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Dear Lana,

Sometimes our spiritual problems come from unexpected places. We expect that people who disagree with the doctrine, preaching, and teaching of the Word will not grow much, and that is certainly the case. But unexpectedly, some people fail to grow because they agree too much. I think this is your situation.

Now by the term “agreeing too much”, I do not mean that it is possible to agree too vigorously or too often with revealed truth. Like love, it is impossible to love what is good too much, provided we do not love it as a substitute for God.

Instead, I mean it is possible to adopt a kind of “agreeableness” that never reflects on what it is agreeing with. Your default response to every teaching, comment or admonition is “I know”. Every doctrine meets a nod, and a knowing smile. But I fear the problem lies just there: there is not as much knowing behind the smiling as there ought to be.

Lana, it is possible to mistake broad agreement with the church’s position for actual agreement about particular applications of truth in your life. In your case, I happen to know that there are some habits and practices which you have not tackled or changed in twenty years of church attendance. Yet you are able to see everything under the visage of “I know. I agree.” You would likely say that you have found the sermons incredibly challenging and convicting. But you have been able to sidestep their demands for change for decades.

This is where I believe you have managed to fall prey to a particular form of the deceitfulness of the heart. The world sometimes speaks of ‘confirmation bias’. Confirmation bias is the tendency to hear what we are looking for, to interpret information according to what is familiar and comfortable, and to judge something’s importance based upon what we have already decided. To put it very bluntly, confirmation bias is resistance to teachability. To be truly teachable, we must allow truth to collide with what we currently believe, and allow it to re-arrange our inner world. That requires that we accept moments of disorientation and confusion as we acclimatise to the truth. Teachability requires we accept the discomfort of having the truth upset our categories, and have the patience to reset our mental tables in a new way. In other words, a teachable person’s default response to truth is not “I know”; it is “I see”.

Proverbs 18:13 warns that it is a folly and a shame to answer a matter before we hear it. But this is exactly the approach of the person who robotically says “Amen” loudly without really listening to the preacher. It is the approach of the person nodding and nodding before the sentence is finished, as if gifted with the telekinetic ability to hear the argument before it is finished.

Someone in your position, Lana, is either afraid of the experience of ignorance and mental re-organisation, or afraid of appearing to be ignorant. Either way, thinking or acting as if everything you hear in church is familiar to you prevents you from truly understanding it or growing from it. You become like the parent who absently nods and says “mmh-hmm” to her five-year-old daughter who never stops talking. Your unquestioning agreement has become a kind of laziness: never concentrating hard enough to truly apprehend the truth.

It is okay to appear surprised by truth. It is okay to initially disagree with truth. It is okay to feel initially offended or outraged at truth. These are not necessarily signs of rebellion. They are, at the very least, signs that the person is actually listening and responding to the import of the words he hears.

The place to begin is with patient listening. Stop anticipating what is going to be said from the pulpit and mentally finishing the sentences of the preacher. Listen to understand. Patiently live with moments of perplexity, misunderstanding or oddness. Be determined to discover something new, not merely verify everything you thought you knew. Above all, look for ways that the Word is making demands for change in your life. The more we obey, the more sensitive we become to the Word, and our listening skills increase.

Praying for your growth,

David

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  1. Pingback: Letters to Stagnant Christians #9: Confirmation Bias

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