Quantitative Hopelessness and the Immeasurable Moment
For the Encouragement of Sunday School Teachers
Sunday Evening Message
I have often heard the contrast made between spending one hour a week in Sunday school and twenty or more hours a week watching TV. The point is usually that we can scarcely counteract the secularist influence of twenty hours of TV with one hour of Sunday school.
This sort of observation creates what you might call a “quantitative hopelessness.” It gives the impression that life-changing impact is directly proportionate to the quantity of time spent with a particular influence.
Our Problem with Evil
I think this way of assessing the value of influences (whether TV or Sunday school) is wrong for two reasons. Thinking quantitatively like this obscures the problem with evil and obscures the power of a holy moment.
First, it obscures the problem of evil. It gives the misleading impression that the approach to take toward harmful influences on TV is to balance them with good influences at church or at home. It assumes that the best or only way to counteract the hours in which we are taught to love the world and the things in the world is to spend a corresponding quantity of hours in which we are taught to love God and not the world. The underlying assumption is either that it is okay to entertain yourself with unedifying TV programs or that it is inevitable.
But neither of these assumptions is true. Paul taught that we ought only to do things that build up (2 Corinthians 13:10; 1 Corinthians 14:12, 26); if any activity is impeding or hindering our growth in godliness, we should simply avoid it. I would say this is true of most TV programs. A follower of Christ will only want to do things that make his faith in God more fervent and improve or express his love for others. Therefore, it is not okay to entertain yourself with unedifying TV shows.
And the second assumption is wrong, too. It is not inevitable that we or our children must watch unedifying TV programs. There are two possibilities: you can choose not to own one (which will probably involve turning down many gifts, since your relatives will hardly be able to stand it that you don’t have one), or you can own one and set down clear guidelines for what will be watched by yourselves and your children. Responsible Christian parents will certainly not use the TV as a babysitter to keep the kids occupied.
So the problem of evil is not how to entertain ourselves with some of it and then balance it with good. The problem of evil is how not to enjoy it at all and instead to fill our lives with — to summarize Paul — whatever is true, honorable, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8). The first reason it is wrong to think just quantitatively about Sunday school and TV is that it obscures the problem of evil in our lives and how to handle it.
Power of a Holy Moment
The second reason it is wrong to assess the influence of Sunday school quantitatively is that this obscures the power of a holy moment. What I have in mind here is something tremendously encouraging to teachers. It is what I would call the “immeasurable moment.”
What the quantitative approach overlooks and obscures is the lasting, transforming power of insight that can and usually does happen in a moment. Let me try to illustrate this principle of the “immeasurable moment” from reading, counseling, and classroom teaching.
1. In Reading
What I have learned from about twenty-years of serious reading is this: It is sentences that change my life, not books. What changes my life is some new glimpse of truth, some powerful challenge, some resolution to a long-standing dilemma, and these usually come concentrated in a sentence or two.
I do not remember ninety-nine percent of what I read, but if the one percent of each book or article I do remember is a life-changing insight, then I don’t begrudge the ninety-nine percent. And that life-changing insight usually comes in a moment — a moment whose value is all out of proportion to its little size. That’s why I call it an “immeasurable moment.”
Here are some of the examples of the one-percent that have gripped me and changed me:
From Jonathan Edwards, his sixth life resolution written in college: “Resolved, to live with all my might while I do live.” And from his book Religious Affections: “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.”
From St. Paul, a sentence that hit me when I was about twenty-two and has shaped my theology ever since: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13).
From C. S. Lewis, in his sermon “The Weight of Glory”: “If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mudpies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
From St. Augustine, in his Confessions: “I have not hope at all but in thy great mercy. Grant what thou commandest and command what thou wilt.” Also from his Confessions: “For he loves thee too little who loves anything together with thee, which he loves not for thy sake.”
The list could go on, but the point is this: In reading, more often than not, what grips you and gives you a new view of the world and changes you is not whole books but key sentences or paragraphs. You read them, the lights go on, the heart is strangely warmed, and you experience an “immeasurable moment.” Such a moment can be more influential than months of TV and radio. So do not fall victim to “quantitative hopelessness.”
2. In Counseling
Now let me illustrate the same principle from counseling. Teachers often wonder if the hours spent talking with students about their problems are worth it. The person who thinks quantitatively might question an hour’s conversation with a troubled freshman. He might say, “It’s too much; more important things are being left undone.” Or he might say, “It’s too little; what can be achieved in one hour with problems that have been years in the making?” So he creates a mood of “quantitative hopelessness” or “quantitative impatience.”
But I have learned an amazing thing. Whether the session is short or long, it is often the “immeasurable moment” that makes the difference. Many times students have returned to me years later and said, “Do you remember what you said to me?” I don’t, and they recite one sentence. Just one sentence.
It may have determined their vocational choice or their choice of graduate schools. It may have caused them to break an engagement or to give up a habit. Usually I don’t even recall saying what they remember. The point is this: There is no way to measure what power a word spoken in a single moment can have. It is an “immeasurable moment.”
Parents, this applies to you. Do not begrudge conversations with your children. And do not measure their value solely by their quantity. I did not have much time with my dad, but some of his counsel was brief and powerful. To this day one sentence is helpful in seeking God’s will for my life: “Keep the room you are in clean and neat, and God will open the door to the next one in time.”
And I remember this one with a sting during my college days: “If you are too busy to write to your mother, you are too busy.” So teachers and parents, take heart. You never know when a sentence you utter may be remembered forever.
3. In the Classroom
Finally, let me illustrate from my classroom experience. Scott Hafemann, who joined our church through the mail last fall while in Germany, took a class from me during January of 1976. The course lasted three weeks. There were about 25 students in the class. The others appreciated the class, and their thinking was changed a little. Some more, some less. But Scott experienced a Copernican revolution in his life and thought.
He has told me how up to that time, he was getting more and more sour on school in general and the Bible department in particular. But after that three-week class in Ephesians, he was utterly new. His view of God was turned on its head as he discovered the majesty of God’s sovereignty in chapter 1 of Ephesians. And the central hope in the Christian life exploded from Ephesians 2:7. God’s overarching purposes in all of history started to fall together. The place of Israel and its relation to the church fell into place.
It was for Scott one of those experiences that creates, almost overnight, a new destiny. He had taken dozens of other courses, but from that course on his destiny was sealed: he had to be a theologian. The anthropologists tried to get him, but he could not escape the vision and call of God he received in Ephesians during January of 1976.
The lesson I take from this and similar experiences is that we must never fall victim to “quantitative hopelessness.” If nothing else at all had happened in my six years of teaching but what happened to Scott Hafemann, it would have all been worth it.
Pray and Prepare for Power
All this is meant for our encouragement. Do not think that your thirty-minute lesson on Sunday morning is nothing in relation to twenty hours of TV. Prepare with all your heart, as if the truth you teach is astonishing and revolutionary. Pray with all your heart for those you teach and for yourself. And you will create — perhaps unbeknown to you — you will create “immeasurable moments” for your students. Never underestimate the power of truth spoken in a single sentence.