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Mastery vs. Holy Curiosity

A sermon on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

[Photo by Justin Heap on Unsplash]

In our book club conversation this past Wednesday, we had a great discussion about the value of wonder… the way that it opens us up to see the beauty around us and to be grateful for the things in our lives that we might otherwise take for granted.

The topic came up in talking about “questioning” as a spiritual practice.

Our summer book, Everyday Spirituality, makes the point that human beings are drawn to ask questions because “inquiry, wonder, and discovery are things that the human mind loves.”[1]

Moreover, this inclination of our nature makes the asking of questions a spiritual task, because it is a tacit acknowledgement that we are not the pinnacle of all knowledge. We have a need to learn.

Thus, the orientation toward wonder, and the asking of questions that it generates, is a form of prayer.

During the course of that conversation, it occurred to me that this insight has relevance for the Genesis story about the origin of sin.

In Genesis 3, we read about the first temptation that leads to the break in relationship between God and humanity.

The human beings were in perfect peace with God, all their needs were met, and there was only one restriction placed on them: they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

On the surface, this might actually seem like evidence that God does NOT want us questioning… if knowledge itself were something forbidden to pursue, then questioning would not be an activity to encourage, much less a practice that could be classed as spiritual.

But just wanting knowledge is not actually the problem in the story.

When the tempter draws the people into disobedience, he makes a very specific claim… that in eating of the fruit, they will become like God, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:5).

The origin of sin, therefore, the originating rupture in our relationship with God, is the desire to know in the same way that God knows. To have no need to question, or learn, or be curious because we already have total mastery.

In other words: sin grows out of the desire for absolute independence that creates a barrier between us and God, an independence where there is no more room for wonder because there is nothing left that we don’t know.

I think this is an important nuance for us to grasp before we try to wrestle with the significance of Solomon’s famous request for wisdom.

It is important because it is so easy to misread Solomon’s story.

To see in this narrative a man in a position of power who craves the competence to do his job without error… a ruler who starts out humble, but whose goal is to grow past that starting position into moral certitude.

It’s easy to read the story this way because this is the kind of mentality that our culture tends to expect from our leaders: unequivocal confidence.

After all, how we can trust someone who doesn’t have all the answers?

It’s fine to get sentimental about wonder in children, or maybe in nature and poetry… but not in the people making the important decisions.

There, we want assurance…

Which probably means we want that certainty in ourselves too.

And that leads to us read the story of Solomon’s conversation with God and think: “Right! Knowledge. Confidence. The assurance that I am drawing all the right lines between good and evil. That’s the key. That’s what I should be pursuing. After all, God praised Solomon for that request!”

Except… that phrasing sounds familiar doesn’t it? That whole “discerning between good and evil” thing was what started all the problems, right?

So what is the difference?

What was wrong in the Garden of Eden that Solomon somehow got right even though he seems to be asking for the same thing?

I think the answer is the capacity for wonder.

A willingness to express wonder is woven throughout Solomon’s speech to God before he makes his request.

He expresses wonder at God’s “great and steadfast love” to Solomon’s father David (even though Solomon must have known that David was not consistently as faithful, righteous, and upright as he describes).

He expresses wonder that God has made Solomon king to follow his father, despite his youth and inexperience.

He expresses wonder at the greatness and multitude of the people he is responsible to lead.

It is wonder that drives Solomon’s request, and this context creates an expectation that the same wonder will carry through, even if he is granted the “understanding mind … to discern between good and evil” that he requests.

Solomon isn’t trying to become independent from God. He knows how much he needs God and articulates that need with his request.

This wonder-based, God-connected understanding of wisdom weaves throughout the scriptural witness. In fact, we hear it in all of our readings today.

We hear it when the Psalmist describes God’s word as light that gives understanding.

We hear it in the letter to the Romans, when Paul speaks of God’s Spirit interceding for us when we don’t know how to pray; and working things together for our good even when we cannot see how; and God’s love overcoming every possible obstacle that human understanding could imagine.

We hear it in the seemingly disconnected series of short, unexplained parables:

Which cycle through themes of things hidden and unexpected producing growth; and of searching and sacrificing in order to gain uncertain benefits; and of the willingness to wait for the right time before drawing a line between good and bad.

We hear it, even, in Jesus’s pattern of teaching in parables… a pattern that offers more questions than answers and calls us to keep leaning in, exploring, wondering about what he wants to teach us.

None of these texts elevate self-assurance and certainty as models for our behavior.

Rather, they call us to seeking, and to growing, and to learning, and to TRUST that God is actually the one who discerns the good from the bad. God is the source of all wisdom… our job is not to master the answers, but to keep turning to God with our questions.

I preach a lot about trust… probably because it is one of the aspects of faith that I find most challenging.

I really like feeling sure of where I stand and what I believe. It’s really easy for me to buy into the American leadership model of confidence and certainty, and to cultivate that persona.

And I have what are, I think, some valid concerns about exhortations for people of faith to trust blindly, turning off our minds and our questions.

I don’t think that’s the kind of trust that God demands of us.

But I also don’t think that God ‘s will for us is total certainty either… the assurance that we have all the big questions figured out and don’t need to question, or reconsider, or wonder about the things we think we know.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think that kind of self-satisfied assurance is the wisdom that God granted Solomon.

I think that true wisdom is neither a sense of mastery, nor a submission to blind trust. I think true wisdom is holy curiosity:

The life-long, faithful practice of leaning into the questions, and the parables, and every daily opportunity to be surprised what God’s Spirit whispers to our souls with re-orienting wonder.

I think it is the habit of always leaning in to learn, knowing that God is there to teach us, and that THAT is the only certainty we need.

Thanks be to God.

[1] James Hazelwood, Everyday Spirituality, p. 101.


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