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Mellowing Out


Something that happens as one gets older (especially if one is trying very hard to learn, and to consider areas where they may be wrong), is that they experience more and more situations where they do not have a clear answer to questions that arise.

When we are young, certain things seem very clearcut: Work harder and you will get better results. Eat healthy food and you will live longer. Be kind to others and they will be kind to you. That sort of thing. But no matter how simple the rule is, throughout life, you will find more and more situations in which it doesn't work. So the term "mellowing out" has been used to describe the tendency for older people to be less dogmatic about what is right and what is wrong. Sadly, the same term could be used for someone becoming lukewarm in spiritual matters and simply losing the vision for what excited them in their youth.

Finding the line between mellowing out and simply backsliding is not an easy one... at least not in my experience.

Mostly what I'm thinking about in this article, is how this relates to the teachings of Jesus. Without a doubt we have found in the teachings of Jesus, the answer to the world's problems. Wait a minute! We also found the sincerity teaching there (one that may not be patently obvious to everyone who reads what he taught); and that teaching says that some people who have never heard of Jesus may be saved because they are walking in whatever light they have, and they are doing their best to be honest about where they fall short. For many people, even that teaching was a kind of watering down of the gospel way back in the early days of our ministry.

Perhaps the sincerity teaching is a good illustration of how genuine growth in the truth can easily appear to be a watering down of the gospel. I was recently accused of not believing in miracles, because I had said that it's possible that what actually happened during the feeding of the 5,000 is that people had food hidden under their robes, which they all brought out when they saw the disciples sharing everything that they had. I accept all of the other accounts of miracles, and yet the possibility of Jesus inspiring others to share in a "miracle of love" led my critics to believe that I had sold out my faith in the supernatural. (Oddly enough, these same people showed very little evidence of faith in such miracles still happening today!)

With regard to miracles, what people all over the world have experienced (if they are honest) is that totally irrefutable miracles are extremely rare. When you put that together with a barrage of almost non-stop miracles in the life of Jesus, one is forced to come up with some kind of explanation. What we need is an explanation that comes from absolute faith in Jesus, together with absolute honesty about how that is working out in our own lives now.

The decision by Cherry and me to quit my job and head out on the road with nothing so many years ago, came from childlike faith in the teachings of Jesus, and in that case it worked. God met our needs, day after day and year after year. However, attempts to take other bits and pieces of what Jesus taught as literally (e.g. give to anyone who asks, or you can have whatever you want when you pray) have NOT worked out so well. Noting that Jesus himself did not always give people exactly what they asked for is part of a legitimate "mellowing out" process with regard to such teachings. It doesn't take long before you realise that almost any passage of scripture taken in isolation is likely to miss something that appears elsewhere to moderate what it is saying.

I'm sure that there have been some sincere critics of stuff that we teach, who think that we have gone too far with those bits that we have taken literally, and so we have set ourselves up for a huge disappointment. Just before (and even during) the Nullarbor Walk, there were sincere Christians who shuddered to think of some misguided youth dying on the Nullarbor and turning thousands of people off faith in God altogether, just because they blindly accepted something that Jesus is quoted as having said. But, once again, in the case of the Nullarbor kids, it worked. The fact that they had trained beforehand, and that they had discussed the pros and cons with an open mind almost certainly contributed to the success.

Interestingly, Malcolm's pathetic attempt to prove anyone could do it, with a walk of his own a few months later (where he ended up literally in hospital from blisters on the very first day, and opting for a ride on a motorbike instead, when released from hospital) was a classic example of how important it is to get all of the pieces of the puzzle together before assuming you have it worked out.

Nevertheless, I do have some misgivings about a lot of things in my old age. Not enough to stop teaching (in general) what I have taught all my life, but enough to make me a little more humble about how I express it.

An example could be my attitude toward Bible prophecy. Apart from the odd adjustment, I think that most of what I have taught in the past is pretty well spot-on. But we really will not know until it all starts happening; and it's probably not necessary for us to get it all right. Certainly things are happening more slowly than any of us might have expected, even though they do seem to be going in the same general direction that we imagined.

Just about any doctrine you might imagine has its problem texts. I have often said that the Trinity doctrine is largely a contradiction of terms which were put together to help explain apparent contradictions in scripture. The fact that people want to make heretics out of anyone who does not perceive it all exactly as they do does not, in my opinion, make them any more genuine in their faith, and only seems to detract from the more important issues of faith that God is looking for.

This happens with all the ins and outs of sacraments like water baptism and communion as well. While it's not absolutely certain that what happens in the average church in relation to these practices is really what Jesus was seeking from his followers, people continue to think that their precise interpretations are the true and perfect fulfilment of what Jesus was hoping to achieve in those areas.

Calvinists and Arminians debate their cases endlessly, each side oblivious to the valid arguments being presented by the other. And if they did ever start listening to one another, they would almost certainly be accused by their former friends of having lost the faith and erred spiritually.

So the trick is to trim away at misplaced zeal, by looking for explanations that allow for exceptions and conditions that may not be obvious from the start... no matter what the doctrine is. Jesus does, for example, definitely say for us not to pray in public as the hypocrites do, but to pray in secret. Yet the Bible also tells of him occasionally praying out loud (e.g. just before raising Lazarus from the dead) and Paul had a fair bit to say about prayer in his discourse on speaking in tongues (including mention of those who listen being able to say Amen to what we have prayed). So is there an explanation which allows for both passages to work together?

As we study the teachings of Jesus in this way, we will, hopefully, become more like him, and better equipped to help others in their spiritual walk. The fact that we have personally applied disciplines to ourselves that others do not accept should, hopefully, count in our favour, simply because it removes the blind spots that so many have when they cannot bring themselves to accept the possibility that a passage COULD be taken literally.

All in all, I am hopeful that we can still be red-hot zealous soldiers for the truth at the same time that we are mellow enough to recognise that the truth is not always black and white, and we never have a monopoly on it.
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