I am the Lord, and there is no other,
The One forming light and creating darkness,
Causing well-being and creating calamity;
I am the Lord who does all these. (Isaiah 45:6-7)
John the Apostle wrote:
God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)
In what sense can God be the creator of darkness when “in him there is no darkness at all”? Is this contradictory, or are we conflating how God sees and defines things with how Man sees and defines things?
There is, apparently, a God-created darkness, a divine darkness:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light day, and the darkness He called night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. (Genesis 1:4-5)
God established the divine diurnal rhythm, dividing day and night. The darkness of night is a refreshing, rejuvenating darkness. It is the darkness of recreation. Saul was enveloped by it on the road to Damascus. It is a darkness—a blindness—that leads to new light, to new insight, to the enlightenment that was the condition of Mankind in the garden before the Fall. What we had in the garden was a touch of blindness, a streak of divine darkness that was needed and necessary in order to keep our spiritual vision at 20/20. It was medicinal, healing, regenerating darkness.
The irony is that according to Jesus, the more we try to illuminate divine darkness the deeper we descend into a very different and most unattractive kind of darkness. We demand light, full on, bright, and without subtle hue, but when we get it, it blinds us. Jesus called the Pharisees, who believed not only that they could see but also that they could see better than anybody else, “blind fools” and He contradicted their self-assessment as possessors of spiritual vision and insight.
Our inability to assess ourselves, to judge, began with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Our inability is evidenced by the surprise shown by all humanity in the judgment scene described by Jesus. Neither people judged to be good nor people judged to be bad expected the judgment they received. We may present our good works and good intentions and honest effort in evidence, only to be told: “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:23).
The Pharisees were just as surprised: “We are not blind are we?” they asked. This is the existential question not only of their time but also of our time and indeed all times. Jesus turned the Pharisees’ definition back on them. “You only think you see,” He said, “and that is proof of your blindness.” In asking Adam and Eve: “Who told you you are naked?” God was implying that nobody is naked unless He says so. “You can’t claim that you see, unless I say you can see. You’re not blind unless I say you’re blind, I’m the creator of sight. I’m the creator of vision. I’m the creator of insight and enlightenment. I’m the definer, not you. I’m the decider, not you.”
If Jesus was born again into your religion (or no religion), what would he call you? What would you say if he asked you the existential question, “Are you blind?” What would He say if you were to ask Him the existential question, “Am I blind?” Would He call you a blind fool? Might He call you visionary? What would we claim for ourselves and what would He claim for us? What makes a “blind guide” blind anyway? This is a very clever oxymoron that Jesus uses to try to put into perspective the juxtaposition of blindness and guidedness. If you were to recognize that you were blind, what would you do about it? How would you go about getting unblinded? How would you go about finding spiritual sight—insight?
A few weeks ago, we were talking about wiping the slate clean and starting over again on a tabula rasa, a blank slate. How does one scrub one’s spiritual whiteboard clean anyway? Is it possible? Is it necessary? Is it desirable? It’s clear from Scripture that God wants our eyes blind to some things and open to other things. How does that process unfold? How do you get to unsee something horrible? How does one go about unseeing one’s spiritual insight? It doesn’t seem practical. Is it even necessary to erase everything? Is it desirable to return to a tabula rasa? After all, I am what I am. I have learned things in my life. I have experienced things. I have education. I’ve been indoctrinated. I have long-held beliefs which I’ve treasured and even taught to others. How do I decide what to hold on to and what to let go of? Would Jesus call me a blind fool? I ask Jesus the question: “I’m not blind too, am I?” “Am I a blind Muslim?” “Am I a blind Hindu?” “Am I a blind Catholic?” “Am I a blind Adventist?” My impression is that everyone but me is blind. I see clearly.
How should we assess the state of our vision? What is it that we see darkly, like the partially blind man who saw men “like trees walking”? What do we (think we) see clearly? Do we need vision correction and how do we get it?
Jay: Scripture seems to flip-flop back and forth a little bit. We’re supposed to see/we’re supposed to be in darkness. Things are a little confusing. What really resonates with me is the potential understanding that we can’t see perfectly, that as created beings we must accept our inability to see with perfect eyes. It comes down to an acknowledgement of our imperfect vision, clouded by our culture, our time, our place, our family, by all of the experiences of our lives. It is a humbling acknowledgment—as it should be.
Donald: It’s amazing that we have spent 11 weeks talking about this. I don’t know if it’s because we’re stuck or because it’s intriguing. But certainly, I’m not sure in my mind that I am any more clear about it.
Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things. (Ecclesiastes 11:5)
That pretty much sums it up. We’re being told quite directly that we can’t understand. I’m coming to consider the idea that we just have to acknowledge, and accept, God in our lives. We tend to think we know and understand God. And so we start trying to convince others that the way we see things is the way it is. We need simply to acknowledge and accept and pray for God’s will to be done and let it go at that. Yet, here we are, trying to understand God, while being told plainly that we cannot, that we are blind and cannot understand the mind of God.
David: To me, Jesus made it perfectly clear that what we have to be blind to is discernment. We must admit to ourselves that we can’t tell the difference between good and evil. And that’s an awesome thing to admit and to recognize. The implications are mind-blowing. If you can’t tell the difference between good and evil, what’s to stop you from committing what is evil in God’s eyes? God doesn’t want that obviously.
The silver lining is that God is Good, therefore there must be at least a preponderance of Good in the universe (as there is, thank goodness, a preponderance of matter over antimatter). In the beginning, when God created the universe, it was good. In God’s eyes, everything was good about the creation. Since there must be at least an overwhelming preponderance of good over evil, then in human statistical probablility terms, even though we cannot tell the difference between good and evil we are far more likely to do good than to do evil. As Donald said, all we can do is put our faith and trust in God. If we do, and let His will be done, and leave the discrimination between good and evil to Him, He will manage our behavior for us. That does not mean that we can go out and be, and do, evil. It doesn’t mean that at all.
Don: Well, there goes church! I guess that’s the end of the discussion! 😉
David: Church—religion—is a part of life, of human culture. And to the extent that it helps people reach a point in their spiritual journey where, as Donald says, they just accept God’s will, then it performs an invaluable function. It’s not for everyone, but for those for whom it is, then it is a wonderful thing. The problem arises when a church, a religion, presents itself as the error-free middleman in the discernment business, claiming to see through God’s eyes, as most have done for millennia. It is clear to me, from my reading of the passages we have been studying, that Jesus said that is an absolute No-No. He was vehemently angry with the Pharisees because that’s precisely what they were doing.
Donald: As we congregate every Sabbath, in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic, looking at one another through our little rectangular Zoom boxes on a screen, we realize that as human beings we crave fellowship. And church provides it. It is a wonderful gift to have fellowship, and it is a good role of the church to encourage and enable it by bringing people together; not to argue with one another, but to lift up and support one another. So it’s not “There goes church!” It’s a matter of what is the role of the church.
Don: Is there any support for trying to write on people’s whiteboards?
Jay: I have no issue with writing on whiteboards. I have no issue with adding and subtracting and moving through the process of life. It’s when you say “Okay, it’s done! Here it is. Here is perfection! I have honed the whiteboard so it needs no more additions and no more subtractions. I have gotten to the point where it presents a complete picture of me, of God, of the plan of salvation, of the Great Controversy.” That is the claim Jesus railed against in his ministry, in opposition to the Pharisees and the Sadducees who held firm views on the complete picture.
If you get to that point, Jesus is saying you’d be better off having no whiteboard at all; better off being blind than seeing what you believe to be perfection, because it is really nowhere near perfection and nowhere near to understanding God and His relationship to you. That’s the issue. Not that we shouldn’t grapple: “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18) is an apposite quote.
But when we get to the point of saying “We’ve arrived! We have truth! We have the inside track, the path to salvation!” we are making a pretty bold claim—perhaps no less bold than the claims the Pharisees made, such as who should be forgiven and who shouldn’t be forgiven. The blind man story and the unpardonable sin story are all about who should be saved and who shouldn’t be saved, who should be forgiven, and who shouldn’t be forgiven, who should have grace given to them, and who shouldn’t have grace given to them. It’s a bold and dangerous claim to have a perfect white board.
Jim: The Pharisees thought they could see. And Jesus told them they were blind. And they went into that blindness thinking they were seeing. It reminds me of this passage:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
It’s not until we come face to face with Christ that we have sight, and until we come to that point, we’re in blindness. When do we reach that point where we see him face to face?
Lynda: Not only that, but as we get closer to Christ and know more about Him, we don’t see ourselves as perfect. We see more sin.
Don: So our vision improves?
Donald: Lots of people do not attend church but consider themselves a member of one. Is a more devout member of the church likely to want to associate with them, or to disfellowship them? Is it either/or?
Jay: Seeing Christ perfectly on resurrection morning at the Second Coming is a Catch 22. We have an insatiable desire to improve that vision, so our intellect tells us that the closer we get to Jesus, to Christ, to God, the clearer our vision will be. I’m not saying that’s not possible. My point is that as we believe we’re becoming enlightened, closer to God, with an ever-clearer vision of what God is and how God acts, then our sinful nature really can trip us up: Because as soon as we believe we have clarity, we want everybody to know our clarity and get in lockstep line with our clarity.
And why not? We have a great picture of God. We’ve sacrificed, we’ve studied, we’ve prayed, we’ve humbled ourselves, we’ve done everything that we possibly can within our power to obtain this place next to God, and we obtained this clarity about what God is and who He is. But then we may fall very quickly into “Okay, I did it! I achieved it and I just have to share this with my fellow wo/man. I need them to know exactly what I know, to see exactly what I see, and to feel exactly how I feel.”
We feel this way without realizing that as sinful human beings what we know, see, and feel is biased by our culture, our time, and our place in this world—bias that we are incapable of removing. I am incapable of seeing things the same way that someone in another culture and/or another time sees things. And so any apparent clarity is deceptive: There is some kind of cloudiness, but we don’t see it.
David: Jim’s quote from 1 Corinthians may be absolutely critical in determining this issue of getting close to God and coming face to face with Jesus. Here it is again:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)
“Then” in that quote refers to a clause in verse 10: “when the perfect comes.” I understand there is some question in theology about what this means, but the interpretation seems fairly clear to me. The perfect comes to us in the next life, not in this. Do we get face to face with Jesus, do we get to look Him in the eye progressively, over time, such that He’s a distant figure to begin with but as we walk towards Him, He becomes clearer and clearer? Or is it, rather, a sudden revelation, where you turn a corner and there He is, “in your face,” as the modern saying goes? My interpretation of scripture is that basically it happens when we die, when we shuffle off this mortal coil and go to the next life, that’s when we see Jesus face-to-face. Since time does not exist in the next life, a time-based revelation is nonsensical.
Is it the role of the church to help people get closer to God? To me, the Corinthians quote suggests that it’s nobody’s role—not that of any church nor any individual—to try to get closer to God. We will get close to God because Jesus promised we would. Why can’t we just accept that and get on with this mortal life? If we accept God’s promise we’re likely to get on this mortal life in a way that is relatively free from sin.
Jim: We saw in Mark 8 the blind man recovering his sight partially at first and not fully until he was in touch with God for the third time. So it’s a process, and that process is not complete for us. We won’t see clearly until we are face-to-face with God.
Donald: Some theologies might take issue with some parts of David’s interpretation of scripture. This is where tolerance for different views is called for.
Jim: We’re all walking different paths and see things differently. But the ends of our paths merge together in one place, I feel.
Chris: Ought we to be concerned about what other people have on their slates? I don’t think think that Jesus was. He was more concerned to share what was on His slate and let people make the choice for themselves of whether or not to add it to their own. When we meddle with somebody else’s slate, we overstep our bounds.
Jim: We like to think that what is on our slate is correct and that it should be put on other people’s slates. But as Christopher said, I don’t think we should be looking at other people’s slates; we should be looking at and be concerned about what’s on our own slate. Jesus told the Pharisees they were blind because they thought they knew it all. They thought everybody should live as they lived, do as they do, and they were trying to project their slate onto other people’s slates. As Christ pointed out, they failed to see that what they had on their own slate was making them blind.
Donald: Kiran’s confrontation with a Seventh Day Adventist, which led to his conversion, was pretty amazing to hear (see transcript here.) Kiran wanted to erase his own slate and take on what somebody else had on his. This contrasts with the evangelist’s approach of telling people to erase their slates and replace the text with text supplied by the evangelist.
Robin: We need to keep in mind that the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts that are given include preachers and evangelists. But I have not met one yet who would say that s/he understands anything without a lot of prayer, without a lot of mental and emotional striving. We don’t want to to give the impression that preachers, teachers and evangelists think they know everything. Job had a lot to say about understanding, and then God at the end said: “You really don’t understand.” So there are limits to our human understanding. And Isaiah also said something that could apply to anyone who’s trying to preach, teach, evangelize, or influence:
And the dogs are greedy, they are not satisfied.
And they are shepherds who have no understanding;
They have all turned to their own way,
Each one to his unjust gain, to the last one. (Isaiah 56:11)
That they may see and recognize,
And consider and gain insight as well,
That the hand of the Lord has done this,
And the Holy One of Israel has created it. (Isaiah 41:20)
“You are My witnesses,” declares the Lord,
“And My servant whom I have chosen,
So that you may know and believe Me
And understand that I am He.
Before Me there was no God formed,
And there will be none after Me. (Isaiah 43:10)
These verses suggest that what we need to seek to understand first and foremost is the sovereignty of God. There’s no one that is going to be like Him. There was no one before Him, there’ll be no one after Him. But if we are sincere in wanting to understand more, and we ask for it and we have faith, then He’s going to answer with what we need at the time. But there is a time when we all have to just agree that there are limits to what we can understand at this time.
Kiran: I’ve been comparing the way my friend reached out and converted me, 20 years ago, with the way I have reached out to others subsequently. When my friend reached out to me 20 years ago, even though he was a Seventh Day Adventist he did not talk to me about the Sabbath or health or Daniel or Revelation. If he had, I don’t think I would be here today. He had very little time and all he shared was the grace of God. That’s exactly what he shared, and nothing else. That grace allowed me later to willingly take on all the other stuff that was on his slate—all the denominational doctrine. When I tried to evangelize an atheist friend who was trying to evangelize me about atheism, I lost him as soon as I mentioned Daniel. I wish that instead I would have shown him my relationship with Christ and given the testimony that I have to give. “Here is God and here is His grace. I’m a beneficiary of that and I am at peace.” I think that’s all that was needed. But instead I kept on about the mark of the beast from the book of Daniel. It was a mistake.
For another example, a friend took me to an Episcopalian church that had a six weeks Bible course for beginners called “Alpha”. As a baptized Adventist I went reluctantly, but stayed the course while my friend quit half way through. I stayed because I enjoyed it so much and began not to notice any difference between me, an Adventist, and them, Episcopalians. They looked just like my own church people. The community was based on the belief that Jesus is our Savior, and He’s the one who gives us grace. So I could easily have swapped my Adventist slate for an Anglican slate. The point is, not to force our doctrine on other people, but stress the source of our doctrine. I think that’s where we all fail.
The second thing I realized is because we read the Bible and have this partial vision of Jesus we act like Adam and Eve, stitching our clothes from the available leaves. But God gave them clothes and we know that Jesus is going to give his white garment of righteousness to us. I had a tendency to make my own clothes from what was available. And I did that quite a lot in the beginning stages of my Adventism. For some reason, a lot of stuff that you read in the Adventist church—the compilations of Ellen White, not the original writings, but the compilations—all force you to fix your own self. And that’s a miserable place to be. I was very judgmental of other people. I was aware of my fault and struggled so hard to fix it.
I think my second conversion came in this class, when I realized I have no business judging others, that when I truly accept grace, I’m one with everyone else, and have no right to judge other people. And that’s a humbling realization. I didn’t get there without some struggle with my ego. Now that I have that sense (even though it’s not 100% reliable) of not judging other people, I can still introduce them to the source of my peace and joy. I think it is a noble thing to share the source of my peace and joy, but not my slate, not my doctrine, with others.
But I also recognize the importance of my friend in those days of my own conversion. He was such a help to me. He was there for me in every difficulty for three years. Even after I left that place and went away he remained in constant communication with me, helping me, supporting me. I think that’s what people need: Fellowship. not indoctrination.
Chris: If I focus on my own slate, is it possible that people will tend to gravitate towards the things that are true on my slate, and add these things to their slate without my having to persuade them?
Donald: I’ve had the good fortune of traveling, as many of you have, and I’m always fascinated that we spend what little time we have, what little money we have in order to travel and see others. Not to judge them; just to see them. When I travel I’m not trying to convince the cultures I visit to change in any way. I’m actually trying to appreciate and understand them. We don’t argue over elm trees versus maple trees; we just love trees. What is it about human nature that makes us want to impose our perspective because the others have got it wrong? I really don’t get it. We value diversity so much on so many levels, but on this particular topic…. Diversity is an interesting thing in a church and faith community.
Jim: Isaiah says:
Then the eyes of those who see will not be blinded,
And the ears of those who hear will listen. (Isaiah 32:3)