Monday, December 07, 2009

On seeking and finding

Next in my series on traditional solutions to modern difficulties in Biblical exegesis (see the sidebar), I'll be looking at two verses that I have seen cited by those who attempt to prove that the Scriptures contain mutually contradictory statements or principles. First we have a statement made by the Lord in the Gospel of Matthew:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives and he who seeks finds and to him who knocks it will be opened (Matt. 7:7-8).

Then we have the words of God in the first chapter of Proverbs, apparently stating the opposite:
Then they will call upon Me, but I will not answer; they will seek Me diligently but will not find Me (Prov. 1:28).
So on the one hand God is promising that everyone who seeks for Him will find Him and then on the other hand He is apparently contradicting Himself by stating that He will not answer those who seek Him. Which is it? Do we seek or not seek? And if we seek do we find? And how can God promise that we will find if we seek when He also says that He will conceal Himself from us if we seek?

Let me say that I do not find this to be a real "contradiction" or exegetical problem at all. Not to say there are not real exegetical difficulties - looking at the issue of the apparent genocide of the Canaanites in the Book of Joshua was a much more real difficulty than these verses (and even that was not an insurmountable problem). What we have here is two verses just pulled out of context based loosely on the common themes of seeking and finding without any reference about to whom God is speaking or the conditions of these promises of God. These are not contradictions, but errors that come from quoting the Bible without really knowing it. Let's look a little deeper at this then.

The problem comes in taking our Lord's words "seek and you shall find" to be unqualified and absolute. This passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus is addressing the crowds and laying out for the first time His moral/ethical teachings. Those he is speaking to are the "poor in spirit...the meek...the pure in heart...the merciful", etc. as in contradistinction to the Pharisees, who are "hypocrites...blind guides...blind fools" and "whited sepulchres" (Matt. 23:1-27). In short, the words of Jesus "seek and you shall find" are addressed to the humble and the faithful.
To whom is God addressing in the verse from Proverbs, which reads "they will call upon Me, but I will not answer"? Those who cite this verse as some how in opposition to Matthew 7:7-8 are guilty of gross misinterpretation, for a cursory reading of the verses immediately preceding and following Proverbs 1:24 shows that the context is entirely different. Remember, Jesus is addressing the humble and the faithful in Matthew 7 when He says "seek and you shall find." Let's see to whom God is speaking in Proverbs 1:

Because I have called and you refused to listen, have stretched out My hands and no one has heeded, and you have ignored all My counsel and would have none of My reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity comes like a whirlwind, when distress and anguish come upon you. Then they will call upon Me, but I will not answer; they will seek Me diligently but will not find Me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of My counsel and despised all My reproof, therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices
(Prov. 1:24-31).

Is it not evident that Proverbs 1:24-27 is addressed to the wicked? God is basically telling us, between these two verses, what holy men and women have always known: God is found by the humble but is hidden to the eyes of the arrogant and proud. "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble" (Jas. 4:6). The promise that those who seek shall find is not unconditional and universal but comes with qualifications. So is there no hope for the wicked then? Not unless they humble their hearts, as we are told by the prophet Jeremiah:

I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me and I will hear you. You will seek Me and find Me; when you seek Me with all your heart, I will be found by you, says the Lord (Jer. 29:11-14).
The man who is wise in his own sight is a "fool" who "walks in darkness" (Ecc. 2:14). The Lord resists the arrogant and the prideful and refuses to be found by them; but it is when a man humbles himself and seeks the Lord sincerely and with humility ("to seek with your whole heart") that God is found. Then the words of our Lord apply, "seek and you shall find." St. John's Gospel puts these two ideas together (seeking coupled with trusting obedience and humility) in a single passage where our Lord is speaking to the disciples before His Passion (notice the conditional "if"):

If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you will and it shall be done for you (John 15:7).

There are those who seek after God, but do so either insincerely, with incomplete trust, out of pride, or with many other impure motives (like King Herod Antipas, who wanted to see Jesus do a miracle just for entertainment). For these, though they may seek God, there is nothing to be found, for God is hidden from them.

Going back to Matthew 7, what is it exactly that the Lord is promising us that we will find if we seek sincerely? I do not think we should read our Lord's words "seek and you shall find" as universal in themselves; i.e., that whatsoever I seek universally and unequivocally will always be found. What is it we should be seeking? Jesus explains a little further on in Matthew 7:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! (Matt. 7:11).

What are these "good things" that we are promised? Let's look to the corrolary of this passage in the Gospel of Luke:

Ask and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you...If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him! (Luke 11:9, 13).

It is evident that the thing that Jesus is telling us look for, that which He promises that we will find if we seek it with humble trust, is nothing other than the Holy Spirit. It is not an unequivocal promise that each and every thing we ask for we shall undoubtedly receive, much less a promise that any person who seeks God under whatever disposition will find Him. If we want to find God, we must seek Him diligently with our whole hearts, in humility, faith and trust. Then we shall find Him (or rather, He will allow Himself to be found by us), and this finding is done with the help and through the agency of the Holy Spirit, who gives us the gift of Faith and stirs up our zeal. If we ignore God and become arrogant in the pride of our hearts, refusing His counsel and His reproof, then our minds become darkened, our hearts hardened and He resists us; then is it rightly said of such persons that God refuses to be found by them, as He says in Proverbs 1.

Like I said, this is not really a difficulty with Scripture, only an issue with persons making claims without attempting to look at the context. The solution doesn't require any leap of faith or certain exegetical approach, just a straightforward reading of what the Bible actually says. Many alleged difficulties of the Bible are resolvable this way, and I'll feature some more in the future.


The Anti-Modernist said...

Excellent analysis! I love how you take a straight forward approach to show the truth of the scripture cited and you demonstrate quite clearly that the only way these verses are contradictory is if they are taken out of context.
Thank you for disseminating the truth.

Ben G said...


I have another scriptural difficulty that I hope you'll address: what exactly does St. Paul mean when he says: "But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety" (1 Tim. 2:15, NIV). How does the Church understand this vese?