“People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. This fool…wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”
—Martin Luther, discoursing on how Copernicus was unbiblical about the Earth revolving around the Sun.
Or perhaps this 1637 declaration will be more biblical than Luther”:
“Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must die with their parents…We have sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”
— Captain John Underhill, defending how his Puritan friends and he killed the entire Pequot tribe.
Maybe you’re thinking this kind of interpretation shenanigans only happens in the far past. Here is one quote from the 1960s, spoken by the founder of one of America’s most conservative Bible Colleges:
“Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble….These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in our country; and some of them are filling pulpits down South. They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them. They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray. But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read what the Word of God and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God.”
— Bob Jones Sr., in his treatise against integration titled, “Is Segregation Biblical?”
I could put up quote after quote for page after page. People have defended slavery, racial cleansing, spousal abuse, overt racism, war, ignoring the poor, acquisition of great wealth–all from the Bible!
But most people reading what I have just said will say to themselves, “well, at least those aren’t my problems”. I should hope they’re not. But I believe the mistakes which are made by the people quoted above are made most days when people read the Bible. These mistakes are not errors in their ability to read, but in their ability to interpret.
I’m going to make my signature statement for this article series. And many of you are not going to like it; but that’s the way it is.
You can’t just read the Bible to know what God is saying. You must learn to interpret what is says. And most people do not know or care how to do that. Therefore, most people will do more harm in reading the Bible than if they had never picked it up.
One statement, often uttered in conservative bible churches always makes me cringe: “Well, that’s what the Bible says and I just believe it“. The speakers of this phrase go on to say “I may not be learned like you, but God made things plain in the Bible and I just believe it.” My friends, this statement is so full of error, I cannot begin to tell you how much pain and agony this idea has cost us.
It takes intelligence to interpret the Bible. It takes hard work to interpret the Bible. It takes a person dedicated to walking in the Holy Spirit’s power to interpret the Bible. And not that many people have what it takes to do it properly and consistently.
If that opens me up to a charge of elitism, then so be it. I console myself in knowing that even people with doctorates in theology sometime fail to meet the above qualifications.
But just so you know I do not consider my position on this to be elitist, let me explain.
The Bible was inspired by God, but it was written by people. It was written by people who understood their historical context and were learning where they were in the Story of God. They didn’t understand our modern world, and they didn’t write what they wrote so we could understand it. They wrote down what they wrote so the people of their day could understand it.
Why does that matter? Because they wrote the Bible using languages, cultural references, metaphors, stories, historical challenges etc. which are foreign to us. If we would begin to understand what they wrote, the Bible must be translated from its original documents. Then, several more steps must be taken to get to the bottom of what we can use in our lives.
Just saying, “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” is going to get you and others into a lot of trouble. I want to save you and others from that trouble.
In the next several articles, I am going to lay out for you what it will cost for you to learn how to interpret. The practice of Interpretation is called Hermeneutics. I would like for you to practice accepted and helpful hermeneutics so you can both grace your own life with God’s truth and maybe teach others.
If you’ve been in my counseling office for any length of time, you’ve heard me explain the “Three-Fold Test”. For those who haven’t heard it, let me give it to you and then spend the rest of this article explaining its significance.
With any bothersome thought pattern, a three-step test will guide you to determine whether you want to spend any more time considering that thought. This test goes like this. (Note: If the thought pattern fails at any point in the test, you immediately stop and move onto a different focus for your thoughts). These are ranked in order of most common to least common. This means, most people’s bothersome thoughts will fail the first test, the second most will fail the second test, and the third most will fail the third test. Hence, this is the order you consider them.
No more explanation; here is the test.
- Do I have any control over this thing I am spending time thinking about? If you don’t have any control over it, change your focus to something else.
- If I do have control over this thing I’m thinking about, am I responsible for this thing? If you don’t have any responsibility for it, change your focus to something else.
- If I do have control over this, and I am at least partially responsible, do I have time right now to do anything about it? If you don’t, then schedule a time to take care of it, and move on to another focus.
For those who are wondering, I did develop this test about 15 years ago, but the concepts are not original with me. I am sure I borrowed these concepts from many sources, but I can name two very quickly if you want to study more of the background. First, I gleaned the overall concept from Dr. William Glasser, the founder of the Choice Theory/Reality Therapy school. The concept of working this through like a series of filters I got from Dr. Ed Smith, the founder of the Transformation Prayer therapy method. Read any of their books and you’ll see how their models became the basis for this test.
To show the importance of using this test frequently, I must explain some of the underlying presuppositions to strengthen your resolve to use it. There are several of these and I will try to be brief in explaining them.
First, let’s address the overall concept of choice. For roughly 50 years, psychology got mired in the idea that we are simply the product of our biology and that this prevents us from getting rid of anxiety and depression. This Behaviorist model assumed that you were “wired” a particular way and nothing could change that. Even though we describe everything else we do in life as a verb—that is, we learn, we love, we hate, we eat, we watch a movie, we travel, we hit someone, we voice our opinions, etc.—we describe our most troublesome thoughts as a noun. We don’t say “I am depressing myself”, we say “I have depression.” We don’t say “I am anxieting” we say, “I have anxiety”. We find it easier to see our depression and anxiety as things outside of us over which we have little control.
Dr. Glasser proposed in 1968 for the first time that other than a few hormonal situations and traumatic brain injury, most people choose to depress themselves. They do this for the most part to deal with anger. He also noticed people choose to anxiety, for the most part to deal with fear. His assumption was that if we can choose something, we can choose something else.
But he also noted, most of us will not. Depressing and anxieting produce things we want in our lives, even if we don’t want the results that come from depressing and anxieting. We want to worry. Yes we do. We want to anticipate what is coming so we can be ready for it or be prepared in some way. To do this, we anxiety.
Therefore, the focus of anxiety or depression is often on things we cannot control. This comes into play in a moment.
Next, it is important to know what we actually do control in life. Get ready for this list. The only things we control can be boiled down to three things:
- We control what we will focus on next.
- We control what action we will take next
- We control whatever other people allow us to control.
You do not control the past. We cannot change it, so we do not control it. Any time spent looking at the past with a focus on regret, shame, bitterness, revenge, blame, or fear is useless. The only focus on the past which yields results is how it affects the present. If you look back to learn or to process past beliefs, you can find good results.
You do not control the future. That is an illusion. Your planning does not control the future, it simply places you where you think you need to be. But we forget how many thousands of times we planned and we were wrong. Any time spent on worrying or depressing about the future is wasted thought.
You cannot control other people unless they allow you to. And the problem with controlling other people is that you become responsible for them. This is the basis of all co-dependency, but that’s another article.
Most people who depress themselves or anxiety themselves are convinced they cannot really control their own thoughts. But Dr. Glasser and many others in the Brain Plasticity movement (i.e. Daniel Amen, Norman Doidge, etc.) have shown in countless studies this is not true. What is true is we have convinced ourselves we cannot control our thoughts because we don’t really want to. As badly as it feels to depress ourselves, it is our choice and we are doing it for a reason. We think we can control things which we actually can’t control. The same is true with anxiety.
This is where the three-fold test comes in. Here is a short commentary on each step so you can see why they are important questions.
- “Do I have control over this thing I am spending time thinking about?” If you are thinking about the past or the future, you are putting mental energy into something which you can never change. Even if you believe you can, you cannot. Come to grips with that and leave it behind. Stop telling yourself you have no control over these thoughts. They are actually one of the only things in life you do have control over. For instance, I spent years thinking about how people reacted to some of the things I teach. When I applied this test to that thought pattern I realized I could not control their reactions, nor their attitude toward me, nor their choices for how they would treat me. Therefore, focusing for a second on how they would think about my teaching was useless. What I did control is whether what I taught was accurate and helpful. When I started to focus my thoughts on those things, I started to live more healthy.
- “Am I at least partially responsible for what I am spending time thinking about?” In life, there are many actions we can take to work with others. At any given moment, there are millions of things any of us can be doing. But we know deep inside we don’t have the time or energy to do more than a few things each day. Therefore, if we want our lives to matter, then we will do those things which mean the most to us. The healthiest actions we can take are ones which acknowledge and follow commitments we have made. For instance, it is proper for a parent to help a child make their lunch in the morning before school starts. This is especially true if the child doesn’t know how to do it. But as the child gets older, the parent needs to withdraw their help slowly so the child will take responsibility. On the other hand, if you are married to a drug addict, you often feel that need to worry and act in such a way as to prevent them from using. The problem is, their addiction, though it affects you, is their problem not yours. If you spend too much time focused on what you will do for them in it, you are taking responsibility for things both outside of your sphere of responsibility and control.
- “Can I take care of this responsibility right now?” Much worrying is done because we want to solve situations which haven’t happened yet. We don’t like to be caught off-guard, so we worry a future situation out until we have solved every possible thing which can go wrong. But we haven’t really solved anything. Think of a basketball team. They can plan how they will play the other team, but all the decisions have to be made at real speed in the game. If you have responsibilities which are coming up but haven’t happened, only focus on the principles, not the actual working out of the responsibility. All other mental effort is wasted.
Most people don’t think the test will work because they have chosen anxieting and depressing as solutions to their unsolvable problems. But, as I tell all my clients, if you apply this test each and every time in place of anxieting and depressing, you will take control of your thoughts again, and you will accomplish what you are setting out in life to achieve.
If a respected teacher and leader warned you about something twelve times in two separate emails, would you get the impression he needs you to pay attention? This is what the Apostle Paul does with his disciple Timothy in the two letters he writes him.
Twelve times, he warns this young missionary/pastor to avoid endless disputes over words, quarreling over the meaning of Scripture and fights over doctrine. Twelve times, he lays out a mentor’s course change for his young disciple. I hope Timothy got the message. I hope we do as well.
The Flesh loves to get its own way, and nothing feels more satisfying than using the Bible to beat another person. Though I can see the value in playing games with kids and the Bible—such as Sword Drills where kids compete in who can look up a reference the fastest, and Bible Quizzing where teens memorize Scripture and then jump off electronic seats to answer questions about those verses—perhaps we are creating little Flesh warriors who use the Bible as their weapon.
We are not wise to use the metaphor of the Bible as a sword too often.
Though it is legitimate to stand up against heretics and swindlers who want to use the Bible to make money or enslave people, most disputes over the Bible are really not about that at all. Speaking as one who has over-used the Bible to destroy other people, I can tell you the real goal is the glee of being right, not correcting error.
Years ago, I had two members of a group most people call a cult come into my home to discuss the Bible. They did not know of my background in Theology, or that I had received high honors for that degree. I could debate the original Greek and Hebrew, and I suspected I knew their doctrine better than they did. I was right. They didn’t stand a chance against my blistering barrage of Bible, doctrine and logic. After a while, they couldn’t even look me in the eye, for I had countered everything they tried to tell me and made it look ridiculous.
At one point, I stopped and said, “Why don’t you just leave these foolish errors and join us? Why would you want to even stay with such a laughable group who believes these things?”
One gal looked up with a fierce gaze and said, “Because they show me love all the time – and all you did today was make me feel stupid.” There it was; Even though I had proven their doctrine was false and their way was wrong, my actions lacked the basic ingredient of love, and this disqualified me.
There is a difference between using the Bible to correct, to train and to guide people, and using it to skewer them and win an argument. It is the difference between the surgeon’s scalpel and the switchblade. It is the difference between the ambulance driver and the drag racers on the Quarter Mile.
It is the difference between Flesh and Spirit.
On Monday, I will finish this series of articles by laying out the three principles we should follow if we truly want to read the Bible by the power and leading of the Spirit of God. As a way of introduction to this, the Bible shows us how to read it by giving us these three ideas:
- The Bible is like the Manna of the Old Testament
- The Bible is full of examples of spiritual living – both negative and positive
- The Bible points us to Jesus, our starting and ending.
Join me on Monday as I lay these three principles out.
Early one evening, I received a frantic call from a leader in our church. He had been meeting with a couple in the church who had asked him to come over to answer some of their questions.
First, some background. I had only been part of that church for a few weeks. The woman in question had been a spiritist and palm-reader before becoming a follower of God. When she became a Christian, the evangelist working with her cast several demonic powers out of her. Yes, demons do exist. I don’t like to give them much credit, but they are real and do trouble people even today.
This woman had been a Christian for two years when I met her that night. The leader who called me explained something of her place in that church. Because she had come out of a dynamic spiritual experience before salvation, she remained finely tuned to spiritual things after becoming a Christian. She could see spiritual battles the same way you and I can see a television program. On one person she might see a demon badgering them. On another, she saw lust gripping their hearts.
A side note: This was not necessarily a spiritual gift. As I later learned, the Spirit of God was not giving her this ability, and she certainly didn’t use this ability to the glory of God. She was simply more sensitive to spiritual things than most people and this, unfortunately, impressed some. It was a church that had been starved for spiritual realities, and they were eager to embrace anything that touched on the supernatural. When I joined my friend in talking with her, she explained how frustrated she was with the Bible and God. Specifically, she wanted to know how you could “fold the Spirit.” Baffled, I looked at the church leader for help. He just shrugged his shoulders. So I asked her to explain what she meant, and she turned to the book of Revelation.
Early in the book, it speaks of the Sevenfold Spirit of God. Most Bible commentators feel this refers to seven attributes of the Holy Spirit’s work among the churches. Others feel it refers to the seven messages the Holy Spirit was sending to the Seven Churches of Asia. But when this woman read the verse, she saw a picture of the Spirit of God being folded seven ways. To this, she added something so bizarre, it makes me giggle when I think of it. A few weeks before, she had read a magazine article about properties of mathematics. It said that no paper could be folded more than six times. (Just to satisfy your curiosity, the article is wrong. A woman has now folded a paper 12 times). So when she began reading through Revelation and saw that it spoke of the “sevenfold Spirit of God” she assumed this meant people were supposed to learn how to fold the Spirit inside of them.
How did she arrive at such a bad conclusion? I can list a dozen mistakes she made in interpretation, but the simplest explanation is she let her Flesh take over. Anyone who has even a simple relationship with God’s Spirit would know instinctively this was wrong. She erred because she went by her past experience and rudimentary languages skills, and applied these to a very difficult verse. This is how many heresies start.
For those who need closure, here’s how I explained things to her. First, I advised her to let someone disciple her in how to study the Bible inductively, verse by verse, so she didn’t take things out of context. Second, I offered to give her a more modern translation, where word meanings were closer to our modern usage. I explained that the word “fold” here does not mean to actually fold something. It means ‘to distribute’ or ‘to multiply’. She made me explain it several times, after which I had a three-fold headache.
But more than anything, I began working with her on the errors involving her soul. Too many people in that church had encouraged her to walk in something that wasn’t a gift of the Spirit. Her practice of identifying spiritual forces ingrained the habit of independence from God and dependence on her Flesh. She wasn’t an evil person, but this habit caused her to leave the Spirit out of her Bible Study. This often results in heresy.
That’s a mild example, but one I see often with Christians. They develop spurious interpretations because they do not rely on God’s Holy Spirit to help them. They may rely on their own understanding—as this lady did—or on the teachings of others. Some people read the Bible out of context and assume the Bible says what they want it to say. Entire cults and cult-like movements are started this way.
One pastor in the Pacific Northwest affected tens of thousands by interpreting the Bible in the Flesh. And many who should have caught his errors were sucked in because what he taught appealed to their Flesh. I want to be careful not to glorify his heretical teachings or make light of them. He ruined people’s lives and did so in an obnoxious way.
It started simply. He was teaching that in heaven the people of God will not marry. This is an accurate teaching from the Gospel of Matthew. However, because we know so little about the Afterlife, there aren’t many implications we can draw from that. From that flimsy base, he built a foundation of error. First, he noticed that the Kingdom of heaven begins now, which is also a bible truth. He noted that the Church is a radically designed group that is told to throw off many of the strictures of the Old Testament Law. That is somewhat true, but I won’t quibble. Let’s say it is also true. Here is when he looped the drawstring of his error. Since in heaven we won’t be married, and since the Kingdom of heaven begins now, and since we are to be radically different than traditional Jewish beliefs, he began to teach that traditional marriage vows were not valid in the New Covenant.
Rather, he encouraged Christians to make “deep connections” with one another in order to be the Chosen Generation of the Last Days. He encouraged multiple “connections”. To be fair, he never explicitly said to go have sex with all those in your home group, but how could he not know that would happen? His particular church had thousands of members, and they had also planted many daughter churches in several states. Leaders of those churches came to his conferences and he kept teaching this heresy.
I know all of this and its after-effects by harsh experience. Many of the devastated parties of adultery, divorce and broken homes came to me for counseling to rebuild their broken worlds. God allowed me to help them dig out of the morass their souls were left in.
What brought on this disaster? When people heard the teaching, it is possible they were fooled by his smooth delivery and polished logic. But if they spent ten seconds with the Spirit of God, they would have realized how his teaching was false. Church members making out in the back corner with someone they’re not married to will never turn out well.
Not everyone was sucked into this false doctrine. I met a number of couples who had been part of that church who did not ultimately buy into this heresy. They left the church and refused to give in to their Flesh. These are the ones who saved their marriages.
The Flesh loves to be novel and new, to stand out above the crowd. The Flesh loves to have its own way. Unfortunately, even the Bible can be form-fitted to meet those goals if one is not careful. But there are other ways besides heresy that we can use the Bible in the Flesh.
Chapter five of John also describes another way the Flesh can rule the Bible. Jesus healed a crippled man who began to walk for the first time in years. As he walked home with new legs, he carried the small mat he had laid upon. This violated a rule of the Sabbath about carrying certain objects. According to the Pharisees, this man was guilty of not waiting until sundown to go tell his friends and family about his new legs.
We mock out such behavior because it isn’t our favorite legalistic tendency. We would be mortified if someone mocked our legalistic crutches.
The Bible contains many laws, but the Flesh has a different goal for laws than the Spirit of God. The Spirit lays down Laws as boundaries of health. If one stays within these boundaries, it will go well with our lives as far as those laws can define health from a physical or soulish perspective. The Laws are also designed to show us two other things: First, how much we need God’s help in living healthy; and second, the character of God who proposed these laws.
But the Flesh has a different goal for laws. Laws create pecking orders. Those who keep certain laws are better than those who don’t. The Flesh likes to define status by what a person does or does not do. The old adage, “I don’t smoke, and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls that do” was invoked to separate people so a group could identify who fit in and who did not.
Some groups do this by telling others what day of the week they should worship. Others create pecking orders with food laws. Still others define the in-group by what version of the Bible you prefer, how you dress in church, what music you listen to, how much you give to the Church and how many meetings you show up to.
A friend of mine in high school was one of the only other God-followers I knew. Two years after our graduation, he began dating a girl he worked with. Within six months they were married and within the first year were expecting a baby.
After the birth of their second child, only a year after the first, his wife began to suffer post-partum depression. She decided to self-medicate, going back to her old marijuana habit. In addition to this, she admitted to her husband she had been having an affair with an old boyfriend off and on the entire time they had been married. Four years into their marriage, she became verbally abusive. My friend finally had enough and filed for divorce.
His church removed him from membership because he was getting a divorce. He told them about her drug use, adultery and violence, but they didn’t care about all that. The leaders told him that divorce was the ultimate sin and he had no place in their church if he chose to sever from his wife.
Legalism is the Flesh’s way of saying, “Here is how I am better than you.” Legalism spends Bible Study time looking at ways of separating people into the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.
A woman came up to Dr. A.W. Tozer after a lecture series he gave. He had been teaching on the marvelous virtues of Grace, the choice God makes to forgive us and cleanse us through no effort of our own.
She approached him with a huge grin. “Oh Dr. Tozer, isn’t it marvelous. I sin, and he forgives, I sin and he forgives, I sin and he forgives.”
He looked her right in the eye and said, “Young lady, it’s time to stop sinning.”
The Flesh looks for opportunities to get its own way. If Legalism is not appealing, then perhaps Sloppy Grace will work better. Sloppy Grace is the outlook that says nothing can really harm us because God forgives all sins. In order to back that up, proponents of Sloppy Grace like to use the Bible to rationalize their behavior. Instead of developing heretical systems from the Scriptures, they simply pick and choose the verses they like when anyone confronts them on the dangers of their behavior.
More than once I have sat with Christians who have drinking or drug problems and they have quoted this verse to me: “it is not what goes into a man that harms him but what comes out of a man.” This is a convenient plum to pick off the Bible Tree for the enrichment of the Flesh. That verse is not speaking of alcohol or drug use at all: It is addressing the dangers of legalism, of assuming that one is “in” with God because certain food was not eaten at certain times, in certain ways. But as the Flesh is expert at doing, it uses a verse of correction to avoid correcting a deeper problem.
I was counseling a pastor several years ago about his lust problems. He liked to ogle the young women in his congregation and fantasize about having sex with them. He asked me to hold him accountable for keeping his mind pure, which I did.
One morning, he came to me and told me he had solved the problem. Fascinated, I asked him to explain himself.
“It all hit me this morning as I was reading my Bible.” (I had a weird feeling about this: I don’t think any bible verse can bring instant deliverance). “In Acts 10, Peter is told by God that he shouldn’t call clean anything God has called unclean. God made my sex drive and I am not committing adultery. Therefore, I am clean and I shouldn’t accept the condemnation of the enemy like I have been. Doesn’t it say in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”?
“So, bro, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying, I don’t have a problem. The Bible is showing me I don’t have to worry about appreciating the beauty around me and the “clean” girls that God has redeemed.”
Oh dear! His Flesh constructed such a convenient platform to practice Lust from, and used the Bible as the brick and mortar. In all fairness, I am worried that even if he has not committed adultery already, he is heading down that road. But even if he doesn’t, my real contention with him is that he is practicing Sloppy Grace, using the Bible as his source of rationalization.
(You can read Part 1 in the series here)
I have never met an entire group of people who were all bad. As Corrie Ten Boom writes in the Hiding Place, there were even compassionate guards in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp where she and her sister were interred during World War 2. If a German death camp worker can have a degree of goodness about him, I’m sure there were some wonderful, kind and gracious Pharisees. But the measure of a group is usually how they acted as a whole, not how each individual lived their lives. And the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were his primary target for criticism.
On the surface, the average Pharisee had a lot to commend him to a religious observer. We don’t know exactly what qualifications one had to have to be a Pharisee, but the consensus is they had to know the Old Testament thoroughly. Some scholars have suggested they had the Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy—committed to memory. Others have said they probably knew large portions of the Prophets, Psalms and historical books and had committed those to memory as well. Each Pharisee wore phylacteries, which were boxes attached to their wrists and foreheads, containing Scriptures to memorize. Some of the more learned Pharisees would commit large portions of the Talmud to memory—a commentary on the Torah—and others memorized the Mishnah, another rabbinical commentary.
They loved their Bibles. Too bad it didn’t do them much good.
John’s Gospel is laid out very deliberately in an outline of various confrontations. As with the other Gospels, Jesus travels around from place to place, but the real crux of John’s writings is to show the major battles between Jesus and the religious leaders of his day. Perhaps his most frequent and memorable debates featured the Pharisees.
In John 5, Jesus instigated one confrontation by healing a man on the Sabbath. This provoked anger from the Pharisees, who had hundreds of regulations regarding what may and may not be done on the Sabbath. They claimed biblical authority for all their rules, and they liberally gave their opinion and censure concerning anyone who broke one of these laws or encouraged others to do so.
I think Jesus deliberately did proscribed things on the Sabbath just to make them think about what they believed. I can’t say definitively, but it fits with his program of starting fights for effect.
In John 5:36-38, he explains more about his nature, calling and legitimate right to call himself the Messiah. He begins by building on John the Baptist’s endorsement and then takes the teaching in an entirely new direction:
But I have a greater testimony than John’s, for the works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.
Moreover, the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his appearance, nor do you have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe in the one whom he sent.
In these short declarations, he lays out the evidence for his credentials:
The greatest prophet of our day – John the Baptist – endorsed me.
The works (i.e. miracles, healings, exorcisms) are proof that God is working through me in unique ways.
God spoke audibly in front of many people and told them that I am his Son.
In a Jewish court, these three “witnesses” would stand up as credible and overwhelming. But he isn’t done with his teaching. Now he takes out his big gun and pops them all between their spiritual eyes. “You have never heard his voice…” he begins. He speaks to these veritable champions of Bible Memory Month. He speaks to these Keepers of the Laws, the real “Bible Answer Men”. No one knew the Bible like they knew it. Yet in all that biblical memorization, something was missing: The Voice of God. That strikes me as almost impossible to fathom. How can someone read that much of the Bible, study that much of holy writ, and yet miss the voice of the one who wrote it? I have my favorite authors and even if I had never heard their voice before, it wouldn’t be that difficult to tell it was them in a lecture. A person lets their character flow out in their writing, if they write with integrity. God wrote the Bible, so how could they miss the author as they perused the pages?
Verse 38 explains the problem quite clearly:
…nor do you have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe in the one whom he sent.
That’s an odd thing for Jesus to tell them. I thought the Bible was the Word of God. He never claims they ignored the Bible or deliberately misinterpreted. He says that the ‘word’ never abided with them because they didn’t believe in the one God sent to them. He is saying that if they really abided in the word, then they would instantly recognize that God had become a human being and was living among them.
Years ago, I was in a used book store and picked up a hymnal about 100 years old. It contained songs I had never heard before. Tucked away near the back was a hymn with this title, “Holy Bible, Book Divine.” The writer of the hymn was referring to the Bible as a Divine Book, meaning it ascribed Godhood to a book; in my mind, that was false teaching of the highest order. Someone had made their Bible an idol, and had the audacity to write a song about it.
The purpose of the Bible has always been to guide us to the God who inspired it to be written. It was never meant to replace God or to shove God and his works into a corner. The ‘word’ spoken of by Jesus is so much more than the paper, ink and concepts found in the Scriptures. It includes the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the daily guidance we need to survive another round of walking in a fallen and broken world. “Word” includes the personal voice of God as he takes the eternal truths of the Bible and shows us where, when, how and with whom to apply those truths.
The word “great” is in the Bible. The word “falls” is also there. But if God wants me to go to Great Falls, Montana, I would be hard pressed to read that direction on any page. If I used my Bible as some kind of GPS system, I could only find out God’s will if I agreed to play what my wife calls “lucky Bible”. That consists of asking God a question and then dropping the Bible randomly and just going with whatever verse it falls open to.
What Jesus has already said to the Pharisees would have been scandalous for them to hear. But now, he pushes this confrontation to its climax, with a verbal knife between the ribs:
You diligently study the Scriptures because you suppose that in them you have eternal life. Yet they testify about me. But you are not willing to come to me to have life.
Apparently, Jesus is not criticizing their religious work ethic; he admits they study the Scriptures “diligently”. They don’t play “lucky Bible”, they “study” it. He criticizes their overarching supposition; that through studying the Bible they will find some God-life (i.e. Eternal Life) flowing into them. Jesus gives them proof this hasn’t happened because they didn’t use the impetus of the Scriptures to come to him for eternal life.
They read the Bible in the Flesh and because of this, they missed out on the wondrous life of Spiritwalking and following Jesus.
In the next two articles we will discuss other ways people read the Bible in the Flesh and then how to read it in the Spirit.
I knocked on the door again and again, but no one was home. Glen and I were supposed to play golf that morning but I had no idea where he’d gone. He wasn’t answering his cell phone, so all I could do was wait. Fortunately, I had entertainment.
Glen lived next door to the Bible Sign Guy. On his front lawn, he had over 200 hand-painted yard signs with Scripture verses on them. The first time I came over there, I thought this might be his personal Bible memory verse system. I assumed he was either using the signs as some kind of evangelism/teach-the-world-God’s-Word program, or he just felt comforted having the Truth fill every corner of his property. I was wrong on both accounts. This was his personal inventory showroom. He sold these signs to anyone who’d buy them, and over time I saw that many people in town did purchase his signs and put them on their lawns.
Full disclosure: I have no problem with any of that. There could be a thousand worse ways to decorate your yard and influence your neighbors. What comes to mind are lawn jockeys and political placards.
As I was reading some of his verses, the owner of the property came out with his lawn mower. Before starting it up, he began removing every one of the signs from the grass. This was going to take him a long time to accomplish, so I walked over with every intention of helping him get the job done.
“Good morning… I’m Glen’s friend and I’m waiting for him. You haven’t seen him around have you?”
He looked me over several times and then pleasantly shook his head. “Nope. But I’ve been in the shop all morning. Are you a friend of Glen’s?”
“I am. We are going to play golf this morning and he isn’t here. He’s probably afraid I’m going to beat him again.”
The pleasantness from before vanished. “Golf…phe!” was what he said. Lacking the Gift of Interpretation, I have no idea what “phe” meant, so I moved the conversation along.
“I noticed you were going to mow the lawn. Would you like some help pulling out those signs?”
“Yeah, I guess that would be good.” I could tell he was unclear about my moral standing now that I had revealed I play golf. In relative silence, we pulled the signs like weeds from his lawn. It took about 20 minutes, but we finally accomplished it, and he began pulling the cord to start up the mower. Apparently, he flooded it and it didn’t start. He had to let it sit for a few minutes before trying again. I pointed at stuff on the mower engine to give the best advice I could, but when he told me he had rebuilt this particular engine three times in the 18 years he owned it, and knew every bolt and wire personally, I scratched around for another conversation topic.
“So, can I ask an obvious question? What’s with these signs?
“It’s God’s Word.” I was supposed to read volumes in that statement, I guess, but I’m a little thick at times.
“Uh, huh. So what’s with all these signs?”
“Sir, do you know the Bible?” I thought about dropping the existence of my Theology degree on him, but that seemed unfair and excessive.
“I read it regularly” I answered.
“Then you’ll recognize my reason for all these signs.” Then he quoted the Bible to me: “My Word, which goeth forth from my mouth, shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” So you see why I make these signs?”
“No, I’m still lost. But that was Isaiah 55, right?”
“Yes sir. I paint these signs and people buy them. They put them on their lawns and people driving by read them. God uses these Scriptures on lawns to change lives. “…it shall accomplish that which I please” is a promise from God.
I rushed in where many would have skulked away. “So what you’re saying is that somebody driving by at 45 miles per hour, glances at an obscure King James reference, on a sign stuck by an elm tree fifty feet away, and that will make him go back to his wife or sell all his possessions and move to India as a missionary?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody puts these signs that far back on their property”. I guess the part about India was correct. At that moment, he pulled the mower cord violently and it roared to life. As if we had achieved some kind of perfect cosmic alignment, Glen drove into the driveway at that moment and hopped out of his truck. I waved goodbye at sign guy who barely acknowledged my departure with a slight nod of the head.
“Where were you?” I asked Glen.
“Darrel forgot his lunch at home. I was bringing it to him at school. I see you met my neighbor.”
“Interesting man. He has this superstitious belief in the power of signs.”
“He’s a nut job. Let’s go play golf.”
There are millions who would never believe these signs could produce anything of value. But these same people are superstitious enough that they might even try it themselves at some point. They wonder if perhaps the guy with the John 3:16 sign in the end zone of the Rose Bowl produces converts with his reference. What if a tract left on a Light Rail seat is read by a suicidal teen and it turns his life around? What if one guy in a million is driving off to meet with his mistress, sees “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery” on a sign around the corner from her apartment, and decides to go home and be faithful to his wife? The superstitious are among us and sometimes they buy and place signs.
I am not being critical of Bible Sign Guy and his lawn ornaments. As I said, there are worse ways to clutter up your yard, and he certainly isn’t doing any harm. I want to address the harmful concepts behind his signs. These are the false ideals that teach others to approach the Bible in the Flesh, an approach that can limit the ability to be touched by the Spirit of God through the Bible
All this week, we will explore how to read the Bible by the power of God’s Spirit instead of reading them any other way.
It is never a good sign when you look out the window and the snow is falling sideways. When you can look for miles in a city and not see a single car on the road, you know you are experiencing some kind of Snowpocalyse.
We lived in Canada for many years and moved to Montana in 1989. In 1996, Montana suffered through the worst winter conditions on record. That winter, 17 feet of snow came down on Northwest Montana. So much snow pelted the ground that my boys made a toboggan run off the roof of the garage and were able to schloss down their manufactured run without any jump. Yes, it was that much snow.
Between Christmas and New Years’ the snow starting falling heavily and the wind picked up to 40 mph. It was coming down from the north and did not stop for three days. After the first day, the snowplows gave up trying to clear the drifts off the main highways and everyone was advised to stay in and wait out the blizzard. Montanans live for these kind of days; it gives them a sense of achievement similar to Californians tanning without burning. I digress.
The only person not happy with staying indoors during the blizzard was my wife. Normally, she is more than content with snuggling by a fire, reading a good book and napping. But she also is the most dedicated worker I know and she was supposed to show up at the hospital for her shift as a nurse.
My wife worked on a heart Telemetry unit at the Kalispell Regional Medical Center. They worked 12 hour shifts and hers started in a half hour. The phone lines were not working, so Kathy couldn’t call the hospital to find out if they were expecting her. But after looking at the closed highway, she realized they probably needed her desperately. The nurses working these 12 hour shifts could not go home until they were replaced. No one was driving in or out of town at all, so we figured these nurses who had been looking after patients all day would have to continue in that vein for another 24 hours. That’s when I got a bright idea.
We only lived about 6 blocks from the hospital, straight down Highway 93. We had done cross-country skiing for years and now we could put good vocational use to the sport. Since we had both grown up in Canada, we were well stocked with all the accouterment clothing for frigid weather, including long, thermal underwear. We layered on the garments, pulled on our ski boots and headed out the door. It took us almost a half hour to navigate the drifts and bare spots on the road in near zero visibility, but we did arrive at the hospital doors right as her shift was supposed to start.
As we sloshed down the hallway, the nurses on duty just stared at us as if we were living snowmen. Kathy was able to relieve a couple of them, allowing them a few hours sleep. Over the next 24 hours, they were able to keep spelling each other off in 3 hour increments, thereby giving some of the most medically fragile patients the best care.
The next day the road was still closed, so I skied back up to the hospital and retrieved her. I remember stopping at one point on the way home and looked into her frost-covered face. She was smiling with a tenacity I had never seen on her before. She was actually enjoying this!
There is something about conquering adversity and overcoming obstacles that thrills the human soul. It is ironic we spend most of our lives wishing for comfort and ease when what we really enjoy is the challenge of living.
Perhaps we should think a little longer about how much comfort we really need.
In 2006, I wrote six articles on why I was not a part of the Emerging Church. Here is the final one, and all you have to do is read backward to find the rest. At that time, I predicted that the Emerging Church movement would fall apart and cease to exist in the years to come. I didn’t say that out of animosity or a desire to curse them. Unfortunately, the Emerging church movement was decontructionist in nature, and thus subject to the same inertia of all deconstructionist movements: They fall down with their own tendency to self-criticize.
In other words, once you start throwing stones as a group, you inevitably start throwing stones at each other. Decontructionist movements always devolve into bickering.
A few years ago Dan Kimball–who wrote the book “The Emerging Church“– wrote an article where he admitted the movement had splintered and was no longer a viable entity. Others such as Scot McKnight and Andrew Jones (a.k.a The Tall Skinny Kiwi) also have lamented and written about the fragmentation of the movement.
But all three men have one thing in common: They still believe in the principles of the Emerging Church even if they no longer believe the movement is viable. The problem is, every one of them recognizes a significantly different set of principles that embody their view of the Emerging church. Perhaps this is another reason it has come to an end.
But since I was a bellringer for this movement’s demise, perhaps it is time to admit some of the things I learned from reading, meditating and participating with some of the leaders of this movement. This is not an homage to something I didn’t believe in–I’m not Cassius Brutus or his kin–but rather this springs from my desire to acknowledge the good things the Emerging church was trying to do.
1. The Evangelical Church Has Become Shallow: As with any retrospective, my analysis of all things related to churches will be painting with a broad brush. Not all evangelical churches are shallow. But there is a pattern which goes back over twenty years in prominent Evangelical churches of emphasizing style over content. Let me just give a few examples:
- Dominance of bass boosters, fog machines, expensive lighting systems, electronic keypads etc. in large megachurches.
- Pastors buying the sermon series of other preachers instead of digging into the Word on their own (thank you Rick Warren for that egregious error).
- Christian bestsellers are all penned by superstar pastors since these pastors can guarantee that their congregations will buy the first 50,000 copies. Therefore, most Christian books are ghost-written and designed for marketing instead of teaching..
- Worship services are designed to sound like concerts instead of providing a place for the congregation to have communion with the Holy Spirit.
- Tendency to mirror conservative political buzz instead of being a prophetic voice.
The Emerging Church desired to have more intimate gatherings of people instead of the consumerist approach we buy into. In this, they are correct. As I wrote in this series on the Walmartization of the church, this trend will not stop as long as people desire little commitment to a local church. I am sorry the Emerging Church was not able to make more of an impact on these practices.
2. Social Justice: If you look back ten years to the messages preached from Evangelical pulpits, you didn’t hear much talk about climate change, recycling, feeding the poor, sex trafficking, backyard gardens, gender equity, GMO proliferation etc. The Emerging Church dedicated themselves to social justice and their voices convinced many in the Evangelical world that this was true and undefiled religion. Now you can hear them being preached everywhere. I am concerned that as the Emerging Church loses its soapbox, we may forget these critical emphases.
3. Narrative Theology has one great result: Narrative preaching seeks to understand where each book of the Bible can be found in the larger story of God. That is to say, all Scripture was penned as a partnership between God, the writer and the culture to whom he was writing. Evangelical preachers have sought to understand what God was saying in each passage, keeping in mind the human elements of the writers while not really paying much credence to their personality. For instance, we recognize the difference between the Gospel written by Doctor Luke and the one that comes from the mouth of the peasant John. Their language is different as is their focus. But that’s as far as we go. We rarely, if ever, parse the cultures to whom books were written. This is a serious error and I thank the Emerging church and their emphasis on reading the original culture as well as reading the original language. It helps to know that culture’s views on poverty, slavery, sex, women, homosexuality, marriage, divorce, church leadership etc. before we finish up our study. Evangelicals are too inclined to only look what God might be saying and not enough to the ideas of the author and the contextual culture. I suspect that as the Emerging Church disappears, we may go back to only one side of the Scriptural partnership. Hopefully writers like Tom Wright and Roger Olson can help us stay on a good interpretive track.
4. People Are Leaving Church Because We Are too Institutional: Three years ago, well-known writers such as Rachel Held Evans and Donald Miller admitted they rarely go to church. CNN ran a series of articles suggesting that children who grew up in Evangelical churches are leaving those same churches when they hit their twenties. Everyone has proposed a different reason for this, but I think the Emerging Church identified the reason better than all the rest: The Millennial Generation doesn’t perceive real community in their home church and this is what they yearn for more than anything else.
Recently, I asked a group of Millennials what they value about church? The answer was consistent and overwhelming: People join churches because of its sense of genuine community. We actually know each other. We are involved in each other’s lives.
Today’s Evangelical church must come to grips with the movement of young people away from the “Show” and the “Celebrity Pastor”. If we are not intimate, genuine, relational and humble, our churches will die just as surely as the Emerging church.
My friend Charlie and I used all our geek abilities and finally got the turntable to make sounds as we played the LP backwards. It was the Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. We had heard through a reliable source there were hidden messages in some of the songs. We played it for an hour and then we found one. At the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” there was some funky background music and then a creepy voice made an announcement.
Charlie was sure the voice said “I BURIED PAUL”. I believed the ghastly voice said “CRANBERRY SAUCE”. Stephen King I’m not.
Whatever it was they put on the album (John Lennon claimed it was “Cranberry Sauce”…I feel vindicated…), they masked some of their messages deep in the midst of their music. I know they probably did it to create buzz about the album, but that is ludicrous to me. They were one of the greatest rock bands of their day. They didn’t need the gimmicks. Apparently, someone in their decision-making circle felt they did.
This is the picture I lead with to help you understand Layered Communication. Layered Communication is one reason there are so many misunderstandings in human interaction.
If we committed ourselves to single-layered communication as often as possible, we would eliminate most of our fighting.
Why do we hide so many messages within simple statements? There are probably many reasons for doing this, but I find five categories for these reasons.
1. Fear: We fear saying some things so we hide them among the words of another piece of information. This motivation sits at the heart of most passive-aggressive communication. One person is angry and wants the other person to know it. But they don’t want to be seen as angry. Or maybe there are afraid of retribution. Or perhaps they believe the person will reject them when they express their anger. So instead of letting the other person see their anger clearly, they let it color otherwise simple communication. If you’ve ever had a friend say something innocent to you and it didn’t feel innocent at all, you know this practice. Fear drives more layered communication than any other factor.
2. Revenge: We hide some of our communication so we can get even with other people for recent occasions when they have not communicated properly with us. If you won’t be straight with me, I won’t be straight with you. This game can go on for years.
3. Intimidation: People sometimes cloak the information they want to share so that those close to them will feel less confident. For instance, a husband may want his wife to appreciate him more, so he tells her all about the pretty women at work, hoping she will feel like he is a great catch without him having to say it. Unfortunately, this approach often backfires.
4. Calculation: Often, when one person wants to win an argument with another person, they will say things in order to get certain reactions. Then, they have a plan how they want to respond to those reactions. In this way, the layered communication is calculated to bring a certain result.
5. Ignorance: Many times we layer our communication because we are not aware, or have not acknowledged, that those layers are even there. Nothing surprises us more than someone who asks “What do you mean by that?” when we really thought we were being straightforward.
With those motivations in mind, let’s define each of the 8 possible layers that can be added to simple communication:
Emotions: Even those people who are in touch with their feelings often do not know how to express them. So they combine them with other pieces of information. This can be confusing. A person who says their day was fine, but the voice and body language speak “frustration”, can put the conversation on the wrong footing.
Bitterness or Resentment: I won’t seek to define either of these, and though they are different, they look the same as a sub-layer. If you are bitter or resentful, even simple information comes across as complex. Resentment is very hard to talk about, especially with the person we resent. Resentment is a decision where we have decided we cannot change a situation but we will not let go of the hurt. This hurt often bleeds over into many other things we want to communicate. When resentment has been in residence for a long time, it evolves into bitterness. The Bible tells us that bitterness then becomes ” a root which grows up to harm many people.”
Sarcasm: This is often the front layer in a conversation. Sarcasm is masked anger. But it is a more societally acceptable way of expressing anger without having to admit you’re angry. This layer shows up to disguise the anger underneath. In this way, it creates a smoke screen and prevents two people from getting further into the truth of their relationship.
Body Language: Social Scientists have studied this layer for decades and still cannot come up with a definitive way to tell how to read the body language of another person. But when a person says one thing and their body seems to say another, it confuses the issue and negates much of what is being said.
False Beliefs: This layer is numerous and often the person who has these is blind to them until they make it to the top layer. For instance, a wife may be frustrated for months that her husband spends little time with her. But because he seems to be working hard, she feels like she can’t bring it up. In a conversation, she blurts out “You hate spending time with me, don’t you.” Then she feels embarrassed she said it this way.
She may be revealing a false belief. Perhaps she believes that everyone will find her to be boring, or unimportant, or that her significant friends are always going to find something better than her. Any of these “universal” beliefs can form a layer underneath what we’re trying to say.
Distraction: We often say one thing while our mind is on another thing. Or, in this distracted world, we have too many things we want to say to other people and we make the mistake of trying to say them all in one statement. This is overwhelming to both parties.
Hatred: After years of not properly dealing with anger and frustration, a person can decide they hate another person. Every time they try to communicate with this other person, the hatred layer is transmitted. This layer will often poison every piece of communication. With hatred, we hurt other people and do not even feel badly for doing so.