Have you ever had a teacher that just wouldn’t give you a straight answer? I remember a math teacher I had in high school who I’d ask for help and instead of solving the problem for me, she’d give me some hints then send me back to my seat to work on it by myself. I’ve even had Bible class teachers do the same thing–I’d go to them seeking their input or their conclusion on a particular matter, and instead of telling me their opinion they’d list some options or point me to some passages to consider, but for some reason they wouldn’t tell me exactly what they thought. That can be frustrating.
From this perspective, it seems to me that Jesus must have been a frustrating teacher. For instance, on several occasions we see Jesus returning a question with a question. A lawyer asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus responds, “What is written in the law? How does it read to you?” (Luke 10:25-26).The chief priests and elders ask Jesus, “By what authority do you do these things?” A good question. But rather than answer it, Jesus asks another: “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (Matthew 21:23-25).
An equally frustrating response must have been felt by the Pharisees, who wanted to know why Jesus was eating with the tax collectors and sinners. To this Jesus charged them, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire compassion, and not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13). And then, of course, Jesus had this “annoying” habit of always speaking in parables so no one could really understand what he meant. His disciples didn’t understand why Jesus did this either (Matthew 13:10); why did Jesus seemingly avoid speaking clearly in some instances? Was Jesus simply a bad teacher?
Obviously the answer to the above question is ‘no.’ As frustrating as these kinds of teachers can be at times–turns out, they’re usually the most effective teachers. They give you the tools and they show you where to look but they never lay out the answers for you too easily. They encourage you to think for yourself.
Have you ever thought about the fact that God wants us not only to arrive at the right answers but to arrive at those answers honestly? To think and struggle with His Word? Yet many of us are content to let others simply hand us the right answer. Often we just accept what the preacher says without evaluating his statements at all. The Bible is God’s personal communication to each one of us. Why would we ever be content to let someone else explain everything in it to us?
That doesn’t mean that we don’t need help and guidance with God’s Word. Certainly we do. But sometimes shortcuts to an answer are no answer at all. I can turn in someone else’s math test with my name on it, but that is no representation of what I’ve learned. Similarly, you’re never going to be convicted of God’s teachings unless you study them on your own.
Sometimes what He tells us might be difficult to understand. At times we may be tempted to react to God’s words just like the disciples did on one occasion: “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). This is to be expected. God’s wisdom is beyond our own, and understanding Him is not going to come naturally. If we really want a relationship with God, we have to exercise a little effort to understand what He’s trying to tell us.
I think struggling to understand God’s Word is part of the point. We don’t look to God to confirm everything we already know or believe but so that our thinking will be challenged. Consider the parable of the persistent friend in Luke 11:5-8. The moral of the story is not that God is unwilling to answer our prayers, but that he wants us to be persistent. We may not find all the answers immediately and we may not at first want to hear the answers we find. But if we keep searching, if we – like Jacob in Genesis 32 – hold on to God and not let go until we receive an answer, we will find clarity. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).