Friday, 20 September 2013

Two Ways of Thinking

Do you remember when you were at school, in its various phases, when you were children and then adolescents? What memories do you have of being a student? Like everybody else I had my favourite subjects and those subjects I did not like at all. Many of these feelings depended of the ability of the teachers themselves to teach. Still today, it happens to me sometimes that I dream being at school, with feelings of strong anxiety about examinations.

At school, we do not only learn notions and abilities, but also we learn how to think, how to reason. Right reasoning can be furthered through the study of mathematics and logic from the earliest years, but this is less and less studied today, so little that faulty reasoning (improper or mistakes in reasoning) is more and more common in contemporary society. Faulty reasoning can also be a propaganda technique used to manipulate how you feel about someone or something. It gives some main ideas that don't support the conclusion. For example, let's say there is an advertisement for a shampoo. "If you don't use our hair products, your hair will thin. Therefore you'll lose your hair, and nobody will want to be your friend." The first sentence doesn't support the conclusion. Here's another example: "Christians believe in God. Muslims believe in God. Therefore, Christians are the same as Muslims". The first sentences do not support the conclusion, in any way. Christians are obviously not Muslim, just because they believe in God. In fact, their concept of God is different, as different are the implications of their worldviews.
We also have problems not only with faulty reasoning, but also with different kinds of reasoning and the consequences of that reasoning because people reason according to different presuppositions, different parameters, different basic values or aiming at different purposes.

Christian discipleship

Jesus of Nazareth was often addressed to as "Teacher". We consider Him as "the Teacher", the greatest teacher, the Teacher, par excellence. We acknowledge that nobody has ever been like Him and will ever be like Him, and have reasons for saying that. Once He said: "You are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ [teacher] for you have one Teacher and you are all brothers" (Matthew 23:8). Those who followed Him were essentially "disciples", that is "learners", "apprentices", and were on a course of "discipleship". They had abandoned their former lifestyle and were learning from Jesus not only a message or a way of behaving, but essentially a new way to see things, a new way of thinking.

In order to acquire this, they needed the necessary time and personal engagement. Jesus said: "Take my yoke on you and learn from me,because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry.” (Matthew 11:29). The same happens today: the life of a genuine Christian is a life of discipleship. Called by the Gospel to follow Jesus, Christians experience conversion ("leaving" the world of unbelief and error) and faith in Jesus. Jesus, in this way, "takes charge of them" and they begin a course, a journey, where they learn not only notions and attitudes, but also a different way of thinking which is God's way of thinking, as taught and lived by Jesus. They follow this trail of learning for their whole life. When Jesus takes charge of us, He saves us, He ransoms us "from the empty way of life inherited from our ancestors" (1 Peter 1:18). However, we will get the final "diploma" only at the end, after a life in which we mainly work on ourselves as the Spirit of God works in us in making us morally and spiritually "like Jesus" with "the mind of Christ" is being formed in us. We follow the Christian life with a little success and many failures, but always aiming at that target. The story of the first Jesus' disciples, which we find in the Gospels, but also through the experiences and teaching of the Christians portrayed in the whole New Testament, is "a parable" of that Christian life.            

The Bible text

In the Bible text we are examining today, we see a disciple of Jesus who, in spite of some years at His school, still has a considerable difficulty in understanding and acquiring Jesus's way of thinking.

""Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He spoke openly about this. So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But after turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but on man’s.” Then Jesus called the crowd, along with his disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it. For what benefit is it for a person to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his life? What can a person give in exchange for his life? For if anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." (Mark 8:31-38).

Not understanding God's "must"

The terrible suffering and death of Jesus, nailed at a cross like the worst of criminals, had not been "a tragic fate". The Bible says: "The Son of Man must...", it's necessary...... (31). Jesus had never concealed this. It was no secret, either for His disciples, nor for the crowds who stood listening to Him. In fact, Jesus "spoke openly about it" (32). Maybe, at first, they did not so much mind it. "Who knows," they might have thought, "Jesus' words could have a symbolic meaning… Who is, anyway, this 'Son of Man': the Messiah? The Saviour? This is not at all clear for us…".

Then, when the disciples had begun to understand that Jesus meant a literal suffering Messiah, persecuted by the civil and religious authorities, betrayed, arrested, tied, hit, spat upon, whipped and finally nailed to a cross in order to die after unspeakable torments - and that He was speaking about Himself - they were left shocked and horrified.

So Peter takes courage and calmly takes Jesus aside, privately, in order to dissuade Him from this fate, trying to make Him understand how senseless what Jesus was saying was. Peter wants to persuade Jesus not to "exaggerate". "So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him" (32). Peter says: "How could all this be 'necessary'. What you say makes no sense, it's crazy, it's an absurdity… That would be a catastrophe for all our projects. If you want to succeed, this is certainly not the road you must take! Dying and then coming back to life on the third day?! Why is all this be necessary, when you could avoid all this, without any problem? Necessary? I can't understand it!".

The idea itself - "vicarious atonement" - still makes "no sense" today for most people. For the world the whole context of the Christian Gospel is senseless, an absurdity. it speaks of an objective moral law given by God to human beings which we are responsible for complying with, a Judgement to which all of us will be submitted, a condemnation which we will rightly deserve for our transgressions, a concept of sin itself and its penal consequences. Today, even among many Christians this conceptual framework cannot be accepted "any more"; "it's outdated"; "it must be revised before modern people may possibly accept it…". Peter was reasoning "according to the world" and this way of thinking has not changed today.

Hadn't Peter been praised just before this for understanding who Jesus was? How could it be that the same Peter who now becomes now "a Satan"? Peter had reproached Jesus, but now Jesus gets angry because of Peter's inability to understand "the whole counsel of God".

How does Jesus react to this lack of understanding? "So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him." (34). Jesus reproaches Peter in strong terms, but Jesus is also doing this to His other disciples, of whom Peter is certainly their spokesman. Certainly, Jesus was not going towards the Cross gladly, as it would have been a terrible trial for Him. So, Peter's reaction did not help Him at all. On the contrary, He was utterly annoyed and indignant at it. Humanly speaking, Jesus' anger was justified. Changing the mindset of those men and leading them to a different way of thinking and acting could have seemed to Him a desperate attempt. Certainly Peter had received by revelation from God his understanding that Jesus was the Messiah, the Saviour, the Lord, but still Peter was not "setting his mind on God’s interests, but on man’s." (34), "You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God's." (NLT), "you're not thinking God's thoughts, but human thoughts!" (ISV).

Peter did not understand:

  • God's purposes. He was speaking as someone who did not understand God's purposes and wisdom. The most powerful among His enemies could not defeat the One who had conquered illness, death, demons and storms: they had all bowed to Jesus and had to obey Him. Peter was thinking at Jesus' suffering as an avoidable and useless sacrifice. Peter's perspective, though, was limited. Jesus' life had a universal value: through it the price of the sin of those entrusted to Him would be paid completely, in their stead. Without that suffering and death, the ultimate death would have swallowed every human being, polluted by sin, rightly and forever. Jesus' suffering and death was not an accident or the victory of His enemies. That suffering and death was according to the determinate counsel and purposes of God. This had been clearly prophecied by Scripture: "Though the Lord desired to crush him and make him ill, once restitution is made, he will see descendants and enjoy long life, and the Lord’s purpose will be accomplished through him. Having suffered, he will reflect on his work, he will be satisfied when he understands what he has done. “My servant will acquit many, for he carried their sins" (Isaiah 53:10-11)..
  • Peter had not yet understood God's way of acting, His "style" was not a show of power and grandeur, but of humble commitment and sacrifice; not exaltation, but stooping; not one's own interests and convenience, or "the easy way", but the complete offering of oneself, "the narrow and hard road". "God's style" has always been foolish for man, but it is the only victorious and productive way. The Apostle Paul wrote: "we preach about a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength." (1 Corinthians 1:23-25).

Having touched Jesus's most sensible nerve, trying to dissuade Him from doing exactly that upon which His heart was set, Peter takes up the role of no less that Satan, the tempter. In fact, Jesus calls Peter "Satan" because at that moment Peter is repeating the actual words which Satan earlier suggested to Jesus in the wilderness, tempting Him to pursue His objectives in "an easier and sure way", not through sacrifice, but through power and worldly wisdom, a seductive, deceptive and false way. That was "the logic and the wisdom of this world", suggested by God's enemy. Jesus seemed then to say: "Shut up! Stop it! Do not join, even you, the voices of all those who would dissuade me in pursuing God's ends God's way. Even you, Peter, are setting obstacles in front of me. Are they not enough, Satan and all my enemies? You are joining in the choir of those who frustrate and distract me, with your insensitivity and lack of understanding!".

The Urgency to Change Our Way of Thinking

Jesus, in this way, takes the opportunity to repeat to the crowds who were following Him, the message which was the leit motif of His whole ministry: the urgency of converting to God's way of thinking, the only way that is victorious and productive, in contrast to the pretentious human and satanic claims of "a better wisdom".

The prophet Isaiah prophecied from God: "The wicked need to abandon their lifestyle and sinful people their plans. They should return to the Lord, and He will show mercy to them, and to their God, for He will freely forgive them. Indeed, my plans are not like your plans, and my deeds are not like your deeds, for just as the sky is higher than the earth, so my deeds are superior to your deeds and my plans superior to your plans" (Isaiah 55:7-9).

In fact, exactly after this incident with Peter, Jesus talks about the better way, of denying ourselves in order to give ourselves to our neighbours, and about the way of sacrifice: "If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel will save it." (35-36).

It is true that life is precious and we must protect it. Preserving it is a principle, rooted in nature. It is certainly appropriate to take legitimate measures to preserve and save one's life, when it is threatened or in danger. Anyone, nevertheless, expecting to save himself or herself on his own terms and despises God's way of salvation, will end up ruining it and "nothing" will remain in his or her hands. He or she will possess nothing in the end.

Anyone ignoring or despising Christ, ignores and despises the only "anchor of salvation" at his or her disposal. That is real folly! Anyone who "is ashamed" of Christ and of His way of thinking or that other ways are "better", certainly at the end, he will be lost. At the end, he or she will only Christ, not any more "the Saviour" but "The Judge. He will be the one who "will be ashamed". "For if anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." (38)-

Who is the One really Reasoning Well?

There are two ways of thinking and acting which are diametrically opposed to each other: the one is common in this corrupted and sinful world and the other is God's. The presuppositions on which they are based are different. Their presuppositions, parameters, values and objectives are different.

There is a total incompatibility and lack of communication between the way of thinking and the logic of this world, and God's. They are two ways of thinking which accuse one the other of "foolishness" and "twisted thinking", like Peter and Jesus. Who is right: Peter or Jesus? The world, or God's Word? The Bible says: "There is a way that seems right to a person, but its end is the way that leads to death." (Proverbs 14:12).

Genuine Christians are those who work in themselves a cultural revolution: they forsake what "it seems right" but at the end, their own way only reveals itself as "a way that leads to death". Without a basic change in the way of thinking, there will never be any hope. When Scripture leads us to "change one's heart", it points us to the source of our reasoning, our values, our priorities, what we love and what we hate, what is important to us, what we must change. This basic transformation of heart and mind is the aim of the Gospel.

"I can't understand the way you think", says the man or the woman of this world to the Christian who wants to follow the footsteps of God, adopting God's values and purposes. For the world, this means going after fantasies and wasting our time. But the world is short-sighted or blind. It does not see that its own way leads to destruction. Jesus said: "No, I tell you! But unless you repent you will all perish as well!" (Luke 13:5).

How are we going to think and live: according to the world's presuppositions or God's?

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