My faith was derailed when I discovered that the Bible isn’t as black and white as I once believed. Now, before all the conservatives start to think I’ve lost my way, let me tell you a story.
When I was a kid, I came across Genesis 6:3, which in today’s NIV translation says:
Then the Lord said, “My Spirit will not contend with humans forever, for they are mortal; their days will be a hundred and twenty years.”
So as an overly logical young person, I took this to mean exactly what it sounded like to me. People cannot live to be over 120 years old. Sweet. I figured something out. Now I know basically everything.
It took a while for that one to get worked out of my system. I would hear about a really stinking old person and think, well they must not really be that old, ‘cause the Bible clearly says that no one can live that long. And the Bible is the Word of God; the ultimate truth. It can’t say anything inaccurate, ever.
Eventually I did what any good millennial would do; I googled it. What exactly does this verse mean? Turns out no one could say for sure. Some say it was more of a general time limit on the human lifespan. Others say it was a pronouncement of God’s coming judgment on the Earth.
While I would have loved to know more concretely, that was good enough for me at the time, and I learned something valuable. I started to appreciate context. I would rarely look at just one verse anymore. I wanted to see the text around it. What was the bigger story? What is the author really trying to say here?
This desire quickly developed into a pet peeve. I was always bothered when someone would take a Bible verse and make it to mean whatever they wanted it to mean. Most commonly, Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In other words, “I can do anything I put my mind to,” but in a more Christiany sounding way. And while this can certainly be an encouraging and motivating sentiment, it has also too easily been abused.
More than the way it has been used though, I was bothered with the inaccuracy of it. Because I liked things to be right and perfect, I didn’t care so much about the personal meaning. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s why the NIV translation was changed to say, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength,” making it more difficult to take out of context. We can see the bigger picture by adding just one previous verse:
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
From this I saw that Paul was talking about contentment specifically, and I became fixated on this verse only being used in that one context. I wouldn’t entertain any other ways of thinking about it. Because, I believed, the Bible is infallible. It means exactly what it says and nothing else. Sure, personal revelation is a thing that could happen. God can speak through anything. But that would be for personal use only, not as something to share with others.
That way of thinking had me stuck for a very long time. In fact, that’s where I’ve been settled for most of my life. It is a hard place to break out of, but this year, that bubble of mine was busted wide open. I had been discovering more and more pieces of the Bible chronically taken to mean something they didn’t. They were used to control or manipulate others. They were used to justify abuse and hate. They were used in so many ways that just did not sound like the Jesus I thought I knew.
I get it. It’s easy to do. “Well the Bible says this is what we should do, and I don’t want to disobey God.” It’s hard to argue with that. For so long, I believed that questioning the Bible, questioning God, was shameful. It meant I would be doubting God and losing my faith. It was basically slapping God in the face. And it probably meant I would go to hell.
So I never let myself think about those things. They were blocked out and shoved away, building up over time. Then when I finally allowed the questions to creep into my mind, they pushed through the doors like a flood, knocking the wind out of me and nearly drowning me in the process.
As I did research, read books, and spent some time reevaluating my beliefs, I felt as if my spiritual foundation was getting completely swept away. Many of the things I clung to as pillars of my faith, turned out to simply not be what I thought they were. My set-in-stone views were a lot less concrete than they appeared. I was suddenly reaching out with nothing to hold on to. I didn’t know what to believe anymore. I had built my house on the sand.
This whole process had me in a rut. I felt lost and hopeless. And unlike every other time in my life, this time I didn’t feel I could turn to God in my time of need. Because who even is God? What is he really like? What does he think of me? What does he do?
All of a sudden, I actually had an interest in theology. And as I listened to various Bible scholars, my eyes were opened to the idea that there is more than one way to look at the specifics of this faith of ours. All these people who spend their lives studying the Bible can’t even agree on everything. These people who devote everything they have to understanding God still can’t fully understand God.
I believe this is very telling about our God. He is so beyond human reasoning, how can I even pretend to know who he is? He is so complex, what makes me think I can comprehend his plans and the way he works? As much as I would like to, I cannot reduce the mysteries of God to fit into my limited mind.
The Bible is not what I thought it was. I see it now, not as a manual for everything a Christian needs to learn and do and be, but as a beautiful story of God’s children and how they saw and related to him. A story of struggle and triumph. A story of pain and heartbreak. A story of love and redemption. The Bible is raw and messy. It isn’t always perfect and absolute. Simply put, it is real life, as told by people just like us, who put their faith in God.
Yes, I believe scripture is God-breathed. This world is God-breathed. Human beings are God-breathed. We can see evidence of him all around us. And I am seeing it now more than ever as I look for his light wherever it shines, and not only in the pages of the Bible.
Jesus came to this Earth to show us a different way of living. He modeled love and grace, gentleness and kindness, sacrifice and caring… He taught us just how important people are. He gave us a new way of seeing things. And he wants us to follow in his footsteps. From the book The Sin Of Certainty by Peter Enns:
Like God the Father and God the Son, we are also called to be faithful. On one level, we are faithful to God when we trust God, but faith (pistis) doesn’t stop there. It extends, as we’ve seen, in faithfulness toward each other, in humility and self-sacrificial love. And here is the real kick in the pants: When we are faithful to each other like this, we are more than simply being nice and kind — though there’s that. Far more important, when we are faithful to each other, we are, at that moment, acting like the faithful God and the faithful Son. Being like God. That’s the goal. And we are most like God, not when we are certain we are right about God, or when we tell others how right we are, but when we are acting toward one another like the faithful Father and Son. Humility, love, and kindness are our grand acts of faithfulness and how we show that we are all in.
I believe that as long as I am alive in this world, I will never know what I believe. But I do know who I believe. My trust is in God, and in his son Jesus Christ. I may not really know who God is, but I have seen him in a contagious smile from a stranger, and in an incredible sunset painted across the sky. I have heard him in an encouraging word from a friend, and in the right song on the radio at just the right moment. I have felt him in the caring heart of someone I trust, and in the warm embrace of those closest to me.
My God cannot be made to fit into a box. No one denomination has him all figured out. A faith dependent on nailing down my precise theological position, was never going to last forever. The God of the Bible is the same God we have with us today. We may all see him a bit differently, but I think that’s okay. He knows who he is. He knows what he’s doing. And so I put my faith in him.
Taste and see that the Lord is good.
Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him!
Psalm 34:8 NLT