why we (desperately) need the Bible

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward. Psalm 19:7-11

If you are a Christian, you believe in the Bible. Whether or not you have read it yourself, you believe that it is true and that it is authored by God. Christianity has nothing to stand on – no source – if it does not have that.

You may intellectually agree that the Bible is true, but you may not personally and wholeheartedly agree that the Bible is desperately necessary, in your life, in your church. People who desperately depend on the Bible in that way are rare, even in Christian circles.

Part of the reason for this is that the Bible is difficult to understand. Part of the reason is that most people have not been taught either to treasure or understand the Bible properly. The most profound reason, however, is that bent, that perversion, in our humanity which reaches to our core: self-reliance, above relying on God.

Christian doctrine says that the whole world is in a state of brokenness and fallenness. We were whole, and exalted, in Eden. Now we are broken and fallen: our instincts and intuitions are bent towards evil and foolishness and away from good and godliness, towards Self and Satan and away from God. Our intuitive ideas about how to live, think, and relate are distorted versions of the truth. In other words, they are lies.

One thing every Christians learns is, “I cannot trust myself.” Learning to distrust yourself – your own perceptions, inclinations, desires, and opinions – is the flip side of learning to trust God. Fundamentally, you cannot do both.

Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. Proverbs 3:5

Trusting God means depending on him. Depending on him means depending on his revelation to inform and define who you are and how you live, comprehensively.

The reality is that as humans beyond Eden, we need to re-learn how to be human, in every part of our humanity. We need to be re-taught, by God, in scripture.

Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. Psalm 25:8-9

Consider the alternative. The alternative, individually or collectively, is making it up as we go along. It is placing our faith most essentially in our own ability to perceive reality, make choices, think correctly, and define God. If everything we do and are and think about God does not come directly from the truth he has defined, given in the Bible, we are making shots in the dark like the rest of our race, shots in the dark which are inherently inclined away from the truth.

Truth comes to us not only from the doctrinal statements and explicit directives of scripture. It comes from the stories and parables, too. It comes from how things are said, from what is included and left out, from the flow of the narrative, from the repeated cycles of God and man interacting, portrayed in individuals’ lives. Truth comes from all the genres of biblical literature, from the outright statement of James, John, Peter, and Paul, to the subtler presuppositions of the Israelite poets. Truth comes from the framework of thought which undergirds all of scripture.

Absorbing the paradigms of the Bible into our thinking causes us to think in new categories, and ask new, better questions. It guards us from our tendency to take on the roles of both beasts and gods and instead demonstrates to our minds and hearts, in a thousand ways, how to be authentically human.

And that is our goal: to be human, really and truly, participating in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) while maintaining our honored, blessed role as servants and sons of the transcendent God, after the pattern of the Heavenly Man (1 Corinthians 15:49). Only scripture elucidates redeemed humanity and how it behaves.

Even more: scripture tells us about God himself. It is not theology – man making statements about God. It is doctrine – God making statements about himself, for man to believe. God gave us doctrine the way he did intentionally, that is, in the voices of particular cultures and people. The expressed truth itself is absolutely universal, but the phrases themselves are limiting. We are not at liberty to embellish, stretch, or “improve on” the statements of scripture, especially in light of the original point about our inclinations toward falsehood and foolishness.

Credit must be given where credit is due. The power of the Bible to change lives and communities is the Holy Spirit of God, speaking the words through the writers, persuading hardened hearts of the words’ truth, and granting the grace needed for people to convert the words to actions in the human sphere. So the glory is God’s, and the benefit is ours, and the necessity is desperate.

Read it, and keep on with it, without giving up. Let it change your categories of thought as well as how you behave. Discuss it with people who love it. Hear it preached by preachers who preach nothing more or less than the Word in its purity. Feed on it and feast on it, dive into it and absorb it. The Spirit will not leave you untouched. He will pierce you, crush you, build you, change you. He will recreate you.

The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. Psalm 12:6

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. Romans 10:17

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly… Colossians 3:17

What do you think? I want to know, especially on this one!

the problem with Santa’s list

A big difference between juvenile fiction and adult fiction is the complexity of the characters. In most juvenile fiction, there are two fairly clear groups: “good guys” and “bad guys.” There are heroes, whom we root for, and villains, whom we root against. Good guy-bad guy stories are fun to read and easy to understand. They do little to illuminate truth about the human condition, however.

The mythology of Santa Claus follows a similarly simplistic breakdown of the world. According to the songs, Mr. Claus divides all the children of the world into two camps: naughty and nice. The nice children get toys, the naughty ones get coal. Not that I have ever heard of children whose parents had the heart to follow through with the threat of coal in return for bad behavior, but still, that’s what we say.

For the Christian, Santa represents one way of viewing the world. Santa may know if you have been “naughty or nice,” but all he can see is your external behavior. He can tell whether you did chores or threw a tantrum, but he has no way of knowing why you did either of these things. To him, the child who does chores is good and deserving of a reward while the child who throws a tantrum is bad and punishable. It’s simple. Too simple. A worldview which breaks the world down into camps of “naughty and nice” people, like Santa’s list, does not, and cannot, address the heart.
The same is true of our judgment of each other. On their website Mark Driscoll and the guys up at Mars Hill church in Seattle say this:
Religion says that the world is filled with good people and bad people. The gospel says that the world is filled with bad people who are either repentant or unrepentant.
People who understand the gospel understand that we are all more alike than we are different. They consider the sin in their own hearts as more weighty than the sinful behavior they see in the people around them.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 1 Timothy 1:15
The Bible, thank God, does not fundamentally follow a good guy-bad guy/naughty-nice dichotomy. Its anthropology is much more sophisticated. Like good novels and honest biographies, the Bible exposes the contradictory truths about the human heart through both evocative story-telling and well-reasoned teaching.
It does make distinctions between the “righteous” and the “wicked,” especially when speaking of things such as oppression, abuse, and other evils perpetuated by people who have no reverence for God or people. We also must make such distinctions, as people concerned with holiness, justice, and righting the world’s wrongs. God forbid that we “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20) for the sake of appearing non-judgmental.
But we may not leave it at that. God says, look at yourself. Look into your own heart and see the evil there; if your circumstances have prevented you from seeing the darker side of your own depravity, consider what you might be like had you grown up differently and lived in someone else’s shoes. We’re more alike than we are different.
David, a man who wrote often about the wickedness of the wicked and the righteousness of the righteous nonetheless referred to himself as “feeble and crushed” under the weight of his own sin (Psalm 32:8). He stole another man’s wife and conspired the man’s murder; his children committed rape and murder against each other, largely because of his monumental failures as a father; throughout his life the man was prone to lust, pride, fear, and complacency.
Why would human authors, on their own, choose to include such despicable details of the life of their greatest king and hero? For that matter, why would David publish his private poems of confessional prayer, to be read and studied throughout his nation? Even today we are still studying his failures and confessions.
It is because the Bible’s anthropology does not fundamentally break the world down into good guys and bad guys, or naughty children and nice children. “No one is nice, no, not one” (paraphrasing Romans 3:10). All need atonement and grace; none are disqualified from receiving it.
Jesus makes Santa’s list irrelevant. That’s the gospel. As my pastor loves to say, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” Or, since it’s almost Christmas, “The ground is level at the foot the feeding trough.”
Gospel people treat Santa’s list as irrelevant too. That’s the gospel applied. No more treating outsiders as outsiders, as people who will never “get it,” or as people who need to clean up their act (and appearance) before they come to church.
Such Santa-ish thinking is exactly the opposite of what the church is here for.

understanding the Bible: an introduction

Everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. Matthew 7:24-25

The Bible is the Christian’s greatest resource on this pilgrim journey. Anyone who wants a mature faith and an enduring love must get to know it well. Many people struggle with reading the Bible, though, and understandably so – it is a complex and ancient document (usually the oldest in anyone’s library). When thoughtfully approached, however, it is accessible to anyone.

Often, people read the Bible in order to:

  • get inspired
  • be a better person
  • find solutions to their problems
  • find the right rules to follow
  • discover hidden, mystical meaning behind every word
  • know everything God says about ____
  • get material for the next moral/theological debate
  • find nice sounding verses to post as Facebook statuses
  • feed their ego
  • stifle their guilt

Although each of these approaches contain some truth (except the last two), they totally miss the main point. Inevitably they lead to discouragement, confusion, and boredom.

1. Read the Bible on its own terms.
The Bible is absolutely not an encyclopedia, a self-help book for modern problems, a book of systematic theology, or an entertaining and easy-to-follow storybook. If you try to force it to be something it’s not, you will be quickly disappointed.

The Bible is a story about how God has redeemed, is redeeming, and will redeem his people and his world. It’s main subject matter is God interacting with humans in history; it’s main purpose is for humans to know God; it’s main message is the gospel of grace; and it’s main character is Jesus Christ (John 1:45, 5:46, 8:56, 12:41, Luke 24:27) .

2. Ask questions.
The key to understanding the Bible, therefore, is to understand how each of its parts contributes to this whole. Part of this is asking questions of every text, such as:

  • How does this passage relate to what comes immediately before and after it?
  • How does this passage fit into the overall story of the Bible?
  • What are the themes of this passage?
  • Why did the author write this?
  • What does this passage say about the character of God?
  • What does this passage say about the gospel and the work of Christ?
  • What does this passage say about humans? sinners? Christians?
  • What does this mean for me and how can I apply this to my life?

Use the resources provided by 2,000 years of church history and an Internet connection. In our day, scriptural insights and commentaries from the world’s greatest thinkers and saints are instantly available to anyone with a few clicks and couple bucks. Bible study has never been easier. My personal favorite resource is biblegateway.com and its ESV Bible cross-references (e.g. Hebrews 4:12).

3. Conform yourself to the Word; don’t try to conform the Word to you.
Watch out for reading the Bible with purely modern eyes, expecting Middle Eastern culture from thousands of years ago to match up with the values and standards of 21st century American culture. Also beware of reading your theological/philosophical assumptions into a text, or of stretching a text beyond what it is really saying in order for it to say what you want it to say. The purpose of the Bible is defeated if we become its authority.

The Word of God is amazing because it is both informing and transforming. It reveals God to us, and reveals us to ourselves. We have a faith, and a gospel, because God in his grace gave us a book. Not only does the Word inform the mind, but it transforms the heart. The Holy Spirit uses it to change us from the inside out by confronting us with our sin, teaching us God’s ways, and assuring us of his steady love. God, sin, love, gospel – there is in fact nothing more precious, more important or relevant to you and your life than God’s Word and its message, whether you realize it or not.

4. Pray
Paul says that the things of God must be spiritually discerned. The “natural man,” “human wisdom,” and the “spirit of this world” are unable to accept or understand the spiritual truths of God (1 Corinthians 2:12-14). Therefore, ask the Holy Spirit for his help, constantly. Pray without ceasing. He will not refuse (Luke 11:11-13, James 1:5).

I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation… How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Psalm 119:99, 103

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Colossians 3:16

Simon Peter answered [Jesus], “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68