Hope, Belief, and Knowledge

“Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:22-32)

Last week we examined the concept, much referred to in the parables of Jesus, of being “lost in outer darkness”, and its corollary, being “found” or “saved”. How is this connected to the Unpardonable Sin as Jesus described it in that passage? Are we already lost “by default”, as it were, at birth? Is the state of being lost specific to the individual or is it the same for everyone? Is it an easy or a hard state to be in?

Based on the parables we read last week, there seem to be levels of “lostness”. The Lost Coin did not lose itself and could have no knowledge that it was lost, yet it was sought nevertheless. The Lost Sheep had wandered off by itself and knew that it was lost, but lacked any means to find its way home. Nevertheless, the shepherd went out to find it and bring it home. The Prodigal Son became lost by his own deliberate doing, yet was still looked-for by the father. It seems that no matter how we contrive to get lost, someone will be looking out for us.

I believe we are lost by default. Other parables may suggest that we bear some responsibility for our lostness. In the parable concerning the Centurion, faith was lost. Grace was lost in the Wedding Feast parable. In the parable of the Talents, confidence in the master seemed to be lost.

Donald: Even with a map, we are still lost. It shows us where to go, but we still don’t know the territory. The same is true even of GPS. It shows and tells us where to go, but we still don’t know the territory.

Jesus answered questions with another question. He did not provide detailed directions, so we make them up. How confident should we be in spiritual maps derived through our differing interpretations of Scripture? Should we be confident enough in our maps and our religions to say that others’ maps and religions are wrong? Faith in God’s guidance seems to be fundamental.

(Unknown): There are three ways to become lost: Through ignorance, indifference, or rebellion. Which of these lead to outer darkness is not clear; the way to outer darkness is not clearly delineated. The journey is therefore what we need to focus on, not the destination, and the journey is a matter of faith.

KB: Since we know that we don’t know whether we are lost, the role of the church and Scripture is to show that we are indeed lost so that we can then start to think about choosing a direction. We struggle to accept the verdict that we are lost and question the direction we are given.

David: As I understand it, the Q’oran also mentions the Unpardonable Sin. The Arabic is apparently difficult to understand, even for a fluent reader; but then, so are the English translations of the Bible. If Scripture is our map, it is a map that is difficult to follow. Isn’t that what brings our group together for this discussion every week? We all have a slightly different understanding of the meaning of our Scriptures and therefore a different take on the way forward. The one issue of certainty we share is faith—belief in God. That is as simple, as uncomplicated, as can be. The Q’oran begins with that statement of belief.

As I understand it after it was described to me by an Arabic speaker and a Moslem, the Q’oranic statement regarding the Unpardonable Sin is not so simple, but it is close to what Jesus said in the Matthew 12 passage just quoted, about blasphemy, and it is very close to the 1st Commandment: It is to exalt, or to exult in, anything but God.

But once we start analyzing Scriptural statements, we find it hard to reach consensus. Surely, that is inevitable. We are trying to analyze what is divine, and what is divine is beyond our reach.

Pastor Giddy: In the “Lost” parables, there is a fourth person who is lost: The Prodigal Son’s elder brother, who refused to come inside to rejoice in his younger brother’s return. To the Jews, as to the elder brother, the Prodigal would have been seen as irretrievably “lost” as a Gentile. That is why, when the Son of God came to the Jews, they rejected him. Sometimes we can be lost even when we work within the church on the church’s mission. We might feel we are saved, like the elder brother, and refuse to come inside at the invitation of the Father. The elder brother was always by his father’s side, yet failed to understand the depth of his father’s love. Jesus was criticized by the Pharisees for sitting with publicans and tax collectors whom they regarded as “lost”; but as Luke told us, Jesus came precisely in order to save those who are lost.

The Lost Coin did not know it was lost. The Lost Sheep knew it was lost but did not know the way back. The Prodigal Son was lost but was saved by remembering his father’s love. We in the church must be mindful of not thinking like the elder brother.

Shakir: Donald’s lament that Jesus answered questions with questions resonates with me. It seems to me that our need to ask questions is itself evidence that we are lost, at least to some extent. If we know all the answers—if our map is crystal clear—then we are not lost. Why then are we lost? Why doesn’t God just give us a user manual and let us see Him and heaven and hell with our own eyes. There is clearly wisdom in not doing so. Perhaps it is that being lost encourages us to ask questions, to seek God’s guidance.

When the inner spirit wishes for such things as the existence of God and heaven and for God’s forgiveness, it is called hope. When the intellect decides that there must be a God to explain Creation, it is called belief. When things are proved in the lab, scientifically, it is called knowledge. We all have hope and we all want knowledge, but when we can’t get it, belief is all that is open to us. It is the best we can do.

Jay: So to be always seeking is to be always lost. We do indeed seem to be perpetually lost, and therefore God is perpetually seeking to find us. But there is no certain path, no universally agreed map, to the God we seek. It is therefore for the individual to decide on his or her own way forward, depending on how lost they feel. As the parables show, some don’t even feel lost, some don’t care, and some do care. It is unsettling. We’d much rather be sure of where we stand.

Robin: We want God to fit the sense of His mighty mind into our puny brains. He answers with questions because they point to things such as love that are not functions of the brain. Paul said that of three great things—faith, hope, and love—love was the greatest. The intellect and knowledge don’t even enter into it. God will let us know what we need to know when we are ready. But we must not tell God what to do or disclose to us.

Donald: We might conceivably agree on a map and a destination, but coming (as we do) from different individual starting points, the path will be be different for each of us. I might think I need to share my map with you because I assume you are starting from the same place I started from. But the reality is that we are all coming from different directions. We all consider God as the destination and we simply need to select highways that share common values to get us there, rather than proselytizing to one another.*

Pastor Giddy: My Hindu parents were always in search of God. But the Bible recounts that it was God who did the seeking when Adam and Eve sinned. He is always in the business of finding sinners and saving souls.

Mikiko: When we are lost, we need God’s guidance. If we pray constantly to God with a humble heart with faith, He will answer us through the holy spirit in a way we can understand. “Draw close to God and He will draw close to you.” (James 4:8)

David: Could technology be driving us further away from God? Jesus wants us to be like newborn babies. Is that because newborns are closest to God? If morality is an indicator of closeness to God, does that mean we are born in a pure moral state by default? Our default state deteriorates with age, but has technology accelerated the deterioration to the point where our default state has flipped to become immoral? Are we more lost, are we further from God, than ever?

Jay: Is it possible that the more we think we are found (saved), the more lost we are?

Donald: There is a danger to those closely involved with church of becoming overconfident that ipso facto they are saved. There is a hymn called “We Have This Hope”—and we should remember that while we may know we have hope, we may not know we are saved.

* Editor’s Postscript: I was reminded of Donald’s argument by no less than Pope Francis, who told reporters during a recent in-flight press conference as he returned from a visit to Madagascar:

In your country [Mauritius], the capacity for unity and interreligious dialogue really touched me. You cannot erase the difference of religions but you emphasize that we are all brothers and all should speak. This is a sign of the maturity of your country. Speaking with the prime minister yesterday I was amazed by how they have developed this reality, but they live it as a necessity of living together. And there is an intercultural commission you gather.

An anecdote, the first thing that I found yesterday, entering the chancery, was a bunch of beautiful flowers. Who sent them? The grand imam. To be brothers. The human brotherhood that is at the base and respects all believers. Religious respect is important. For this, to missionaries I say: do not proselytize. Proselytizing applies to politics, to sports, “come on my team,” but not to faith.

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