Yesterday at services, a deacon in our congregation gave a very thoughtful message about the problem of itching ears and some of its consequences in terms of some of the recurrent problems that cause difficulty because people get bored with truth that is known and want to hear something new and exciting. To be sure, there are plenty of examples of cases where people fall into all kinds of old errors in the search for supposed new truths. One of the points the speaker made, and hammered home rather effectively, was that we are not so vulnerable to such problems when they come from outsiders that we do not trust but rather when these ideas come from insiders whom we do have a great deal of trust in. As someone for whom trust is a continual area of difficulty, I was intrigued by the way that the message was given. As is often, the case, though, I would like to reframe the issue somewhat, as the speaker gave one half of what is a serious problem.
When people are bored and find presentations uninteresting, there is usually a reason. To be sure, we ought not to expect people who are speakers of truth to be scintillating and entertaining, necessarily, but we do expect that they ought not to be boring. The causes for boredom are legion. Sometimes we are bored because we are simply not interested in enough things or in things enough, and it is our lack of sensitivity and appreciation that makes us less interested in others. I find it tedious to listen to people talk about buying things for good deals when they own too many things already, and this lack of interest makes interactions with certain people very tiresome and tedious for me, but I recognize that at least part of the problem is my lack of interest in what these people are most interested in. In other cases people are boring because they repeat things over and over again and because they skim over the surface instead of tapping into the depth of what they could discuss. When we are dealing with the Bible, there is a great deal that is said between the lines that is highly interesting when we are dealing with people who have the ability to read beneath the surface .
One of the problems our generation faces is the tendency to have itchy ears and the desire to seek after people who can entertain us with something new. 2 Timothy 4:3-4 states this problem very clearly: “ For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” We can see pretty clearly that this is the case now, because many people believe all kinds of fables instead of the truth because they shy away from the uncompromising and often demanding truths of scriptures and would prefer to hear fables told to them by people who want to flatter them and allow them to gratify their own greed and lusts without constraint. In such an environment where people are hungry for novelty and unwilling to accept correction and rebuke, it is not a popular thing to remain teaching the truth, as Timothy was commanded to do by Paul.
But that is not the only problem that is faced. Indeed, it is precisely half of the problem. The other half of the problem may be best understood by remembering what was said about the church in Laodicea in Revelation 3:17-19: “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked— I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.” Here we see the precise opposite approach to those who have itching ears in that they believe they have need of nothing. They are complacent in their knowledge and believe themselves to be spiritually wealthy when they are poor, blind, and naked. Here a lack of interest in spiritual growth has rendered them fit only to be refined through great tribulation in order to enter into the Kingdom of God after great suffering. Here too, though, there are similarities with those who have itching ears, in that they are called upon to be zealous and repent and told that part of their problem is a difficulty in dealing with rebuke and chastening.
Why is this the case? How should these two seemingly opposite approaches end up with the same problems? When people heap up teachers for themselves and have itching ears, the problem is that they seek novelty for the sake of novelty rather than for the sake of truth, and desire to have their own longings gratified and not questioned. What is the essential problem is not a desire for what is new, but rather to avoid growth by seeking entertainment and novelty. Likewise, there is nothing wrong with a desire to hold on to existing truth, except when one avoids growth by believing that one already knows everything and has everything to begin with and that there is nothing more that one needs to do or become. Here again, the problem is the absence of growth and the distraction of familiarity and tradition, not the fact that what is being held on to is somehow bad in and of itself.
How is one to overcome these tendencies? The Bible itself is notably a very layered work. God is, mercifully, not someone who micromanages us but rather general laws and principles are given and historical examples are provided for applications and patterns that are meant to spur us to take the existing legal framework of scripture and apply to our own lives and our own circumstances. God’s word is not the end of a conversation but rather the beginning of a conversation between believers and God and believers and each other about how we are to best live according to God’s ways. Our obedience to obvious and plainly spoken laws and principles leads us to ponder if there are other layers in addition to the obvious and surface layers, and provide implications that are worth pursuing that do not contradict the original understanding but rather deepen its meaning and importance. If we are growing in grace and knowledge and becoming increasingly conformed to God’s ways and becoming more like Him, there will be more than enough novelty as we apply His ways deeper into our lives and wrestle with the hidden sins in our own lives and within our own institutions and communities and larger society. That task of rooting out sin and in becoming more like God and in developing the fruits of God’s Spirit ought to keep us busy enough that we have no time for either itchy ears nor any place to think that we have nothing further to learn and no room to grow.
 See, for example: