By James North
When my daughter, Isabelle, was a little over a year old we went to the beach. Isabelle is no stranger to the beach, but since our last trip she had learned a very important word. She learned “this”. It proved to be an important word because she realized she could point to something say “this” and we would provide a name for the mysterious new object. On this particular beach outing her toddler curiosity was overflowing. She would point and excitedly say “this”. I would respond with sand, rock, bird, waves or ocean. To her, these words have zero meaning. Words commonly regarded self-explanatory are so far above her level of comprehension the utterance of these words served little purpose, for now at least.
In 5-8 years, the same words will be woefully inadequate to help understand the powerful, mysterious force that is the ocean. I imagine in the future I will go the beach with Isabelle and she will ask me why waves crash on the beach. I will explain that- storms out at sea, hundreds of miles away, create swells from the friction of wind blowing across the surface of the water. These swells travel across the expanse of the ocean and eventually come into contact with the land. When the ocean swell meets the land the swell slows down and a wave will form when the back of a swell is moving faster than the front of a swell and it spills over the top. The day is coming far too quickly when Isabelle will ask me what is making those waves and I will have a choice to make. I can either help her learn about the ocean, or, I can point at the water and say “ocean”. Technically, it is true that the ocean is making the waves, the problem is, that answer is not helpful in coming to a greater understanding about the ocean.
Ministers are faced with a similar decision when congregants have unanswered questions about highly important issues about life, love, God and which Star Wars movie is best.* In that moment the pastor must decide to give the an easy truth or help people come to a greater understanding about life. In my own ministry I have found myself defaulting to the easy truth. I default to saying the easy truth because I get to appear as a great sage of spiritual wisdom and it is far simpler than going on a journey of exploration into this great mysterious world. But, easy is rarely helpful, and, easy is almost never transformative.
I learned this the hard way when I dealt with great personal loss for the first time. I was encountering grief in a way I had never experienced. I went to a trusted friend and mentor to try to get a grasp on what was happening and my friend responded with “all things work together for good”. I do not fault my friend. They were genuinely trying to be helpful. But, in that moment, while their response was true, not only was that answer not helpful, but it felt like a kick in the gut.
If you have been in the ministry for anytime at all, you are sure to have a similar story. A time when someone told you the truth but that truth was not even remotely helpful and often made matters worse. And while we all have experienced this multiple times we end up doing this to the people that follow our lead to the same damaging end. If our goal as ministers is to help people explore and grow in knowledge and relationship with a great and mysterious God we have to develop more useful answers to complex problems.
For me, the reality remains, I default to easy and insufficient truths. It is my default because I am too busy to sit down and have a real conversation with people. It is my default because I do not have a good answer and I would rather pretend an easy truth is sufficient than feel incompetent in my role as a minister. I will present the truth I know and wrap it in a neat package and if people do not want to buy it then they can move on down the street to the next gospel salesman. I have an organization to run. I have a brand to build. I have experiences to plan. I have leaders to lead. I look at the big picture. I cannot be bothered with the trivial task of working thorough individual complex problems.
Figuring out how to translate the theological truths I know into helpful answers and pragmatic solutions to difficult, complex questions is arduous and time consuming. It requires a willingness to say I don’t know what to do and the courage to put the time into figuring it out. If we do not make time for this process neither will the people that we lead. If we deliver easy truths to complex problems, they will do the same. Many Christians are inefficient witnesses in their communities not because they don’t love the Lord but because they lack the ability to explain competently and with depth how their faith provides answers to the difficult questions brought by their neighbors.
Someday Isabelle is going to start asking a lot of questions. The adult that she becomes in part will be determined by how I answer her questions. I can point at the waves say “ocean” and call it good. Or, I can start explaining. Which will lead to more questions. Then more answers. Eventually my knowledge will be exhausted and then comes the hard work of research and more conversations. But for me, it is worth it because learning the ocean is something worth doing and is not accomplished in a day.
Learning and loving a great, mysterious and powerful God is a lifetime endeavor. Embracing the complexity of this God and developing a curiosity to explore the unknown are essential for the adventure. Don’t settle for the easy truth. Next time someone comes to you with a difficult question resist the urge to give a simple answer. Instead, acknowledge the complexity of the problem and join them in the adventure of finding the answer.
James North is the Lead Pastor of Pasadena Christian Center in Pasadena, California where he and his wife, Kelly and daughter Izzy have made their home. He loves Star Wars, theology and mixing them together at times!
*For the record- Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars movie. This is one case where the easy answer actually works.