The Danger of the Familiar

This week I read, again, the account of Jesus turning water into wine, recorded for us in the second chapter of John’s Gospel. Reading such a familiar passage is a challenge, because our tendency is to gloss over it. Familiarity tends to dull the mind. It inures us to profundity. It desensitises us to the extraordinary. We become complacent with the truly miraculous. The longer I am a Christian, reading the Bible becomes more difficult, not less so, because of this very fact. I have read it all before, so very many times. Often, I know what the next verse is about to say before my eyes get there. I have read that chapter, pondered that story, studied that teaching on countless previous occasions. I have the same challenge when sitting in church listening to others preach. Often, as the introductory Bible passage is being read, I can immediately construct an outline of the preacher’s impending points, the probable applications and ultimate appeals. I know what I am about to be dished up, because I have heard it all before and have probably preached it myself many times. After being a Christian for 44 years, having read the Bible from cover to cover literally dozens of times, having attended church services nearly 4,000 times, having preached or been preached to the same number of times, participated in thousands of home Bible study meetings, attended many dozens of conferences, read hundreds of Christian books, listened to countless podcasts and recorded sermons, it is a rare thing to hear something new.

Lest you think I am being conceited or arrogant, I am simply pointing out the common experience of every Christian as they grow older in the faith. The early years of Christian growth are marked by new discoveries and fresh insights on an almost daily basis. Reading the Bible is a daily epiphany, as a whole new spiritual realm opens up to us. We are constantly learning and constantly growing deeper in our understanding of the gospel and of our new relationship with Christ.

But as the years pass, this assimilation of new knowledge and understanding diminishes. We become increasingly familiar with the message of the gospel and the teaching of the Bible. I once heard a church growth “guru” state (rather pessimistically and critically!) that once a Christian has been an active member of a church for about 7 years, they will have heard everything they will ever hear from the pulpit; after that there will simply be endless cycles of repeats and re-hashes of the same messages. How depressing!

Perhaps you have had similar feelings. Have you ever come away from a church service saying to yourself, “There was nothing new in that message; I’ve heard it all before.”

Let me make three important points:

Firstly, just because you have heard it all before, does not mean that it does you no good to hear it again. Let me illustrate by talking about food. When my wife and I were first married, many of the meals she cooked were new to me, and I enjoyed their novelty. These days we share the cooking (although I am convinced I do more cooking than she does – cue the violins please!). It is a rare occasion when we sit down to a meal that we have never eaten before. For instance, every Friday night is home-made pizza night. I almost always make my favourite pizza (tuna and garlic) and my wife makes her favourite (sweet potato and spinach). I have had hundreds, possibly thousands of home-made pizzas over the years. They are completely predictable and familiar to me. But does this mean they do me no good? Absolutely not! Those predictable, familiar pizzas are keeping me alive! They are strengthening my body. They are energising me and providing me with the necessary fuel to wake up for another day of activity and service and life! I don’t need every meal to be completely novel in order for it to do me good. In fact, the familiar meal is equally as nourishing to my body as those occasional meals that are new and novel. Equally nourishing!

The same is true of our experience of God’s Word. It is food for the soul, and it matters not whether it is the first time you have read or heard that message or the thousandth time. Each time we read and hear something from God’s Word it strengthens us spiritually. It renews our minds, revitalises our spirits, refreshes our souls and energises us for another day of serving God and living for his kingdom. In fact, in some ways, the fact that a Bible passage or particular teaching may be completely familiar to us is a positive thing. It frees us from the need to chew over it, to wrestle with new concepts and ponder it as we try to absorb some new teaching. It allows us to avoid undue cognitive analysis, and enables us to simply welcome it afresh into our hearts like a long-familiar friend. Each familiar message is feeding our souls and keeping us alive spiritually, just like my tuna pizzas on a Friday night. Don’t knock the familiar pizzas! They are keeping you alive!

Secondly, and this follows from the previous point, there is a difference between knowing and obeying. For instance, I might have heard sermons on the sinfulness of gossip dozens of times before. I know what God’s Word says about it. I could preach that sermon myself. But God may need to tap me on the shoulder one Sunday and say, “I know you know this, but you are currently disobeying it!

“All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16).

This is why I need to keep hearing it and keep reading it. I may have heard it a thousand times before, but I need to hear it again, and keep hearing it in the future., because my heart, like yours, is a fickle thing that is prone to wander.

Thirdly, there is a difference between knowing with my head and appreciating with my heart. It is important that we don’t lose our sense of wonder and awe just because something is familiar. I might have reached a stage where I am completely competent to pass, with flying colours, a test on orthodox biblical theology, but do these truths still move me? Do they create within me an up-welling of thanksgiving for God’s amazing grace towards me? Do they produce an outpouring of heartfelt praise towards the sheer majesty and splendour of our all-powerful, all-knowing, almighty, transcendent Holy God? If my heart is no longer “strangely warmed” (as John Wesley said of his conversion moment), then I am in need of a heart check-up. The familiar has lulled me into complacency. The well-known has inured me to its profundity. I need to engage the heart again. I need to allow the things that I know so well, to pierce the calloused exterior of my heart and penetrate to its soft centre once more.

So next time you come away from a church service thinking, “I didn’t learn anything new today”, give yourself a forehead slap, because you’ve missed the point! Our prayer as we drive into the church car park on a Sunday, our prayer as we open our Bibles daily, our prayer as we arrive at our home Bible study each week, ought not to be “teach me something new.” It ought to be:

Lord, feed my spirit again today. Convict me of my sin, show me where I may have strayed, open my spirit in praise, and fill my heart afresh with the joy and wonder of salvation.”

Having said that, this Friday night I might try a mushroom pizza, just for something completely different!

4 Replies to “The Danger of the Familiar”

  1. Love this! Such a great way to explain how to view the familiar words and messages taught to us. So often we can gloss over a familiar passage in the Bible, but we could be missing out on a fresh understanding in that. I am so grateful when messages feel familiar to me, this means that I have been saved for a very long time, and for that I am so glad! I can’t imagine life without Him.

    P.s. how was the mushroom pizza?