THAT’S YOUR OPINION?
Written by Doug Ponder on October 6, 2013
This article is a recap of the sermon That’s Your Opinion? in the Embracing Diversity series. (You can also listen to the post-sermon Q&A here.)
What’s an Opinion?
Our society has a truth problem.
It’s worse than simply not knowing the truth; we have come to deny that truth even exists or is able to be known by anyone. This is precisely why people think they can end a serious discussion by saying, “That’s just your opinion,” as if that settles the matter.
To be sure, many things are opinion: personal views or attitudes toward things like music, food, sports, etc. Yet most people seem to think that everything a person says is an opinion. This simply isn’t true. Opinions are statements of personal preference, but they are not the same as beliefs. Beliefs are claims about reality, and claims about reality are either right or wrong, true or false. Consider the following examples:
“I like the ocean.”
“Wet sand feels gross.”
“Country music is terrible.”
– vs. –
“Two plus two equals five.”
“Knives are not forks.”
The first three statements are just opinions. They cannot be right or wrong because they are expressions of personal preferences. (I know that some would debate whether or the horribleness of country music is an opinion or a fact, but I have to be logically consistent on this one—no matter how much it pains me to do so.)
The second set of statements are claims about reality. They are beliefs, and they are either true or false. In this case, the first belief is obviously false, the second belief is obviously true, and the last belief is hotly debated. What’s important to note, however, is that we can’t just say, “That’s just your opinion,” with regard to beliefs. For these claims can be tested. They are either right or wrong, and they can be known with varying degrees of certainty.
The problem in our culture is that we have reduced knowledge to only that which can be known by math and science. We think that if it can’t be proved in a test tube, then it must not exist. Or at the very least, it is unknowable. This has left us with a crushing silence in areas like the meaning of life. Instead, we have only endless uncertainty, perspectives, opinions, and doubts.
In this vacuum of true knowledge, we turn to things like our feelings or our impressions to guide us where we want to go. “I feel like this is right,” becomes, “This is right for me,” which becomes, “You can’t tell me I’m wrong.”
Only, you could be wrong. Beliefs can be wrong. Simply because you believe something, does not make it true. So how can we know anything? Where can we go from here?
The answer is that we must find the one starting place that can account for all of reality. We need a view of the world that is able to explain what we actually the way things are, without any bits “left over” or unaccounted for.
The Beginning of Knowledge
The claim of Scripture is this: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all knowledge (Prov. 1:7). This is not something to be taken on “blind faith” and never questioned. It’s more like something that you believe as you move forward, comparing alternative presuppositions (“starting places”) against the Scriptures. All those who do this, honestly and thoroughly, eventually find that the Scriptures are true. God is the beginning of all knowledge, and only he can account for reality in all complexity. We must start with God himself if we hope to find the truth.
But how can we know God? The answer is Jesus. Instead of leaving us to guess about his identity, God has spoken through the prophets in the Scriptures, which point to Jesus (John 5:39, 44; Luke 24:27). This is why Jesus is called “the Word of God,” for he communicates the fullness of who God is (Col. 2:9).
Practically speaking, this means if you want to know the God who made you, then must go through Jesus—just as he himself said (John 14:6). All your thoughts about God must be weighed against who Jesus was in all that he taught and did. You cannot pit “your God” against Jesus, for Jesus is God in the flesh.
Secondly, if you want to understand the world we live in, you must also go through Jesus. The reason there is order and predictability in the world is because God made it this way. Francis Bacon, the genius polymath who was the father of modern science, famously said, “God has in fact written two books not just one. Of course we are all familiar with the first book he wrote, namely the Scriptures. But he has written a second book called creation.” The first “book” (Scripture) explains the second “book” (nature), not by telling us all that we might find there—for the Bible isn’t a science textbook—but by giving us all we need to think rightly about the world in order to discover what really is true.
Finally, even knowledge of yourself comes through Jesus. The things you can know about yourself (height, weight, preferences, tendencies, history, etc.) have no meaning unless you understand who made you and what you were made for. Without Jesus, your life is a pile of meaningless particulars, like puzzle pieces without a box top to understand what you’re looking at.
Making Wise Decisions
Since truly knowing God, the world, and ourselves can only come through Jesus, making decisions in our lives should start with Jesus, too. (For how else could you know what it is that you’re supposed to do, anyway?)
So when someone says, “I just feel like I should do _____”, the question is, How do you know that your feelings are right?
Or when someone says, “I know this is the right choice,” the question is, How do you know that it’s the right decision? (And “I just know it” is not an acceptable answer.)
What it looks like to begin with Jesus means, quite simply, that we begin with the book that points to him. In other words, when it comes to making decisions, our minds and hearts should be so thoroughly shaped by the Scriptures, both the big story and the little details, that we already have a strong idea of what we should do in a certain situation. So we set aside our opinion on the matter, and we begin with what God has clearly said.
Next, we ought to ask, “What has the church believed about this?” This has two parts: (1) church tradition throughout history and (2) church community in the present. Although other people are just as likely to be wrong as you are, the wisdom of the many outweighs the wisdom of just one. Looking to the church, therefore, helps guard us from reading the Bible with blinders that prevent us from seeing the truth.
Third, we ought to ask, “What makes sense?” An appeal to reason is not a way to dismiss what the Scriptures teach or the church has believed but a way to understand both. So when God says, “Love your neighbor,” and the church has taught for centuries about this topic, then reason kicks in and says, “Although they didn’t have Facebook back then, loving your neighbor clearly applies to how I conduct myself online.”
Finally we ask, “What has experience taught me?” This is the last place we go to for truth, since our perception of experience is colored by many variables. Nevertheless, we ought to expect our experiences to match what Scripture, tradition, and reason have already confirmed.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.