Saturday, 22 November 2008

Understanding Understanding

The Scriptures teach us the importance of getting understanding. Prov 4.5,7 says, “Get wisdom! Get understanding!.....Wisdom is the principle thing; therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting get understanding”. Prov 3.19-20 outlines three important ingredients that release God’s creative purpose – knowledge, understanding and wisdom. Knowledge relates to information and facts. We all know what it means to learn something by rote. At the age of three my daughter could recite the letters of the alphabet in a song. She also learned the books of the Bible in the same way. But despite this cute ability she did not know how to use this knowledge to write. She lacked understanding. She needed to learn how to spell words and form sentences.

Understanding helps us to frame knowledge in a way that makes it useful. It is one thing to know Newton’s laws of Motion it is quite another to understand how to apply these in specific situations. Understanding helps us to build a mental framework or concept. Over time this develops and can become a controlling paradigm for how we interpret reality. How we interpret reality and consequently how we relate to people will have a profound effect on our choices in life and the quality of our relationships. It is often in the area of our understanding that we need to make changes. This is harder than we think because we become very attached to our beliefs and ways of seeing reality.

The NT calls this change of thinking repentance – literally a change of mind; a different way of understanding reality. This is why light is often used as a metaphor for understanding. Ps 119.130 says, “the entrance of your word gives light, it gives understanding to the simple”. It is the god if this age who blinds the minds of those who believe not, “lest the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine on them”, 2Cor 4.4. When God’s word breaks into our hearts it changes our way of seeing things. We literally get a new understanding. We see life differently and we see people differently. This process is life-long. We constantly need to make adjustments in our thinking and ways of relating.

When Jesus was rejected by a Samaritan village, Luke 9.51-56, James and John wanted to call down fire from Heaven to consume them. Despite having been with Jesus for some time they still did not really understand how to handle this rejection. Jesus had to teach them afresh why He had come. This is ample proof that even as disciples our responses to people can be totally inappropriate. The Sermon on the Mount teaches us that we need to learn how to respond in an opposite spirit. But this takes time, maturity and growing in understanding.

The final part of the Proverbs trio is wisdom. Here we are concerned with the application of knowledge to life. Knowledge and understanding are the two key ingredients to wisdom, but wisdom is the ability to make sound judgement – applying our knowledge and understanding to specific situations. Solomon’s wisdom was most keenly seen in his judgements – the way he handled people. But until we grow in understanding it is impossible to grow in wisdom.

In our relationship with God we get a very helpful picture of what He is after through David’s Psalm of forgiveness in Psalm 32. Verse 8-9 says; “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with my eye. Do not be like the horse or like the mule, which have no understanding, which must be harnessed with a bit and bridle, else they will not come near you.” The natural result of failing is to lose confidence in our own decision making ability. The easiest way to deal with this is to abdicate all responsibility. “OK God, You tell me what to do – in every detail of life!” But God is not looking for this kind of response. He wants to teach us so that we learn and understand. We are not horses to be ridden by God. We are people made in his image. We are made for relationship based on mutual understanding.

Notice the promise from God – to instruct, teach and guide us, if we want it. There must be in our hearts an, ‘I want to’. This is what gives any true relationship its value. God does not opt for controlling, manipulating or dominating ways of relating to us as people. He wants us to understand the why behind the what! Ps 103.7 says: “He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the children of Israel”. The acts of God are awesome and worthy of praise, Ps 106.2, Ps 150.2. Yet despite this we can miss understanding why God acts in a particular way on a particular occasion. Ps 106.7 says: “Our fathers in Egypt did not understand your wonders; they did not remember the multitude of Your mercies, but rebelled by the sea – the Red Sea”.

Consider how their lack of understanding led to rebellion against what God was doing. Their default setting was, ‘God has brought us up into the wilderness to destroy us’, Ex 14.11-12 (my paraphrase), See also Ex 16.3; 17.3. Moses, however, knew God’s ways. He developed understanding. It gave him insight into what God was up to. And even when he didn’t understand the details of why something was happening he did understand God. It seems to me that this is an important part of our journey of faith. Job, Joseph, Daniel and Habakkuk all had to face situations where they lacked a complete understanding of what was going on – but they learned to trust God and it was their understanding of His character that kept them. In that sense they learned not to lean on their own understanding, Prov 3.5.

If we are to be fully human – made in God’s image then we need to take responsibility for our own decisions in life, trusting God to instruct, teach and guide us. I like the phrase of Ps 32.8; “I will guide you with my eye”. In other words we can be sure of getting His perspective on the situation. This kind of understanding will require faith. It doesn’t mean we will have all the details. There will be gaps that faith must fill. But we can be assured of God’s presence. This makes all the difference.

So how do we grow in understanding? How do we become people of understanding? If we truly want to understand others we need to grow in our understanding of God. Our relationship with God directly impacts our relationship with others. Our capacity to love others is related to our capacity to love God. They are interdependent, Matt 22.36-40. I would argue that the same is true for understanding. Understanding the ways of God gives us a discerning heart. We then increase our capacity to understand people. The psalmist cried out for this, Ps 119. 34, 73, 125, 144, 169. Solomon asked for this too and it helped him to establish his kingdom as he ruled Israel.

In the book of Daniel we see that Daniel and his three friends were given knowledge, wisdom and understanding from God, Dan 1.17. In fact they were found to be 10 times better than all the other magicians and astrologers in the land, Dan 1.20. On one occasion King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream that he couldn’t remember, Dan 2! He asked all the wise men for the interpretation but he was not able to tell them the dream. They protested that there wasn’t a man alive who could do what the King requested. Further, there wasn’t a King who had ever made such a demand. In a fit of rage the King then ordered for all the wise men to be killed, including Daniel and his friends. But Daniel gave himself to prayer. Through a night vision the Lord gave him understanding. The consequences were amazing. All the wise men were spared, Daniel and his friends were promoted to be next to the King in power and influence and Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged the God of Daniel as, ‘the God of god’s’, Dan 2.46-49.

Luke 2.46-50 tells the story of Jesus lost in Jerusalem at the age of 12. His parents found him in the midst of the teachers both listening to them and asking questions. Luke makes an interesting contrast between Jesus and his parents. Those who heard Jesus speak were, ‘astonished at His understanding and answers’. However, when He answered His parents question about why He had done this Luke says, ‘But they did not understand the statement which He spoke to them.’ What a contrast! From an early age Jesus became aware of His calling and destiny, but those closest to Him did not understand. However, we are told that Mary, ‘kept all these things and pondered them in her heart’, Luke 2.19. She thought about what she didn’t understand and understanding eventually came to her.

Meditation, pondering truth and considering sayings is part of the process in gaining understanding. Paul said as much to Timothy, 2Tim 2.3-7. In instructing the young leader he passes on three metaphors about ministry, the soldier, the athlete and the farmer. Interestingly he doesn’t unpack his meaning. He simply tells Timothy to, ‘Consider what I say and the Lord will give you understanding in all things’. Understanding, like wisdom comes from above. But our part is to process what we learn so that it truly becomes part of us, changing our inward reality to be more in line with God’s. Like David declared in Ps 51.6, “Behold you desire truth in the inward parts and in the hidden part you will make me to know wisdom”.

In an age where so little time is given to real reflection we need to secure moments of quite that are reserved for thinking, praying and reflecting. This was a habit of Jesus that kept Him relevant and purposeful. Our age is described as the age of information overload. There is simply too much information to process and assimilate. We don’t always need more facts but often need more understanding. So take time to ask for understanding, to ponder truth and to learn God’s ways. It will position us to be more understanding in our relationships with each other. Like Prov 20.5 says; “Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out”. The man of understanding knows the right questions to ask. Through this process we get to understand our own hearts and can continue to build strong and lasting relationships.