The Sin of a Lazy Search to Know God?
I’m writing a paper for a graduate course on Alexander Campbell’s view of those who were religious people, trying to be Christians, but had not been baptized biblically. (I need to write about that paper more on this blog sometime – it’s really interesting to me where he stood on it. Maybe in a couple weeks after I finish the paper.) But in doing the research, I stumbled on a teaching of Campbell’s that jumped out at me:
“Many a good man has been mistaken. Mistakes are to be regarded as culpable and as declarative of a corrupt heart only when they proceed from a willful neglect of the means of knowing what is commanded. Ignorance is always a crime when it is voluntary; and innocent when it is involuntary.”*
In the next paragraph, he adds: “True, indeed, that it is always a misfortune to be ignorant of any thing in the Bible, and very generally it is criminal.”
I have italicized the parts that jumped out at me. Mistakes happen, he says. But sometimes ignorance of God’s truth can be… a crime! Not knowing God’s truth as “criminal?” It seems that I remember hearing a similar thought from Walter Scott, another Restoration Movement preacher who preached alongside Alexander Campbell. They both assumed that every person has an obligation to diligently search God’s word for truth, and that it was a sin to not put forth that effort.
That challenged me and got my head spinning a bit. I think in recent years I have subconsciously gravitated toward a perspective of those who aren’t right with God as “innocent and sincere,” only lacking the presence of a willing Christian to share the truth with them the right way. No doubt that perspective is often true, or perhaps an incomplete truth. And Campbell’s thought, I believe, is a needed counter-balance to that incomplete truth.
First, there is some biblical truth to the perspective I’ve subconsciously emphasized within my own thinking. Notice Jesus in Matthew 9:36-38: “Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.’”
Jesus acknowledges that oftentimes the only thing keeping men from obeying God is a good leader to teach them, and so we need more followers to work in the ‘harvest’ of the world. That’s encouraging to me, that there are people who are honest enough to draw closer to God if they can see Christianity lived out and shared with them in the right way. It’s that belief that made me want to be a preacher in the first place, and that continues to drive me in ministry. Hopefully, it drives all of God’s people.
But second, there is also some biblical truth to that statement by Campbell. Notice Acts 17:26-27: “and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;”
Paul affirms that God made us, giving each of us a certain time of life on earth, and what’s the purpose of our time on earth? That we “would seek God.” That’s our job during our short life: to seek God. That’s God’s expectation for us, our God-given responsibility for life.
But oftentimes, even though God “is not far from each one of us,” we neglect the effort to know God and His word. The fault is not His; the fault is ours. That’s why Paul could say in Romans chapters 1 and 2 that everyone is considered guilty before God , because we all should have seen the reality of God in the world and pursued Him. Instead, we chased sinful things. We let life distractions keep us from pursuing the only thing we truly must pursue. And that makes us not “innocent and sincere,” but guilty and neglectful.
As Campbell believed, if we don’t know God’s word, the fault may well be ours alone. God has given His word to us. He has not given it in cliffs notes form, or given us a list of “top 100 things we really need to do.” It is a more complex revelation; one that requires reading and studying and searching. That alone should show us that coming to know God will take effort (and that God designed it that way), and require us to dig and dig, truly desiring to know Him.
Now of course it is possible for us to give our best effort and still miss something; we trust God’s grace to take care of us in those instances. But sometimes we simply show neglect, preferring spiritual and mental laziness over the effort to know what God truly wants. We let either the popular trends or the accepted traditions tell us what to believe, and we are too lazy to dig and see if they are correct. Our laziness would prefer just the simple highlights, but God has given us a more complex revelation, perhaps to see how serious we are about knowing Him.
So both ideas are true, and both are needed to balance our perspective of responsibility before God. Yes, Christians need to teach and encourage everyone we can, knowing that there will always be some who just need someone to nudge them in the right direction. But on the other hand, everyone is guilty before God of making a conscious choice to pursue sin, and if we are ignorant of God’s word, it may be that our ignorance is “voluntary” (Campbell’s term), in the sense that we haven’t put forth the effort we should be putting forth to know it.
Let us never be guilty of making a lazy, half-hearted attempt to know God. If commitment to nightly reality shows, finding the coolest apps, and laughing at the latest web videos are bigger life priorities to us than digging to know God, we’ve just revealed a lot about our hearts. Innocent and sincere? Hardly, it seems to me. Perhaps we’ve lowered our expectations of people (and ourselves) so far that we think people are incapable of fulfilling God’s expectations that we make a diligent search; my guess is that God knows better.
God’s expectation for our time on earth is that we will be diligently seeking Him. No one said it would be quick or easy to know the Creator of the Universe. But we are promised that the effort will be worth it: for God “is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” (Heb. 11:6).
Our ignorance may sometimes be innocent, but it is also possible, in God’s sight, that it could be criminal neglect.