Friday, April 05, 2013

For The Bible Tells Me So

We had some Christian friends over for coffee the other day. They go to a very different church than we do and our conversation eventually drifted into the area of doctrine. How do we know whose interpretations of Scripture are correct? Of course, all four of us have our ideas about this, influenced by our denominational perspectives and our personal preferences (though we may not always like to admit to this last one). I think we had a good and lively interchange of thoughts and ideas.

We didn’t agree about everything, of course. I doubt one could find even two Christians who see their faith in exactly the same way. Over the centuries, the Church has discussed, parsed, translated and re-translated the Bible. There are certain bedrock doctrines that cross all denominational borders and about which almost everyone agrees. And then there are scads more that we have not resolved conclusively and about which we argue at times, with varying levels of intensity.

The book of Revelation has inspired many different interpretations and Paul’s epistle writings concerning sexual morality and the roles of women in the church have spawned some rather intense disagreements as well. Quite often lately, I’ve trolled the Internet to find pundits who can shed light on these types of passages for me. I tend to veer away from extreme conservative or liberal theologians and have discovered a few whose writings are simple enough to understand, yet seem reasonable and balanced. 

And yet, I feel a bit uneasy. Part of me knows this is not the right way to look at Scripture interpretation. By its own definition, the Word of God is not a dry, theological explanation of God and how he goes about things. It’s living and active in some mysterious way that has the power to impact peoples’ lives. The writer to the Hebrews (4:12) describes it as “alive and powerful” and says that it “exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.”

Most of the New Testament writers speak about the Word of God as if it’s organic. I get goose bumps when I hear the opening to the book of John read at Christmas services.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  I figure that, since Jesus Christ is the Word, then he must be talking to us when we read Scripture.

In fact, that recent conversation with our friends helped me to see this in a new light. My husband has a dry, European sense of humour and will occasionally make remarks that are a bit baffling to the uninitiated. Is he serious…ironic…making a joke…? Since I’ve known him for many years, I usually understand what he’s getting at, but those who aren’t well acquainted with him need some clarification. 

Such was the case with our relatively new friends. My husband made a bit of an obscure joke and I launched into one of my “smoothing the way” explanations. Then it hit me: I was acting as my husband’s interpreter. Why did I feel the need to do this? So our friends would not be confused and uncomfortable. I wanted them to know and appreciate my husband just as I do. 

This got me thinking about Bible interpretation and I realized that a similar dynamic applies there. Most of us want other people to understand God’s Word in the same way as we do. It’s very unsettling to find out that others who follow Christ disagree with us about important issues. How do we resolve this dilemma? Of course, we need language translators, Bible historians and theologians to help us to understand “what is written” but they have certain limits. Their outlooks differ on some of the issues, so we have to pick and choose according to our own preferences or what our denominations teach.

It’s been dawning on me that, no matter how brilliant or balanced Scripture teachers may seem to be, they simply cannot connect us with the heart of the Author. They can’t tell us what God is saying to you and to me personally, in this place and at this time. For that, we need to go to directly to Jesus. As we read, mark and inwardly digest not just the words on a page, but the Living Word, something happens. We connect with God, mind to mind and Spirit to spirit. Our hearts soften and healing waters seep in, bringing life deep down, to places the intellect cannot reach. The words “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not”, so dry and demanding, give way to “Christ in us, the hope of glory”. 

Yes, I think the key is “Christ in us”. The idea that Jesus, King of all creation, chooses to dwell in his people may sound a bit highfalutin, but I’m beginning to understand that there is nothing simpler. Jesus came to seek and save the lost – those who are disconnected from God. When we accept that we need this from him and recognize that he is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), then that’s it. We become new people. Not only that, God makes us part of his family, a clan that spans every nation of the world, cuts through all cultural divides and stretches back and forward through time. Our intellects can’t really grasp how this works, so we just have to grab onto it by faith. 

This is what I learned while sipping coffee and comparing doctrine with our new friends. Though we didn’t and probably never will think exactly the same about everything, the spiritual cord that connects us in Christ runs deeper than interpretations of Scripture verses. When we relax and trust that Jesus is with us, we see him. When we ask him to enlighten us because our puny minds can’t understand everything there is to know about God, we hear him. And when we allow ourselves to acknowledge Christ in other members of his family, there he is, in our midst. What could be better than that?

Before you speak, it is necessary for you to listen, for God speaks in the silence of the heart. ~ Mother Theresa
Photo credits: Coffee cups - Waking Photo Life; Stones - Ronel_Reyes; Bible - Jangkwee; Flower - Bruno Ciampi

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