intelligent decision about God.

Scripture says differently. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 that God has deliberately worked in such a way that intellectual pride will never lead us to Him. He has set things up so that we are blinded to him by any attempt to find him on our own.

The Pharisees were making the same mistake as my philosophy students. Jesus said he is the light of the world. He said that we will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life if we follow him.

The Pharisees said, “We don’t walk in darkness right now. We already understand life. We already know how truth works. We ourselves aren’t confused: our job is to cast light on all the things that confuse other people. We know the law really well, and we know how to reason from it. Just show us your claim and we will be able to tell you if it is correct.”

Here, then, is the situation in John 8: Jesus says we can only understand reality if we follow him. The Pharisees already had a way to understand life, so they thought. They were willing to test his claim, but they didn’t realize he was actually challenging their very methodology. He was asking them to abandon their intellectual self-sufficiency.

What follows is Jesus’ attempt to get them to see that it was their very assumptions about how to decide what is true that he was calling into question.

First response: we need to see beyond the temporal

At first, Jesus sets aside the Pharisees’ concerns about method. The Pharisees were looking for proof. They should have been looking for truth. “Even if I testify about myself, my testimony is true.”

Why is it that Jesus is able to know and speak the truth about himself, while the Pharisees are not? Because they aren’t working with all the facts: he knows where he came from and where he is going, and they do not.

From a merely human perspective, Jesus was a Jewish rabbi who said some startling things and did some amazing miracles. From the Father’s perspective, he was the eternal son of God, who had come to earth in the form of a man, and who planned to die for us, rise from the dead, and ascend back into heaven where he would rule as both Lord and Christ. Jesus didn’t tell them all these details yet, but he he hinted. He pointed out, here and on other occasions, that he came from heaven, and would one day return there.

What does this make a difference? Because what matters is not just Jesus’ three years of ministry in Palestine. What matters is the larger meaning of his life in history and in eternity. What matters is what he came to do, and where from, and what the outcome would be. If we follow Jesus as a good moral teacher only, we still walk in darkness. It is only when we follow Jesus as the the one sent from God, as the Savior, as the One whose name is above every name, that we find he is the light of life for us.

The Pharisees, though, couldn’t see the full significance of Jesus, because their perspective was limited. It had to be limited. As finite human beings, they were only aware of what was in front of them in the early first century. They couldn’t possibly know all the facts.

We are in the same boat. We just don’t know enough as humans to be able to figure out the truth on our own. We can’t find the light of life as long as we are restricted to temporal reality and ignore the eternal.

Second response: we need to see beyond the physical

Nor can we find the light of life if we are restricted to physical reality and ignore the spiritual.

“You judge according to the flesh,” says Jesus.

Sometimes when the Bible says we do something “according to the flesh” it means that our actions arise from sinful motives. Other times it simply means we do it physically (for example, in 2 Corinthians 10:3). In my opinion, that’s the interpretation that makes the most sense here. Jesus’ primary meaning isn’t, “You are judging from sinful hearts”, but “You are judging based on outward appearances.” Human knowledge, on its own, is inherently limited to physical evidence. Because we cannot get past that, we cannot make sense of life by ourselves.

Third response: we need to see beyond our own expertise

“You judge according to the flesh; I am not judging anyone.” What does Jesus mean by judging? I think he is referring to the kind of judgment the Pharisees are engaged in: they had set themselves up as the arbiters of truth. They had appointed themselves the job of approving or disapproving everyone else’s moral and religious claims.

Jesus says, “I’m not playing your game. I have nothing to prove. I’m not interested in arguing about theological systems. I’m simply stating the truth.” Not that he couldn’t argue if he wanted to: “Even if I do judge, my judgment is true …”. It’s just that, again, in claiming to be the light of the world, he was setting aside all merely human systems of knowledge.

Fourth response: we can’t find the truth alone

“[E]ven if I do judge, my judgment is true; for I am not alone in it, but I and the father who sent me.”

When my philosophy students ask whether God exists, the one thing they never think to do is to ask God to reveal himself to them. Secular reasoning often starts from the standpoint of an independent neutral observer. Whatever we can discover for ourselves, we will believe. Whatever we cannot discover for ourselves, we will reject. We are self-sufficient in our rationality. (Even neutrality can be seen as a studied independence from whoever might influence us.) I’m not saying that people actually succeed in being independent and neutral, just that they aspire to be.

The Pharisees, as religious as they were, functioned the same way. They were theologically self-sufficient. They accepted that God had given them the law, but, having received it, they wanted to work the rest of it out on their own.

Jesus, in contrast, says that he is not alone in his judgment, but is united with the Father in it.

I think it would be a mistake to think of Jesus and the Father as being two independent sources of testimony. Even though that may be the ideal in a court of law, it is not the ideal when it comes to ultimate truth. Jesus doesn’t just hold the same opinion as the Father, he forms it in partnership with the Father.

Specifically, Jesus says, his judgment is united with “the Father who sent me“. Because he is defined by where he came from and where he is going, because he is called by the Father and lives within that calling, his every judgment is shaped by that calling. He does not hold his judgment alone, for it is the natural side-effect of the Father’s creative shaping of his life.

The Pharisees are limited because their lives consist of a narrow slice of time in a small corner of the universe.They are also limited because they isolate themselves voluntarily. Their relationship to God, as they see it, is to figure out for themselves what he meant and then obey it. Even though they appoint themselves as judges of the truth on behalf of God, they never seek to discover their calling from God. They do lots of thinking about God, but don’t wonder what God thinks of them. The consequence is, they miss the experience of finding that God has led them to the truth.

Fifth response: we can’t find the truth outside of Jesus

Finally, Jesus responds on their own terms. At least he appears to: “Even in your own law it has been written that the testimony of two men is true. I am he who testifies about myself, and the father who sent me testifies about me.”

It doesn’t help, though, because they can’t talk to God directly they way they can to people. (And they certainly can’t interrogate him!) They want a way to evaluate truth that depends on humanly measurable factors. So they ask him, “Where is your father?”

I don’t think they were confused by what he meant – I think they knew he was talking about God. They ask “where is your father” to get him to admit that claiming “God agrees with me” isn’t really helpful evidence. Regardless, Jesus knew what he meant.

His response, though, is even more unhelpful! “You know neither me nor my father; if you knew me, you would know my father also.” In other words, “You’ll know if I speak the truth if you ask my father, but to come to know my father you’ll have to trust me first.”

There is a vicious circle here. They can’t prove to themselves that Jesus speaks the truth until they are sure the Father agrees with him, and they can’t be sure the Father agrees with him until they are willing to trust what he is saying. Logic won’t help because the vicious circle corresponds to a circular argument.

This is precisely why the Pharisees are in such trouble. There just is no way to get from their methodology to the kind of trust and understanding Jesus requires. If we walk in darkness, we can’t see to find our way to the light. If Jesus doesn’t break into our lives with his truth, it will remain inaccessible to us. Only he is the light.

It would be easy to turn the first four stages of this passage into a 4 step process, a new method for finding the truth.

  • Step 1: take an eternal perspective
  • Step 2: take a spiritual perspective
  • Step 3: admit our ignorance
  • Step 4: look for help

But that only works if Jesus is in every stage. Jesus didn’t say “you don’t know where you come from and where you are going”, he said, “you don’t know where I come from and where I am going”. We can’t find eternal meaning in our own lives without first finding it in his life. We can only walk in our own relationship with Father when we find it through Jesus’ relationship with the Father. We can’t even know the Father except by knowing the Son.

The Pharisees thought they were being asked to judge Jesus’ claims. They weren’t. They were being told that everything they thought they knew was uncertain. They were being told that they were incapable of seeing truth without God’s intervention. They were being invited to find truth in Jesus. The single condition was that they stop thinking they could find truth without Jesus.

Does the Holy Spirit lead us?

A friend on facebook (Tim Dukeman) recently said:

- I’m deadly serious about this. God doesn’t speak through impressions, feelings, “leadings”, or any of that other nonsense. He speaks through the Bible.

- Nothing in the Bible would lead us to the idea that God speaks in these hyper-spiritual ways. If you hear an audible voice, we’ll talk.

But this “leadings” nonsense is paganism.

- I used to ask God for specific guidance. I have repented of such foolishness.

This was my response:

Tim, have you never read a Scripture and felt vaguely convicted, and then asked God to reveal to you the specific attitude or action you needed to repent of?

I do that all the time. I read something and ask the Spirit to search my heart and bring to mind whatever He wishes. Suddenly I’ll realize, “Oh! I’ve been arrogant. *That’s* not good.” So I’ll repent.

I consider that the leading of the Holy Spirit. It’s Scripturally grounded, but goes “beyond” the Scripture in that He brings to mind something specific in my own life to which the Scripture corresponds. It’s a kind of “revelation” about my own circumstances and heart.

It’s not authoritative. I don’t even have to know whether it was my own insight or something God led me to think of. But it seems silly, after having asked God to guide my thoughts, to say that it is wrong to believe he actually did guide them.

I realize this is not what you meant. But I think it is what you should have meant.

Tim’s further response:

You are correct. That is an important caveat. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin. If you feel convicted of sin after reading Scripture, that’s usually legitimate.

But what I said above stands.

Comments? I have a lot of other opinions on this, but I want to organize my thoughts a little before saying much more.