Intellectual offence

I heard a phrase recently that aptly describes a considerable temptation in the Christian walk. That phrase is intellectual offence. It typically occurs when things don’t make sense or unfold as I expect. We see the world through prisms defined by nurture and experience. So, we may understandably struggle with ideas or events that challenge our beliefs. No one is exempt from this experience. However, what we do when an event or individual challenges our worldview will shape our lives and relationships. The Bible says we cannot do anything against the truth [2 Corinthians 13:8]. So, I’d suggest that the best way to avoid believing a lie is to open our paradigms to honest scrutiny because the truth withstands all examination.

I’ve observed that many of us are wedded to our paradigms. We struggle to imagine a world where what we believe isn’t true because some tie their sense of self to their worldview. As such, we may perceive a challenge to our beliefs as an attack on our identity. That often elicits a hostile response. It’s not wrong to anchor one’s identity on a paradigm if the belief is true. Jesus is the best case in point. His ministry reflected His worldview, but crucially, He opened Himself up to scrutiny from friend and foe. But some of those He spoke to weren’t ready to hear or accept something new. On one occasion, a mob in His hometown tried to throw Him off a cliff [Luke 4:16-30]. Then, on another in Capernaum, many of His followers deserted Him as He explained who He was [John 6:22-66]. In both cases, what Jesus said offended His hearers because it didn’t fit their expectations or worldviews, although what He said was true.

What happened to those Jews in Capernaum and Nazareth sadly recurs daily in many hearts and minds confronted by the Gospel. Though warned, many are still offended by the word of God [Matthew 11:6]. Some utterly reject the Gospel, but others are curious enough to listen, even if they aren’t wholly sold out to it as the power of God to save us [Romans 1:16]. The latter group of people, challenged by the convicting countercultural prohibitions and principles in God’s word, will likely be offended by it. They may ridicule it or dismiss its relevance to everyday life. Take the Sermon on the Mount as an example [Matthew 5-7]: There, Jesus laid out non-negotiable principles for the Christian life on anger, lust, divorce, oaths, generosity, revenge and so on. Each went against societal norms, and like the first hearers, most people understandably baulk at them on first reading; some disregard the message entirely and even persecute the messenger. Such people never experience God’s power, even if they keep up with religious activities [2 Timothy 3:5].

There is another group who hear God’s word, embrace and put it to the test [Psalm 34:8]. Sometimes, like John the Baptist, having waited a while, reality hasn’t matched expectations [Matthew 11:2-3]. That’s such a precarious place, and the Bible acknowledges it [Proverbs 13:12a]. Nevertheless, if used correctly, that season of waiting can become a transformational crucible for a believer’s faith [James 1:2-4]. This is the group I most identify with. I once heard a preacher say the greatest need for a Christian who has accepted Jesus and is being transformed by His word is empowerment – proof that God’s word works. However, the challenge, as Abraham’s life portrayed, is that for a season, that evidence is intangible. So, what God said is all you have – the evidence of things not seen [Hebrews 11:1]. This is where the vagaries of life can seemingly mock a believer holding onto God’s promises. That believer may be desperate for healing or in dire straits financially, waiting for a breakthrough. But until it happens, he must make a daily choice to believe that God is faithful [Hebrews 10:38]. That becomes more challenging the longer the situation continues and may easily lead to intellectual offence.

Years ago, I read a story of a Bible college student who gave up on God when calamity struck his life after writing a beautiful exposition on the Book of Job. When I read the story, he was still a Christian, though he’d left Bible college. But, he’d lost passion for God, and his trust in God’s word had dissipated. That story has stayed with me, a reminder that adversity and disappointments can make a believer cynical about God’s promises. Some may not be bold enough to dismiss the Word – but they can’t summon the strength to believe it. That’s what can happen to the intellectually offended. The temptation may be subtle or overt, but the effects – unbelief – are the same if we yield. Ultimately, intellectual offence renders God’s word unprofitable to us if we allow it to gain a foothold [Hebrews 4:2]. 

Thankfully, Paul gives us the keys to overcoming the temptation of intellectual offence, using Abraham as an example [Romans 4:13-25]. The passage is a worthwhile study. But, some practical things Abraham did stand out for me. Abraham acknowledged his reality; he didn’t pretend it didn’t exist. But he was also unwavering in his belief, fully persuaded that the God who promised him a child would keep His promise, irrespective of His present situation. The lesson for me is this: God said what He said, knowing I’d face what I’m facing. So, any situation contrary to what He said is subject to change [Hebrews 6:18].

When the temptation to doubt God’s word in your season of waiting arises, let your mind wander to who He is: Isaiah says the entire universe – billions of light-years in diameter – sits in the gap between His thumb and little finger [Isaiah 40:12]. Why would He tell us anything but the truth? Who can stop what He said from coming to pass?

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