Algebra & The Gospel

Luke 8:18 - "Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks he has will be taken away."

When I call to mind the memories I have of learning math during my academic years I still shudder. It wasn't pretty. Give me Literature or History, but math? It pains me to think of the years it took me to learn Algebra. That's correct, the previous sentence did not contain a typo. I'm not referring to covering Pre-Algebra followed by Algebra 1. I took Algebra 1 two years in a row because I failed it the first year. Despite my excuses at the time, my problem wasn't my teacher (Mom, you did well with who you had to teach;) and the problem was not the difficulty of the material. The problem was me, and the way in which I went about "learning" Algebra the first year.

Why am I sharing this moment of failure? Because every time I read Jesus' follow-up to the Parable of the Sower I remember how poorly I "listened" to my Algebra lessons that first year and how it affected my mastery of the material. Consider the following 4 points that Jesus made in this verse.

HOW we hear is tremendously important!

"Take care then how you hear..."

Throughout the Parable of the Sower, Jesus emphasized the importance of hearing what he had to say (Luke 8:8, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15) and the direct affect that the quality of hearing has in the heart of every listener. But what does He mean by taking heed to "how we hear"?

Consider my failed year of Algebra. My eyes physically read over the pages, while my hands turned them. I used my ears to listen to the sound of the instruction my teacher gave. I used my fingers to manipulate the mechanical pencil to work the problems and find solutions (and do a LOT of erasing). I repeatedly told my teacher that I heard her, but it just didn't make sense and didn't work. However, I was going through the motions the entire time. Someone might accurately observe that my heart wasn't in it.

Similarly, I can approach the teachings of Jesus, or the gospel itself, or the theological truths of Bible in the same way I approached my Algebra book. Instead of approaching God's word with a sincere desire to learn, I could be going through the motions, nonchalantly turning pages or skimming words with my eyes, zoning out during Bible classes, sermons and devotions. Worse, I could attempt to superficially approach God's word in order to make it say what I think is already there, injecting the text with a meaning that contradicts the author's intended meaning (the practice of eisegesis). Jesus' point in Luke 8:18 is that there are significant ramifications to how we choose to listen to God's Word, and therefore need to pay careful attention to HOW we hear.

Superficial hearing results in a loss of comprehension.

"...from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away."

One of the stated results of superficial or insincere hearing is the loss of comprehension and growth in Christ's kingdom. On the surface, this may seem cruel! Why would God allow someone who is "asking" questions of Him to decrease in understanding? However, the person who is superficially asking is not truly seeking. And the process Jesus describes here is observable in multiple disciplines of learning, but let's use my year of failed Algebra again.

Instead of working diligently and sincerely to learn the axioms and building blocks that I needed in order to progress, I worked as quickly as possible in order to pass the necessary test at the end of the week, which upon completing I would forget what I had "learned". This process was faulty and ineffective. It made each subsequent week more tortuous as I couldn't remember what I needed to know for the next lesson. Lessons took longer and my test results plummeted. The only thing that increased that school year was the frustration level in the room when the Algebra book came off the shelf!

One author summarized this concept well. He wrote,

"In matters spiritual, standing still is impossible. A person either gains or loses; he either advances or declines." - William Hendrikson, Baker New Testament Commentary: Luke

Superficial hearing leaves us self-deceived.

"...even what he thinks he has..."

If you knew me the year I failed Algebra, I would have told you I was learning. I would have told you I was "listening" to my teacher and doing my best. However, my level of comprehension at the end of the year revealed otherwise.

Jesus taught that those who approach Him and His teaching insincerely may think that they have a foundational grasp of spiritual truths, but in reality they are self-deceived. Functionally they are like I was that school year. They believe they know what they're talking about. There is a level of misplaced confidence in their self-perceived skill and comprehension.

However, it wasn't until my teacher and I honestly addressed the root of my failed comprehension and burst the bubble of the illusion that I knew anything about Algebra before we could actually begin to make any progress. It was humbling to face the facts and admit failure. It was humbling to admit a lack of knowledge that by that time should have existed. It was humbling to accept that the issue was with me, my attitude and my superficial approach to the topic. However, after addressing my pride the next year was a completely different experience. Tangible progress was made! I did not need to repeat Algebra for a third time. Which leads us to Jesus' final point.

Greater comprehension & growth is promised to those who heed how they hear!

"...to the one who has, more will be given..."

This is an amazing phrase! To the one who humbly accepts the teachings of Jesus, spiritual comprehension and growth will continue to take place over time! The text does not guarantee instantaneous maturity. It does not promise that comprehension and growth will take place as soon as we may desire. However, the promise of our Lord is that comprehension and growth is guaranteed for the one who is careful in how he hears!

I really appreciate what Darrell Bock said about the urgency of Jesus' teaching here when he wrote, "Jesus urges his audience to be careful how they listen. The stakes are high." He is absolutely right! The stakes are much higher than whether I would pass Algebra 1 or understand what X + Y would equal. The stakes involve who we spend our eternity with, or without!

How would you currently evaluate your hearing of God's Word? Are you making spiritual gains or losses? Is it possible that the reason is not The Teacher, or the material (His Word), but instead is you and your approach? If that be the case, then may God be with you as you humble yourself, reevaluate what you think you know, and sincerely begin again to understand what God has to say to those who seek Him!

Jeremy Dehut