I remember seeing a cartoon a number of years ago that had the unlikely subject of a group of fleas sitting in what appeared to be a lecture hall, listening to an impassioned speech from a flea behind a podium.
On the podium was a sign reading “There is no dog!” – and then it became clear that the “pillars” of the lecture hall were, in fact, the hairs of a dog magnified many times!
So the subjects of the cartoon were obviously “Afleists” who did not believe that dog existed, but the context was not one in any way suggesting that human atheists were to be equated with fleas – it was simply looking wryly at the idea of how it is possible to be very unaware of things around us.
The cartoon might remind us of the apostle Paul’s words to the learned philosophers of Athens regarding the creation of all things by God: “God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being….” (Acts 17:27-28).
Like those earnest fleas debating the dog’s existence among the very hairs of the dog, we humans sometimes “don’t see the forest for the trees” when it comes to seeing the nature of the ultimate reality in which we live. But religious people can be no less susceptible to this problem than atheists or agnostics. We may not ignore the clear imprint of the Creator in the physical creation, but the problem of not seeing the forest for the trees can apply to us in a different way, nonetheless.
We read in the Gospel of Mark the story of how shortly after performing great miracles in which Jesus fed the multitudes: “The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ They discussed this with one another and said, ‘It is because we have no bread’” (Mark 8:14-16).
When Jesus realized the disciples’ lack of vision in this situation, he chastised them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see ….” (Mark 8:17).
In this situation, the disciples missed the meaning of Christ’s message by looking too closely at their own circumstances, the details of their own situation. Sometimes we can make the same mistake: we miss the message because we take it too personally.
It is often said that when studying the Bible we should always ask “How does this verse apply to me?” That is indeed a useful principle of personal study, but we should also be careful not to let our study of the Bible become self-absorbed to the point that we miss the bigger picture that is sometimes there.
It is always good to remember that we are not the subject of the Bible, and that God is. The Bible is not just the revelation from God, it is primarily the revelation about God. Our study should also ask the question “What does this verse show about God?” If we study only to see what applies to us and to others, we can miss the message that is of forest-size proportions by concentrating only on what applies to some of the trees.