Sunday, December 2, 2012
What Does the Real Bible Say?
Stop Sugarcoating the Bible!
The Bible is a gritty book. Very raw. Very real. It deals with people just like us, just as needy and screwed up as we are, encountering a God who would rather die than spend eternity without us. Yet despite that, it seems like Christians are uncomfortable with how earthy the Bible really is. They feel the need to sanitize God when we should be looking at ourselves instead.
For example, look in any modern translation of Isaiah 64:6, and you’ll find that, to a holy God, even our most righteous acts are like “filthy rags.” The original language doesn’t say “filthy rags”; it says “menstrual rags.” But that sounds a little too crass, so let’s just call them filthy instead. And let’s not talk so much about Jesus being naked on the cross, and let’s pretend Paul said that he considered his good deeds “a pile of garbage” in Philippians 3:8 rather than a pile of crap, as the Greek would more accurately be translated.
And let’s definitely not mention the ten commandments in the Old Testament. That might be unpopular. Never mind that between the books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy there are a total of 630 of them. That could expose people as being the sinners that we all truly are. God forbid!
God’s message was not meant to be run through some arbitrary, holier-than-thou politeness filter. God couldn't care less about political correctness, which is something I work at emulating every single day. He intended the Bible to speak to people where they’re at, caught up in the stark reality of life on a fractured and dying planet.
There are dozens of Psalms that are complaints and heart-wrenching cries of despair to God, not holy-sounding, reverently worded soliloquies. Take Psalm 77:1-3: “I cry out to God; yes, I shout. Oh, that God would listen to me! When I was in deep trouble, I searched for the Lord. All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven, but my soul was not comforted. I think of God, and I moan, overwhelmed with longing for his help” (New Living Translation).
And rather than shy away from difficult and painful topics, the Old Testament includes vivid descriptions of murder, cannibalism, witchcraft, dismemberment, torture, rape, idolatry, erotic sex and animal sacrifice. According to St. Paul, those stories were written as examples and warnings for us, as he wrote: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! No temptation has seized you except that which is common to man. And God is faithful, he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so you can stand up under it.”(1 Corinthians 10:11-13, NIV). So obviously they were meant to be retold without editing out all the things we don’t consider nice or agreeable.
I believe that Scripture includes such graphic material to show how far we, as a race, have fallen and how far God was willing to come to rescue us from ourselves. God is much more interested in honesty than piety, and in our Spirituality rather than in how religious we are. And that’s what He gives us throughout Scripture, telling the stories of people who struggled with the same issues, questions and temptations we face today.
Peter struggled with doubt and with a bad temper, and we hear all about it. Elijah dealt with depression; Naomi raged with bitterness against God; Hannah struggled for years under the burden of her unanswered prayers. David had an affair and then arranged to have his lover’s husband killed. Noah was a drunk, Abraham a liar, Moses a murderer. Job came to a place where he found it necessary to make a covenant with his eyes not to lust after young girls (Job 31:1). Jesus said, “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”. It's all a matter of priorities. “I desire mercy”, Jesus said, “not sacrifice”. Don't boast to God about how often you attend church, or how much you “tithe” each week. Never mind your rituals, Jesus was saying. Tell me about how much you did for others whether they deserved it or not. I want to know how well you treated others. That's all that matters in the end.
It’s easy to make “Bible heroes” (as Protestants might say) or “saints” (as Catholics might refer to them) out to be bigger than life, immune from the temptations that everyone faces. I find it encouraging that Jesus never came across as being pious or condescending. In fact, he was never accused of being too religious; instead he partied so much that he was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton because he was perceived as associating with “sinners” (Matthew 11:19). His first miracle was changing water into wine, and it is documented in all four gospels that wine was served and consumed at the Last Supper. So, people who insist that one must be a teetotaler to go to heaven when they die simply don't know what they are talking about.
Jesus never said, “The Kingdom of God is like a church service that goes on and on forever and never ends.” Our church services can't hold a candle to what heaven will be like. He said the kingdom was like a homecoming celebration, a wedding, a party, a feast to which all are invited. This idea was too radical for the religious leaders of his day, and in some cases it still is. They were more concerned about etiquette, manners, traditions and religious rituals than about partying with Jesus. And that’s why they missed out. That’s why we miss out.
According to Jesus, the truly spiritual life is one marked by freedom rather than compulsion (“So if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” John 8:36), and by love rather than ritual (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these. 'Well said, teacher' the man replied. 'You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but Him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices'”.Mark 12:30-33, NIV). Another hallmark of a truly Spiritual life is one focused on peace rather than guilt (“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27, NIV). Jesus saves us from the dry, dusty duties of religion and frees us to cut loose and celebrate.
I don’t believe we’ll ever recognize our need for the light until we’ve seen the depth of the darkness. So God wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty with us about life and temptation and forgiveness. And grace. Only when the Bible seems relevant to us (which it is), only when the characters seem real to us (which they were), only then will the message of redemption become personal for us (which it was always meant to be).
We don’t need to edit God. We need to let him be the author of our new lives and the construction superintendent for our growing and expanding faith. The time is getting short, people. It's time for all of us to lead more Spiritual lives. The stakes are where we will spend eternity, and there is no more serious subject than that.