To Be Misunderstood
In his classic essay, “Self-Reliance,” 19th-century American author and lecturer Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “To be great is to be misunderstood.”1
For some who may feel that the world around them just doesn’t comprehend the way in which they live their lives, this may offer some encouragement. But for others, whose efforts for the betterment of humankind have escaped appreciation, it doesn’t do much. Greatness, for them, isn’t the goal.
Consider, for example, the good people who work for the United States National Parks Service. Imagine, if you will, that you’ve devoted your entire professional life to serving and protecting the environment so that humankind will be able to enjoy it to its fullest. You lay out and construct hiking trails and camping sites, provide authoritative maps and guidelines, post signs to warn of difficult or dangerous terrain. You even arrange rescue for those who sometimes get a little too close to nature. In short, you knock yourself out in an effort to encourage oneness between humanity and the outdoor world.
And then, when you’re back in the comfort of your office for a precious few moments of respite, you take up a pile of notes from the suggestion boxes, written by campers and backpackers. Reflect for a few moments on these actual comments:
● “Please avoid building trails that go uphill.”
● “Too many rocks on the mountains.”
● “The coyotes made too much noise last night and kept me awake. Please eradicate these annoying animals.”
Such reactions may bring a wry smile as just further evidences of human folly. Yet there is also a great deal of basic human nature in comments like these. Ever since the Fall, misunderstanding has been organic to what it means to be human, even in spiritual matters:
● “‘What shall I do to inherit eternal life?’” (Luke 18:18).2
● “‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian’” (Acts 26:28).
● “‘Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom’” (Matt. 20:21).
● “‘Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” (John 9:2).
● “‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father’” (Luke 9:59).
● “‘Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 8:19).
Each of these latter questions and comments is drawn from the scriptural record. But they are recounted there to demonstrate degrees to which human thinking may lose its way.
The apostle Paul addressed one facet of this issue in his first letter to the Corinthians: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14, ESV).
The “natural person,” as described in this passage, is one who cannot see beyond the material aspect of human existence. He or she does not understand spiritual things.
“A man that thinks that nothing is more important than the satisfaction of the sex urge,” writes theologian William Barclay, “cannot understand the meaning of chastity; a man who ranks the amassing of material things as the supreme end of life cannot understand generosity; and a man who has never a thought beyond this world cannot understand the things of God. To him they look mere foolishness.”3
There are, of course, at least two reasons for not seeing the spiritual in life: failure and denial. On the one hand, some may be so preoccupied with the material in life that they simply don’t have the time or the inclination to be looking for it. To questions about the spiritual, they may respond, “Maybe,” but as long as things are going well, they can’t be bothered. On the other hand, some may reject outright the idea of the spiritual and deny its existence entirely. To questions about the spiritual, they can’t see past their “No’s.”
The quotations drawn from Scripture above, however, represent misunderstandings of another kind. Each of these instances suggests a recognition of the spiritual. All are inherently spiritual comments or questions, but each results from inability—or unwillingness—to understand “the things of the Spirit of God.”
One day, for example, Mrs. Zebedee—wife of a lowly Galilee fisherman—approached Jesus and went to her knees with a request: “‘Grant that these two sons of mine may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on the left, in Your kingdom.’” (Interesting that John—one of those two treasured sons, who were apparently standing right there nearby—is the only Gospel writer who did not include this incident in his account! It is evident in Jesus’ response, as Mark’s version mentions specifically, that they were complicit in this approach to Jesus.)
Plainly, John’s mother didn’t understand the magnitude of her request. Her hopes for the coming of the Messiah were—like that of so many others of the time—pinned on the establishment of a coming material, not a spiritual, realm. “The Jews expected the kingdom of God to come at some time in the future in a dramatic, militaristic way, uprooting an alien regime from Judea, and ushering in the Davidic throne.”4
In an ironic way, the mother’s request was fulfilled, spiritually. Neither of her sons enjoyed the blessings of a material kingdom, but both were granted privileged lives. James was the first of the Twelve to die as a martyr; John outlived all the others, but he died in exile.
On another occasion, when Jesus and His disciples were passing by a blind man, they asked the Master, “‘Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” This question was born out of the prevailing view at the time that physical illness or disability was a direct result of a spiritual failing. By this time in His ministry, Jesus’ own disciples should have known better.
Jesus’ response was that there was indeed a spiritual answer to this question, but not one that the disciples were expecting. The real reason for the man’s disability, Jesus said, was, “‘that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (John 9:3, ESV).
In a later example, when Agrippa parries Paul’s courtroom challenge with, “‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian,’” he wasn’t saying simply that Paul’s articulate presentation of spiritual things was not compelling enough. He surely was recognizing Paul’s eloquence, but instead he responded evasively.
“Paul had put Agrippa in a dilemma. If he denied the prophets (Acts 26:27), he could no longer claim orthodoxy, very important to him as ruler of the fractious Jews. If he said he believed, then he must agree publicly with Paul. He escaped the dilemma by putting off any decision.”5
Questions and comments like these sound a great deal like those submitted in the National Parks suggestion boxes. God’s Word includes the ultimate description of safe and exhilarating spiritual paths, trustworthy guidelines, and warning signs for difficult or dangerous terrain. But humanly speaking, it is all too easy to misread—intentionally or otherwise—His best intentions. It truly seems that, this side of paradise, to be God is to be misunderstood.