This weekend I was driving down to LA with a very passionate fundamentalist Christian. She said some things (probably closer to “shouted” some things) that are worth talking about. We’ll call her Melanie.
“Some Christians get so smart they become dumb. I receive the Bible like a Child, the way Jesus told me to.” -Mel (short for Melanie, because Melanie takes too long to write)
Yeah, about that.
I hear this sort of thing, or variations of it all the time. Some people say “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Others say “I don’t interpret the Bible, I just take it for what it says.” or “I don’t follow a denomination, I just follow the Bible.” Not to mention that cute little acronym, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” There’s only one problem with this approach:
Following the Bible will get you lost.
(and probably turn you into a dogmatic jerk too)
The Book, not the God
The writers of the New Testament, and Jesus as well, understood the Scriptures to be living and active, able to rightly divide truth and expose the true intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). They believed it was the sword of God. However,
The Sword of God is not the same as the Person of God.
God uses scripture, he speaks through scripture, and He has inspired scripture, but he Himself is NOT scripture. Scripture was studied by rabbis for years, and all Jewish children attended temple and studied Torah to some degree. We see Jesus sitting in the Temple studying and discussing Torah extensively as a child (extensively in that the Rabbis were impressed with his questions. Asking the right questions shows familiarity with the concepts, and an ability to critically examine the content).
God was Holy, and His word was NOT to be approached lightly.
Somewhere along the path of Christian history, we have diverged into one of two camps:
- Trusting a pastor, teacher, or leader to tell us what to believe
- Trusting the Bible by itself to tell us what to believe
Hopefully, as a church we begin to correct this. It starts with you and I.
God Himself is the one that as Christians we claim to follow. We claim that we know Him, have a personal relationship with Him, things like that. God is not a book. We don’t devote our lives to a book. We don’t worship a book. We worship God, the one who inspired the book.
I know this seems basic, but it isn’t. Let’s go back to my friend Mel…
Mel said that she receives the Bible like a child, the way Jesus says to, but what did Jesus actually say?
“But Jesus called for them, saying, “Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.” Luke 18:16-17
So, where in this passage does Jesus say to receive the Scriptures like a child?
Without going too deep on this scripture, I’ll just say it could be talking about receiving salvation like a child, receiving Jesus like a child, maybe receiving the inheritance we have as children of God like a child, but it definitely is not telling us to just swallow up verses like a child.
God wants us to receive Him–His grace, His love–like children, but he expects us to handle his Word with maturity.
What is the Bible?
The Bible is not a book.
Everyone tells you it is, but it isn’t. Its an anthology.
The Bible was written by more than 50 people, over around 2,000 years, over 2,000 years ago. These people were from sometimes radically different cultures, and they were each writing for their own unique reasons to their own unique audience in their own unique time.
All these writings were eventually compiled into one “box set” so to speak, and the Jews called it the Torah. Eventually a Jewish man named Jesus started a Jewish cult that grew beyond just Jews thanks to a guy named Paul, and this disparate group of people had their own collection of writings (mostly letters) that they eventually gathered into a pile as well, and began reading alongside the original box set, which after a few hundred years became the official “Season two” of the Bible. (If you’re Mormon or Islamic, you even get a season 3!)
Poetry. History. Narrative. Personal Letter. Corporate Declaration. Prophecy. Contract. Song.
The anthology we call “The Bible” contains all these written forms, and then some. Works like Genesis were written in a style that we can hardly even name, since it worked by such different rules than our modern understanding of literature. Calling the Bible “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” couldn’t be further from the truth.
When we read the Bible like a textbook, or a narrative, or instructions, we are sure to misunderstand it. For one, because it is not simply a book that can be read and applied cover to cover. If we read and apply the Levitical law like it’s a textbook, we will end up never wearing mixed fabrics and stoning gay people. If we read Song of Songs literally, we will end up at best giving our spouses weird compliments and at worst using fruit in ways that it probably should never be used in.
Yet we do this every day.Maybe not in as dramatic a way as these examples, but in ways that are destroying our walk with God, and our relationships with other people. We try to turn the Bible into a compass when the Bible tells us to be led by the Spirit.
For many of us, much like my friend Mel, we get our self worth and our identity from our theology. We believe a book over the one that wrote it. We hold so tightly to our beliefs, because if they crumble then we have nothing left to stand on.
Mel was so defensive, and completely unable to hear anything I had to say, and I really don’t blame her one bit. When your world revolves around what you believe, you have to defend what you believe, because if you lose your beliefs then you lose yourself.
When your world revolves around what you believe, then if you lose your beliefs you will lose yourself.
Most of our inner conflicts come not from new ideas, but from feeling that our current ones are being threatened. Beliefs tell us who we are, what matters, and what to do. If they are shaken, we might lose all the things that make us feel like ourselves. We would be lost.
As long as you trust in what you believe more than you trust that God will continually lead you closer to all truth, then you are sure to be living a lie.
This is easy to measure by the way.
First, call to mind a particularly important belief that you hold. If you’re a Christian, the doctrine of the Trinity might be a fun one to work with.
Now, imagine this:
How do you feel? What reaction is coming up in you right now? Do you want to fight me? Do you want to defend your truth, convinced that it’s somehow your job to be the savior of the world and overthrow the lies of the enemy?
You’re openness to being wrong, and your willingness to change your beliefs, directly reveals how much your identity is tied to those beliefs rather than to a relationship with God.
To whatever degree we hold on to our beliefs, that is the degree that we limit ourselves from seeing Truth.
What do we do about it?
This problem isn’t solved overnight, and it isn’t solved easily. Every one of us does this to some degree. Our brains are even wired to do it (google “narrative bias” and “confirmation bias;” you’ll be glad you did). We can start by recognizing it and repenting.
Next, if you hear something you disagree with, don’t give your opinion. Ask questions, then keep asking questions. Actively work to let your guard down as you talk. Remember that Truth doesn’t need defending. Truth is true whether you believe it yet or not. You changing your views won’t make Truth different, and it won’t mess up God. He was what He was before and after you changed your belief, and He’ll still be what He is even if you change your belief back again one day. Remember, you are pursuing God, not doctrine. The more you are open to growing and changing your beliefs, the easier it will be to follow God rather than your beliefs.
If you come away from a conversation frustrated or confused, or feel like your world has been rocked, take a moment to remember that you don’t have to be right, and that “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable and honest answer to a question.
Seek out the experts of the opposing view and read/listen to them without commentary from your own side. For example, if you are trying to learn more about Atheism, read Richard Dawkins. Don’t read some Christian books about how Dawkins and his friends are wrong. That will just give you the illusion of critical thinking while entrenching you even deeper in your pre-existing ideas.
Be willing to change your view, and keep seeking more understanding. Never get so entrenched in a belief that you cannot be shaken, because an inflexible belief will either shatter or entrap you every time.
Another great read on this topic is from my old blog, called Why Wrong Theology Works. Check it out here.
So, a little bonus content. I want to dispel some of the fears that I might have if I were you reading this for the first time. Here’s what I’m NOT saying:
I’m not saying we are not to respect or take the Bible seriously. Actually, I’m saying the opposite. The bible is to be respected, as it is what God gave us as a starting point to get to know Him and as a wealth of encounter into Himself. It is meant to help guide us, definitely. However, when we take it literally, or study it without critically examining what we are actually reading, we are NOT respecting the Bible or God.
To not take the Bible in context, analyze why it says what it says and how those it was written to would have taken it, we are being supremely arrogant. The bible is not directly written to you or I, and when we approach it with that level of pride, we will surely fall into error in our interpretations.