I recall a day about 16 years ago while I was working in a military intelligence unit. My colleagues and I were onto something really big! As we pulled the information we had together, we saw it coalesce into a tantalizing picture … a report we were sure would end up on the desks of the nation’s senior leaders. Every subsequent fact and interpretation confirmed our initial suspicions, and all our most seasoned experts agreed that we were right. We could hardly contain our excitement as we prepared to send out the account that would shock the world!
The report went out, and we got all the attention we expected … except that we were absolutely wrong and wound up looking quite foolish! We’d started with a misinterpretation of a basic fact, which then led us to misconstrue each other detail. All the validating evidence we’d gathered actually fit an altogether different picture, only we couldn’t see it because our own seemed so logical, so very right.
It was a textbook analytic mistake, and one with an important spiritual parallel. We’re all analysts of Scripture, and as sinful and finite creatures we struggle to grasp our Creator’s holy and infinite character. We often have a hard time even with the revealed truths of Scripture, and especially when it comes to what Paul referred to as “disputable matters.” We fail to see how easy it is to contort God’s Word to suit our preconceived notions of what is “right” or “self-evident.” Oblivious to our limitations, we stop learning once we’re at ease within a tidy doctrinal framework.
This problem is as old as sin. Jesus Himself entered unwelcome into a world of overconfident people who were unenthusiastic about seeing their beliefs challenged. The Pharisees had perfected a system under which every question had an answer and every action was dictated by a code. The Sadducees had a competing system, while the nearby Samaritans had erected a very different theology based on their unique history. Each sect met the needs of its subscribers, answering important questions about God and rooted in well-developed dogma based on an interpretation of Holy Scripture. Each was profoundly wrong, blinding its followers to the truth.
No passage more clearly illustrates our capacity to be blinded by our assumptions than chapter nine of John’s Gospel, where Jesus encounters a man blind from birth. It’s his disciples who first demonstrate their limited comprehension when they ask Jesus a simple question with a flawed premise: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Their thirst for knowledge was commendable, but their question revealed a fundamental error, a belief that all suffering must have some proximate sin as its cause.
Before healing the man, Jesus revealed to them a new truth, forcing them to expand their thinking: “It was not that this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” The disciples had to absorb the idea that sin and suffering may not be so directly linked as seemed logical. In order to grasp this truth, the disciples would first have to surrender a doctrine they had previously regarded as obvious on its face. It would be neither the first nor the last time, but because they’d submitted themselves to Jesus’ teaching, it was a shift they could work through.
If this was difficult for the disciples, however, Jesus’ actual healing of this man touched off a much more jarring dilemma across the community. Could such a thing happen? Could this Jesus be more than he appears? If so, what does that mean to us? As the participants in this drama attempted to embrace the miracle, they’d be enabled or impeded by their own core beliefs and what they “knew” to be possible.
The blind man’s personal struggle was one with which we can relate—why did he suffer, how to find healing, and who is this man Jesus? The answers would gradually come into focus for him after he gained his sight for the first time in his life. When accosted by the Pharisees, he initially testified to what little he could comprehend: “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” This essential truth paved the way for him to accept its more profound implications. As the interrogation evolved, so did his core belief, as he first concluded that Jesus was a prophet, then began to defend him vigorously, and finally surrendered himself to the One who opened his eyes.
His neighbors and family faced a somewhat different challenge, as each was forced to draw his or her own conclusion about the man. Some, whether they simply knew the man better, or were perhaps persuaded to believe, accepted that this was indeed the same blind man who used to sit and beg. Others, however, rejected the truth. Unable to accept the “impossible,” they simply embraced the most convenient fallacy—he must be a look-alike!
The Pharisees, on the other hand, could not even begin to entertain the truth. Despite their encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture, they relentlessly embraced a core belief that blinded them to the facts plainly before them. They expressed this belief clearly: “We know this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” This conviction compelled them to construct a false narrative to explain everything that followed, which all evidence was then shaped to fit. Wherever they were unable to reconcile their certainty with the evidence, such as the refusal of the man’s fearful parents to renounce him, they resorted to flinging spurious charges and insults. They accused the man of being one of Jesus’ disciples (obviously part of an elaborate ruse), and then of being “born in utter sin,” before finally casting him out of the synagogue, thus removing the inconvenient evidence from further consideration.
Each of these examples demonstrates how flawed assumptions lead us to distort the facts and evidence to fit whatever belief systems we’ve constructed for ourselves. Those systems may be built variously upon our education, or the worldviews of our culture, family or close friends, or even church doctrine! Failing to appreciate our imperfect ability to grasp God’s perspective while clothed in these sinful and finite bodies, we treasure the easy answers. We forget the meaning of 1 Corinthians 13:12, that even believers see “dimly” and know “in part” while still clothed in our earthly bodies. Whether lazy, arrogant, or merely desiring to feel self-assured and confident, we round off the sharp corners to make everything fit within our tidy theological paradigms.
In order to avoid these pitfalls, explore the boundaries of your doctrinal comfort zone and expect to be challenged on what you “know.” Remember that Elijah knew he was “the only one left” before God revealed to him that there were still 7,000 who had not bent the knee to Ahab’s false gods. Job was convinced that God had made a mistake in exposing him to harm, before God opened his eyes and caused him to put his hand over his mouth. Peter firmly believed that he must not go into the house of a Gentile, before God taught him that he should not call any man unclean. Each of these saints was a strong, Spirit-filled, upright and mature follower of God, and yet each had to let go of some basic error in order to learn a surprising new truth.
Allow yourself to be uncomfortable with God’s Word from time to time. Remember that “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than your ways and [his] thoughts than your thoughts.” Don’t be afraid to read the parts that confuse you, and resist the temptation to instantly assign every messy and inconvenient passage a place within your orderly framework. Re-read, cross-reference, consult wiser souls, and don’t neglect to ask God himself to reveal the truth. Then learn to wait on him, for it’s better to admit confusion for a time than to force an interpretation just to make it fit. Accept that maturity is a lifelong process, not a plateau to be reached, and expect God to continue to surprise you with significant new insights throughout your life.
The famous American humorist Will Rogers once said, "It's not what people don't know that hurts them. It's what they do know that just ain't so." You’ve begun by choosing to follow and obey Jesus Christ for a lifetime. Now continue to mature by letting your understanding be continually challenged by the Word of God, and accepting that some of the things you think you know ... may just not be so.