the ongoing challenge of Scripture and life

 

…the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.

Job 42:7b; NRSVue

Scripture is so full, and we all know that life is. If there isn’t one thing, there’s another. Always something. 

Job is a great case in point. Avoid one way of looking at the book. Go to Jewish tradition and elsewhere. Even the way it’s translated is not set in stone. Job is just a great example of what is more or less true in all of Scripture. It points us to Christ, but the way it does is noteworthy.

Getting back to Job and the passage quoted above, Job is commended for challenging God. Job’s friends are rebuked, even humiliated (according to the NRSV heading) for stating the conventional doctrinal orthodox understanding of life, faithfully applying it to Job’s situation, indeed tragedy. There was nothing else to be said.

But Scripture and life is not like that. It is so much more open ended, not some closed system which we can set in stone in some kind of systematic theology. We’ll wrestle in life yes, but in Scripture too, and even with God if our faith is active and real.

Scripture is important but is never an end in itself. It mirrors real life and is meant to help us on. The point of Scripture and having to wrestle with it, is to lead us to Christ and to begin to understand all of Scripture in that light, really in a way that we can’t ever fully comprehend and capture. And so, the challenge goes on.  In and through Jesus.

 

are we a disappointment to God?

The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
    a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
    he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
    as on a day of festival.

Zephaniah 3:17-18a; NRSVue

Often we carry a burden of feeling and thinking that we are a disappointment not only to certain ones, but to God. That God looks on us and is not only disappointed with some of what we’ve done, maybe even much of that, but is disappointed in us. And there’s theology that in my mind is beneath the name Christian which supports and even promotes the idea that God basically just puts up with us, only able to stand to look at us and accept us because God sees us through and in Christ. Whatever grain of truth might be in that, the thought actually does not comport well at all with the whole of scripture, and especially in the light of Christ’s coming. In fact, any truth in it makes it more dangerous since people are more apt to swallow it. And so, we go around thinking and feeling that we’re nothing more than worms, really not liked by God, but somehow loved in the sense of God putting up with us. There is so much to say about all of this. Someone could write a book on this, not to say there haven’t been books written at least around this subject. There is much to say and sort out.

The above passage in Zephaniah is in the context of God’s judgment and work of salvation. With all the evil doing of the nations and of God’s own chosen people in Jerusalem, there’s a people who had been victims, and the rest evidently respond to God’s judgment with humility. At any rate, we can think of Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son, who certainly didn’t do right by his father, himself, or anyone else for that matter. Yet the father longed for him, and when at long last seeing him return, ran toward his son and embraced him, and had an all-out celebration, holding nothing back.

Yes, just as we’re disappointed at times in things we’ve done in our lives, so God also. But we’re not a disappointment to God. God sees the one God made, and delights in that. And God delights in all God wants to bring to pass and enjoy about us in God’s love. God sees that in everyone. One of our problems is that we project our poor way of seeing others onto God, as if God is limited in some similar way. But that indeed is not the case. God sees through the ugliness of our lives at the beauty that is present in God’s creation of us. And God loves us through and through just as we are. Yes, just as we are. God will help us in God’s love to become all that we really are, all God made us to be through creation and new creation. In and through Jesus.

when the Bible is made boring (a mortal error)

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”

Luke 24:13-32; NRSVue

There are few things worse, if anything than making the Bible boring. But I fear it’s all too regular an event. Though at the same time I’m confident that most of the time most of the churches avoid the worst of this. Yet I fear that what our Lord reprimanded and corrected here is all too common with us.

When the Bible becomes an end in itself, it becomes a dead letter. Yes, there is much wisdom in the Bible which is helpful, even if one stops there. Beautiful sayings and poetry as well, especially from the King James Version. But unfortunately the way the Bible is taught in even some major circles is “as boring as hell.” Hell understood as an existence in which people have their way apart from God really ends up boring in that all goodness and love are gone, since everything is turned in upon itself and becomes something other, even antithetical to love for God and neighbor. There’s nothing worse than understanding or being taught the Bible in such a way that it is boring.

The Bible becomes completely alive when we realize what it is for. It is to point us to Christ and the good news in him. And all of it is to be read in that glorious light. That is what Jesus was pointing out to these two disciples who were befuddled over what had happened when Jesus had been crucified, the one who they thought was the Messiah. And here he was, standing before them, though they did not recognize him until later when he broke bread in their home. But Jesus pointed out to them that scripture was written in such a way as to find its fulfillment and might I say even correction in him.

Scripture is alive. Avoid like the plague pressing whatever theology you have into it. The best theology worthy of the name comes out of letting scripture be what it is, rather than making scripture conform to it. The latter is dangerous, even deadly. And I wish people would quit thinking that expository preaching is the only way to go. It’s not only not the only way to go but I think often (not always) lends itself toward a misreading of scripture. Scripture is all about where we live and the life to be found in Christ. Again, not to say that we shouldn’t comb every corner of it for insight. But even when doing that, we should try to see every detail in light of God’s revelation in Jesus.

what if we’re not meant to tie up all the loose ends?

And the Lord said to Job:

“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
Anyone who argues with God must respond.”

Then Job answered the Lord:

“See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but will proceed no further.”

Job 40:1-5; NRSV

I have been a part of a tradition for decades which has a tendency to either try to answer every question, or comes across as if it answers all the questions which matter.* I believe that God does give us what we need. But we may wonder why God doesn’t give us what we think we need, as if we’re somehow equals with God. In fact we know from Scripture and from experience that it does seem to me anyhow that we are left hanging when it comes to lots of things.

The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.

Deuteronomy 29:29; NIV

What if we’re meant to live in wonderment? What if mystery is just as basic to our faith as what is actually revealed? When you think about it, even in theology this is as plain as day. We have reasoned from Scripture and discerned that God as Trinity is clearly taught. But we also realize that it can’t be explained, that we can’t understand that any more fully than we can understand God. In the world we find that science itself opens up doors which really elude human understanding as far as really being able to pin it down such as is the case in quantum physics.

This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t make known to us what we need to understand to live well. It just means that part of that is to begin to understand that we’re often left with questions unanswered. After all, God answered Job on God’s terms, not on Job’s. It seems that an important part of our knowing is to realize that we simply don’t know. But that God gives us all we need to live in the goodness along with the challenge of God’s will in this life. We don’t like to feel like our feet are off the ground. We would like everything to be settled. But like in the story of Job, what is just beyond or clearly beyond us may be an important part of our present life, and surely to some extent of the life to come. In and through Jesus.

Note this service and message from Gerald Mast: “Unclean Lips and Heavenly Things” from First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, Ohio.

*That’s probably an overstatement, but just speaks of a tendency within that tradition. And I think that tradition gravitates toward that. I am speaking of the evangelical tradition if anyone might wonder. I do so uncomfortably, but believing this is the case, with surely many who would at least want to be exceptions to this rule. But there are exceptions to this rule, though I just don’t see any emphasis on what we don’t know within that tradition. Hence the change in the post with the added word “tendency.”

secondary matters

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

Matthew 23:23-24

Jesus’s words here remind me of my own life and even the life of the church if I were to cite concerns. We easily get caught up in secondary matters, things necessary in their place which need to be attended to. And we often are focused on issues which distract us from what’s most important.

Our theological concerns can be far too narrow, and that becomes evident in what we are thinking about and what we do as a result. Is our view becoming more and more expansive like God’s? Or are we concerned about only the things which most directly affect ourselves both for this life and the next?

Jesus makes it clear that justice, mercy and faithfulness are to take priority over other matters. A key tactic of the devil, or so it seems to me is to get us sidetracked into obsessions which seem so important, but cause us to lose out over what is of first importance.

We need to take care of what we might call nuisance questions and problems. And in this life we’re beset by them, no doubt. But we must not let what is of primary importance be crowded out. Loving others, loving our neighbor as ourselves, loving even our enemies, certainly not neglecting those near and dear to us, all of this in our love for God must take priority. As we seek to follow Jesus in everything. In and through Jesus.

thinking about Bonhoeffer in today’s situation

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis shortly before the end of the war because of his resistance against Adolph Hitler and the Third Reich. He saw through Hitler and at least as early as 1933 criticized what was happening in Germany, specifically the rise of authoritarianism as seen in emphasis on submission to one leader. Bonhoeffer found himself at odds with the German (Lutheran) church early on. And even with the Confessing Church which had split from it, but later mostly caved in to Hitler’s demand for full allegiance. Even my tradition, the Mennonites in Germany at that time gave into that demand, offering full support to Hitler and that government, even couching it with Christian language.

For Bonhoeffer, faith and God being in the center were assumptions from which he operated, everything else subsidiary to that. Bonhoeffer was not in the least an evangelical, if you’re thinking about today’s American evangelical. I would say not even close. But you have to start reading his material including his letters to his good friend Eberhard Bethge. You’ll find thoughts about religionless Christianity, as well as his feeling more at home with non-Christians than Christians. Bonhoeffer was certainly more than disillusioned by the Christians of his day, and didn’t see in their faith any following of Christ whatsoever. Remember that in one of Bonhoeffer’s seminal works, Discipleship or The Cost of Discipleship he commented extensively on Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and wrote that when Christ calls someone, he bids them to come and die.

If Bonhoeffer were alive today, I think he would look at what’s happening in the United States with a similar concern which he had early on in the 1930’s in Germany. You have the rise of neo-Nazism in the US and elsewhere, white supremacist, and nationalistic groups. And you have the majority of white evangelicals in the United States backing the regime, I call it, which these groups support. This is not a good time. Christians are sullying the name of Christ today to do what Bonhoeffer said the German church was all about doing in his day: preserving themselves. How often do we hear today Christians up in arms over their perceived loss of religious freedom to the point that if it ever would happen, people would think they were crying “Wolf” again. And their concern for the possible loss of their status and place in their world, as minorities increasingly are influential in America, actually being the reason the recent (2020) US presidential election turned out as it did. And speaking a lot about reversing Roe v Wade, which may or may not happen. Remember that Hitler made the performing of abortion a capital punishment offense. That certainly didn’t make Hitler “pro-life,” although it would seem in today’s world that he would be called “pro-life” for that reason.

Bonhoeffer deserves a careful reading, as well as reading what historians have gathered about him. Do avoid any versions which don’t depict him as he truly was. He was complex, not easily understood, or pinned down. Some would consider him to the left of Karl Barth. But no doubt a man in whom the Spirit of Christ was alive and active. And who lived out his convictions even through his own mistakes and the awful circumstances of his time to the end when by grace he embraced the way of Christ fully. I write this far from being any expert on Bonhoeffer, but as one who sees his writing and work as more than worth considering given the time and circumstances in which we live.

think, think some more, and don’t quit thinking

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

The Apostle Paul uses terminology and actually says something here which makes it clear that we draw truth and what is good from various sources, from anywhere they might come from. Of course he would say that we have to test everything in terms of what God has revealed in Scripture, but so much is not contradictory to that. For example today we take much of medical science for granted, at least on some scale. And I completely accept the idea of mental illness and psychology along with medications which can help alleviate or at least deal with that. And then I’ll go to the arts: painting, music, etc. Much of beauty and what is good found there, and much of it from non-Christians.

When it comes to the faith itself, there is a rich tradition of deep theological thought and reflection on Scripture and life. I lament because it seems like much of that is set aside as less than lame, more like dead. But if one seriously reads through all of Scripture themselves, they’ll come to realize that such is not the case. The depth found in Scripture is something to remain in and explore the rest of our lives, in prayer and in life.

Of course we need discernment. Not everything out there is good. There is the cunning deceptive work of the enemy, the devil. We have to have discernment from God to see through anything that is contradictory to the main point of Scripture: the gospel. And we weigh what is good and not so good, along with rejecting what is false. If we don’t learn to think, pray and live deeply, we will fail to discern what is good, and might fall for what is not.

There at least needs to be a broad agreement on what Paul says here. Certainly Christians won’t see eye to eye on everything; we all bring a different perspective. But we should at least have the bigger picture in view, fulfilled in Jesus, so that we question many things, and remain true to the big picture found in Scripture along with the details, that of God’s grace and kingdom come and being fulfilled in and through Jesus.

theology for real life

The book of Job is a good case in point of how all of Scripture (the Bible) is meant for real life. No one is likely to be affected much by how many angels can dance on a pin, something allegedly, Christian theologians were contemplating in the past. It’s not like we have to look for only what seems relevant and ignore the rest. We need to prayerfully consider just what God might be saying to us through everything, especially through the words found in Scripture.

I like our church’s statement of faith, because it’s not simply about knowing or confessing something. It is about applying truth to life, or letting Scripture critique and change us.

The danger in all of this is that we want quick, pat answers. We think the Bible is written for us to solve all our problems and answer all our questions. Not. Scripture, God’s word is meant to shape us according to God’s will, which means conformity to Christ.

I am blessed too to work for a solid evangelical ministry which has the motto:

The mission of Our Daily Bread Ministries is to make the life-changing wisdom of the Bible understandable and accessible to all.

We have to beware of piling in information which we’re not applying. According to James, that is a sure recipe for self-deception. We can think we’re doing well and in the clear just because of what we know. But what we’re given to know is meant to be applied, every single bit of it. We may not know how, but we should be in prayer over it. God’s word has some effect on us, whether we always get it or not. But our goal should be to listen and learn for faith and life. What we believe is meant to impact how we live. And how we live can either confirm or undermine what we believe. The two go together.

This isn’t easy. It’s not like, here it is, plain and simple, so do it. Yes and no. Because although that’s the clear path, it’s beset with challenges to our faith, so that either our roots will have to go deeper in search of God’s wisdom, or we’ll more or less give up, shrivel and die. To live in between is to remain unsettled and eventually sets us up for failure, because it won’t work (James 1:6-8).

So we have to set our sight on one thing: God and God’s will in Jesus in this life. Everything else is secondary and subsidiary to that. In and through Jesus.

does the Bible really say that?

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation[c] has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted[d] beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted,[e] he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:11-13

This is a good passage out of which this part is shared here (click link) to critique popular theology. Paul’s voice seems so foreign, yet it actually resonates with Jesus’s voice, and that of the rest of the Bible on matters like sexual immorality, idolatry, and simply putting God to the test instead of in faith, trusting and obeying him.

One popular take out of pastoral concern (as a friend pointed out to me) is the point that indeed God doesn’t give us more than we can bear; he actually does, so that we won’t depend on ourselves, but on God to see us through. There’s truth in that when you consider it with the rest of God’s word. But I want to take seriously just what is actually said in these scriptural passages.

We’re told that God won’t let us be tempted or tested more than we can stand. But with that temptation will provide the way out, so that we can endure it. Plain and simple. Maybe not the way we want to hear it. We want somehow a miraculous breakthrough which requires no effort on our part. But as Dallas Willard pointed out, grace is not opposed to human effort. While God’s grace given to us in Jesus is nothing we can merit, earn, or deserve, that does not mean it is received passively by us. That happens, but it seems more often than not, we are active, at least in being attentive if nothing else.

If we think the Christian life isn’t without a struggle, or often against the grain of culture, then we have another thing coming. Or we may end up going, as a few leaders have in recent days, leaving the faith behind. There’s more to it than just this, much more. That is why we need to turn the pages of all of Scripture from beginning to end, and keep doing so. In prayer and with the commitment to a faith which receives and responds. Accepting the warnings of God’s word, even when they may seem to make little sense to us. So that God might do his work of grace in us, a process no less. In and through Jesus.

 

neither underestimate nor misunderstand the grace of God (nor think we can comprehend it)

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:11-14

We find again and again in scripture that God’s grace is key in our lives, in the lives of others. There are differences in teaching on this, as one might and should expect. There is what theologians call “common grace,” in which God pours down his blessings on all, in sunshine and rain, and provisions for life and more. This is not the grace described in this passage which brings salvation, according to scripture.

This is a big subject, but this post will touch mainly on one aspect of it, while addressing one common misunderstanding. God’s grace is alive and well in the world, and there is the light which enlightens every person (John 1). But the goodness and kindness of God is meant to lead people to repentance (Romans 2). There is no salvation apart from faith in Christ. It’s not just that somehow in an inexplicable, mysterious way that in the end all are saved through Christ. The NIV avoids this misunderstanding in the translation above, even if less literal. God’s grace is at work in all kinds of ways, but the special grace of salvation is always linked to repentance which means a turning from sin to God, and to faith, which means a trust in God and in God’s word, the message of the good news in Jesus.

Theologians also refer to “prevenient grace” which means the grace by which people receive the good news of the gospel for themselves by simple faith and trust in Jesus. Through Jesus’s death for our sins, and resurrection. We trust in what God has done for us through Jesus’s death, and receive forgiveness of our sins and new, eternal life.

So the grace which saves, to which the passage above refers, is not a cheap grace by which people get in with no change of life. Not at all. But at the same time grace is at work in spite of us, not because of us. That’s not to say that our efforts toward understanding and entering into this grace are a waste of time. Grace termed as prevenient by theologians might well include some of this striving, making every effort to enter into God’s rest (Hebrews 4). But also we have to remember that we still sin and have indwelling sin (1 John 1). And that is all the more true of those who have yet to cross over from death into life. They are sinners, period. Maybe Christians are both sinners and saints (Luther), depending on what you mean by that. God’s grace at work in people’s lives is in spite of so many things. God in his grace accepts us completely exactly where we’re at, but in God’s good grace, he certainly doesn’t leave us there.

Grace means we’re satisfied with nothing less than God’s salvation, which doesn’t mean only the forgiveness of sins, but also new life, a new way of living. By the Spirit in the love of God. Which means a changed life, a transformation both complete at conversion, and incomplete until Jesus returns (Philippians 1:6), meaning there is a process involved.

This grace gives us hope, and helps us to get out of God’s way, simply presenting the gospel, and trying to be responsive to God’s word. But this grace teaches us, teaches others. God’s full, unmerited, undeserved favor in helping us in ways beyond us, but in ways that indeed reach us in and through Jesus.