We all say this more than once in our lives, at times when we seem to have no options or when all the things we know to do aren’t working. At these times, many of us naturally seek counsel, coaching, or advice.
Those of us who are Christians also turn to God through prayer and Bible meditation. It’s wise even in good times to seek ongoing guidance from the creator of our universe.
But once in a while, I’ll hear a Christian say that the Bible is life’s instruction manual. And I wince. Because it’s really not.
I used to write instruction manuals for a living. Manuals are about teaching skills and accomplishing tasks. For example, I once wrote a manual for a device that telephone companies used to collect network telemetry. I included a schematic diagram, a line drawing of the device’s front panel with all the controls called out, and paragraphs detailing every configuration option. Technicians used this manual to install and configure the device, and to troubleshoot it when it misbehaved. My manual was factual, comprehensive, detailed, and complete. It covered every situation.
I’ve also written piles of step-by-step instructions. Here are some I whipped up just for this post, about how to save a document as a PDF in Microsoft Word:
Open the File menu and choose Save As. The Save As window opens.
If the window does not show the location where you want to save the PDF, in the pane at left, click the location to use. Then in the folder list at right, click the folder to use.
Type a name for the document in the File Name box.
Click the arrow at the end of the Save As Type box and choose PDF.
Notice how specific these instructions are. If you follow them to the letter, you will have your PDF.
The Bible, in contrast, offers neither step-by-step instructions nor specific configuration and troubleshooting information for life. There are two primary reasons, the least of which is that life, with all its richness and complexity, can’t be boiled down in this way.
The bigger reason is that the Bible is really about revealing the nature of God through his relationship with his people, and about telling the story of his people.
The Bible can, absolutely can, help guide your life. But rather than turning to page 207 and following the five steps you find there, you must rather keep reading the Bible throughout your life, studying what you find there in the context of culture and history in the times it was written, discussing what you read with others who are farther along this path than you, and meditating and praying over what you’ve studied. If you do this, you will gain insight into what it means to be a Christian and the kind of life God wants you to live. You then apply this insight every day, adjusting and adapting as you go, all the while continuing to study, discuss, and pray.
Opening the Bible expecting specific guidance on a specific topic can lead to misapplying God’s word. Some Scriptures are bluntly unambiguous: don’t murder, don’t sleep around on your spouse.
Others only seem crystal clear. Here’s one: Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (NASB) Do you want to make more money? Do you want to find a loving partner and get married? Do you want to win the big game? Then let yourself be strengthened by God and you can have it! Or, at least that’s how it is sometimes interpreted.
But if you study this verse in its context, you learn some startling things. Paul wrote this book from prison — he was living in oppression. Now consider the verses that lead up to this famous verse:
11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (NASB)
Paul isn’t saying that God will help him achieve all of his dreams. He’s saying that no matter what difficulties come, God can help him through them. The message is that God can help us push through when life hands us loss and defeat.
Study, discussion, prayer, application. Repeat, repeat, repeat, all your life. God’s word will surely change you, as rushing water slowly shapes rock. You will come to know God, you will come to know the people who have followed him throughout history, and you will see how God loves even the most imperfect people, including you.
… “Things I wish Christians would stop saying” is an occasional series. You’ll find other posts in this series here, here, and here.
If you are a Christian and you publicly condemn homosexuality or homosexual behavior, stop it. You’re harming the faith. You’re making Christians look like pinheads.
That’s because it’s not the Christian’s job to tell the world how to live. The Christian has three major jobs:
Be the conduit for God’s love into the world
Introduce people to God through Jesus Christ
Encourage other Christians to become better disciples
There’s so much work to do in just these three jobs that we should be too busy to pronounce condemnation on anyone. There will never be a shortage of people in need: sick, poor, addicted, grieving, lonely, incarcerated. Go and do for them.
Sometimes, people you serve will become ready and receptive to hear more about God. Tell them your faith story and show them what the Bible says about redemption. Let your testimony and especially the word of God penetrate their hearts. After they’ve accepted Christ, help them build their relationship with God. Encourage them, study with them, pray with them, be their friend, and give them opportunities to serve people in need. And so the cycle continues.
Here’s where this gets a little thorny. Part of helping other Christians grow and become better disciples sometimes involves pointing out their sins. On the one hand, Jesus warned us in the Sermon at the Mount to take the log out of our own eye before we point out the splinter in someone else’s – that is, we should we should overwhelmingly focus on cleaning up our own act over correcting others. But Paul in his writings tells Christians that they should directly address the gross, unrepentant sin of other Christians.
It can be tricky to figure out through the Bible what God considers to be wrong behavior. It’s tempting, but risky, to read any English translation of Scripture as direct instruction to us. That’s because the Bible’s books were originally written for an audience that has been dead for thousands of years. Who was the original audience in terms of their history, culture, and level of understanding of the world? What is known about why that book was written? Additionally, do other passages about the same subject harmonize with this one and with the Bible’s overarching message? Finally, because the original language is not always easily directly translated into English, it is often very illuminating to look at the original words to learn shades of meaning obscured in English. In other words, a full understanding of any Bible passage requires study.
Upon that level of study, it’s clear that the Bible unambiguously calls out many sins: God hates divorce. Don’t sleep around on your spouse. Don’t murder anybody. However, I find after some study that the few verses that call out homosexual behavior are ambiguous.
But regardless of what your study leads you to think about homosexuality, those few verses are positively overwhelmed by verse after verse after verse that tell the Christian what behaviors and attitudes to put on. The Bible relentlessly tells you to live a life of compassion and service. Give yourself over to it, and let God sort out the rest.
Here is another thing I wish Christians would stop saying.
Last year I wrote an entry here called “Holding up my hand,” in which I compared my faith journey to my mother walking me to school on my first day of kindergarten. It’s my favorite entry here, but because I wrote it shortly after I started this blog, few people have seen it. Since I get more than ten times the traffic now (a whopping 300 visits a week which, I’m sure, has WordPress.com scrambling to expand its server farm), I thought I’d shamelessly try to drive more traffic to that post.
The map below shows how I walked to elementary school as a boy in the 1970s. My family lived in a little neighborhood of small, cheap prefab homes on the southeast side of South Bend, Indiana. As my mom walked me to school on my first day of kindergarten, she pointed out all of the interesting things along the way. My story is about what faith is made of, and how it’s not made of the interesting things along the way. So now when you read “Holding up my hand,” you can refer to the map for easy reference!
In the 34 years since that first trip to school, the properties my old neighborhood have become rentals, most houses with peeling paint and yards full of weeds and brown grass. Young families still live there, though. Children still take the Secret Sidewalk and pass the synagogue on their way to school, but the hippies are certainly gone (as is the woods on that corner) and the Church of Christ is now the Living Stones Church. I hope mothers are still holding their children’s hands on their first day.
On my first day of Kindergarten, my mother walked with me the half mile to school so I’d know the way. I was a little anxious about meeting so many new children, but only a little anxious because I felt tremendously reassured that Mom was taking me there. When the time came I reached my hand up for her to grasp and we left our house. In the warm September sun we walked uphill past the houses that curved along our narrow street. She led me along the Secret Sidewalk, a shortcut between some houses that emptied onto another street that led down the other side of the hill. As we passed the synagogue, Mom explained how Jews in our area walked to services there every Saturday. As we passed a patch of little sumac trees, Mom warned me not to touch them because they were poisonous. As we passed a wooded lot, Mom warned me not to go in because the hippies liked to go in there and she wasn’t sure they were safe. As we rounded the corner and passed the Church of Christ, Mom said that even if the other kids wanted to cut through their property as a shortcut, I was to stay on the sidewalk. I took in everything Mom said, fascinated and excited by how much there was to know about this walk to school. Finally, we reached the corner by the school. Mom explained how to watch and listen for the crossing guard. The guard gave the okay, and we crossed and walked up to the school. Mom left me at the door with a kiss, a hug, and a promise that she’d be waiting at that door when school let out. I felt secure as I walked inside.
On my own twenty years later, I felt alone and lost. I wanted guidance, a path to follow, that would work better than what I had come up with. I felt sure God would have that path, so I wound up in a Methodist church. In time, the pastor sprinkled me on the head and I was in. I did things I thought I should do as a Christian: I attended Sunday school and services every week, I tried to quit swearing and always be honorable, and I helped with the youth group. I enjoyed the people and socialized heavily with my Sunday school class. But I struggled with God, whom I expected to judge me, eyebrow arched and lips pursed, each time I slipped up. And I didn’t understand the church’s rituals. For example, every couple months we took communion. We read puzzling texts from the hymnal and then lined up to eat a little wafer and drink a sip of grape juice. But I didn’t know what it was for! I used to pray, “Lord, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I pray that you will bless it anyway.” God and His church weren’t making sense. It was easier to just have fun with my friends from Sunday school. In time, I became disillusioned with church politics and fell away. I used to blame the Methodists, but something the pastor said to me many times comes back to me now: “Each man must find his own path to God.” I sure wasn’t searching so I might find; I guess I expected the church to show me.
One day, the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the door and promised that my Bible could be an open book to me, giving me accurate knowledge of God and His standards for me and for His people, the true Christians. I was nervous because of the Witnesses’ notoriety, but the fun young couple who came to study with us soon melted those reservations. Steve, a slight man who bobbed and twitched with nervous energy, enthusiastically shared his knowledge. He dove relentlessly into his Bible looking for verses that answered our questions. Every week for a year, he and his wife, Jessica, drove to our house in a succession of $500 beater cars to study with us. In counterpoint to Steve’s nervous energy, Jessica sat like a reference librarian, placid and poised with a heaping gob of thick blonde hair usually pulled up into a bun and glasses perched on the end of her nose. She could clarify in ten words anything Steve said in a hundred, but she always quietly let her husband speak. My wife and I enjoyed their company and our study. We became very excited and encouraged to find that the Bible could be our sole guide to living a life worthy of the name Christian. At last, here’s the path I didn’t find in the Methodist church! It would be all spelled out for me! I could put on Christ like a new suit of clothes and leave my troubled life behind! But it troubled me that the Watchtower Society seemed to have the right to interpret Scripture for us. Some of their theology and doctrine didn’t add up. Finally, Steve couldn’t explain a particular doctrinal point to our satisfaction, and we began to lose our confidence. A succession of church elders came to try to explain. Finally one elder brought it all into focus for me when he said, “Look, just come to services for a few months, and then you’ll understand and it will seem natural.” In other words, he wanted us to become a part of their culture, and then whatever the Watchtower Society would ask of us, we would do naturally. That seemed flat wrong. We ended our studies with Steve and Jessica, and since we were now apostates they couldn’t see us anymore. We missed them.
Not daunted in finding God’s sure path for us, we found the Church of Christ. They were dedicated to following the New Testament pattern for living a Christian life, and they looked only to Scripture for their authority, not to any man-made organization. Since part of that pattern required baptism by immersion, my earlier baptism didn’t count and I was baptized again. So the preacher dunked me, my sins were washed away (he was sure to point out), and I was in. We did things we thought Christians should do: My wife taught Bible class for children, I created a Web site for the church, and we faithfully attended twice on Sunday and every Wednesday evening.
On the one hand, I felt secure in the standards for Christians that the Bible seemed to spell out. Forgive. Love your wife as Christ loved the church; that is, sacrificially. Do not divorce, except for adultery. Give as you purpose in your heart, as you have prospered. Above all, do not forsake the assembly of Christians. I just had to do these things, and others the Bible specified, to be right with God. This was the way I was looking for.
On the other hand, I felt secret shame that I could meet few of these standards well and consistently. I didn’t feel good enough. Truly, because of how much I missed the mark, I often doubted my salvation. I compared myself to all the longtime members, most of whom grew up in that congregation, who seemed to be able to do all of these things. Seemed. Much later I saw how many of them had the same secret shame I did. Shame’s brother is fear, which led to members interpreting the Bible ultra-conservatively to be on the safe side. Hairsplitting doctrinal discussions were common. I remember a discussion with a fellow about church leadership. The Bible says that an elder should have children. My friend asserted that a man with only one child should not seek the eldership, just to be safe, because God might really have meant two or more children. “Oh, come now!” I said, “if you had one child and I asked how many children you had, would you say, ‘I don’t have children, but I have a child?’ How absurd!” Yet he held fast to his fear-based conclusion lest he find himself hellbound.
I loved those people, though. They showed my family love during a particularly painful and difficult period of my life. Several men stepped up to encourage me, pray with me, and study with me. Several women reached out to support my wife through the crisis. But a year or so later, fear seemed to seal shut the doors of that love when the elders learned that my family’s past history ran afoul of the church’s teachings on marriage and divorce. The elders considered our story, reviewed Scripture, and then met with us to say that we had no right to each other. They were grave yet deflated as they delivered the message; one elder in his 70s looked physically ill. I felt guilty that this had burdened them so. But our situation had become serious because the church’s teachings spoke of separating and never remarrying. I was distraught. I had hoped for help keeping my family intact, but all these elders could do was tell me their interpretation of Scripture and withdraw awaiting my decision of what I was going to do. When you live by the law, you die by it too.
I didn’t understand the Bible the same way the elders did over this matter, and so we left the Church of Christ. We eventually settled in an independent Christian Church. Shortly after we settled there, one of the elders from the Church of Christ called to ask where we were attending. When I told him, he gasped, said, “Oh! Jim, you were taught better than that!” and quickly hung up the phone. Soon we received a letter signed by the elders disfellowshipping us for joining a denominational church, “denominational” meaning “any church other than the Church of Christ.” Members there were not to associate with us except to help restore us to the faith. As far as they were concerned, we were apostate, no longer Christians.
Shortly after I came to this little Christian Church, I had this strong sense that we belonged there. I heard a voice gently whispering, “Join here.” Today, if I may be so bold as to say so, I recognize that as the Holy Spirit guiding me. I followed that guidance, but I didn’t understand it. This church didn’t fit the approved pattern I learned about in the Church of Christ. They took up special offerings. Women led singing and sometimes read Scripture to the congregation. A piano and a guitar accompanied the singing, and some members clapped and raised their hands with the music. These practices were forbidden in the Church of Christ and made me uncomfortable. But I was determined to stick with it because I felt God led my family there. I allowed that my service to him might not be about certain worship doctrines, and perhaps I’m still to learn that he’ll make use of a church even if it has recently added an electric guitar and drums. I took the uncomfortable step of letting him lead me without knowing the way first.
In hindsight, I can see that God wanted me at this church for what was to come. My marriage didn’t survive, and I was dragged through an extremely difficult divorce. Not only have church members been a great encouragement to me, but both ministers have been personally involved praying for me and encouraging me. I have had lunch with the family minister every week for two years; what started out as a way to help me stay on course has developed into friendship. The senior minister, who grew up in a conservative church from the same family as the Church of Christ, has taught and modeled a great deal about moving away from doctrinal legalism to grace, love, and a personal relationship with God. They helped meet my physical needs by letting me move into the church’s vacant parsonage while I worked through the divorce. I have even been on three mission trips because of this group, which has taught me deep lessons in service and in being served. These Christians have helped me stand firmly through everything that has happened, while also encouraging me to grow spiritually.
Trying to find and follow the ready guide, the list of things I must do to live successfully and in God’s good graces, failed me. I tried my best, but I always fell short.
You see, I missed the lesson when Mom walked me to school on my first day. The lesson wasn’t that I needed to strictly heed all of the things she told me about along the way. Knowing about the sumac and the woods and the crossing guard were useful and important, but not crucial. The crucial lesson was in the simplest and most automatic thing I did on that walk: I reached my hand up for Mom to take. I trusted Mom to guide me to school. I didn’t know where it was, how to get there, or what dangers I might encounter on the way. I didn’t have to worry about it because Mom knew the way and she led me there.
I trusted Mom because she had proved herself trustworthy in my early years. Babies naturally seek to trust, but grown men are wary. Grown men even forget that trust is an option. I sought rules and regulations because they seemed sure. It took crisis to reduce me to surrender where I could finally hear God’s voice and take that first tenuous step toward trust. As my trust grows, I am learning that as long as I stick my hand up, God will take it. He will lead the way, and He will tell me useful and important things about living. I will find life fascinating and exciting, and I will reach my destination safely.