The Thinker

Later, as Jesus left the town, he saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at his tax-collection booth. “Come, be my disciple!” Jesus said to him. So Levi got up, left everything, and followed him. —Luke 5:27,28, NLT

If we are to follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps. The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. … One would have thought that nothing so drastic was necessary at such an early stage. … But since he is the Christ, he must make it clear from the start that his word is not an abstract doctrine, but the re-creation of the whole life of a person. The only way is quite literally to go with Jesus. The call to follow implies that there is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ, and that is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

thinkerCogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. Human beings have a far greater capacity for analysis and problem solving than any other animal, which is probably why you don’t see very many aardvarks on Jeopardy. Don’t misunderstand me—I love aardvarks. Some of my best friends are aardvarks. But to be perfectly frank about it, your average aardvark has the IQ of a sack of cement.

Which is fine, because as it turns out, your average aardvark leads a pretty idyllic life. If he has enough basic problem-solving ability to tunnel his way into a fresh termite mound, he’s pretty much at the pinnacle of the aardvark evolutionary ladder.

Not so with humans. We stand apart from aardvarkdom for a great many reasons, but the most amazing of all is our ability to think. Civilization exists because human beings are capable of analysis and problem-solving on a level far superior to anything seen in the rest of the animal kingdom. The international news media and the blogosphere are both prime examples of how serious we are about thinking deep thoughts: we cogitate, we puzzle, we consider, we ruminate, we contemplate, we meditate, and, on a particularly fine spring day, we may even take pencil in hand and lucubrate.

One of my favorite pastimes is reading a book on some subject I know nothing about, purely for the joy of discovery. The world is full of mystery, and I love searching for answers—hence, the name of this blog.

But what if thinking is as far as we ever get?

Is it more satisfying to think about a romantic dinner with a beautiful woman, or to actually sit across the table from her and enjoy an evening of laughter, conversation and flirtation?

It may depend on your feelings about commitment. Sometimes thinking is all about playing it safe and avoiding the messy complexities of an actual commitment to a decision or a person. “Let me sleep on it,” we say. “Let me get back to you on that.” “Let me think about it.” We all have our favorite action-avoidance one-liners.

The same dodge works with God, too. We have our list of favorite questions, dilemmas, conundrums and difficulties, and we aren’t going to make a commitment until he provides us with some pretty convincing answers.

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Every religion in the world has some wisdom to offer. How can Christians think their religion is the only way to God?
  • Jesus was a good guy and all, but how can anyone believe in miracles?
  • Isn’t the Bible just a collection of myths? Isn’t it true that the creation and flood stories were borrowed from other religions?
  • How can a loving and powerful God allow suffering?
  • What about the Da Vinci Code?

When Jesus called the twelve disciples, he approached them one by one, made eye contact, and said, “Come and follow me.” And the Scriptures report that without exception, they dropped what they were doing, left behind their businesses, their families, their friends, and went after Jesus. No questions, no conditions, just obedience to the call and the Caller.

In The Cost of Discipleship, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out the difficulties the church has had with these passages. Surely Levi the tax collector had some earlier conversation with Jesus? Surely his faith had already been growing, so that he was eager to respond when Jesus called? Surely Peter had been listening between fishing trips? Surely his heart had been softened, so that he, too, was ready when the time for action came?

The trouble with these theories, according to Bonhoeffer, is that they are not supported by the Scriptures. Worse yet, they get the mechanics of faith completely backward.

Only the obedient believe. If we are to believe, we must obey a concrete command. … The first step of obedience makes Peter leave his nets, and later get out of the ship; it calls upon the young man to leave his riches. Only this new existence, created through obedience, can make faith possible. —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Obedience to Christ precedes faith in Christ. Such a thing is anti-intellectual, so we resist it. We demand answers first, commitment after. We lay our questions at God’s feet and tell him, “Answer these to my satisfaction and I will follow you.” We dump our doubts before the throne of the Almighty and say, “I have a lot of issues with this faith thing. Give me more faith, and then I’ll follow you.” Back to Bonhoeffer.

No one should be surprised at the difficulty of faith, if there is some part of his life where he is consciously resisting or disobeying the commandment of Jesus. … If so, you must not be surprised that you have not received the Holy Spirit, that prayer is difficult, or that your request for faith remains unanswered. … Do not say you have not got faith. You will not have it so long as you persist in disobedience and refuse to take the first step. … If you believe, take the first step, it leads to Jesus Christ. If you don’t believe, take the first step all the same… No one wants to know about your faith or unbelief, your orders are to perform the act of obedience on the spot. Then you will find yourself in the situation where faith becomes possible… —Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

We want to be in the driver’s seat. In everything else in life, we size up the situation, we lay out our demands, and we expect and wait for the answers—and they’d better be good answers—before we make a commitment to act.

Unfortunately, the God of the Universe isn’t into negotiation and compromise. He says, simply, “Leave it all behind.” Abandon the old habits, the old values, the old pre-conceptions, the old vices, the old questions, the old sins—leave it all at the foot of the cross and follow me. When you follow Jesus wholeheartedly, without reservation, he will give you the faith you are seeking, and in the context of that relationship he will answer your questions.

The man who trusts God, but with inward reservations, is like a wave of the sea, carried forward by the wind one moment and driven back the next. That sort of man cannot hope to receive anything from the Lord, and the life of a man of divided loyalty will reveal instability at every turn. —James 1:6-8, JB Phillips

God will not be found through intellectual gamesmanship. Jesus emptied himself of every advantage, left behind everything that made him equal with God, and humbly obeyed the call of his Father. Can it be any different for us?

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  1. Thanks. Reminded me again of the necessity to make the choice to follow. Until that choice is made it is difficult to answere a lot of questions. I guess that is “faith” – making that initial committment without necessarily having all the questions answered.

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