Sunday, August 17, 2014

Always learning, but …

This passage bothers me.  It’s an accurate and undeniable prophecy.  What bothers me is how embarrassing and humiliating it is to see some of these things in my own life; and how painful it is to see it in the lives of others:
“Realize this: that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be:
…lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God……holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power.  
Avoid such men as these.
For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses - always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.  (2 Timothy 3:1–7)
This is a part of a letter from an experienced preacher (Paul) to his former “intern” - now preacher (Tim) written 2,000 years ago.  Yet the words ring hauntingly true today in our culture. 

Let’s consider Paul’s main points.

First, Paul predicts the kinds of things that will be true of these people – they’ll love money and they’ll brag, gossip, and have no self-control (among other things).  And we can tell from the context that these people consider themselves Christian.  So imagine an overweight, upper-middle class person talking about someone at church negatively, and you can now see the person Paul is describing.  If you've been to “church” recently, you certainly have a lot of choices. 

Then comes a part that’s hard for me to understand.  Remember that Paul was writing to a young preacher when he wrote “avoid such as these.”  Really?  Shouldn't a preacher try to teach them, or help them or provoke them to repent?  Not according to Paul, no.  Rather, they are to be avoided.  Paul doesn't say why, but I believe the reason is the same as is found elsewhere in scripture: most sins are contagious.  We become like the people with whom we associate.  Gossip, for instance, is very hard to stop when all your friends are doing it.  And self-discipline is pretty hard for a glutton who hangs out with foodies, or alcoholics whose friends are all drinkers.  If all your friends are partiers and love to have fun and hang out together rather than look for ways to serve God, it will always be hard for you to love God more than pleasure. 

The last part of this section is a description of a sub-group of the larger whole.  “Among them” are those who preach and teach themselves.  They are able to be convincing to the gullible, and those who are loaded with guilt and fear.  Fear, guilt and gullibility are three things among many that make us extra vulnerable to deception from those who look to take advantage of us.  That’s why churches today are filled with gullible and fearful people. 

Now let’s focus on one very troubling line about these religious teachers:
“…always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

What does that look like and feel like?  I can tell you, for I have been guilty of this myself.  It’s a lot of work, for one thing.  For another, you can do lots of neat things with knowledge.  We are no longer ashamed to learn “trivia,” despite the self-description that what we’re learning is of no real value: it’s trivial, after all.  Knowledge makes us able to impress others who are impressed by knowledge.  “He really knows the bible,” they’ll say, or “He’s a great scholar,” or “He is so smart!”

But knowing the truth does not produce the same fruit.  People who know the truth praise God, not His servants.  The truth doesn't make you look smart or impressive in any way.  It’s God’s truth, after all, not a result of our work. 
Knowledge w/o truth & nice shoes

The difference between “knowing the truth” and “having knowledge” is huge to those who can recognize the difference, but for those who don’t know the difference - there is no difference!  Having eyes, they cannot see. 

There are many differences between ‘knowledge’ and ‘knowing truth,’ but the most important is that ‘knowing truth’ has real value.  It is the pearl of great price one sells all to attain (Matthew 13.45-46).  Knowing the truth is of infinite value because it’s freedom, salvation and love. 

  • Knowing truth is wisdom and discerning, not trivia  
  • Knowing truth is knowing that which can set us free – free from sin & from death
  • Knowing the truth is knowing Jesus (“I am the truth”) and by extension, his Father
  • Knowing the truth is love, for then we know the proper times and occasions for justice & mercy
  • Knowing the truth is knowing God loves grace more than sacrifice

But how sad for the group Paul was writing about!  “…always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  These people are able to learn many things, but not the truth.  They are smart and hard-working, so they are “always learning,” but the truth itself eludes them.  And they don’t even know it. 

If you were one of those people, would you know it? 

Usually (maybe always) the people Paul is writing about are not aware of their own futility.  They have grown accustomed to accepting the evaluation of other humans.  They want to be judged favorably in the courts of human opinion – loved and respected by religious people or scholars or their audience … they spend very little effort concerning themselves with fruit that pleases God.  They love people recognizing how learned they are – and confuse knowledge with truth.

The hard part of this lesson is challenging yourself.  Each of us must ask ourselves if we may be guilty of being one of these people.  
Among the questions you want to ask yourself are:
  • “Is my godliness only the ‘form’ of godliness, and not the real thing”? 
  • “Am I sometimes a lover of pleasure more than God”? 
  • “Am I boastful & arrogant, do I gossip - and then deceive myself by denying it”? 
  • “Am I ungrateful”?  (A good test for this is to measure your ratio of complaining or asking God for stuff to how often you count your blessings.  That is, are you mostly content and grateful to God for your current life, or mostly filled with desire for other things?) 
You get the idea.  Go through Paul’s list item-by-item and challenge yourself.  Take these things one by one and before you consider how others you know fit into these categories, first examine yourself.  And be hard on yourself!  Ask God for help to let you see your own self-deceptions. 

If you are faithful to God, He will open your eyes on this matter. 
More importantly:
He will give you the ability to repent.  Even when it seems impossible, God can do this if you seek Him without holding anything back. 

And once you have started down this road, then you can not only learn the nonsense we all must learn to get by in this life, but also you can come to a knowledge of the truth – which is of eternal value. 

Behold, the sower went out to sow; as he was sowing, some seed fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked it, and it yielded no crop.
And he was saying,
“Don’t you understand this parable?  
The sower sows the word. 
And … the ones on whom seed was sown among the thorns; these … have heard the word, but:
1.       The worries of the world, and
2.      The deceitfulness of riches, and
3.      The desires for other things …
…enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.”

(Excerpts from Mark 4:3–19)

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