Thinking Inside The Box

by Rick Shrader

G .K. Chesterton wrote, “The mind that finds its way to wild places is the poet’s; but the mind that never finds its way back is the lunatic’s.”1 It seems we have no shortage of “visionaries” and “original thinkers,” but fewer and fewer of them seem to be able to find their way back home!   It is a day of point and click exegesis, word-searched information, downloaded knowledge and back-lit preaching.  A.T. Pierson told of a country church member commenting on the new pastor: “Well, I’ll tell yer how it is.  He’s de best man I ebber seed to tak’ de Bible apart, but he dunno how to put it togedder agin.”2

We have heard the expression, “thinking in (or out of) the box” for quite a while now.  I think it is an attempt to describe one who can think only within set parameters,  as opposed to one who can think beyond those parameters.  In Christian circles it is frequently applied to stuffy people who will not accept new ideas or think in any way except what has been done in the past.  On the surface, most of us would agree with the criticism, as A.W. Tozer wrote, “The stodgy pedestrian mind does no credit to Christianity.”3 But I am not convinced that that’s all there is to the expression of thinking in (or out of) the box.

Does anyone still doubt that the world has lost its moorings when it comes to thinking and normality?  For them, thinking out of the box means the absence of absolutes, the freedom for unlimited self-expression, or as one popular restaurant advertises, “No rules, just right.”  It means living in a world where wild imagination is normal and the old normal is boring.  In that world, biblical Christianity has no place.  One online writer criticizes Christianity for holding too strictly to the Bible :

This is what happens when people take the stories their religions offer a bit too literally. . . In that paradigm, if you subscribe to the right story and follow the rules, all you have to do is hang in there and wait for the ending, and you’ll be saved.  Best of all, the real quandaries of human existence—questions such as where do we come from, what is the right way to live, and where do we go when we die—are all preordained.  A closed book. . . Thank[fully], we now have a way out of the story: We can write our own endings.”4

As the world criticizes us for thinking biblically, we must not shy away from accusations that we do not think broadly enough.  We must not prefer the company of broad worldly thinking to plain biblical thinking.  In some instances I would agree that Christians ought to broaden their thinking, but in many ways people think worldly and simply call it broad. I am here advocating that a disagreement which is conservative is not necessarily blind.  There may be good reasons for it.

Too often, “thinking inside the box” is a caricature of more conservative thinking that has become annoying or even embarrassing in our day and age.  Here are a few of those caricatures of thinking which get labeled “in the box.”

Thinking that is Stagnant

We have all heard the explanations of how corporations go through a cycle from being new and enthusiastic to old and stagnant.  This can be true of corporations and churches.  We all fear crossing that line of old age where our only topics of conversation are stories that everyone has already heard a thousand times.  But the reaction to this can be as bad and worse.  An immature answer is to disregard everything that is said.  This is often done with church.  As Chesterton said, “The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas.  But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas.  The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty.”5

Thinking that is Irrelevant

Besides the things that are old and boring, many things can seem to be worthless because they don’t “work” as well as they used to.  Business lives and dies with sales methodology and they must work or the product won’t sell.  Commercials have become what I call the obvious lie:  we know it can’t really be that way but we excuse it because we know it’s only a commercial.  The add is “truthful” if it sells the product.  Reality is of little consequence.

Irrelevance, then, is what is non-pragmatic.  If it doesn’t get the job done, why keep it?  Albert Einstein called the modern age one of perfected means and confused ends.6 R.C. Sproul wrote, “The Christian rejects the spirit of pragmatism.  He lives in terms of long-term goals.  He eschews the expedient.  He stores up treasure in heaven.  He is willing to wait for the hour of God.”7

Thinking that is Negative

I have known truly negative people and they are hard to be around.  Some people don’t know there is another end to the magnet.  But other people are as afraid of a negative as this generation is of the law of non-contradiction.  The fact is, two opposites cannot both be true, and for every positive there is its opposite which is negative.  If the positive is true, the negative can’t be.  But if the negative is true, the positive can’t be.  “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil” (Isa 5:20).  T.S. Eliot said, “Incumbent upon all Christians is the duty of maintaining consciously certain standards and criteria of criticism over and above those applied by the rest of the world.”8 Even if that is in a different box!

Thinking that is Pietistic

“Pious” has become one of those Christian swear words like legalistic, traditional, progressive, controlling, liberal, etc. that we use on someone we don’t want to talk to.  Too often, even Christians shy away from what seems too holy or pious.  We are more used to the world’s standards than God’s.  Francis Schaeffer said, “Ancestral man has entered his own head, and he has been adapting ever since to what he finds there.”9 Piety is too narrow of a box for this generation. But God invites man to a far different perspective! Though no Christian who fancies his thinking to be “out of the box” would ever see his thinking as “unbiblical,” my fear is that that is what has happened and far too often.  When we don’t take the negative seriously enough, we forget that it is different than the positive.  The anti-biblical, with time, can seem only non-biblical.  And then the non-biblical, with more time, can seem only preferential.  Then the preferential becomes preferable.

An Alternative

The Corinthian church had gotten a little too far “out of the box” for the Apostle Paul.  Their thinking had become too much like the world around them and Paul reels them back into the parameters of a biblical perspective.  In 1 Corinthians 4:6 he told them that he had written to them so that they wouldn’t think beyond what is written.  This was their problem with preferring one above another, and also their problem in every other area.

What is written means more than simply what Paul has already said to them.  They are not to think ?per (above, beyond) gegraptai (what is written).  This expression is used throughout this book and many other New Testament books to introduce an Old Testament quotation. For example:  For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise (1:19).  This is the exact same form of the verb as Paul uses in 4:6.  They were not to go above or beyond what they Scripture says.  G.G. Findlay adds, “It was a Rabbinical adage—as much as to say, Keep to the rule of Scripture, Not a step beyond the written word.”10

Regardless of how the world sees us, God says our reward is from gold, silver and precious stones, not wood, hay and stubble; our message is the foolishness of God, not the wisdom of this world; our preaching is with demonstration of Holy Spirit power, not enticing words of man’s wisdom; and our foundation is Christ alone, no other foundation can be laid.  In chapter 4, Paul chided them for remaining spectators of the real Christian life, while he had become a “spectacle” to the world.

I think Paul could have said These things I have written that you may learn not to think outside the Box of Scripture. Though we don’t like to think we do, we are probably not more adept at knowing the parameters than the Corinthians who also had the Apostle’s presence to guide them!

And So . . .

A.W. Tozer, who had a way of bringing our thoughts down to reality, wrote, “Whatever keeps me from the Bible is my enemy, however harmless it may appear to be.  Whatever engages my attention when I should be meditating on God and things eternal does injury to my soul.  Let the cares of life crowd out the Scriptures from my mind and I have suffered loss where I can least afford it.  Let me accept anything else instead of the Scriptures and I have been cheated and robbed to my eternal confusion.”11

1.  G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994) 92.
2. A.T. Pierson, Pulpit Legends (Chattanooga: AMG, 1994) xii.
3. A.W. Tozer, Born After Midnight (Harrisburg: Christian Publications, 1959) 95.
4. Douglas Rushkoff, “Playing God,” Yahoo Internet Life, Dec. 2000, p. 101.
5. G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (Nashville: Nelson, 2000) 151.
6. Quoted by Phillips & Okholm, Christian Apologetics in a Postmodern World (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 1995) 25.
7. R.C. Sproul, The Mystery of the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1990) 172.
8. Quoted by Bruce Lockerbie, Dismissing God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998) 20.
9. Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1971) 112.
10. G.G. Findlay, Expositor’s Greek New Testament, W.R. Nicoll, ed (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1970) 800.
11. A.W. Tozer, Worship and Entertainment (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 1997) 42.