Our responsibility to understand
Have you ever gotten frustrated and annoyed with someone for not understanding? Perhaps he’s an old fart (and I say that in the most affectionate way possible) still uncomfortable with technology who throws up his hands with an “I can’t figure this out!” every time he has to answer an email. Or the phone. (How do you work this thing?) Maybe she’s a coworker who after five years with the company still plays the newbie card when something isn’t done right. “Well what do you expect? I just got here.”
I think on the one hand many of us have the impression that understanding is out of our control…that we either do or we don’t, independent of any willful decision on our part. That it’s just a morally-neutral, reflexive response predicated on our inherited cognitive abilities and/or the effective (or not) communication by others, i.e. teacher, boss, God, the long-suffering, more technologically-savvy (and younger) wife whose patience is thin to threadbare (this has no personal significance to me whatsoever).
But on the other hand we seem to intuitively recognize that some responsibility and effort on our part figures into the equation. Why else would we get upset when someone is failing to understand? If their cluelessness is inescapable and innocent, our irritation is inexcusable and insensitive.
In considering the claims of Christianity, or theism for that matter, some coming from a position of agnosticism or atheism reject it ostensibly because of a perceived incoherence. It doesn’t make sense, they will assert…it’s irrational and irrelevant or the stuff of myth and legend. If they insist they are rejecting something they know and understand but have not made a sincere effort to investigate and fairly consider Christianity’s truth claims, they are deceiving themselves and/or everyone else.
Some reject Christianity from a position of apathy…though it doesn’t really bother them. You know…who cares? They may not ever claim to understand it, but would also not be able to honestly maintain that they tried and could not.
The Bible often presents understanding as something for which we are accountable, as opposed to something beyond our control. In Ephesians 5:17, for example, we’re told, “Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” And in John 8 Jesus says to the unbelieving Jews, “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”1 “Understand” is a verb; it’s something we do. If we don’t understand, we’re not doing what we’re commanded and will have no excuse when we stand before God.
That’s not to say that he expects and commands us to comprehend all the mysteries and nuances of his word. Only to be open to comprehension by humbly and actively, by a choice of our will, considering the truths and evidences revealed. Spiritual truths are given by God, but he only gives to those who are actively ready to receive.
In the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel we have the parable of the sower. Many of you are familiar with it; here’s the link for those who aren’t. In explaining to his disciples why he speaks to the people in parables he says, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”2 Here it seems Jesus is teaching this principle, that if we have inclined ourselves to understanding by our attitude and effort, we will have it, and have it in abundance. But if by our apathy or skepticism we have neglected the light which was available to us, we will forfeit the understanding we might have had.
Jesus spoke plainly and explained the parable to his disciples because they had oriented their lives to him. They followed him, listened to him, obeyed him. And because of that, were “given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” Simple, “uneducated, common men” spoke boldly to rulers about eternal truths they understood, because “they had been with Jesus.”3
When it comes to the essential truths about God, understanding is a volitional commodity, and our responsibility. When our wills are indifferent or in opposition to him, our lack of understanding is a condition which he will rightly judge. I pray that on that day, you do not find yourself in it.1 John 8:43-44a 2 Matthew 13:11-12 3 Acts 4:13