A lesson on Understanding, beginning with a reflection on Mark 8:14-21, and soon to be one of a three-part series–

Quiet panic prevailed in the boat that evening.  Frantic searching the tackle boxes, supply bags, under the nets, behind the seats.  But it was hopeless.  All they could find was a single loaf of bread.  They had forgotten to bring lunch!  How stupid!  The twelve men looked at each other is dismay.

Jesus smirked.  He had noticed their faces, their consternation.  He lowered and shook His head, slightly.  He muttered something, then spoke clearly, loud enough that all twelve men could hear His voice over the sloshing waves[1]:

“Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”

Leaven.  Jesus had used the word metaphorically, but the disciples fixated on the literal meaning.  He’s talking about bread.  He knows we forgot it!  He’s hungry, and He’s angry with us.  He’s going to bawl us out!

Jesus listened to their whispers, gazed from one set of eyes to another.  Searching.  Trying to find a hint, just a trace, of what He was looking for.

Incredibly, He saw nothing but panic.  How could these guys not get it?

They had just seen Jesus feed 5,000 with a five loaves and two fish, and 4,000 with seven loaves and a few more fish.  Every one of these guys had seen it.  Yet, here they are in the boat, fretting that they had forgotten to bring sack lunches.

Jesus did not chide them for forgetting lunch.  That did not bother Him.  He had already proven He could make food appear out of thin air.  What He did chide them for should catch our attention.  The fact that He rebuked them twice about it should really put us on alert.

“Do you not yet understand?”

Our culture is filled with information, but when it comes to spiritual things, we sorely lack understanding.  Like the disciples, we can have all the evidence of an Almighty God before us, yet still fret and worry over the smallest things.

Jesus really wants us to understand.  He’s gazing into our eyes, looking for traces of it in His people.  So, let’s pursue it.  Let’s understand what it means to have understanding.

Understanding Defined

First of all, understanding considers the facts, the knowledge that is acquired on a given subject.  From these facts, understanding recognizes trends, interprets cause & effect, and sees consequences for future actions. It draws conclusions and establishes a frame of mind, an attitude, based on those facts.  It prepares its owner for action, making sure the owner recognizes the lessons learned from all that knowledge to achieve the best result.  The man who uses understanding to guide his actions time and time again is said to be a wise person, for wisdom is skillful living, and it is based on application of knowledge with understanding.

The book of Proverbs in the Bible is wisdom literature written by the wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon.  One of the most widely recognized proverbs of all is this[2]:

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.”

Here, we see that there are actually two kinds of understanding — ours, and God’s.  We have to be careful which one we’re listening to.  We are to understand things from God’s perspective, and not rely on what makes sense from our perspective.  We need godly understanding.

A Humble Attitude

Understanding processes facts and draws a conclusion.  The difference between godly understanding and our kind of understanding is obvious–we try to understand things from our perspective; godly understanding acknowledges God’s presence, sovereignty, and involvement in every circumstance.  As Solomon says, “knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”[3].  Psalm 14:2 implies that understanding and seeking after God go hand in hand [14].  The one who looks at facts and considers them from God’s perspective is on the path to godly understanding.  In other words, Godly understanding considers the facts based on what is true about God:

  • He cares about us.
  • He cares about what we do.
  • His desire is for us to trust Him and depend upon Him.
  • He determines the consequences of our decisions, good or bad.

Godly understanding considers this knowledge and does the only logical thing:  it submits its will to God.  In the very next line[4], Solomon says this:

“Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and turn away from evil.”

Understanding acknowledges God.  But it doesn’t just recognize God, it fears Him.  “Fear” in this sense is not a terrified panic, but a humble realization that our decisions matter to God, that He can and will reward good and evil.  The man who is wise will act, not on what seems best from his perspective, but on his knowledge of God–what God has said and done.  Understanding considers God’s words and deeds and inclines the heart to an attitude of humble submission to God.

David helps us visualize understanding and its importance by using the metaphor of a horse[5]:

“Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check, Otherwise they will not come near to you.”

The horse will not do its master’s bidding unless it is properly harnessed, with a bit in its mouth and a bridle in the master’s hand.  With these implements, the master forces his will upon the animal.  God says this beast has no understanding, and we should not be like it.  We should be willing to obey our master without any special implements.  Again, understanding is an attitude of submission to God.  It is a disposition that is inclined to trust God and do His will.

So what is your attitude toward God today?

Jesus set the example.  He demonstrated what it is like to possess godly understanding by submitting His ambitions and His attitude to God.  Paul says, be like that! [6]:

“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Evidence of a Lack of Understanding

The disciples in the boat lacked godly understanding.  They were afraid of Jesus because they forgot bread.  They knew Jesus was a provider, compassionate, and all-powerful.  They had seen Jesus feed 5,000 people, then 4,000 more, out of a few loaves and fish.  They knew He had authority over nature itself, having seen Him calmly walk on the water during a storm.  Based on this evidence, they should not have worried.  Jesus can solve this!  But they did not recall this knowledge, could not relate it to their current situation.  They had no understanding to influence their attitude.  Instead, they succumbed to fear.  They got anxious because they saw things from their limited perspective.  They relied on their own understanding and refused to trust God and submit their attitudes to Him.

The one who knows the right thing to do, but does not do it is a fool[7].  The fool hates knowledge[8].  The fool says in His heart, “there is no God”[9]and acts as if this were true.  To be foolish is to reject godly understanding.  It is the opposite of wisdom, because it considers the facts God has laid out, but is complacent[10], refusing to believe, refusing to do anything about it.  Foolishness stems from a hard heart.  It rejects the godly understanding which tries to soften that heart.  More can be said about foolishness, but suffice to say–Christians are not immune to foolishness.  We can be reject the knowledge about God and deny the consequences that understanding warns us about. So beware.

James warned the early church not to have an attitude of favoritism, showing partiality to those who are wealthy, attractive, and offer the promise of getting something in return[11].  These preferences show a reliance on worldly understanding, and a refusal to adopt an attitude of love and mercy–a cut-and-dried case of a lack of godly understanding.

If we don’t acquire godly understanding, we are left only with our own understanding, flawed, corrupt, and limited as it is.  Some of us believe we were born with understanding, a sort of common sense that sets us above the rest.  Don’t be fooled.  Our understanding is a cheap imitation that has its roots not in the omnipotent Creator of the universe, but in humanistic philosophy.  God tells us not to lean on our own understanding.  When we do, the results are as disastrous as they are certain.  For the disciples, their reliance on their own understanding resulted in misplaced fear and anxiety.  How many of us do the same thing!

The Pursuit of Understanding

Imagine if those disciples had applied godly understanding–we would see men of courage, at peace in spite of their perilous situation.

David wanted that courage, that peace.  He recognized that to have such a disposition in times of crisis is to truly live.  That’s why he beseeched God, “…give me understanding, that I may live.”[12]

Would it not be wonderful to be courageous, peaceful, and content no matter what the circumstance?  That’s what godly understanding can bring us.

One important thing to notice:  godly understanding only comes from one source…and that’s God.  It is not some we conjure up.  It is not something we strive to generate on our own.  It’s something we seek, something we ask God for, something He gives us.  He gives it to those who seek Him for it with the same urgency as David, the same fervor as Solomon.  When describing how we should seek understanding in Proverbs 2, Solomon uses phrases such as “incline your heart…”, “lift your voice…”, and “…search for her as for hidden treasures.”  I liken it to desperately crying out “Abba, Father” to our loving God, asking His Spirit to reign in our soul.  Seeking godly understanding and yielding our soul to the Spirit of Jesus Christ are one in the same, for the essence of wise living is Christ abiding in us[13].


Worry is a sign that you are not applying godly understanding.  It is a sign that you are trusting in your own understanding, your innate sense of how things should be, what is realistic. You are charging ahead like the heedless horse.  I would suggest you try to be flexible, willing to bend with God.  Be willing to trust Him.  Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.

Solomon urges you to passionately pursue understanding more than silver (Proverbs 16:16).  It’s hard work, but it’s totally worth it.  Godly understanding is of infinitely more value than cash because it gives you life.

It will not always be easy to seek and submit to godly understanding.  Don’t be surprised if you don’t grasp what’s going on right away.  God sometimes puts you in situations which don’t make sense to see if you’ll trust Him.  You probably won’t see the full picture until later…sometimes much later.  The disciples heard Jesus speak of His death and resurrection multiple times, but they just didn’t get it until after it happened. Just believe He is who He says He is.  Trust what He says about Himself in His word, not matter what your current situation suggests.  Hold Him to what He says. Be persistent.

When Jesus gazes at your eyes, will He see any trace of trust today?




  1. Mark 8:15
  2. Proverbs 3:5-6
  3. Proverbs 9:10
  4. Proverbs 3:7
  5. Psalm 32:9
  6. Philippians 2:5-8
  7. Matthew 7:26
  8. Proverbs 1:22
  9. Psalm 14:1
  10. Proverbs 1:32
  11. James 2:1-4
  12. Psalm 119:144
  13. I Corinthians 1:30
  14. Psalm 14:2


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