Yesterday I talked about the need for repetition in learning things. Math and reading specifically come to mind. And as it is needed for those skills, it is also needed for learning the word of God.
In fact, I’d say especially for the word of God. When subjects are deeper, more layered, more complex, and more expansive, we cannot possibly understand with only a few quick lessons. The only way we can really learn them is by cycling over the material, gaining new understanding with each pass. And there is nothing deeper, more layered and complex than the Word of God. He created the laws of physics and the science of neurology, after all. If those subjects are daunting, doesn’t it follow a fortiori that learning about the one who created them would be more so?
Indeed. So much so that the Bible tells us God’s thoughts and ways are not like ours. They are foreign to us. More foreign than the most foreign culture or language could possibly be. And the more foreign and strange a subject is to us, again, there is no way we’re going to “get it” on the first pass or two. Probably not even the tenth pass, or the twentieth.
The Bible tells us the naturally-minded man cannot understand the things of God at all. They are foolishness to him. Only the spiritual man (ie, born again) who is filled with the Holy Spirit can understand. But even after salvation, all of us are in some respects naturally-minded. We still live in the world where we are barraged, in this present age as never before, with worldly thinking. And even though we’re saved, we still have our flesh, which sets itself against the things of the Spirit, and is a continuing source of wrong and worldly, self-centered thinking. It will even take doctrinal thoughts and distort them, misapply them (as Job’s three alleged friends were so fond of doing) in order to serve itself. And it’s not always easy for us to recognize when that is happening because a lot of times it feels “right.”
Further, in 2 Co 5:16 we’re commanded to “recognize no one according to the flesh.” A common interpretation of that verse is that we’re not to look at other people on the basis of their sins and failures, but on the basis of their position in Christ. And while it’s certainly true we are to regard other Christians in this way, that can’t be what this particular verse means because the passage goes on to say that we’re not to know Christ after the flesh, either, and He had no sins or failures.
So what does it mean? I believe it’s talking about our own flesh. We’re not to know others or Christ on the basis of our own fleshly thinking — our naturally minded way of interpreting things that are beyond our ken.
Let’s take self-discipline as an example. As an unbeliever, I knew all about self-discipline and was pretty good at it. After I became saved and read in Galatians that we’re to have the fruit of the Spirit, one part of which is self-discipline, I thought, well, I know what that is. I know I haven’t always been perfect at it, but I know it’s a good thing and now I’m supposed to do that. So I would double my efforts in the self-discipline area.
I’ve read of others who describe their efforts to cultivate and nurture this particular fruit. They deliberately take on tasks that will make their flesh chafe. The flesh hates service, one person said, but absolutely screams at hidden service. You have to train it to abide this, and you seek out opportunities to do so.
That all seems reasonable and logical and right. Except for three things.
One, that if you keep going with this kind of thinking, you’ll end up like the flagellants I wrote about some months ago.
Two, the fruit of the Spirit, as I’ve said before, is the fruit of the Spirit, not the fruit of me. If I’ve been crucified with Christ, I’m dead. I can’t produce a thing. It’s the life of Christ that has to produce this fruit, not me. In fact, all my pastors over the last 37 years have repeatedly said, “If the unbeliever can do it, it’s not the Christian way of life, because the Christian way of life is a supernatural way of life.” An unbeliever can discipline himself; in fact some are better at it than most believers. And everything I described above about seeing some quality the Bible says Believers are to demonstrate, and then setting out to acquire and practice that quality is very much a normal human way of approaching something.
The natural man does it all the time. I want to lose weight. I need to stop eating so much. I want to be a wonderful musician, I need to start playing the piano. I get angry too much, I need to start meditating and visualizing my anger as red smoke and exhale it. (Got that from The Mentalist 😉 ) I am too shy, I need to learn to make eye contact. I have a bad mental attitude, I will now tell myself affirmations all day… and on and on. That’s a completely natural, in some cases practical way of dealing with something. If I want to learn to sketch, I have to practice. If I want to get good at tennis, I have to practice. It’s all about I. Nothing really supernatural about it.
Which brings me to number three: God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways (Is 55: 8,9) Do we really stop and think what that means when we read it? I know in the past I haven’t. Oh, I agreed with it, but only on some amorphous, vague level. He’s the creator, after all. He’s omniscient, eternal. Of course His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways, and off I go, agreeing with the concept but not really living in it.
Maybe we need to reverse that verse, and say instead, “man’s thoughts and ways are not God’s ways.” Or even better, “my (natural) thoughts and ways are not God’s ways.
He considers our “righteous deeds to be as a filthy garment” (Is 64:6) after all. We struggle with that. When Cain brought his wonderful crop of vegetables, the work of his hands, as an offering, God rejected it. He was not interested in Cain’s work. It was gross. Cain was so upset he killed his brother, because his offering of a lamb was accepted.
Our efforts to please him in our flesh are nauseating to Him. (Rev 3:14-17) He is pleased with Christ and His work on the Cross. All those who have believed in Christ are subsequently placed in union with Him, and so when the Father looks at us, He sees His son, who paid our debt of sin. It’s because of what Christ did, that He is pleased with us. Paul, on this very subject reminds the Galatians that they came to salvation by grace through faith, not of works, and the same way they received Him is the way they are to walk in Him. By grace through faith, not works.
“Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Gal 3:6
He says the same thing in Colossians:
“Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established by means of your faith…” Col 2:6 ”
Faith in who He is and what He’s done, not faith in ourselves. Believing what He’s promised, believing He is who He says He is. It’s faith that pleases Him; in fact, without faith it is impossible to please Him. (Heb 11:6)
That’s not the way we tend to think. It doesn’t seem right. It doesn’t jibe with what the world says, even what the religious world says.
When you consider the number of elements arrayed against us learning the thoughts and ways of God it’s hardly surprising we would be a long time finally getting to the core of things. The complexity of the material, the outlandishness of its claims and promises, the depth and the foreignness of it all is challenge enough. But then we add in the fleshly part of us, thinking it understands when it is only distorting truth, or rejecting it outright because it finds the concepts offensive (eg, “step aside flesh, you’ve been crucified, you have no part in this”) and all of that occurring in a world that constantly affirms “natural-minded” thinking as reasonable, logical, responsible and rejects “heavenly-minded” thinking as nonsense, ridiculous, and off the wall. How could the learning curve be anything but long and slow?
I know. I’ve been fighting the battle with all those elements and my flesh is very adamant that some of my conclusions are nutty and “can’t possibly be right” and that my old viewpoint is the only one that really makes sense…
But that’s not what God’s been telling me. And ever so slowly I think I’m starting to believe Him.