Casually going to church (just because it’s what we do), carelessly attending a Bible study (only because we have a fun time doing it), or even callously reading the words of the Scriptures for ourselves (so we can say we got through our “Through-the-Bible” reading plan) all have a way of instilling within us a contempt for the things of God.
Spiritual activities that are done only because they are chores to get out of the way or are performed because they are merely duties will short-circuit the benefit they could have had for us had we remained focused on the goal of knowing God more personally. Our eyes are no longer on the goal of knowing God, so the final result of “bringing us to Him” is lost to us and we stall out on the religious functions themselves. Not only that, but such spiritual exercises done as an end to themselves eventually become burdensome to us because they are nothing more than obligations that we must keep up (and if we were convinced that no one around us would notice we would give up in order to easily pursue our own selfish goals and ambitions).
There were times in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry that He encountered individuals (and groups of individuals) who thought that they had learned all there was to know about God and had surmised that the entire point of their religion was to achieve a special recognition from God (for their good works) or at least from other people (who weren’t quite as “good” as they were). These religious people had endlessly discussed, debated, and dissected the ancient Scriptures (the words of the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets) and had effectively “killed it” in the sense of their ability to see it as a living and loving expression of the living and loving God Who had sent it to them.
So when Jesus varied from the traditional teaching methods common to the rabbinical tradition of His day, folks would take note. Some were spurred on by His intriguing stories and find within themselves a strange and wonderful delight for the things of God. Others were quagmired, puzzled perhaps, by words that were more than mere rhetoric designed to make a man look smart, but were word pictures granting glimpses of the halls of heaven itself.
“When His disciples asked Him what this parable meant (the parable of the soils), He said, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand’” (Luke 8:9-10 ESV).
People’s lack of understanding was not the result of Jesus’ speaking with a vocabulary that was too sophisticated for them to comprehend, nor was it the aftermath of His talking with an esoteric flair that was beyond their ability to understand. The problem was that they preferred to “change the subject” from their own personal accountability to a living, personal God to a haggling over various interpretations of ancient texts. And if they could keep God at such a safe distance then they temporarily enjoy the satisfaction of achieving a sense of superiority over the religiously unenlightened as they associated with like-minded spiritual elitists.
It cannot be denied that Jesus’ teachings were intended to be provocative. First of all, they were deliberately designed to stir the hearts of anyone who truly yearned to know more. But, at the same time, they were also arrows aimed at unsettling those who like to think, “Things between God and me are cool” or “I’ve got such a great handle on the Bible that I pretty well know what it’s all about”. For these, the spiritual “nerve endings” within their souls had become deadened (unresponsive) to the spiritual electricity flowing from its pages just as the meaning of the parables Jesus taught seemed pointless or silly.
But although they were provocative, His teachings were plain and straight forward to those who wanted to know God and experience a personal relationship with Him. The doctrinal disputes of the Pharisees and Sadducees of the first century were confounding to regular folks and stood in sharp contrast with the simple parables of Jesus… simple although they were incredibly profound flashes of divine inspiration. Children could receive them; poor and uneducated people could receive them; even the rich and well-learned could receive them if they humbled themselves enough to admit Jesus’ lordship.
Today, just as in Jesus’ day, only those who are truly hungry for God will pursue the meaning behind the parables that He taught. Only those who are sincerely seeking Him will find their eyes opened to the glimpses of Eternal Order instituted by our Maker. Only to these who are humbly pursuing Him will He grant visions of His will and ways. You and I are not immune, of course, to becoming deafened to His voice as He speaks. Anytime we proudly presume against Him, harbor hidden hatreds towards others, or tolerate unholy attitudes, we forfeit the prize of a sense of the immediacy of His presence and His Holy Spirit’s activity within us and through us. In other words, the moment that we declare (either openly or subconsciously through selfish decisions) that we do not need His work in us, we will find that we cannot find Him. We will not be able to hear His voice. We will not be capable of understanding His truth. We will not recognize His face when He comes.
So let us be on guard then, with His help, to remember to seek Him first. Let us not forget that spiritual activities are grand and wonderful only if we use them as a tool to keep us close to His side and in tune with His will. Go to church! Join a Bible study! Read the Word! Pray! Give! Fast! Serve! But don’t forget that the Great Commandment is that “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and that the second is like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself”. Everything else flows from these two things (see Matthew 22:37-40). Everything else is only the means and method of expressing those first two. So if you want to know the secrets of God and you desire to experience the blessings of God, then seek God first and foremost and let Him have His way in your life; He’ll take care of the rest (see Matthew 6:33).
(Thom Mollohan and his family have ministered in southern Ohio the past 23 ½ years, is the author of Led by Grace, The Fairy Tale Parables, Crimson Harvest, and A Heart at Home with God. He blogs at “unfurledsails.wordpress.com”. Pastor Thom leads Pathway Community Church and may be reached for comments or questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)