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Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Truth That Outdates Tradition

Perhaps you've heard this story before, but I thought it was worth retelling.  I once heard of a young newlywed bride who wanted to impress her new husband with her domestic prowess.  She got up early, cut the end of the pot roast off like her mother had always done, put it in the pan, and cooked it all day.  Her husband (like a smart man) told her he loved it and ate several helpings.  However, he had one question: "Why did you throw away the end of the roast?"

She was stumped, so she called her mom. "I don't remember, exactly, honey.  That's just how your grandmother always did it," Mom replied.

After getting off the phone with her daughter, the mom couldn't stop puzzling over it, so she called up her own mother. "Why is it, exactly, that we always cut the end off the pot roast?" she asked.

"It's simple, really.  I had to make it fit in the pan," Grandma said.

Sometimes we adhere so strongly to tradition that we aren't even consciously aware of the reasons behind our actions.  We do things simply because, "that's the way they've always been done," or, even more dangerously, because, "I don't want to insult the previous generations by questioning their ways."

Of course, this is not to say that all tradition is bad.  I think this present generation is sometimes too quick to throw out all that is traditional wisdom and blaze a new trail, only to rediscover why someone had called the old ways wisdom in the first place.  I'm only cautioning readers not to approach tradition mindlessly; it can be destructive if it isn't based on the truth.

Take idol worship, for instance.  I read the middle section (verses 6-23) of Isaiah 44 last night, which paints the ironic picture of a man who cooks his dinner and warms himself by a wood fire, then carves an idol from the leftover wood and worships it.  Why would anyone do this in sincerity and not feel strange about it?

The answer (this insight taken from someone who grew up in India, the land of a million idols) is mostly about tradition.  Those who were raised, in essence, "cutting the end of the roast off," are so used to doing it that they are afraid to question tradition; in fact, to do so would be to call their parents, grandparents, and many countless generations before them liars, fools, and sinners.  To them, it seems like arrogance to contradict all these seemingly reliable sources.  Therefore, they just don't.  At least, not for very long.

But there is a way out of this cycle.  Just like earlier generations who begrudgingly admitted that the earth is round, or that most sickness comes from microbial sources, or that man can fly (in airplanes, that is), those stuck in bad traditional thinking can escape only one way: learning the truth that always was. That is, the truth that is older than tradition.

Just like the young bride who probably never cut the end off the roast again, those who find out they've always been wrong have an easier time accepting an older bit of wisdom.  That's why God began His depiction of the idol worshiper with these words, and a challenge:
 I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God.  Who then is like me?  Let him proclaim it.  Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come—yes, let them foretell what will come.  Do not tremble, do not be afraid.  Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago?  You are my witnesses.  Is there any God besides me?  No, there is no other Rock; I know not one. " (Isaiah 44: 6b-8 NIV)
 So, to challenge this belief that you "can't mock tradition," the Lord started out by declaring He was older than the oldest tradition (this is another insight given to me by my Indian commentator).  In fact, God established the ancient people where they were, back in the day.  Beyond the fact that His wisdom is a truth that has always been there, behind the scenes, even when nobody saw it, it is a truth that will always be there.

Yes, God went so far as to suggest that traditional thinking about idols might seem to have been "good enough" to work for people in the past, but it will be questioned and cast aside when the idols fail to save their followers (v. 11).

Meanwhile, God says His perspective has been true always, before the ancestors, before the present day circumstances, etc.; and it will continue to be true, in essence, it is a truth that will never go out of style or be disproved.  It is eternal.  Besides that, it just makes good sense.

Paul put this very bluntly in his letter to the Colossians, who had been brought up in idol worship:
See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.  For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. (Colossians 2: 8-10 NIV)
So, my message today isn't a call to abandon all traditions.  Rather, it's just a call to abandon the ones that contradict the ancient, established truth of God.  I want to encourage people who are questioning idolatry and similar things to go ahead and stick their necks out.  It is a scary thing to offend older generations by abandoning what we've always been taught, but we can be saved from harm if we recognize and reject error.  It doesn't make sense to die for something we know isn't even real, just to avoid upsetting our relatives.  We have to do what is right, and hope that they will eventually turn around, too.  Let us pray that they do!