A preacher friend of mine commented that he had read something that I had recently written. He said, “You and I must have been using the same sources; I said about the same thing in a sermon.”

I was caught off guard a bit by the comment because, although I remembered my article, I could not remember any “sources” that I had used. Clearly, something had stimulated my thoughts that I presented, but I was unsure what had started my thinking or how it developed. 

It made me wonder about how you and I develop our ideas. Since I have a background in education, I have obviously been a “source” for my students, both for academic information as well as, I hope, non-academic growth. This is certainly what my instructors and mentors have done for me and they have shaped me into the person I am. 

Having said that, however, I have no idea how this works in my life. Why can one read book after book or article after article, and yet soon thereafter remember little of the specifics? Similarly, one can attend multiple lectures or sermons or watch videos and take away few memorable points. Yet, it seems, each book, article, lecture, sermon, or any other similar activity shapes us in ways of which we are generally unaware. The specifics do not necessarily stay with us, but something sinks into us and marinates in our future.

This is not to say that we never use “sources.” Given an assignment to construct some sort of presentation, one logically might search the ideas of someone who has earlier considered the topic. Part of educating students is to show them ways to search for information on a subject and to correlate it into some product that they can personally present. Teaching students the difference between using sources and plagiarism is an important concern.

We need to admit, however, that usually we forget most of we what read or hear. Yet, those very items change us. It is reasonable to presume that someone who never read or heard anything new (which would really be impossible) would never change or grow.

One could argue that hidden changes that occur in us as we read, listen, and think are the mechanisms by which the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives. The nuggets that land in your heart may be different from the ones that land in mine, but the Spirit uses each in the appropriate way.

There is a temptation however, against which I must guard myself. When I find a piece of truth, I put my mark on it. It becomes more than just truth; it become my truth. As such, I must defend it and ignore its flaws or inconsistencies. This problem occurs not only at the personal level, but also at the group level. If a group of believers uncovers a specific truth about God, it is difficult for that group to handle that truth in an inclusive, positive manner. The variety of religious groups around us indicates it is often the cause not of inclusion, but of division. The more we personalize the truth, the less helpful it becomes to others.

Since it is difficult to steer a whole group, however, the best I can do is look at myself on this issue. Growth and deeper understanding are reasonable goals; they come by my exposure to and incorporation of the various “sources” that I have in my life. I need to search for high quality sources in terms of friends, readings, and types of entertainment and activity. I need to expect that every aspect of my life is feeding into me understandings of what is valuable and Godly and what is not.

As I am built by these sources, however, I need to beware of personal dogmatism and spiritual blindness. There is seldom a place for an unforgiving or unchanging stance. A friend suggested a canine pattern of holding onto positions. He noted a contrast between two types of dogs. A bulldog with something in its mouth will not let it go; you can shout and try to pull the item away, but the dog will simply bite down harder and resist your attempts. A retriever, on the other hand, takes a different approach. It may well have an item in its mouth, but its nature is to release the item when it hears its Master’s voice.

Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain. 


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