One of the most common and accepted missteps people make when looking at Jesus’ teaching and preaching in the Bible is to see Him as incredibly concerned with being fully understood. To the contrary, Jesus seemed, at best, largely unconcerned with the masses completely grasping exactly what He was saying, and there is a possibility that He was actually speaking in ways that ensured that many would walk away shaking their heads.
This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that
“they may indeed see but not perceive,
and may indeed hear but not understand,
lest they should turn and be forgiven.”
13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?
The reason this rubs some of us the wrong way, as it seemed to do with Jesus’ disciples and the crowds, is because we live in a culture that values knowledge and understanding almost above all other things. We are the culture of Cliff Notes, Spark Notes, synopses, blurbs, and soundbites. We love to base full passion on partial information. We find great joy in not doing the work but getting the full reward. Welcome to America, the land of microwaves, summaries, 12 step programs, and 30 days to change your life (I am not making hateful jabs at any of these things, merely pointing out how even the good in our culture has been boiled down to the absolute minimal level of commitment).
And then there’s Jesus.
Jesus who speaks in cryptic phrases. Jesus who tells stories that capture our attention, demand that we read them again, and perpetually leave us wondering if we really understand what they mean. Jesus who came to bring life but preached a message that elevated death. Jesus who may very well be the most misunderstood figure in all of recorded history. This Jesus admitted to His disciples that He would teach in such a way so as to guarantee deafness, blindness, and coldness. What? There are many theories and scholarly speculations as to the purpose behind this, and I am quite sure that many of them are correct, and so I merely offer my opinion as flavor in that stew.
I believe that the very thing we hold so dear in our culture, quick information / quick comprehension, was something that Jesus desired to distance Himself from. I see no place in the Gospels where Jesus attempts to do anything if not force those who were closest to Him, as well as those who merely came to hear Him teach, to wrestle with the images, words, and illustrations like a detective…or, perhaps, more appropriately, like a reader of poetry. There is an inherent mystery in what Jesus says. There is an intentional mist that hovers over His words and stories that demands that we both pray for the warmth of the sun to slowly dissipate the fog, and get on our hands and knees to see the ground in the meantime. There is art in the mystery in the same way that there is art in struggling through a book by older more difficult authors (I attempted to read Aristotle’s works on Ethics several months ago and had to beat my self into continuing just to make it through the first major book/section). Things that come too easily to us have a tendency to be less valuable in the long run.
This leads me to my point. As Christians we will drive ourselves insane if our goal is to be fully understood by the culture we live in. What I suggest is that we would live lives that allow people to first see the beauty and majesty of God, as opposed to first trying to win an argument. I just cannot find many, if any, instances where someone was argued into the kingdom of God, but there are many that have come into Jesus’ arms because they found the joy, love, grace, and loveliness to be too powerful to ignore or walk away from.
In our Western cult of comprehension we will find Christianity to be largely out-of-step with that way of thinking. We, as Christians, are more concerned with holding things in tension than building fences around our beliefs. And while there are certain tenets of our faith that we will absolutely die for, those things are still mysteries. I would never, not at gunpoint and threat of life, deny the divinity/humanity of Jesus, but that does not mean that I can come close to comprehending it. And in fact this is the great message that we as the people of God, the church, proclaim: THERE IS SOMETHING GREATER THAT CANNOT BE UNDERSTOOD, BUT MUST BE EXPERIENCED AND DWELLED IN.
Think of the shepherds in Luke 2, minding there own business and doing their job when, literally from out of nowhere, angels filled the night sky and began to chant in unison about glory, peace, and good will. Don’t try to convince me that the shepherds knew what was going on. They didn’t have a theological grasp on the issue. What they had was a gigantic question mark that pulled them in, arrested their souls, and demanded that they act. This is the beauty of Christianity, not that we understand it all, but that in its paradoxes and ironies it begins to massage our dead hearts bringing them back to life. Facts and figures, summaries and statistics, concrete principles and collated data sets haven’t accounted for one lifeless human drawing new breath…but the lovely mystery of God has done nothing if it hasn’t awakened physical and spiritual corpses to live, move, and know what it is to be reanimated by the power of the King of life.
Soren Kierkegaard, in his book Fear and Trembling, said something that played a large part in my thinking about this topic:
“men leap aside, they cannot bear the martyrdom of being uncomprehended”
– Soren Kierkegaard
Perhaps in our culture the martyrs will look different than they do in China or India. Perhaps in our erudite and informed Western society our martyrs will be those who have decided that it is better to be a spectacle for Jesus Christ than comprehended by the world. Perhaps our martyrs will be dubbed “madmen” and “psychopaths” and “insane” – but if they are it will be because the world has no gauge nor capacity with which to measure or quantify joy, beauty, and grace.
Friends, don’t lose the breath-taking beauty of God and Christian living by thinking it’s a formula. Even the Bible is a story, not a book of facts. We serve a God who values process and art and discovery and creativity and wonder. Don’t just ask what you need to know about God today, but ask God to give you a glimpse of who He is. The difference is breath-taking.