Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Perplexing Book

My latest project involves a study of the conversations between Jesus and women. Many of these conversations at first glance seem odd at best. Why would Jesus compare a desperate mother begging his help to a dog under the table? Why did he force the woman with the issue of bleeding to admit her illness before a large crowd—an illness that made her unclean to the rest of society? Why did he act in such seemingly insensitive ways toward these and others?

In my research I have been blown away by what I have found. To examine the culture and historical background of the first century as well as scriptural context brings a whole new light on what at first perplexes the reader. I am excited about what I have discovered. But it took a lot of work and a whole lot of thinking!

My seminary professor, Ken Quick, likens the gems we can find when we dig deep into scripture to the best cookies, located in the kitchen pantry. “Reading through scripture at a cursory level gives a certain level of knowledge and understanding,” he said. “This reward is like Lorna Doone shortbread cookies, available on the shelf at eye level and easiest to find. But if you want the chocolate macadamia nut cookies, the really good stuff, it’s not an easy reach. You must grapple with scripture to glean the deepest truths. The best cookies are located on the highest shelf. But the richness of your reward is worth the struggle.”

The Bible is not an easy book. I’ve often wondered why God sent it to us as he did. Why are those verses about restricting women in church there? Do they still apply to today? What about divorce? Is adultery the only clause that frees a person to leave a marriage? Theological controversies have rocked the church over the centuries as scholars have attempted to interpret the Bible correctly. For example, there are verses that imply free will and a choice in salvation while others describe predestination and election. How can both be true?

Why is the Bible so hard to understand?

We wonder why God did not make the Bible a simple list of do’s and don’ts, as well as list a systematic theology that would leave no room for questions or controversy. However, a look at Hebrews 5:14 sheds light on why the Bible is not so easy to interpret. “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” The mature man, by this author’s description, is a thinking man, who has gone beyond simplistic black and white answers to thoughtful and wise discernment.

Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate at the sound of a bell. A baby learns that if he reaches for the hot stove, he will get his hand slapped. So he keeps his hands to himself. While these behaviors are appropriate responses to the environment, they are not signs of a mature mind. Until a person can learn to discern or think, he will not be able to make choices in life that will allow for his survival. We need the ability to think, discern, and apply the truth we know to any situation.

The same is true in our spiritual walk. It is God’s desire for us to move beyond simple black and white pat answers to wise discernment. So he gave us the Bible, sometimes complicated and challenging-- by design. Elisabeth Elliot observes, “He did not spare us. He wants us to reach maturity. He has so arranged things that if we are to go on beyond the “milk diet” we shall be forced to think.”

His goal is to ultimately shape us into the likeness of his Son, who is the flesh and blood expression of God. He desires his children to bear a family resemblance. Our struggle with the Word of God is a means toward that end. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” Paul wrote the Romans. “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

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