They will remember what gets you excited

I have been dipping in and out of Jim Hamilton’s book on typology recently. As with most theological books, it’s not a page-turner but it is interesting in what it presents. I will continue to plough my way through it because I got interested in some questions I think it will help me answer. Given how much his book on the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit helped with some other questions I was thinking about, I have high hopes for his book on typology too.

But this is not a book review. It’s not really about that book at all in fact. It was a reminder of the last time I read a book like this. It was because I had developed a particular interest in something and was trying to read around the issue as much as I could. I ended up jumping down a massive rabbit hole, chasing all sorts of thoughts, trying to work out what felt like a cogent answer to the questions at hand. But what really prompted my reading was something had piqued my curiosity and I was doing a deep dive trying to get behind the questions that kept coming.

I do have a tendency to get hooked on a question and find it difficult to settle whilst I perceive logical inconsistency where I might happen to sit. I get taken by a desire to put something in a logical, or happily cogent, order. That isn’t to say I can’t cope with mystery or things that will go beyond human ken, but I want to synthesise those things into my understanding of what we do know so that there is a level of logical sense to what I believe. I do, after all, believe ours is a God of logic and order. He does not do nor create what is logically impossible. But those tendencies, of themselves, are not specifically the point here either.

The point I am coming round to is though I get hooked on those sorts of questions from time to time, and will study to the Nth degree until I reach a position that salves my desire for cogency more or less, these are rarely the questions exercising church members. When I went on a deep dive years ago into the question of God’s sovereignty, human responsibility and the various Calvinistic, Armianian, Amyraldian and Molinist views knocking around of one sort or another – and I have come to some conclusions on that with which I am comfortable, nobody really asked me about it. It’s not been essential to my ministry. I might have a slightly clearer idea in my head when issues of God’s sovereignty come up, but most of what anybody actually needs is a tiny percentage of what I decided to do. The same happened when I got taken with various other questions too. The questions themselves aren’t immediately important.

What is important is that it would be all too easy to let what I was getting interested in, agitated by or excited about in my private studies become what I was trying to get everyone else excited by. I have heard it said that people will not necessarily remember what you taught, but they will remember what got you excited. You might teach certain doctrinal truths, but what people are likely to latch onto are the things that really get you excited.

Now I know theology is not meant to be a series of puzzles to be solved and whatnot. I appreciate all that is to be said about it moving your heart. I agree with that absolutely. But it doesn’t change the fact that I do get a bit excited about solving what seems to me to be an inconsistency in my thinking somewhere. Seeing something that doesn’t quite fit what I thought and trying to work out where it does fit (or, if it doesn’t, whether other things I think might not be right). I like the satisfaction of fixing the anomaly and my “system” fitting together neatly. Basically, I want to be right and inconsistency – glaring inconsistency I can’t really justify in any way – irks me because it seems necessarily wrong. And I don’t want to be wrong. I want to be right in what I think about God, what he demands of me and what I ought to feel about him. And whatever the answers to those things, I’m sure I’m not supposed to feel frustrated that I suspect I have misunderstood something about him and his Word.

Whilst I think what is above (usually) is my primary motive for all that, I think, I don’t discount a sinful tendency potentially underlying it too. I want to have the little insider bit of knowledge. I want to understand the difficult passage. I want to know what others don’t really know so I can essentially show them and then can tell me how wonderful I am because I know things they don’t. I don’t presume all, or even most, bible teachers are as shallow as me. But I do suspect more of us have something of this tendency in us. We want to be known to be the ones with the knowledge. Which is all horribly gnostic, isn’t it. We are the advanced ones. We are the gurus to whom you must come. And we’re not and, frankly, the little titbit isn’t even what our people need. They need the gospel that is as perspicuous in the scriptures as it gets. It is the thing. Galatians is literally written to bring up short those of us with these gnostic tendencies.

But, assuming my primary motive is genuinely my main motive, the problem isn’t with the puzzle solving desire of itself. The problem is when the puzzle and solution are the main thing that get me excited, that is what will come out in my teaching. It won’t be what the passage is saying. It won’t be the main idea or the specific message the Lord would say to us through his Word. Instead, I will be more interested in the little side point that has grabbed my interest because I couldn’t quite make it fit the framework and then I could. The main point of the passage might be evident – and therefore what should be taught as the main point – but the less evident side issue, that isn’t really key to understanding the passage at all, is what gets all my attention because I have to know. And that then has to make its way into my sermon because I want everyone else to know I solved the riddle. I worked out what the thing means and fit it neatly into my schema so the world can make sense again. So they get 25-minutes exegesis on some abstruse point of theology and miss the main point altogether. That’s how you know that primary motive might be taking a backseat and when you are getting excited about entirely the wrong thing.

Worse, if my people see me doing that all the time, they will be trained to get excited about the wrong thing too. They will always looking for the abstruse point or the new idea they hadn’t considered before – teaching and preaching that – rather than the main idea of the passage itself. It would be like giving our people nothing but hors d’oeuvres as their exclusive diet. Potentially interesting though not especially exciting, never very satisfying and deeply unhealthy if that’s all you ever eat. What people need is the basic meat and potatoes of the gospel to fill them up.

The point here is not that it is wrong to get interested in certain questions about the Lord. It isn’t wrong to delve into the Word to understand something that you think might be amiss in your thinking. The point is that our people will get excited about what we get excited about. If we’re mainly excited about solving the puzzle within our framework, that’s what we will excite them with. If we’re excited about Jesus and his gospel, that’s what we will excite them with. I often wonder if the reason I get excited about these puzzles (for want of a better term) is because I’m not as excited about the meat and potatoes of the gospel as I ought to be. My problem isn’t a knowledge issue, it is a heart issue. I want the morsels because I don’t find Jesus as exciting as I should.

I know this tendency as I work hard to push against it. I try hard not to go down rabbit holes in my sermons. I try hard to teach what I think the main point of the passage is. I want to be as excited about the gospel itself, and about the person of Jesus, as I am about the nature of God’s sovereignty and whether scripture teaches supralapsarianism or not (and I will save you the hassle of that investigation and just tell you I think it does and let the infralapsarians come at me later). But I want my people to be excited about Jesus and his gospel and that means making sure my main focus is Jesus and his gospel too. They will ultimately not remember everything I say, but they will remember what gets me excited.