Op-Ed for Thursday, November 13 (’14)
Walk into any Christian retail bookstore and there are four objects you’re sure to find:
1) Left Behind.
4) A book that says something like God’s Promises for Everyday or God’s Answers for Your Life.
Flip open the “answers” and “promises” books and you’ll find brief sections (of one or two pages) that give you all the “relevant” Scripture portions on whatever you feel to read. Are you depressed? Turn to page 67 and read a few promises from God about anxiety and depression. Lonely? Page 88 has verses to remind you that God is with you and is your comforter. Sex sin…again? 101-104 have passages from Paul and David reminding you God forgives and Jesus’ blood spilled is enough for all that jazz.
None of this is inherently sinful or wicked, but there are five characteristics of such books that make them dangerous. This is when Bible reading may just be wrong….
First, they are designed to be easy and comfortable. This is especially human, and there is nothing wrong with making the Bible easier to read. However, the tendency here is to make the Bible nothing more than a baby-blanket or stuffed animal—an object of comfort. But Scripture isn’t an Excedrin in book form. You can’t “take it” to make your woes vanish. We must treat Scripture as more than a pill—it is God’s revelation to us of cosmic redemption in his Son. Sometimes, it takes horrendous effort to understand and, at the end of such a process, we feel worse because we know more about ourselves and God’s holiness than we ever dared imagine.
Second, the verses provided under “anger,” “fear,” “love,” “sex,” “children,” etc., are highly selective. Someone in a publishing house or author decided what you needed to hear and read. That person (or group) cherry-picked one verse over another. Who doesn’t like cherries, though, right?
It may be highly educated cherry-picking, but it’s still subjective. What was their criteria for such a choice? Similar vocab, i.e., “This one talks about anger, so let’s include it”? How do you know you’re really getting what you actually need, namely, God himself? You don’t. You are placed at the mercy of a human being for the sake of subjective comfort and ease of time. I have tested these books often and they have proven to be filled with half-truths as much as they have been genuinely helpful. If you’re angry and struggling with lust, perhaps you need to read the historical narratives of Job (that have nothing much to do with lust) rather than Psalm 51. Perhaps these stories are what the Spirit would use to make you realize that life is not about you and redemption transcends your anger and lust to include a redeemed multitude that no one can count. Perhaps the unbelievable glory revealed in Isaiah 6 and Revelation 21-22 would turn such anger into praise—but you won’t find such passages listed in your cherry-picked book.
Instead of relying on educated cherry-picking, we must be consistent stewards of all God’s revelation in Scripture, submitting our personal moments of existential Charlie-Brown crises to the grandiose glory of The Whole Book. Sometimes, this also means we may never get an answer for our subjective cries of futility and frustration. Welcome to living life like you’re not in a first-world nation!
Third, the verses provided are ripped from their overall context in their individual books and letters as well as the overall redemptive story of the Bible. This is close to #2 above. If I want to get married and want to know what the Bible says about it, I can open one of these books and read what it has to say under “marriage.” I will find a few pages on it, but will I find the Scripture that describes Christ relationship with his people as the Ultimate Reason and Reality for human marriage? If I don’t (and I didn’t), then my perspective on marriage is kept on a human level—my spouse is just my spouse and not a gift from God about Him as this text says explicitly. It would be refreshing if all Christians tried to see verses in context. I love what Daniel Hoffman said once, “Intensive exegesis and contextual analysis, utilizing all the latest background research and hermeneutical theories, reveals that Jeremiah 29:11 is a message for the High School students of early 21st century America.” That’s about all we want to say about that.
Fourth, as hinted already, these books have a way of making Christianity about Almighty You instead of the Kingdom of God. We should all have a profound aversion to radically individualistic forms of religion—especially when it’s some deformed branch of Christianity. Orthodox Christianity has no skin-tone, no singular national language, no lone culture. It is about the redemption of Many under the banner of Jesus. We are a Body. These books tend to make us into nose-pickers. Nobody (well…mostly) picks their noses around others. These books are like picking your nose: a solitary activity for solitary people. There is no “I-Am-A-Body” in Christianity. We must remember that, even in our Scripture reading, the point isn’t just me and Jesus, but the entire Church, of which I am a small part, and Jesus.
Fifth, and moving beyond the individualistic treatment of Scripture, the Bible isn’t a textbook of theology in which you can get an “outline of essential topics you must master to think and live God’s way” (Paul Trip, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, 24). It is an organic whole. Every part relates to each other because every part has its end in Jesus. You cannot isolate one over another simply because you’re interested in one topic alone. Each needs the other in order to be properly understood. Anger, Love, Demonic Possession are interrelated. Every doctrine is, even if some are more immediately necessary (Jesus’ divinity) than others (baptismal regeneration or no?).
Scripture must be treated as it presents itself. In order for us to know how it presents itself, we must put aside books like this and spend the time moving beyond ourselves to see the beauty of all Scripture united together in a common theme. As Paul Tripp has said, using the Bible in such individualistic ways,
…rarely leads to lasting change because it does not bring the power of the Word to the places where change is really needed (the heart). In this kind of ministry, self is still at the center, personal need is the focus, and personal happiness remains the goal. But a truly effective ministry of the Word must confront our self-focus and self-absorption at its roots, opening us up to the vastness of a God-defined, God-centered world. Unless this happens, we will use the promises, principles, and commands of the Word to serve the thing we really love: ourselves. This may be why many people read and hear God’s Word regularly while their lives remain unchanged. Only when the rain of the Word penetrates the roots of the problem does lasting change occur” (Instruments, 24-25).