Faith

Things I wish Christians would stop saying: “The Bible is our instruction manual”

What do I do now?

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.

ReaderI 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:

  1. Open the File menu and choose Save As. The Save As window opens.
  2. 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.
  3. Type a name for the document in the File Name box.
  4. Click the arrow at the end of the Save As Type box and choose PDF.
  5. Click Save.

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.

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Faith, Stories Told

Love paves the way

Thirty years ago, my brother used to get me to go with him to the elementary school’s playground to play basketball with the gang. I was terrible at basketball and didn’t like anyone knowing it, but I was often bored enough to play anyway.

The game was open to all, and when one day a group of kids we didn’t know came to play, we cut them in. They played well enough. When the game ended, stacks of religious tracts appeared in their hands. They said they were from the Community Baptist Church and they told us that we had to accept Jesus Christ today or risk a tortured eternity.

At the cross“If you haven’t accepted Jesus into your heart, if you died today you’d go to hell, which the Bible calls the lake of fire! You would be in the lake of fire for all eternity! Can you imagine how awful that would be? Won’t you pray with me right now to accept Jesus into your heart so you can be in heaven?”

I was not going to be pressured; I said no. But they persisted, trying to draw me into logical arguments, pushing hard to close the deal. I finally had to walk away from them.

A few years later, a friend of mine asked me to visit her church with her. She said her youth group was a lot of fun and I’d enjoy it. Happy to be asked, I said yes. She said she’d arrange to have the church bus come pick me up on Sunday. I didn’t know where she went to church, but I had not forgotten my past experience with Community Baptist Church when their bus pulled up. I felt on my guard, but everybody was friendly.

The next Sunday afternoon, three high school boys rang our doorbell and asked for me. They wanted to know why I hadn’t been to church the day before. I said that I just visited that one time with my friend. They said, “God wants us to worship him every Sunday. Don’t you want to worship the Lord?” I thought I had just gone to visit with my friend one time, but they acted like they expected me to come back every week. I don’t remember how I got them to go away. But they were back the next Sunday, pressuring me to return. When they came a third Sunday with the youth leader, my father told them that if they ever returned, he’d get a lawyer and sue them for harassment. We didn’t see them again.

I didn’t want anything to do with Christians after that.

Angel lighting the wayMark was an upperclassman who lived in my dorm my freshman year of college. He always said hello when we passed by. We chitchatted sometimes. And then he said it: “Hey, I’m a Christian. I like to talk about it with people. Would you be willing?”

Fear stabbed at me. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t want to be pressured about God.”

“Whoa, don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not going to try to push you into anything you don’t want. It’s just that I’ve found that following Jesus is pretty good. It’s made a big difference in my life. I think it can make a big difference in everyone’s lives.”

I’m not sure why I agreed to talk with him. He told me how it was for him to start on God’s path, how he still messed it up a lot, but how God had been patient with him. He told me that God would be just as patient with me, and that he wanted me just as I was. He asked me about what fears I had about starting on that path. We talked at length about them, and he was patient and kind. But my fears were considerable, and I was not ready to give them up. And so our talks came to an end.

But Mark made me feel welcome and accepted at the edge of surrender. When I was ready to take that step years later, Mark had given me a good idea of how to find the path God had prepared for me. Because of Mark, I knew that I should look for simple acceptance, because it was evidence that God’s love was present.

Wherever you are, Mark, thanks, man. I hope to live up to your example.


I’ve told this story twice before, in 2008 and 2010. But I rewrote it this time, to be spare and direct.

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Faith

The opposite of love

When I was young, I thought the opposite of love must be hate.

This seemed obvious to my forming mind. Love is a strong emotion at one pole, and hate is an equally strong emotion at the other. But as I grew up, I started to see that the fires of love and hate need the oxygen of focus and effort, or the fire dies. While the ends are different, love and hate share a key similarity. Maybe the two aren’t so opposite after all.

OppositeOfLoveThen I read Elie Weisel’s famous quote that the opposite of love is indifference

Ah! Of course! If I am indifferent to someone, I feel nothing toward that person and I will do nothing for him or her. I won’t encourage, I won’t build up, I won’t help. I just don’t care. The focus and effort love requires is absent.

Later I heard that Pope John Paul II said that the opposite of love is use.

This caused me to pause and reflect. Using or taking advantage of someone treats them like a thing and not a person, which denies their infinite worth. Things are meant to be used; people are not. Using someone takes focus and effort. It may be accompanied by feelings of indifference or hatred.

But then I read 1 John 4:18 and wondered if the opposite of love is fear.

That passage says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” Every time I’m afraid, I am indifferent to the needs of others around me. I may even use someone in trying to secure my safety. In extreme cases, I may choose to hate, thinking I’m protecting myself.

Now I’m not so sure there is an opposite of love. But thinking about this surely has highlighted for me some key ways it can be distorted and blocked.


First published in July, 2011.

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Faith

Getting the love we always wanted from the perfect parent we never had

When we were small, our parents were godlike to us. They had all power over us. We probably thought they had all power in the world.

This experience imprinted on us, and subconsciously we assume that God is like our parents. Better said, we project our parents onto God, and so expect God to treat us and the world like they did.

LoveBut nobody’s parents are perfect. Most lose their tempers or criticize their children unfairly from time to time. Many sometimes place unreasonable demands on their children, or punish them harshly, or control them with shame. Some parents abuse or neglect their children.

And so we may believe God watches over us with a critical eye and is never satisfied with anything we do. Or we may assume God is just waiting to turn his back on us when we screw up. Or we may think we need to work hard to earn God’s favor and love. Or we may figure that no matter what we do God’s not going to care about us anyway, and so we give up trying.

But God’s more like the perfect parent none of us ever had. He wants to see us grow up well. He never loses his temper or patience with us. He knows there is sometimes pain and difficulty in our lives, and he wants us to turn to him for comfort and encouragement through it so he can help us become stronger and more loving. He knows we make mistakes and sometimes even deliberately do the wrong thing, but he won’t turn his back on us, or shame us, or punish us no matter how bad it was.

At our cores, we all want to be loved. God wants to love us. Our fears that God will let us down in the way our parents did gets in the way of us simply accepting that love. We have to keep working on our relationship with God and over time come to see him as he truly is before we can simply accept the love he has for us.

If you are a parent, consider what a service to your children it would be if you modeled your parenting after the way God loves. Not only would your children feel your love for them more strongly, but it would make their image of God be so much closer to who he really is. It might help them more readily accept God into their lives.


First published in February, 2011.

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Faith

Things I wish Christians would stop saying: Anything whatsoever about homosexuality

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:

  1. Be the conduit for God’s love into the world
  2. Introduce people to God through Jesus Christ
  3. 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.

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Here is another thing I wish Christians would stop saying.

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Faith

Things I wish Christians would stop saying: “God won’t give you more than you can handle”

It’s meant to encourage someone going through a hard time — and I certainly support building up someone who has troubles. But saying, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” can actually hurt and alienate people. Also, it’s utterly not true.

AtlasFirst, God doesn’t give us hard times. Hard times come because we live in a broken, messed-up world. The actions of others, our own actions, and even random chance can plunge us into deep trouble, pain, or grief.

Second, there are absolutely hard times we can’t handle. Ask someone whose child was murdered, or someone mired in deep depression, or someone living with crippling pain, or someone stuck in addiction. These are deep holes out of which people often can’t climb alone.

Imagine being utterly crushed by troubles like these, where you’re barely hanging on, and then hearing someone say this to you. Can you see how this could hurt? “Really? God gave me this awful thing because he knew I could handle it? Gee, thanks God. Thanks a lot!”

I think people who say this mean well. And they certainly find some basis for this saying in the Bible. Check out 1 Corinthians 10:13:

No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.

The word translated as “temptation” is the Greek peirasmos, which is also translated as “trial” elsewhere in the New Testament, notably in James 1:2-4 where we are told to count it as all joy when we face trials of various kinds. The context in which 1 Cor 10:13 lives speaks of both temptations and trials.

But notice how this passage tells us that God will provide the way out. In other words, God will help us handle it. We just have to follow his lead.

Now, we can often endure hard times – that is, get up every morning and live with them one more day. As Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

But enduring isn’t handling. To handle something means to have power or control over the thing, or an ability to manage the thing successfully.

Ask any recovered addict who used to get up every day and use a substance long past the point where it stopped being enjoyable, because they had to. The very basis of 12-step programs is that the addiction is bigger than the addict can handle, and that turning it over to God is the path to sobriety and sanity. The 12 steps are a fine prototype for giving big problems to God. He will carry some of the problem himself, and he will bring change and growth in you so you can handle the rest of it.

That’s not to say God will fix everything. Murdered children stay murdered. Terminal disease still kills. But in such cases God can help you accept your reality and find meaning in it.

Hard times inevitably fall on all of us. God hopes we will turn to him when they happen, because it is in a crucible of suffering that God can show you personally how much he loves you and help you grow to become the person he made you to be.

And so I wish that Christians would instead say: Turn to God, because he wants to help you handle this. That’s the encouragement we all need.

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