The parable of the balancing knife (January Hymns III)

As I drove into work this morning a child psychologist was talking about child development, and making the point that at times a child in order to go forward looks like they are regressing. She illustrated the point by talking about watching her daughter at a certain age attempting to balance a knife.  At a younger age the child had balanced the knife by trial and error, but at this point the child was simply repeatedly attempting to balance the knife by its geometric centre.  The child “knew” that the place to balance the object was at its centre. The knife, with its unevenly distributed mass, was not balancing.  Yet the child persisted with her theory. Never mind the facts; the theory stated this, so the child would persist.  In time the child learnt new facts about how weight distribution impacts on balance, but at this particular point she just could not bring herself to change the theory.

It struck me that this is a pretty good illustration of growth as a Christian too, and it works to introduce my reflections on life as a Christian at university (first time around).  I’ve struggled with how to word this one, mostly because I have so many different perceptions of my time at university, and especially of my involvement in the Christian Union (CU).  The knife illustration works well because I think I was essentially that child.  I had made some discoveries of vital importance, and it seemed that they were the grand theory, the thing that would make the knife balance.  I understood them, and everyone else should do as well.

I had read “According to Plan” and “Gospel and Kingdom” by Graeme Goldsworthy, and suddenly the Bible made a whole lot more sense. There was one big story beginning with God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule and finishing on that same note, and all the little stories fitted into that, and they all pointed to Jesus’ work in accomplishing that.  It was a time of discovery, and I loved the sense it made of the Bible.  And anyone who came to our CU to expound Scripture to us should make use of this – and those who didn’t weren’t really being faithful, didn’t really understand truth clearly – knives balance in the centre.

The implication of this was that God’s Word was sufficient. God speaks in the Bible and only in the Bible.  No guidance from any other source was to be sought or expected – the Holy Spirit certainly did not speak today in any other way than the Bible.   “If an angel turns up at the end of your bed and says something to you tonight, you can ignore it” – pretty much a direct quote from a speaker on the subject. God has said all he is going to say. If you are not going into “gospel work” or “word ministry” your job is to get a job that pays as much as possible so that you can fund others to do it – a relatively close summary of a chapter in a popular book at the time.  This was the way to function, the way to determine how to live and what to do next – knives balance in the centre.

I listened to wonderful preachers expounding God’s word. They went through the passage verse by verse, summarising their conclusions in 3 (very occasionally 2 or 4!) concise points, and conveying clearly the central truth of the passage. This made so much sense. If the speakers didn’t do this, then they weren’t really being faithful to the text, and we’d better not invite them back – no matter how helpful everyone found them in being encouraged to holiness.  Knives balance in the centre.

Likewise someone explained very clearly to me how the gospel could be wonderfully summarised in 6 sentances, accompanied by 6 illustrations and 6 verses.  Wonderful! Especially as I now had a great way of assessing how good evangelistic talks were (I was on the CU executive committee, responsible for inviting speakers). If the speaker conveyed all of these 6 boxes clearly it was a great talk.  Especially important to any evangelistic talk was that substitutionary atonement was clearly preached – and any speaker who failed to do this in an evangelistic talk was not really worth inviting back.  The especially alert reader will note that this would have excluded the apostle Paul after Athens – but knives balance in the centre…

It’s not that most of this was wrong. The Bible does have wonderful plot line which does centre on God’s work in Christ bringing us to be his people, who will enjoy being with him forever in his perfect place enjoying perfect relationship with him – but there are so many varied ways it has of demonstrating this wonderful reality.  It is true that with God as our loving father finding his will for our lives is not a source of stress, but rather of learning to please him – and yet our entire relationship with God is not mediated through a book.  It is true that Scripture needs to be faithfully expounded – yet there are so many ways that this can be presented.  It is absolutely true that Jesus died on the cross paying the penalty my sins deserve, so that God’s wrath falls on him and not me, and I will live and breathe that truth each day that God gives me strength – and yet that is by no means the only thing to be said about the cross, and by no means the first thing to be said in evangelism.

So much of what I and others believed was true and right – the problem lay more in my application of what I learnt to life. Everything had to fit the theory. I hadn’t learnt that knives don’t have a uniform weight distribution, and sometimes need a bit of shifting. I hadn’t learnt that my theories still needed to grow and develop. While I paid lip service to Scripture being supreme I hadn’t learnt how to evaluate some of presuppositions from the Christian culture around in the light of Scripture. I hadn’t learnt that as we change and grow through life we read Scripture from new places, and see new light from old places, and that therefore we need to be ready to change in the light of what God teaches us in Scripture at any given point.

The very conservative evangelical framework I took on at university has been reshaped and refined by life, and will go on being so. The fundamentals are still there, but I hope I have learned that knives come in different shapes and sizes.

This parable does not only apply to the conservative evangelical though. It also applies to the “Post”/emergent evangelical who has so decided that the bible doesn’t speak with clarity that he makes the bible unclear, even where the witness of scripture and tradition is near unanimous on a subject.  It applies to the “liberal” theologian for whom any difficulty in Scripture is evidence that those who take it seriously are blinkered – rather than an invitation to closer study. It applies to the atheist scientist who cannot accept anything that reason cannot explain.  It applies to any of us whose conclusions are so firm that no facts can alter them.

We all need to be ready to have our understandings changed by fresh encounters with God. And yet there are degrees of certainty, there are core realities that do not change. The big story of the Bible is one of invitation, of a God of love who draws us into his mission of love. And so I want to finish with a hymn from those university days that reminds us of the mission of God, which reminds us of the need for an undimished zeal for God that longs to know him and make him known. My memory is of singing this most weeks in my first term – and it was and is my prayer, however imperfectly I live it out.  Growing and developing understanding and wisdom and nuance does not need to lessen zeal and adour and love.

Facing a task unfinished
That drives us to our knees
A need that, undiminished
Rebukes our slothful ease
We, who rejoice to know Thee
Renew before Thy throne
The solemn pledge we owe Thee
To go and make Thee known

Where other lords beside Thee
Hold their unhindered sway
Where forces that defied Thee
Defy Thee still today
With none to heed their crying
For life, and love, and light
Unnumbered souls are dying
And pass into the night

We bear the torch that flaming
Fell from the hands of those
Who gave their lives proclaiming
That Jesus died and rose
Ours is the same commission
The same glad message ours
Fired by the same ambition
To Thee we yield our powers

O Father who sustained them
O Spirit who inspired
Saviour, whose love constrained them
To toil with zeal untired
From cowardice defend us
From lethargy awake!
Forth on Thine errands send us
To labour for Thy sake

This quote regarding zeal is from JC Ryle, Bishop of Liverpool in the late 19th century – it was and is my prayer also – again however imperfectly the ideal is lived up to.

Zeal in religion is a burning desire to please God, to do His will, and to advance His glory in the world in every possible way.  It is a desire which is not natural to man.  It is a desire which the Spirit puts in the heart of every believer when he is converted, however, a desire which some believers feel so much more strongly than others that they alone deserve to be called “zealous” men.

This desire is so strong, when it really reigns in a man, that it impels him to make any sacrifice–to go through any trouble–to deny himself to any amount–to suffer, to work, to labor, to toil, to spend himself and be spent, and even to die–if only he can please God and honor Christ.

A zealous man in religion is preeminently a man of one thing.  It is not enough to say that he is earnest, strong, uncompromising, meticulous, wholehearted, fervent in spirit.  He only sees one thing, he cares for one thing, he lives for one thing, he is swallowed up in one thing; and that one thing is to please God.  Whether he lives, or whether he dies–whether he has health, or whether he has sickness–whether he is rich, or whether he is poor–whether he pleases man, or whether he gives offense–whether he is thought wise, or whether he is thought foolish–whether he gets blame, or whether he gets praise–whether he gets honor, or whether he gets shame–for all this the zealous man cares nothing at all.  He burns for one thing, and that one thing is to please God and to advance Gods glory.

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