A while back, I was at a Bible study with some really wonderful Christian people. Getting a little bit too comfortable, I forgot myself and shared that I really hated the particular verse that we were studying. (I don’t recall which verse it was, there are many passages in the Bible with which I struggle in different ways. One recent example is found in my essay Obvious Yet Hard to See wherein I shared my difficulties with some verses in the first chapter of Romans.) The response to my revelation of personal weakness was immediate and painful. I was challenged by one of the senior members of the congregation. “Rob you cannot be a true believer in Jesus Christ and hate God’s word.” It was made clear that if I persisted in such wayward ways I would no longer be welcome in that company.
Now I don’t blame this young man for the zeal with which he upholds his duties as a shepherd of younger believers. In fact, I quite like and admire him for his love and openness and service and I later concluded that I should have mentioned my difficulty in more tactful language. Having said that, I could never believe in the God that he thinks he sees in the Bible. Perhaps an illustration of my difficulty is in order.
Let us imagine that God gave to this young man and myself a simple one word command in a shared dream. “Jump.” In my imagination, I see my young friend standing at attention and offering a crisp salute. “SIR! WHEN YOU SAY JUMP I SAY HOW HIGH SIR!” When he does not receive an immediate answer to this query, he jumps as high as he can and goes on about his business. My own response to this dream would be somewhat different.
“Hey, Lord, me again. Just on my knees here checking in. Wanted to discuss the whole ‘Jump’ command you gave me. Not exactly sure I understand what you meant? Not saying no, but I thought I would ask for a little clarification here. Did you mean jump until further notice? Should I call up my employers and tell them I won’t be in today? Jump here in my apartment or outside? Can I wear my ankle protecting sneakers or does your purpose for jumping require me to be barefoot? Is this a command to exercise or am I supposed to be a witness to someone out in the park?” In the absence of a direct answer to these questions, I would prayerfully contemplate the command until I thought I understood it and then execute it to the best of my ability.
Now it might seem to some people that this behavior would indicate disobedience. The person who takes the time to question and understand the command is really stalling because he doesn’t want to do it. In fact, such a response is my way of being as obedient as I know how to be. When my boss sends me an email assigning me a new task, the first thing I do after I have looked it over is call him up and ask him for clarifications. “Hey Chris, just got your email. Not quite sure I understand everything you wanted and had a few questions.” If I don’t ask those questions and actively seek to understand the assignment, then I am not fully engaged.
Now this seems to me to be a very important spiritual point. The New Testament commands us to “ask, seek and knock”, to “seek ye first the kingdom of God” and to “test the spirits”. It commends the noble Bereans for “searching the scriptures every day” to see if what Paul was telling them was true. Despite all of these commands to seek the hidden things of God, however, some believers act as though questioning God’s word is inherently sinful and disobedient. These people act as if God is a tyrant who demands unquestioning obedience to inflexible commands. To me, this is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of God that is fatal to a genuine understanding of the Bible.
In a previous essay, I mentioned that God taught the ancient Israelites in a way that was akin to the Socratic Method where students are required by the questioning of the teacher to learn a truth for themselves. Taught in this way, truths are not merely repeated by rote, but understood and accepted at a much deeper level. If we are to understand the Old Testament as anything but the inflexible commands of a totalitarian, then understanding that God works in this way is vital. To flesh out my ideas on this subject a little bit, I decided to post an extract from my book, A Rational Faith.
A Rational Faith Section 3.1.1 The Challenge Method of Teaching
One of the ways that various passages of Scripture can be difficult to understand is God’s use of the challenge method of teaching. Many times in the Scripture, God will say something in a way that he knows will be misunderstood in the hopes that believers will question his meaning. As an example, let us consider a passage of the Bible where Jesus seems to say something that is totally false if you try and understand it independent of the rest of the Bible:
And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?
But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. (Matthew 9:10-12)
“They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.” How do you interpret this verse? If you read it in context, Jesus seems to be saying that the Pharisees are not sinners. Is Jesus congratulating the Pharisees on their great righteousness? Is Jesus saying that the Pharisees do not need a savior?
If one is familiar with the rest of the New Testament, the answer to this question is obvious. For those who are skeptical, the answer is given explicitly in Luke 18:9-13. In this passage, Jesus says that the Publican who “smote upon his breast” and did not consider himself worthy to look up to heaven went away justified before God while a Pharisee who believed himself to be righteous was not justified before God.
What is going on here? Jesus is the greatest possible teacher of truth, and yet he says something that we know to be false. Not only that, but he later explicitly teaches that it is false. Is Jesus lying? Was he wrong at first and only later learned the error of his ways? These explanations are impossible. The only way to understand this passage is to see that Jesus is using a technique to teach truth. I call this technique the challenge method of teaching and it is used throughout the scripture. Consider the following examples:
But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter. (Mark 7:27-29)
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know. Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way? (John 14:3-5)
Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6: 53-54)
As we can see from the above examples, Jesus will sometimes say something that is untrue in a literal sense and wait for believers to ask for clarification. Was Jesus refusing to heal the woman’s daughter in Mark chapter 7? Or was he testing her faith, trust and persistence? Was Jesus saying that Thomas knew the physical location where he was going? Or was he testing Thomas’ understanding? Does Jesus really want those who are listening to him to carve him up with a steak knife and serve him with A1? Or is he trying to get them to understand a deeper truth?
At other times, Jesus uses an analogy to physical things to teach us about spiritual things:
Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have taken no bread. Which when Jesus perceived, he said unto them, O ye of little faith, why reason ye among yourselves, because ye have brought no bread? Do ye not yet understand, neither remember the five loaves of the five thousand, and how many baskets ye took up? Neither the seven loaves of the four thousand, and how many baskets ye took up? How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? (Matthew 16:6-11)
In this passage, Jesus teaches the disciples to beware the teaching of the Pharisees by making an analogy to bread. Why doesn’t he come out and explicitly say beware the teaching of the Pharisees? When he uses parables to the crowds, he does it: “Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” (Matthew 13:13) This is not the case, however, with the disciples. Jesus wants the disciples to learn to seek and question what he says in order to learn deeper truths and sternly rebukes them when they interpret the saying in a simplistic way. What is true of the teaching of Jesus is also true of the Bible as a whole. Only by thoughtfully considering what the Bible says and questioning it if it doesn’t make sense can we see the deeper truths that God is pointing us towards.