On the day that God was telling me some things I did not really want to hear, I could have said to God: No thank you. I won’t hear what you’re saying to me today. I am going to take your words, and I am going to twist them into what I want them to say, instead. I could have probably talked myself into just feeling good and loved by God as I sat there, by the river.
If I had done that, I could have easily clung to the delusion that I was listening to God. I could have bragged about how I’d meditated over that scripture and I took it as a promise that God was going to give me a new job. In doing all this, all though my words would have claimed I was doing this on the bible’s authority, it really would have been a denial of biblical authority.
After denying biblical authority over our own selves, we often go on to try and use it to wield authority over others. We try to use scripture like a club. We see the bible as instrument of force. We wield it in a way that forces others to do our bidding, that beats them into submission.
We judge people and categorize people inside our churches and outside of them. We elevate our human interpretations to the status of God’s pronouncements. In short, we pervert the bible. We can use it to wield the sort-of authority that we see the world using.
But the thing about the world’s way of authority is that all it ever does is calls us to compliance. It calls us to avoid punishment, it calls us to create endless lists of ‘do’s and ‘do-nots’. The world’s kind-of authority does not challenge us to excel, to seek deeply after things.
I don’t think our only motivation is in an unhealthy desire to control people. I can see how reassuring it would be, to look at things in such a black-and-white manner, to act as though the bible gave us rules instead of stories, to speak as though we have attained a final, complete, and unassailable understanding. If we’re not using Christianity as a way to control people, sometimes, at the bare minimum we treat complexity and challenges as if they were Christianity’s dirty little secret, the elephant in the room.
CS Lewis says this about the complexity of understanding The Bible, “We may think we should have preferred an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form – something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table.”
But scripture is not always systematic and tabulated. It is so much more than a simple set of rules. There are instructions in the bible that seem to contradict each other. The core of Jesus teaching is in parable, stories whose meaning was even struggled with by the apostles themselves. And almost every day, I find in the bible instructions that just don’t connect to what I experience in the world.
These frustrations and challenges are great things. They pull all of us into the grand story of scripture. They cause us to experience these stories with all of ourselves. It is an example of the way God wields authority: not just over us, not just at us, or to us. God uses authority in a way that pulls us into the equation. It becomes an experience that happens with us, when we are challenged to wrestle with meaning, to apply principles for ourselves.
God doesn’t want to speak at us. He wants to dance with us. He wants to interact and engage us. The idea of a God who wants to interact with us seems like a great segue as we move back into a time or worship with him.
Don’t mishear me. I’m not denying objective truth. I’m not saying that we should compromise everything. I’m not suggesting that we ought to fixate on only the difficult parts.
For all it’s frustration, I love the bible. But I think it’s really important to be honest and clear about why we love the bible, what is so compelling about it.
Part of the greatness, the authority of scripture, is not in spite of the challenging things, the apparently inconsistent things, the things that are so unlike the world. The authority of scripture is because of those things.
Before I knew Jesus there were all these Christians with there pat answers and simplified explanations. I thought maybe their lives were a permanent episode of “Leave it to Beaver.” The faith they were trying to convince me of did not speak to the world I was living in.
What I know now is that God engaged in this great act of love and respect for humanity’s mind and imagination. He wrote something that would challenge and even frustrate us. He wrote something that asks if we would like to submit to it.
And God gives us a roadmap for responding to this. Scripture itself provides a really important blue print in the second chapter of Philipians. In this portion of the letter, Paul shares with us some important insights into how God uses authority and what his expectations are for us around seeking out the truth.
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Do Everything Without Grumbling
12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
There is a metaphor in here for the true authority of the scriptures.
Just as Jesus did not use his equality with God, his authority, as something to be used to his own advantage, so to, the scriptures do not use authority to their own advantage.
By any reasonable way of thinking about it, God has the right to order us around, to compell us to do things, to wield his authority the same way that the world does. We might expect the bible to be nothing but orders and expectations. Orders and expectations are in there, but it’s not what the bible primarily is. The bible is God’s love letter to us.
In calling us rather than compelling us, the bible makes itself a servant to us. Are we prepared to make ourselves like a servant to it? It’s so easy and natural for us to come with our ideas, to carry our interpretations as though they are in the bible itself. The middle portion of these verses challenges us to follow the example of Jesus and make ourselves nothing. When we put all of our own selves away, that’s where and when we’ll find the truth that dwells within scripture.