Most people would never willingly commit themselves to believing something that they know is wrong.
Many people, in fact, think that the beliefs they have settled on and the ways in which they have chosen to live are the best possible onesâ€”otherwise why would they hold to them? Indeed, regardless of the objective truth or falsehood of what we believe, we usually have at least the subjective impression that we are not mistaken.
But this attitude is exactly where the danger of falling away from God begins. So is there some kind of standard, some kind of perfect mirror in which to reflect and self-reflect? In the biblical passage below, Paul shows us how to raise up the Lord Jesus Christ as just that standard and mirror:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Cor 1:22-25)
While this is but a short passage from one of Paul's letters, what the apostle is getting at is striking and profound. For when Paul speaks here of Jews and Greeks, he is not just commenting on two communities of people at a certain time and in a certain place. He is in fact highlighting two types of disbelief that existed in his time and that still exist today.
To Paul, disbelief is not a simple refusal to believe in God, but is something more complex and insidious. What's deceptive here about the demanding of signs and the seeking of wisdom is that these quests constitute seemingly worthy spiritual goals in and of themselves. Hence, they can lead us into that most subtle of traps: straying from the truth precisely when we think that we are pursuing it. Let's take a closer look.
To begin with, let's look at the idea of "demanding signs." We could say that signs have to do with having proof of what we believe. We might wonder what Paul's problem is with this idea. After all, would you buy a car before you had first driven it? Would you sign a contract before you had read the terms? What is so bad about seeking proof for what one commits to?
But this desire for proof is precisely the problem. In a world that demands instant verification and instant gratification, we as Christians are called to do something different, to have "assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb 11:1).
Like Abraham being called out of his old homeland toward the hope of a better land, we are called to a new life and a hope of something better than what is before our eyes. Like the people of Israel, who sank their feet into the roiling waters of the Jordan in the firm expectation that God would open up the waters, we too are called to step out in faith, to live with the constant assurance that God has already taken care of our needs and prepared our path. When we do soâ€”and only when we do soâ€”we are met with the gracious response of God.
On another level, seeking after signs is really seeking after power. How is this so? The people of Jesus' time were constantly asking Him to perform some sign to show that He was indeed from God. Many of them were more interested in pyrotechnic displays than in listening to the words of Jesus, the real source of saving power.
Throughout human history, it seems that power is the true currency of the world: might is right, they say, and power is persuasive. It is in this respect, however, that such a seeking becomes a dangerous sideroad away from the ultimate sign, which has been given to us once and for all: Christ crucifiedâ€”and not only crucified, but resurrected and triumphant over death.
Jesus said, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth" (Matthew 12:38-39). He also said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19).
What does this mean? It means that the cross issues a direct challenge to the prevailing values of a world that has always been awed by displays of sheer powerâ€”brute strength, might, and force. Instead, Jesus came to show us a completely different ideal, which He demonstrated by forgiving us, loving us, and giving Himself up for us before we even knew Him.
On Golgotha there were no armies and no grand spectacles, only the sight of a lonely man dying on a cross. But when Jesus rose again, He triumphed over all of the transient "powers" of this world, over evil, sin, and death itself. Our crucified and risen Savior is the only sign that we need: the sign of a new life in Him.
Turning now to the seekers of wisdom, let me first say that I don't think Paul was making a blanket statement against any and all attempts of human beings to gain insight. After all, the Bible itself constantly admonishes us to seek wisdom, that is, to come to know who God is. Instead, Paul is trying to identify the dangerous tendencies that a person pursuing wisdom can fall into. In my mind there are at least two of these tendencies: misidentifying wisdom with the prevailing "common sense" of the world, and accepting the assumption that human efforts alone can provide the answers to life's basic problems.
On the first count, we might be reminded of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, which can be found in chapters 5-7 of Matthew. While He addresses Himself to the adherents of the law of Moses, Jesus was also attacking the way that people in general have gradually fashioned for themselves a brand of human wisdom that we might also call the "common sense" or prevailing wisdom of the world.
Over and over again, Jesus speaks out against this view, saying "You have heard..." and answering "But I say to you...." While the prevailing wisdom of the world tells us not to kill, Jesus tells us not even to hate. While the prevailing wisdom tells us not to commit adultery, Jesus tells us not even to tolerate lustful thoughts in our hearts. While the world teaches us to "love your neighbor and hate your enemy," to practice the retributive justice of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," Jesus teaches us, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
The Lord wants us not to be content with being simple rule-followers, following only an outward shell of goodness or simply submitting to the prevailing "wisdom," which would convince us that the world is one big, zero-sum rat race. We are children of God (and not rats!), and the Lord gives us the insight and the power to rise above the limitations of any secular system we may find ourselves in. Thus, we live in the plenitude of God's love, not in the impoverishment of the world's lowered standards.
Second, seekers of wisdom may often fall for the appealing illusion that human efforts alone will provide the answers to life. We can see this attitude today in the New Age, pop-psychology messages that teach self-knowledge and self-empowerment as tools to tap into the power within ourselves, trying to find acceptance, love, and freedom. While such messages are attractive and to some extent can bring positive changes in people's lives, they tend to miss a very basic point. Paul poignantly reminds us of this point in the eighth chapter of Romans:
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it but sin which dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?
This passage tells us many things. For one thing, it tells us that mere knowledge is not enough to help us. Just knowing that we should or should not do something does not in fact give us the power to act accordingly. And this passage points out a basic fact of human nature: that it is fundamentally flawed, compromised by evil and the power of sin. That is why any idea or system that relies only on the innate power of human nature is destined to fail, for we are not gods, and we are certainly not God.
In the end, it is the "foolishness" of God, a foolishness that would make Him come down and die on a cross, that ends up trumping the wisdom of the world. For the utterly incomprehensible love of God accomplishes what no human scheme ever could-it opens up a fountain of life through Jesus' blood that washes us of sin, and it dwells within us as the Spirit to guide us into His likeness. Finally, we realize that worldly wisdom fails because it cannot truly transform human nature, and because it cannot save our souls. God's seeming foolishness is revealed as the highest wisdom of all.
May God grant that we hold on not to dazzling signs of proof or might, but to the saving power of His love. May He grant that we seek not prideful and self-reliant human systems, but the wisdom that comes from knowing Him and being redeemed by Him.