Pastor, Make Us Think

“…and in that law he meditates day and night.” (Psalm 1:2)

One writer says that word “meditates” reminds him of something he saw his dog do in the Northwest woods where they were living. One day his dog dragged a huge bone up to the house. Clearly, it came from the carcass of an elk or moose, he said, and that little dog had certainly not brought the animal down. But that pup sure did enjoy that bone.

What he did was to gnaw on it day after day, eating it away little by little. Sometimes, the canine would bury the bone under leaves and later dig it out and resume its worrisome process of ingesting that huge bone. Eventually, he had consumed the entire thing.

That is what the believer is to do with the word, the writer said. Think about it, consider it from every angle, take in all he can today, then lay it aside for the moment, only to bring it out later and gnaw on it again until it has become his.

In every church a pastor will quickly find two groups: those who enjoy being prodded into thinking by his sermons and those who refuse to think and insist that their spiritual food be predigested so it goes down smoothly.

My observation is that only the first group will grow spiritually. The unthinking group is content to be spiritual infants and to remain that way.

The unthinking member demands simple sermons, easy lessons, no gray areas, all Scripture interpretation to be neat and orderly with no room for differences of interpretation, and no challenges to his beliefs, his position, his world.

The unthinking has a difficult time with Jesus. He refuses to abide by their demands, just as He did with every group He ministered to in the First Century.

The pastor’s challenge is to move members of the fallow group into the first category–to show them the delights of reflecting on God’s Word, thinking about His message, studying their Sunday School lessons, and examining most everything else in lives, and then to incorporate God’s truths into their lives.

Consider this example.

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered that way?'”

The Lord proceeded to answer his rhetorical question with a “No, but unless you repent, you too will all perish,” but clearly, He wanted them to think about this.

“Do you think?”

Then, stressing the point, Jesus called to their mind a similar tragedy with an identical truth. “Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:1-5)

Well, Lord, pardon me, but…well, you see…we don’t actually like to think about these things. Can you just lay it out there in black and white and we’ll simply quote you and run along.

Sorry. He refuses to play into our laziness, to cater to our inertia.

This Luke 13 passage is one pastors will do well to cite to those who want to turn every tragedy–Haiti’s earthquake, Asia’s tsunami, America’s Katrina–into God’s judgement on those people for their wickedness.

The 42 chapters of the book of Job were given to God’s people to shoot down such shallow thinking and carnal theology. However–and this is the sticking point–many who call themselves followers of Jesus do not want to study God’s word, do not want complexities in their theology, and do not want to be told they’re wrong.

As a member told me one day, “I don’t know what the Bible teaches, but I know what I believe.”

What is a pastor to do when his people want it all cut and dried, when they insist that it be simple, stripped of all complications and alternate interpretations, or they will reject it all together?

I’ve heard preachers quote the recurring line from the early chapters of Revelation, “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear,” as proof that God intends everything in that book to be crystal clear. To them, if you can’t understand Revelation, Satan has befuddled your mind.

What they mean, of course, is that we should accept their interpretation as the norm and reject all others.

Such preachers are part of the problem. Such wrong-headed proclamation is one reason many in the pews have given up trying to understand the Bible at all. They mistakenly decide that the Bible is restricted to trained scholars only and that they are out of their element when they dare enter such a theological minefield.

God has given us a miraculous thing in your Bible. Much of Scripture is attainable to the 7-year-old who learned to read only last year, and yet there are depths which the theological professors still have not fully plumbed.

It’s a wonderful thing, this Bible you own.

To say that we should don our thinking-caps when we open the Word is not to say it’s too difficult for the average believer or inaccessible to the layman.

Nor is it to imply it’s simple or easy.

Some is hard; much isn’t.

From time to time, we’ll hear well-meaning believers state their theology of the Scriptures like this: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

And then someone tops that with, “Hey, friend, God said it, that settles it whether I believe it or not.”

The fact is both statements are woefully lacking.

God said a lot of things. And in many cases He did not intend for His people to simply utter an “Okay, got it!” and run along.

A lot of things from the mouth of Jesus (as well as from the Father Himself delivered by the prophets) were meant to provoke the hearers into thinking matters out.

Jesus Christ often enjoyed the role of a provocateur. He was given to saying something that you were free to take the wrong way in order to force you to think about it. If you didn’t get His nuance and dismissed Him with no more thought, that was your problem.

Let’s take one chapter, Mark 10, and consider a few instances.

Jesus said, “Anyone who does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)

Note that He did not elaborate. Over the years, I’ve heard a hundred possible interpretations on what it means to receive the kingdom as a child. I probably manufactured fifty of them myself. Maybe all of them are true. More than likely, the Lord left that statement open-ended in order to encourage us to take it from there.

To the rich young ruler who called Jesus “Good Teacher,” He said, “Why do you call me ‘Good?” There is no one who is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)

Was Jesus good? Undoubtedly. And was He God the Son? To be sure. So what was going on here? Scholars from my end of the theological spectrum seem to agree the Lord wanted the young man to think through what he was saying and when he gave honor to Jesus, to mean what he was saying. Jesus was good and He was God. But not everyone “got” that.

As the crestfallen young man walks away dejectedly, the Lord says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).

The disciples were stunned. If that’s the case, if it turns out that the people whom they thought of as God’s favorites and had a leg up on everyone else, if these can’t make it, then we’re all in trouble!

They looked at each other and muttered, “Well, who then can be saved?”

Jesus: “With man this is impossible, but not with God. All things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27).

Clearly, when we speak of the salvation of one soul from sin, from the grasp of the unholy trinity (the world, the flesh, the devil), and from a fate of eternal hell, we’re in the realm of impossibilities to man where God alone is in His element.

Think about it.

Then, as if the disciples didn’t have enough to overload their taxed brains, the Lord said, “No one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age….and with them persecutions, and in the age to come, eternal life. Many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:29-31).

No one who heard that walked away saying, “Okay. Got it!” This one was another stunner and required the full use of all their faculties. What did He mean, how did that apply to them, what does He require from us, when will these rewards come, why did He add “and with persecutions?”

Throughout this dense (in New Orleans, they would call it over-stuffed) 10th chapter of Mark, the Lord said many things that challenged the minds of His followers, but nothing taxed them more than this:

“We are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles who will mock Him and spit on Him and kill Him. Three days later, He will rise.” (Mark 10:33-34)

What could this mean? How could this be? What if we did something to stop it? Isn’t the Lord caving in to the enemy? What will become of all His prophecies for the future? What will become of us? Were we wrong in who we thought Him to be?

The disciples had the answers to none of these questions. In fact, if what Mark reports as happening immediately afterwards occurred in real time, it’s clear they refused to think about what He had said at all.

James and John, two of His closest apostles, approached and asked for the choice seats “in your glory.” (10:37)

Jesus said, “You don’t know what you are asking.”

There! They had not thought through any of this. They were merely guessing what it meant. They might as well have been asking for “what’s behind door number 1 as opposed to 2 or 3.” It was all guesswork.

Jesus said to all the disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (10:44)

We can be assured that none of them got that, either. Not then, they didn’t. Later, they were to learn all too well what it meant to give one’s life in service to others.

Jesus was and still is the thinking person’s Savior.

Those who refuse to think often dismiss Him with a toss of the head.

I read on the internet (which means I cannot vouch for its authenticity) where Oprah Winfrey told how she turned away from the Christian faith when her pastor emphasized that God is a jealous God. She said such a deity was unworthy of anyone’s devotion.

Had she done a little Scripture study on her own–and not limit her exposure to the Christian faith to what one very fallible preacher said–she would quickly have seen the Bible teaches God is jealous FOR His children and not OF them. Big difference. Every responsible parent is jealous for his/her children, wanting only their best and striking out against anything that could hurt them.

Her refusal to think about this has great consequences for herself and millions who look to her for guidance.

In his novel “Elmer Gantry,” Sinclair Lewis has a preacher leaving the ministry because, he explained to a colleague, he had found too many contradictions in the Scriptures. The one he mentions comes from the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:16, Jesus tells us to “let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and praise your Father in Heaven.”

Then, in 6:1, He says, “Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them.”

He was tired of trying to reconcile such contradictory statements, of which the Bible is full, he said.

Any 10-year-old can see how the Lord is talking about a matter of focus in these verses–that is, ‘why’ we do them–and that they do not contradict at all. However, the preacher in the novel did not want a religious faith that would require some actual discernment.

A friend of mine once erected metal letters eight inches high around the front of his church sanctuary to form the words: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”

They remained there for two generations until a subsequent pastor took them down.

From time to time, people would tease the old pastor about the simplicity of his little trilogy. It sounds good, they would point out, but it leaves out a lot.

“Hey, brother–what it ought to say is: ‘God said it. I study it. I think about it. I compare it with other Scriptures. I believe it. I apply it in my life. God shows me more about it. I grow. And that settles it.'”

One final thing needs to be said.

What is a pastor to do when his entire congregation does not want to think, when they demand the sermons to be of the most elementary kind requiring nothing from them except a continual chorus of ‘amens’?

There are plenty of those around.

He must lead them to want more than they have been getting. Studying the Word of God and looking deeply into its teachings comes naturally for some, but is an acquired taste for others.

Let the pastor drop a piece of red meat into a sermon of baby-food from time to time. Let the people chew on it and learn to savor its delight. In time, many will never want to go back to Gerber’s again.

I can hear a preacher say, “But my people won’t chew on red meat. They will choke on it.”

True enough. Some will.

They did at Jesus’ teachings also. “This is a hard saying; who can hear it” (John 6:60).

You might have to start this with a smaller group. In a Bible study class, most members expect to receive deeper insights and challenging truths.

Involve them in discussing some of the Lord’s “think about it” statements from the gospels. What did the disciples understand it to mean? What are we to make of it in our lives? How does this compare with other statements on the same subject in Scripture? Are there denominations that take another interpretation? What would an unbeliever say about this?

Give them a nugget or two (or if you like other metaphors, “red meat to chew on” or “a bone to gnaw on”) to take home with them and reflect on during the next week.

Jesus said we were to love the Lord God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

He said “mind” and meant it. We shouldn’t have to check out minds at the door when entering God’s house.

One final caveat. Nor should we go too far in the opposite direction and turn the sermon time into a seminary classroom. Insights from the Greek or Hebrew should be used sparingly if at all in a Sunday sermon. They may go over great in small groups, however.

A friend of mine was suffering from brain exhaustion. The preacher evidently thought he was addressing a bunch of professors, judging from the depth of his sermons and the big words he used. My friend had taken just about all the nuggets/red-meat/bones-to-gnaw-on he could stand.

“Pastor,” he said, going out the front door, “May I remind you the Lord said, ‘Feed my sheep.'”

The pastor replied smugly, “That’s what I’m trying to do, my friend.”

“No,” he said. “You misunderstood him, pastor. Jesus said sheep. He did not say ‘Feed my giraffes!'”

Good one to end on.

5 thoughts on “Pastor, Make Us Think

  1. Exactly same as the above comment.

    Especially thought about “Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, strength,” as I thought about how we’re all wired differently. We are stronger or weaker in some area, and it’s a lifelong challenge to grow in each area.

  2. I am reading the gospels right now and I find many teachings of Jesus are very deep, profound and not easily explained. I foolishly did not expect that. John Chapter 6 for example is filled with complex ideas, such as predesination. I feel like lately I have been getting little glimpes of God in His word and how He answers my prayers that reveal how radically different His ways are from mine. It makes me feel just a little bit closer to Him. It really thrills me and makes me Love my God even more.

    Sure I am like the next person and it’s disconcerting to know I am only seeing through the glass dimly and not matter how I windex that thing I will never get a good look until I leave this world. But I know both options and how they feel. I would rather struggle to run the race after my savior than plop down in the easy chair of hopelessness the world offers.

  3. Joe, I wanted to thank you for your writings and insights–I look forward to them every week. “Father, I ask you to continue to bless Joe and the ministry you’ve called him to.” In our Lord I love you.

  4. My first newspaper column as a pastor in California began: “Abandon thought, all ye who enter here.” I proceeded to attack the idea as you do above. A doctor once told me, “You always give me something to think about.” I’ve considered that among the highest compliments I’ve received. Hopefully I deserved it.

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