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Itching ears

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2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

One of the most pervasive myths of the modern world is this: We think we know what we want.  We think we know what's best for us.  And we think we ourselves are the best judges of these matters.

The truth could not be further from this common misconception.

In the book of Proverbs, Wisdom spoke a frightening truth:

"All they that hate me love death."  (Proverbs 8:36)

The natural state of the human heart is to be estranged from Christ our Wisdom.  And in that perverse condition our desires are completely twisted.  We hate the Fountain of Living Waters and we love the pit of curses and death.

Therefore what do we look for in our moral and spiritual guides?  The truth?  Never.  Not naturally.  Instead we look for leaders who will tell us what we want to hear.

Notice how Jesus put it: "Because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not." (John 8:45)

Jesus doesn't say 'In spite of my truth telling you don't believe.'  He says 'Because of my truth-telling you don't believe.'  We are not naturally oriented to truth.  We flee it when it's spoken.  Instead we 'turn to fables' as the Apostle Paul put it so memorably:

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.  (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

An "itching ear" is such an evocative phrase.  Itches aren't just satisfied by scratching - they demand to be scratched.  They only seem to increase if they go un-heeded.  Paul says our ears are like this.  We don't merely like to hear pleasant lies, we demand to hear them.  And Paul says there's always a ready supply of phoney prophets who will scratch us where we itch.  It's not just a problem for the last days.  The prophet Isaiah spoke of the same reality 8 centuries earlier:

This is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD: Which say to the seers, "See not;" and to the prophets, "Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits: Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us."   (Isaiah 30:9-11)

I don't think Isaiah is imagining that the people are articulating these words.  I'm not sure any Israelite was literally saying "speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits."  It's just that they would not put up with God's word, they reacted angrily to the truth of the gospel but warmly to the "smooth things."  At an unspoken level they had struck a deal with the false prophets - "Tell us what we want to hear, and we'll give you an eager audience."  In every age people have found such a deal attractive.

Therefore we must question this myth of the modern world.  We do not know what is good for us.  As the Proverb says "Counsel in the heart of man is like deep water; but a man of understanding will draw it out." (Proverbs 20:5).  We don't know ourselves very well.  We don't know what we need.  We need The Man of understanding to tell us the truth.  We need truth to come to us from the outside.  The kind of truth we would never conceive ourselves.

The truth that says we are utterly lost and damned in ourselves but completely loved and redeemed in Jesus.  The truth that leaves our own desires and schemes out of the equation but takes up our cause anyway.  The truth that puts us to death on the cross and raises us up in resurrection.

Don't trust your natural itches.  Don't pursue the lies that puff you up.  Listen to the truth from beyond.  It will burst your bubble but, then, it will give you a hope you could never have dreamt of.  The truth from which we flee is the most extreme but wonderful news in the world.  It's far worse than we'd ever feared - but far greater than we'd ever imagined.

5 thoughts on “Itching ears

  1. Matt F

    Hi Glen, obvious question perhaps but how do we tell the difference? It's just that I've experienced preachers who seem to have confused 'speaking the truth in love' for being as blunt and (if it's not paradoxical) cutting as possible because the congragation want to feel blasted. That way they know the preaching is sound and they've not been soft pedalled.

  2. Glen

    Good question. I think Dave K's recent thoughts on law-gospel as a single word are very helpful here:

    You haven't actually preached the word if you only preach law.

    The seed of the word takes the same course as the Seed (Christ) - death then life. You know the preacher hasn't preached properly if... the law bit only increases fleshly resolve (i.e. it doesn't kill it only treads on our toes to spur us to action) or if the gospel bit throws our confidence (or despair!) back on ourselves.

    It's very strange (though common) when "gospel" preachers consider themselves "sound", "cutting", "hard-hitting" "blasters" but all their weight goes on law. They haven't begun to preach hard until they've preached the *gospel* hard.

  3. John B

    Sometimes it's only law that's preached; and sometimes it's grace without the context of law. The former proclaims Jesus as king, while the latter announces that He is a friend. Both approaches tickle ears and smooth things out. Jesus is indeed king and friend, but He's only known as such when He's first known as our Savior.

    You wrote: "We don’t know ourselves very well. We don’t know what we need.' So true! It's the law that teaches us who we are and who we need. Apart from this knowledge, the gospel is incomprehensible. The diagnosis of our condition is hard to hear and no ear tickling at all!

    The idea of law-gospel as a single word is a keen insight. The law can't be separated from gospel truth, anymore than grace can be understood apart from law. While some put all of the weight on the law, today there are many, and a growing number, who stress grace apart from the knowledge of ourselves that the law teaches. When the centrality of Christ's saving work isn't preached, we're getting our ears scratched.

    Jesus had some "hard-hitting" words for the seven churches in Asia, especially the Laodiceans, whom He said he will spit out because they thought they were rich, needing nothing, and not realizing that they were "wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked". Lack of knowledge of themselves and their need got them a lashing, rather than a scratching!

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