60. Doubts and Disputes – Human Disposition (Matthew 15:19)

The Scriptures quite consistently characterize human thinking processes as fundamentally dysfunctional. Reasoning occurs, but it is frequently flawed in its activity and in its conclusions. Paul, quoting Psalm 94(93):11 in 1 Corinthians 3:20, agrees that “the Lord knows that the thoughts (dialogismous) of the wise are futile.” If the wise among us cannot get it right, what hope is there for the rest of us mortals?

Matthew 15:1-20 narrates the conflict Jesus has with the Jewish religious leaders regarding his disciples’ practice of eating with unwashed hands. According to the religious leaders this violates “the tradition of the elders”. Jesus counters by arguing that spiritual uncleanness in God’s sight arises because our ‘hearts’ are tainted. They are the source of “evil thoughts” (dialogismoi ponēroi) (cf. the parallel in Mark 7:21). Paul expresses the same concept in Romans 1:21 as he notes that the thinking (tois dialogismois) of human beings “became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” This is the product of our human rebellion against God.

Several times believers in the New Testament are encouraged not to let ‘arguments’ (dialogismōn, Philippians 2:14) create divisions or to let their prayers be hindered, which should be offered “without anger or disputing” (dialogismou, 1 Timothy 2:8). If believers discriminate between the rich and the poor, according to James, they have “become judges with evil thoughts” (dialogismōn ponērōn, James 2:4). These texts show how this term dialogismos conveys a sense of dispute, as well as faulty reasoning. How Romans 14:1 fits within these nuances is debated. Presumably Paul is warning the Roman Christians, who are strong, not to overwhelm the weak believer with disputes (dialogismōn) about issues that do not pertain to salvation.

We discover this term used in Luke’s Gospel to describe the contentious thinking that arises within people, setting them at odds with one another, with Jesus or with God. For example, when Jesus heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath, Luke says that the Jewish religious leaders wanted to catch Jesus doing something that would enable them to bring an accusation against him. Luke says that Jesus “knew what they were thinking (dialogismous, 6:8)”. Their thinking obviously is hostile towards Jesus, creating contention with him. A similar pattern is found in Luke 5:22. Jesus pronounces forgiveness for the paralyzed man and the thoughts of the religious leaders in the crowd identify this as a blasphemous act. Luke describes this kind of hostile thinking process as dialogismous.

According to Luke the apostles engage in similar behaviour. As they follow Jesus to Jerusalem the question “who among them might be the greatest” (9:46-47) arises. The text is somewhat ambiguous as to whether this question was occurring only in the minds of the disciples or whether it had actually been verbalized and become a contentious discussion. Regardless, Jesus is aware of this “argument” (dialogismos) and “knew their thoughts” (dialogismon) (cf. Mark 9:33-34).

A similar dispute arose among the disciples after Jesus’ death. When the two men who met the resurrected Jesus on the Emmaus road returned and reported their experience to “the Eleven and those with them” (Luke 24:33-35), it generated considerable discussion. In the midst of this interchange, the resurrected Christ appears and challenges them with the question “Why are you troubled and why do doubts (dialogismoi) rise in your minds?” (Luke 24:38). Whether “doubts” or “anxious reflection” or “contentious dispute” is the most appropriate rendering, Jesus considers this interaction as less than positive, a questioning of the reality of his resurrection (note verse 39). It was not the response he would have hoped for.

In Luke 2:35 Simeon prophesied to Mary that her son, Jesus, the baby he held in his arms, would be a sign opposed and contradicted “so that the thoughts (dialogismoi) of many hearts will be revealed.” Contention is in the context. How people evaluate Jesus will be revealed and become the basis upon which their destinies are decided. As we discover from the Gospel narrative as it unfolds, such ‘thoughts’ often are regularly evil and flawed.

The cognate verb (dialogizomai) occurs sixteen times in the Synoptic Gospels, usually in the same contexts as the noun or with a similar connotation.

I think the term defines the sifting process that occurs within the human mind as it seeks to sort out and assess the significance of something. In this it reflects its commercial origins in accounting. However, such assessing is always based upon previously determined values or experience. Since in most cases our values or experiences are not God-shaped or God-focused, our evaluations are flawed and often antagonistic towards God. For example, because the Jewish religious leaders do not consider Jesus to be Messiah, they cannot in their reasoning accept his announcement of forgiveness as divine authority. It can only be a slander against God. Their preconceived notions lead them to evaluate the evidence in ways that produce the wrong conclusion.

Occasionally this weighing of the data does result in a positive conclusion, but not without struggle. When the angel, Gabriel, visited Mary and announced she would be the mother of the Messiah, Luke says that she “was greatly troubled at his words and wondered (dielogizeto) what kind of greeting this might be” (1:29). As the revelation unfolded, her evaluation was that God was indeed in this experience and she decided to accept what God was doing. However, considerable mental and emotional processing occurred as this vision unfolded.

Human beings are always seeking to make sense of their experiences. Ministry leaders have the significant spiritual responsibility to help people discern sense – have the wisdom to see God at work in their situations. Christians have to work hard to make sure their mental assessing process (dialogismos) does not lead them astray because they are operating on faulty assumptions. We can end up fighting God and acting in contentious ways within the body of Christ because our cognitive assessments have been misguided, formed through wrong assumptions about God and His motives for working the way He does. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to help us think with the mind of Christ and in this way avoid ‘futile’ thinking.

We are less conscious of these flawed, mental processes than we should be. There is a kind of arrogance within us that fools us and leads us to think that our way of thinking is the right way. We end up with “evil thoughts” (Matthew 15:19) and these translate into evil actions. Often the Scriptures place this evaluation process in the context of “the heart” (kardia). Somehow our will, our emotions and our intelligence are integrated in and wrapped together with such assessment. This reality creates multiple opportunities for sin to pervert the evaluation – because of what we may feel, or may want, or may think. We need the Holy Spirit “to guard our hearts”.


  1. when you make your decisions, what values do you use to guide you? Are these biblical values? Are they Christ’s values?
  2. how do you control your feelings in making decisions so that they make a positive contribution and not a negative contribution to the outcome? Does anger or jealously or pride skew your assessment? Does love or goodness or peace-making enhance your assessment?
  3. in what way do you actively invite the Holy Spirit to guide and assist you in your assessing?
  4. if you discover that your assessment is marred, what do you do to correct the damage? How does repentance work here? What do you say to colleagues or to family members or to fellow-believers in the body?

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