Which Christianity, Which Bible, and Which Truth of God?


As I read letters to the editor in our area newspaper and posts or comments on Facebook, I see many written for or against a Christianity that is alien to me. Often I find myself thinking, “If that were really what it meant to be a Christian, I would be ashamed to call myself one.” At other times, I feel only a sadness.

I have friends who detest Christianity because of their experiences with it or what they have heard about it or heard coming from Christians. More than a few people, I suppose, imagine what they hear and see on television to be what Christianity is and all it is.

On March 25, 2012, two Sundays before Easter in my final Lenten season as pastor of a church, I preached a sermon called, “First Things First,” based upon (the Bible readings) Amos 2:6-8 and Mark 3:1-6. I post that sermon here in hope that it speaks helpfully to the confusion over what Christian faith is, what kind of God we Christians strive to represent in the world, what our Bible is about, and what sort of truth that Bible offers people. Obviously, there is disagreement among Christians to such an extent that, I suggest, the world is confronted by two different kinds of Christianity which in effect read and follow two different bibles, even though their contents are the same.

First Things First

God is to be trusted. God is to be feared. God accepts us. God rejects us. God loves us and longs for relationship with us. God judges us as we deserve and can quite coldly brush us away once and for all, as easily as a person brushes dust from a sleeve. I have alternated the two views of God. Which one is true? Which is biblical? Which gives us our life and message as a church?

Some of you have heard me say that I think there are two very different Christian Bibles which contain the same books with the same words but are as unlike each other as those statements about God I just alternated. One I call the salvific Bible, meaning it communicates to us God’s desire for human salvation and the redemption of the entire created order God made and loves. Calling it salvific or saving does not mean we put on rose-colored glasses to read it so that we find nothing harsh or even unpleasant. No, the process of salvation is not all pleasant. It is a hard matter to be forgiven because forgiveness makes me see myself more clearly than I like. Salvation takes us through remorse, guilt, and shame, but they are not the objects of God’s work within and among us, much as surgery is not itself the object of the surgical procedure but is, rather, a necessary means toward healing. So, please don’t misunderstand reading the Bible as salvific to be a convenient way of avoiding the Bible’s harsher, more painful truths, but please do understand that the Bible’s truth is always that of God’s redemptive love.

The other Bible I call the vindictive. If we read the Bible as vindictive, we consider God’s goals to be reward for the few and punishment for the many. We see as ultimate truth God’s separation of the deserving from the undeserving. For the vindictive Bible, truth happens when judgment falls, when God finally gets done being patient, terminates the work of salvation, and destroys the unbelievers.

All God is to us is the God who loves us.

These two Bibles are exactly the same in their words but completely different in their meanings and messages, and the difference is more than just a matter of how we interpret this passage or that verse. The difference comes from two profoundly divergent views of the will and purpose of God, and they result in two very different types of Christians and churches. “God is love.” The Bible makes that statement, not as a definition of God, but as a declaration of God’s one, undivided will and purpose for dealing with humanity. All God does is done for love. All God is to us is the God who loves us.

Still, the God who loves us is also deeply offended and hurt by much that we do to each other and to ourselves. So, realizing God’s love for us is neither easy nor convenient. I learned early in life that knowing my parents were angry at me was a bad feeling, but knowing they were disappointed in me was far worse. The God we meet in the Bible is sometimes very angry and sometimes deeply hurt and disappointed.

but God’s perfection is love – self-giving love

But, if we were to accept the classical view of God and God’s perfection found in philosophy and shot through much of the older faith-thinking of the church, we would have to admit that God could not possibly be disappointed in us or in anything we do because God would have perfect foreknowledge of everything, seeing it all before it happened, and so would be perfectly immune to disappointment or any kind of distress. The God of the biblical prophets and of Jesus is, however, quite the opposite of such sterile, all-knowing perfection. The one thing God is never toward us is indifferent, unmoved, detached. God always cares. Indifference is false perfection. The unmoved God is a philosophical lie. God is love, and love makes itself vulnerable to the one loved. We who are so vulnerable to countless forces around us and within our bodies, minds, and emotions may quite understandably imagine perfection to be invincible and invulnerable, but God’s perfection is love – self-giving love. Therefore, God’s perfection is revealed to us fully, not on a heavenly throne but on an earthly cross.

Jesus embodies God’s self-willed vulnerability to us, the best and the worst of us alike. Flesh is vulnerable. We humans are subject to the countless limitations of bodily existence in time and place. We age, we get sick, we break our bones; we also suffer grief, shame, and disappointment that hurt far more than a broken bone. Being human can hurt a lot. Jesus is one of us. He represents in his teaching, healing, life, and death the empathy and compassion of God for all of us. In him, we know the will and purpose of God, and they are salvific – saving, redemptive, reconciling, healing, life-giving, loving.

When judgment is their truth, people turn cruel.

The Gospel of Mark shows us how the difference works. Jesus’ critics are strict commandment keepers. They put first things first, and what they put first is the commandment: the Sabbath. But what they really prize is the authority the commandments give them to know what is right and what is wrong, who is deserving and who undeserving. So, when they notice a man with a withered hand, what they see is bait – Jesus bait. They know he heals people, and they suspect he will not let the Sabbath regulations stop him from healing. Eagerly they watch to see if he will take the bait. When judgment is their truth, people turn cruel. They view compassion as weakness. They calcify knowledge of God into standards by which to evaluate and judge. They worship norms and learn to feel nothing but disgust for people who do not measure up to those norms.

Judgment is not the purpose for which God gave Israel the commandments. Before giving any commandment, God had adopted this band of slaves as the covenant people God would love faithfully down through the ages. The commandments teach them and guide them in the ways of responding to God’s love and making it their way of life as a people. That’s why Jesus sums them all up in the two commandments to love God with all we have and all we are and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Notice that the healthful kinds of self-love are not excluded. Because God loves us, we ought to be able to come to love ourselves – not to be narcissistic, to be in love with ourselves and act as though the whole world revolves around us and exists to grant our wishes – but to care for, respect, and value ourselves as people God loves. That kind of self-love makes better and deeper changes in us than mere standards could ever possibly make. Tell children what they must learn because they will be tested on it and the test will reward or punish them, and they may learn something for a short time (long enough for the test); help them come to love learning, and they will never stop. So it is also with faith. Scare people enough with threats of punishment or lure them with promises of paradise, and they will believe whatever you tell them to believe, at least long enough for the test. Help them learn to be and live as people loved, forgiven, and set free by God, and they will never stop.

Jesus is clever, although not in self-serving ways. He sees what his critics have in mind, but he will take the bait anyway because he refuses to see the afflicted man as bait. The self-righteous commandment keepers put first things first, and so does Jesus, but they differ sharply over what the first things are. Their view is vindictive; his view is salvific. He has not come to judge and condemn but to heal and set free. Why do I say Jesus is clever? His critics think they are forcing him to choose between his way of compassion and their way of authoritative standards, but he turns the tables and makes them choose. Jesus calls forward the man with the withered hand. Now, he asks his critics, what do you want me to do? Should I send him away unhealed? Or should I send his affliction away? Which choice honors God and the Sabbath? The man is standing there before you and before God. Which choice can be made in the Spirit of God?

Notice, however, that Jesus is not content to win by turning the tables. He does not feel triumphant over outsmarting his enemies; rather, he is angry and grieved because he has failed to win them over for God. He heals the man’s hand, but he cannot soften their hard hearts. When we fail to put the true first things first – God’s love and compassion, God’s desire for human well-being and for justice with mutual respect in the human community – then we feel righteously free to trample on people we regard as undeserving. But when we put the true first things first, we and our lives are transformed, and so is Christ’s church. The third of our three visioning questions reads, “What is Jesus Christ calling us to be and to do (as a church)?” We are striving to put first things first, his way. We will do so as a church as we learn to do so as individual believers and as families. Then we will learn to know and serve the truth of God this world needs so desperately. Amen.

What’s in a Word?


How much significance can we attach reasonably to a single word in the Bible?  Can it really serve as a linchpin for understanding God?  Well, no, not likely, and yet very rarely, yes.  Let me be clear.  Biblical interpretation and Christian preaching have been muddled by the tactic of lifting Bible verses and even mere phrases or individual words out of context, altering their meaning from what it was in context, and then making too much of them.  But there are some very important terms in the Bible, terms loaded with meaning, and sometimes the context supports understanding a word to have special significance.

By the end of the second chapter of the Bible’s book of Exodus, Moses has failed in his attempts to save a fellow Hebrew from oppression and to serve as a law-giver for his people, and now he must flee Egypt to preserve his life.  First he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave and hid the man’s body, and the next day he tried to break up a fight between two Hebrews.  To his dismay, one of the fighters asked him if he intended to kill him as he had killed the Egyptian.  The crime is known, and Moses realizes it will soon reach the ears of the authorities.  So, he goes into exile to the land of Midian where he marries, settles down, and starts a family.  On his own, Moses cannot become deliverer or law-giver.

The chapter concludes with this summary of suffering in slavery:

23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.  24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.   25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them. [emphasis mine.]  (Exodus 2:23-25 NRSV)

The end of verse 25 presents a problem.  The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translates, too weakly I think, “and God took notice of them.”  The Hebrew says simply, “and God knew.”  Knew what?  Is something missing from the Hebrew text?

The Hebrew word for knowing is a relational term in various senses, as has been exploited popularly by comedians for its reference to sexual intimacy, as in “So-and-so knew his wife, and she conceived . . . .”  Jokes about knowing “in the biblical sense” aside, the Hebrew verb “to know” is relational, as was the people’s thought-world and way of speaking about life.  They did not separate knowing from understanding and caring, hearing from listening and responding to the other person’s need, or acting righteously from treating one’s neighbor justly.  They did not compartmentalize the human being into intellect separate from emotion or emotion apart from action (response).  When the Bible says God “hears,” it is telling us that God listens, cares, and wills to respond; it is not telling us merely that God receives auditory information through divine “ears.”

So, the truth declared by this seemingly incomplete sentence in Exodus is not that God received some information but that God looked upon the Israelites and empathized with them in their sufferings.  God felt their misery with them.  This God was not the “Unmoved Mover,” but the empathic God who took the people’s pain and humiliation to heart.  Because God “knows” in this relational and responsive sense, something will happen for the people’s benefit.  Remembering the covenant relationship, God is moved and will act.  In the next chapter, we’ll see how God will choose to act, but first we are led to understand that God cares.  Chapter 3 confirms this deeper, richer interpretation of the simple phrase, “and God knew.”  We are not lifting a single word out of context and exaggerating its importance but recognizing how very important that word is in context.

When Christians speak of the Bible as revealed truth, they may mean either of two very different things.  An authoritarian Christianity means, “This is what you must believe and had better believe and obey, or else!”  A Christianity more receptive to grace and less impressed with itself means, “This reveals the way God really is in relation to us and our world.  This gives us hope!”  God is empathic: responsive to human suffering, caring, and compassionate.  God is not indifferent to us.  God is not dismissive of our pains and griefs.  The wealthy and powerful among us may not respect the powerless.  The cries of the vulnerable and used may not resound in corporate boardrooms or move those in high office, but the Bible reveals the God who cares.

The Bible’s truth is relational, and it is redemptive rather than vindictive.  It is not the truth of majesty and power but the truth of empathy and compassion.

A Different Kind of Truth


In my posts so far, I’ve focused on the argument from lesser to greater which we find in many of Jesus’ teachings.  I hope I’ve at least begun to show that this approach treats Jesus’ parables fairly, for what they are and how they really work to explain the ways of God and of human life transformed by God’s love.  The idea is to listen to the parables themselves instead of laying upon them some doctrine we already hold as correct or orthodox.  We are seeking to learn rather than to reinforce our already standardized beliefs.

I want to make clear, however, that recognizing this one teaching method is not some special or secret “key” to unlocking the truth of scripture.  People like shortcuts and simplifications, but the Bible does not surrender its truth to them.  On one level, we’ve observed a way Jesus taught by using the familiar as an analogy to the hidden, when the hidden is like the familiar in some way, only much, much more so.  God is like a loving parent, only much, much more so.

There is another level of understanding we have already encountered but may not have recognized.  The philosophically minded might remind us that all talk about God is, of necessity, reasoning by analogy, but that’s not the level of understanding of which I speak now.  True, because we cannot observe God or God’s will and work the way scientists observe natural happenings in the world we inhabit, we must speak of God by analogy to what we know and have experienced.  But the more important insight for understanding the Bible and, therefore, beginning to understand life in biblical terms is this: the Bible’s truth is relational.  The prophets and Jesus insist upon confronting us with the God who cares, who feels for and with us, who has freely and willingly committed to relationship with the human creatures of flesh and blood and will neither give up on us nor enslave us (for our own good, as a tyrant would say).  The notion of an apathetic or indifferent God is utterly unbiblical.

For those who would read the Bible as what I have termed the vindictive bible, divine truth leads to judgment and so to the rewarding of the good or faithful and the punishing of the wicked or unfaithful.  For them, it’s all about heaven and hell (since the faithful recognized many centuries ago that in this earthly life neither the good nor the wicked reliably get what they deserve before they die).

Biblically, however, God’s truth leads, not to judgment that apportions “just deserts” to human beings, but rather toward the healing and restoring of loving and respectful relationship.  God respects our freedom and integrity far more than we respect each other’s or even our own.  So it is that we can discern a sharp contrast in the ways people use the Bible to support change and legislation in the society of the United States.  Those who read what I have called the salvific bible, seek to legislate freedom and equality, as we saw during the Civil Rights Movement.  In contrast, those who read the vindictive bible seek to legislate restriction and suppression, as we now see in the right-wing Christian attempts to return women to the dominion of men and all people to the strictures of the “normal,” as that normal is defined by traditional prejudices that have found Bible quotes to support themselves.

The very language of the Hebrew Scriptures is relational, which makes it quite difficult for us modern Western-thinking people to comprehend.  So, an emerging goal of this blog is to explore the Bible’s relational thinking in hope of rendering it less strange to us.  We have become detached and objective.  Having learned to see the earth as a warehouse of resources for us to use and then discard when we have exhausted their usefulness, we have dulled ourselves further into seeing people the same way – as resources or things for our use, to be discarded (laid off) when we have exhausted them.  In ancient Egypt, the Hebrews were slaves.  They were things to be used and used up.  The God who spoke through Moses adopted those slaves, calling them “my people” and committing to them forever.  Remarkably, God chose freely to become vulnerable to mere human beings.  Love is by nature vulnerable.  The mystery of the Bible and of life is this terrible vulnerability which looks so weak and foolish to those in love with power but is, in truth, the strength and wisdom of God.

The truth of the Bible is steadfast love and faithfulness.  It is relational always, never just objective and never, ever, indifferent.  To understand biblical truth, we must learn to think of life as a relational matter.