But Somebody Else Said it First!

I picked up a book for my boys from the library—Mabela the Clever, an African tale of wisdom from the Limba people,  retold by Margaret Read MacDonald. I’ve read it to my three-year-old a couple of times. He loves it. He marches around the house, yelling “Fo Feng!”, the phrase that is sung by the foolish little mice as they get snatched up by the sinister cat who is picking them off one by one.

As interesting as the morbid little “Fo Feng” chant is, it was the last line of the book—the moral—that impressed me. It reads, “Limba grandparents say, ‘If a person is clever, it is because someone has taught them their cleverness.”

I’m not, either by way of gifting or of discipline, a great critical thinker. More often than not, the things I ponder, take as my own, and write about lean heavily on someone else’s thoughts. This sometimes bothers me.

I love truth. I love understanding. I love it when lights come on and my perspective is changed. And I love sharing it and seeing it do the same for someone else.

But something in me wants to have seen it all by myself. I want illumination straight from God. A supernatural visitation is always cool. Or if he wants to go the boring route, he could just gift me intellectually with wisdom and phenomenal insight into the scriptures.

But I don’t want a middle man.

Somehow that doesn’t seem as legitimate or authentic. It makes me feel weak, at the mercy of better thinkers, and like an impostor—like I don’t have anything unique or significant to offer to anyone. All of my best and most influential ideas have deep roots somewhere other than my own brilliant understanding and application of God’s word.

Though pride is certainly involved, I’m not going to talk about that today.

I have in mind more of a practical remodel of my perspective, courtesy of Paul in the second letter to Timothy. After challenging Timothy, through a series of illustrations, to persevere in the work of the gospel, he says this:

2 Timothy 2:7 (NASB)
7 Consider what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

Consider what I say. God will give you understanding.

What is the pattern?

God reveals truth. A godly person accepts it, considers it, applies it, and communicates it. Others hear, consider, apply, and communicate it. And so on and so forth. We all have access to the word of God, we all have the Holy Spirit living in us, and we are all responsible to test and discern, but it is not cheating to build my thoughts on the foundation of someone else’s. I mean—those smart guys—they’re all influenced by each other’s thoughts anyway, right?

Truth is truth. It’s amazingly multi-layered and universally applicable, but it isn’t ever going to be original with me. Ultimately, anything true that is communicated comes from the same source. We’re supposed to pass it along, one to another. That’s what the body is all about, right? Exceptionally gifted thinkers, analyzers and philosophizers can use their gifts…and I’ll use mine.

Since this was already on my mind, a line from John Piper’s Desiring God jumped out at me as I was reading it aloud to my husband tonight. Defending himself against the accusation that he needed to modify ancient Christian doctrines to suit his own views, he says, “I have no desire to be doctrinally novel.”

And there you have it! I don’t find good cause for all of Piper’s conclusions, but he’s certainly right that doctrinal (or reflective) novelty is no kind of healthy motivation.

2 Timothy 2:2 (NASB)
2 The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.

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4 thoughts on “But Somebody Else Said it First!”

  1. Well put. The temptation to be significant! The sometimes cynical writer of Eclesiasties said, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.”
    Bernard of Clairvaux said (although often quoted by others), “We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”
    A friend blogged on this theme http://petersprogress.wordpress.com/2010/08/16/henri-nouwen-on-leadership/
    Take care.

  2. Ian – Thanks for the quotes and the link. Very applicable in content and a very immediate example of “standing on the shoulders”. 🙂

    I couldn’t disagree more with your first statement, though. (Probably just your choice of wording, actually.)

    I think the temptation I (and I trust many others) face is not “to be significant”, but to draw our identity and significance from the wrong places.

    We ARE significant because we are of great value to God. We are significant because of our relationship to him. We are significant (not all would agree with me here) because our obedience to him and our partnership with him in the spread of the gospel affects eternity.

    It’s when I prefer to define my significance by something else that my thinking and motives get all messed up.

    I’m sure you already agree with most of that, but I just couldn’t let that go–as stated. 🙂
    However, I wasn’t at all concerned with the spelling error–probably wouldn’t have even noticed. 😉

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