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The grace of intellectual humiliation

Over this past week I’ve had the great privilege of giving a series of lunch-bar talks at University College London (UCL), seeking to persuade listeners of the truth, goodness and reality of the Christ of the Christian faith (whilst seeking to prosecute error). Huge thanks to the many of you who were upholding me and the rest of the team in prayer; we felt upheld!

After each talk I was grilled in an open question and answer time, which was thrilling, if a little nerve-wracking. It was good fun to drill deeper and deeper (and deeper) into theological questions in conversation with enquirers, until eventually I had to say ‘I’m afraid I don’t know’ (what a wonderful verse Deut 29:29 is!) or they had to say ‘but that doesn’t make sense’ (when for example trying to reconcile God’s sovereignty and humankind’s responsibility). It is tempting at those moments to think that one has lost the debate and seceded victory to the questioner, but I’ve been reflecting since that this is not the case; indeed quite the opposite.

The chief criterion for acceptance into God’s Kingdom is not understanding all the answers, but being humble enough to trust God has the answers, and then to receive his grace empty handed. It is not that intellectual enquiry is wrong or necessary sinful – indeed Christianity encourages debate and questions more than any other faith I’ve encountered – but it is that such enquiry can be the Trojan horse which smuggles a sinful grace-immune pride into the room. As James reminds us from Proverbs, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” [4:6]. To be humbled before God therefore is the greatest gift, since it allows us to receive Christ who is the pearl of great price.

How deeply loving of God therefore, to have arranged for a revelation of himself which satisfies reasonable intellectual enquiry, but does not offer exhaustive answers! Every time I had to confess that logical enquiry had come to an end of itself, or that someone protested that x/y no longer conformed with their logical systems of thought, it was not a failure but rather an opportunity for intellectual and spiritual humility for both parties. When someone is willing to accept that their highest authority is God himself as self-communicated by his revelation over and above even their God-given reason, that is surely a liminal moment where they can move from being in prideful intellectual opposition to God, to humbling themselves under God and in so doing receive his grace.

Praise God for structuring intellectual enquiry into himself such that it gives the enquirer the very (the only) criterion for acceptance of his grace: humility (often by means of intellectual humiliation). What a wonderful thing it is to be humble enough to say ‘I don’t know, and that doesn’t matter.’


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