How many of y’all use e-mail regularly? How many of you regularly get e-mail forwards? How many of you send those on to other folks? There are a lot of them out there; unfortunately, a lot of them are purely phony. Maybe you’ve seen the e-mail blasting Target as a French company that’s opposed to veterans; now, my dad likes to refer to Target as “Target, the French store,” but that’s the only thing French about them—they’re headquartered in Minneapolis. To be sure, they’ve chosen to focus their corporate grant-giving on educational and arts projects, but that doesn’t make them anti-veteran. Or perhaps you’ve run across the one about Proctor & Gamble being a front for the Church of Satan? Supposedly the CEO went on Oprah and confessed it, and pointed out the “666” hidden in their corporate logo. Turns out, though, that rumor was invented by a regional distributor for Amway—long enough ago, in fact, that in older versions of the story, the confession occurred on Donahue.
Do you ever wonder why these things get around so well? They spread across the electronic landscape like kudzu, after all—there has to be a reason. Or maybe several, since we human beings tend not to do things simply, or for simple reasons. I don’t claim to know all of them, but I think I can name the big one: we’re wired to believe. That’s just the way we’re made. This isn’t to say that we’re wired to hold any particular belief—I think we were, originally, but our fall into sin broke that—but it is to say that when confronted with a proposition, with someone declaring something to be true, our deepest natural reflex is to believe it. We are innately credulous. That’s why Internet rumors spread the way they do: many, perhaps most, people grant them the presumption of belief, assuming them to be credible simply because they exist. It’s why Adolf Hitler’s “big lie” propaganda strategy worked, because it’s hard for us to credit that anyone actually could tell a lie that big, even when rationally we know that such things happen. And it’s why, as you might have seen in the news lately, research has shown that atheists are far more likely than religious folk to believe in UFOs, ESP, and paranormal phenomena; having thrown out religion, they have to find something else to believe in. Thus the line attributed to the great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton, “When a man ceases to believe in God, he does not believe in nothing. He believes in everything.”
Now, obviously we don’t believe everything we hear (or at least, most people don’t); we learn fairly early that we can’t, because that would require us to believe many things which are mutually contradictory. Further, as we come to believe in certain things, that rules out believing in others. Over the course of life, we evolve a set of criteria for determining what things we believe and what things we don’t; we develop filters to strain out the things which don’t make sense, or don’t fit with what we believe, or contradict things which we know to be true. And yet, despite all this, we still have the predisposition, the reflex, to believe what people tell us. I spent most of a year working in inner-city ministry, right along the north side of one of the most blighted urban slums in the developed world, and in that time I had people lie to me and try to con me in more ways than I would have imagined possible. It was an education. And yet, when I had someone come up to me one rainy night outside our favorite restaurant and ask for money because he’d run out of gas, I gave him a toonie—a two-dollar coin—and didn’t realize I’d been conned until the next week when I saw the guy referenced by one of the local columnists. I should have known better; but I was predisposed to believe his story.
The most basic reason for this, I’m sure, is that God created us to believe him. Obviously, that was bent when we chose to turn away from God into disobedience, but it’s still there; and I think there’s something about living in our fallen world that reinforces it. It shows up in a lot of ways. Some are fairly unflattering, like the desire to know something that most people don’t—we like feeling special, like we’re smarter than the average Joe—while others are more noble, like the desire to understand the world. Behind them all, if we look, I think we can see a common root: this sense that everybody has, though some pay attention to it and some don’t, that there’s more to this life than what we can see. We can study how this world works in a lot of ways, through sciences like physics or social sciences like economics, or through disciplines in the humanities like history or literature, but there’s always more to understand than we can get to, and always a deeper truth that we can’t quite reach on our own. It’s the sense that there’s a mystery at the heart of life, one that we can’t understand without a deeper wisdom than this world has to give us; we need something better to believe in than money can buy, or power can win, or pleasure can produce.
Unfortunately, if we look at churches around this country, we see a lot of them that are so determined to be relevant and with it and cool that they’ve adopted a strategy of giving the world what it already knows it wants; they mimic its sounds, its approaches, its strategies, in an effort to address the needs it’s already aware of and already understands. Thus we get worship services where a playlist right out of the Top 40 leads into sermons about how if Jesus is your CEO, you can follow these three surefire principles to prepare your children to lead successful lives. The music and the principles may be fine as far as they go—but they don’t go far enough, because they don’t go any farther than the world goes. They don’t even acknowledge the mystery, let alone aim for it; they leave that need unaddressed and unfilled.
Was this the problem in the Colossian church? We have no way of knowing for sure, but it sounds like it might have been. Certainly, from the things Paul feels the need to say to these folks, it sounds like their understanding of Christ is pretty shallow—and as a consequence, though they’ve been given the riches of the glory of the knowledge of God’s mystery, though they’ve been given the keys to the treasury of heaven itself, they don’t know it. They don’t understand what they’ve been given, and so they still feel the need for something more; as a result, they’re vulnerable to these teachers who’ve come along and promised them a new and greater wisdom, a new and greater experience of God, and a new and greater insight into his mystery. They don’t understand what Paul understands, that the supposed wisdom of those teachers is in fact false, a counterfeit, that serves only to draw them away from God.
This is why Paul says that he struggles that the Colossians, and the other Christians of the Lycus Valley, “may be encouraged . . . to reach all the riches of the full understanding of the knowledge of the mystery of God, which is Christ.” Indeed, he expresses this desire for all those who haven’t seen him face to face, for this is his hope for all the church—not just for the people to whom he initially wrote this letter, but for all of us who read it across the length and breadth of the people of God. The world tries to keep us from that, either by leading us off down the rabbit trail to chase illusions, as the Colossians did, or by keeping us so focused on the practical things of life that we forget our sense of mystery, that we forget there’s anything more to life than just getting through it. Paul calls us away from both mistakes; he calls us to remember that there is more to this life, and to dive into the mystery of God, to seek the glory of the knowledge of God in the face of Christ.
His desire is that we will learn that there is a deeper wisdom than this world can offer, and a deeper meaning to life than it knows of, and that both are found in Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, to be revealed only to those who seek him. If we would pursue understanding, if we want to live wisely, if we desire to see ourselves and others clearly and truly, we must look to Jesus, for we will only find what we desire in him. There is no better way, there is no other option, there is nothing more that needs to be said or done; Christ alone is wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:30. That is the mystery of God: that such a thing is possible; that God would actually become human, to live with us and die for us, and then to rise again to set us free; that the gap between us and God has been bridged—from God’s side!—and we don’t have to earn our way into his presence, for we are freely invited there by his grace. This is the mystery we celebrate at this table, the mystery the world calls foolishness that is in truth the root of all wisdom.