What if we’re all just trying too hard

We were all from different backgrounds. White, black, male, female, middle-aged, young, theologically trained, laypersons–all from different denominations. There was something that united us and brought us together–we wanted to grow closer to God.

While we build our discussions around a book, like any group that’s worth going to, we digress to the issues of the heart. 

Hatred, family, struggle. 

These things arose in conversation. 

Boundaries, community, grace.

These were discussed as a solution.

They were important topics that flowed out of one question, what do we do with the Old Testament. Everyone in this group needed a new paradigm to understand. Looking at it through the lens of Christ is a great idea, but sometimes it is so tough to see Christ. Books like, What is the BibleCrucifixion of the Warrior God, and Cross Vision came up. We even discussed understanding the Scriptures as Midrash

The Bible is hard. Some passages don’t make sense.

What do you do with that?

It can be super stressful. Have you been there?

Here, our life is supposed to be built on the person of Jesus who we see primarily in the Scriptures, yet there is so much that doesn’t make sense. There is so much more. However, that is beautiful, life-giving, and challenges us to live a bigger and better way–that calls us to a higher standard.

As we talked, discussed, struggled, someone said something simple, yet, profound. “What if we’re all just trying too hard.”

Boom!

He referenced a scholar who said that studying Scripture is just something he does. It was fun. 

Maybe the reason we can’t have productive conversations around the Scriptures in cross-denominational circles without someone being offended, angry, and calling another a Heretic is because we take ourselves way too seriously.

Of course, church history doesn’t bode well in this light, either. Saint Nicolas once punched Arius in the face during a theological debate.

I believe the Scriptures are to be wrestled with. The story of Jacob makes that clear. But when we take ourselves too seriously, we cannot approach the Bible with humility.

When we take ourselves too seriously, whatever opinion we derive from the text becomes what the text is saying, and when that is challenged, that challenge is against us as a person.

We need the Holy Spirit to speak to us and allow the Spirit to speak through the Scriptures. We must know that whatever ideas, doctrines, concepts we extract from the Scriptures are not exhaustive. Why? Because we’re not God. We have fallible lives. We are not omniscient. 

We need the Holy Spirit to speak to us and through us. We need the community to challenge us, offering different perspectives that push our interpretive paradigm a little further–stretching us in how we interact with the text.

Humble hearts are what’s required with this text. The ancient words–this God-breathed text–these profound but sometimes archaic words, can change our life in radically good ways. First, we must realize we’re not God. We need community and humility. More importantly, though, we need the Holy Spirit to minister to us.

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You’re probably reading the Bible wrong; here’s why

The most important influential book in the world is the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. The Holy Bible is the top-selling book every year and the Youversion Bible app has been downloaded more than 3 million times.

The problem is that there are fundamental principles in reading the Scriptures that are lost to the average reader. It is not that there is a perfect reading that is attainable. We are all limited because we have been removed from the context by at least a thousand years. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t use it. It doesn’t mean that His Spirit can’t reveal truths about life, struggle, strength, and the character of God. As N.T. Wright pens,

“It’s a big book, full of big stories with big characters. They have big ideas (not least about themselves) and make big mistakes. It’s about God and greed and grace; about life, lust, laughter, and loneliness. It’s about birth, beginnings, and betrayal; about siblings, squabbles, and sex; about power and prayer and prison and passion.” 

N.T. Wright Simply Christian.p.173

Keeping all of this in mind next time you read the Bible try and keep a few things in mind.

1) Think of it as one book

   Yes, the Bible is a collection of books. However, when we fragment the Scriptures from each other, not allowing them to tell a unified story. There is a larger story of who God is and how He interacts with His people that you will miss if you are only reading parts and not as a whole. Believe it or not the chapters and verse were not in the original text. They were added much much later. There were also no headings.

Next time you read it, try thinking of each book as a chapter (I know that makes for some long chapters). This enables you to hear the unified story in each book, as well as the whole of Scripture. Ignore the headings and think narratives. In Matthew, the lost sheep, coin and son go together. They cannot be appropriately understood unless they are understood together.

2) Remember it is not about you

 It may surprise you but the Bible is not about you. The Scriptures were written to groups of people in a very different time. In fact, the groups even represent different times. They related to a divine being differently. They had different hang-ups. They also had different struggles than many of us.

This is not to say there isn’t great power and might lessons to be learned. On the contrary, because it has great power and the wonderful lesson that can be learned we must approach with humility and listen to what is being said through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Greg Boyd points out,

“…Scripture is intended by God to be read as the word of God, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and with ‘the eyes of faith within the community of faith.'” 

Gregory Boyd The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.p.520

We need the Holy Spirit, we need faith, and we need the humility to hear each other’s interpretations of the Scripture and what the Holy Spirit is speaking to the community as a whole. 

3) There are different genres

 It is essential that we realize there are different genres. The is history, poetry, wisdom, allegory, metaphor, parable, apocalyptic. Further to the point, the way they told history 4000 years ago is not the same as we do now. Where nowadays we are concerned with facts rather than the overarching narrative, they viewed things the opposite. Facts, whether right or wrong, weren’t as important than communicating the lessons that can be learned.

 What can complicate things a bit more is that just because part of a book is written in one genre that doesn’t mean the whole book is. This is why it is so important to invite other voices into our interpretation. If you stay only within your tradition, whether that be Reformed, Catholic, Charismatic, or Orthodox and are listening only to interpretations from your tribe, you are handicapping yourself. Also, we must read outside of our time and ethnicity. We need to pull from the ancient and the near; we must learn literature from the east and west, it’s imperative we engage the voices of men, women, young, old, white, black, brown, and all the shades and cultures in between. As we engage all these voices, it helps us understand the nuances of genres.

4) Remembering it’s an interpretation is key

Finally, we must remember that as you read the Scripture that is your interpretation of someone’s interpretation, using a collection of interpretations (ancient manuscripts). Men and women have studied and are doing their best. As we learn, we understand better ways to interpret.

Whether we want to admit it or not, our biases influence everything we do. As a reader, we have a theological leaning. These leanings affect how we read and understand. Also, the translators have a theological leaning. They do the best they can with their understanding, but there are times when you have to make decisions when interpreting. Our biases play into how it is translated. While much is the same throughout different translations, there are slight variations.

It is for this reason why I have decided to read a different translation each year. From ESV, Message, TNIV, NLT, NRSV, NASB, Amplified. We need to leverage all we can to engage the text in new, vibrant, and beautiful ways.

My prayer is that this helps you see that we need to wrestle, challenge, struggle, search, yearn, cry, praise, study, and humbly apply the Scriptures. They are challenging and to see them as though they are not is not to take them seriously. As Matthew Kelly writes,

“The Bible isn’t like other books. It requires patience. Reading the Bible is like meeting a fascinating person: it takes time to get to know him or her.” 

Matthew Kelly The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity.p.100

So let’s read, ask, and explore, inviting the Holy Spirit to reveal truth through the Scriptures.

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Grace ≥Forgiveness

One of the revolutions that Jesus taught us was the power of forgiveness. During a time of revenge and equal compensation, Jesus flips everything on its head and says, “Forgive.”

The problem is forgiveness is hard!

Yet it is freeing.

Sometimes freedom is hard. Sometimes freedom is a push. But when you taste freedom, you realize just how worth it, it is. As Cook and Baldwin point out in their fantastic book Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness, “Forgiveness is not compromise.” However, when is enough, enough?

One day Jesus has a little powwow with his disciples. They are talking about so many of life’s issues. Greatness, sin, hurt. It is here when Peter, whether it be that he takes exception or just requires a little clarity, asks an important question that we have probably all asked.

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Matt 18:21-22

When confronted with how many times we are to forgive the repentant a person Jesus answer is, always. While Peter wants to quantify the number, Jesus states that true repentance’s response is continual true forgiveness. As Russell Brand points out,


“Forgiveness means letting go. It means being willing to accept that we are all mortals flawed and suffering, imperfectly made and trying our best.”

This doesn’t mean that there are no boundaries or consequence. It just means that both parties choose to live free of the infraction. Jesus articulates one of these critical boundaries as he explains what forgiveness is supposed to look like in our lives.

“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Mt 18:23–35

What becomes clear is that the reason we are to forgive is that we have been forgiven. No matter how many times we fall at the feet of Jesus confessing our wrongdoing, admitting that we can do nothing to make it right, Christ welcomes us. Again, Brand rightly points out,


“How can I expect forgiveness if I am unwilling to forgive?”

Though we live and fight the double standard that seems natural to us, Christ calls us to forgive just as we have been forgiven.

However, if we think forgiveness is all there is and you are waiting on the sidelines holding that grudge, waiting to forgive that person when they finally ask for it, you might have a rude awakening. While Jesus talks about the power of forgiveness, the reason that you can forgive is that we have done something first—we have extended grace.

So what is grace? To this, I look to people who are much smarter than me. Bell and Bell write,

“Grace doesn’t brush over our sins and failures and faults—it sees them clearly in all their Technicolor mess.”

Grace isn’t about ignoring what has happened. It sees it in its fullness. It considers the immense brokenness in what has happened. Brennan Manning points out,


“The gospel of grace announces, Forgiveness precedes repentance.”

Grace goes before. It is the first move. Grace says, whether you repent or not I’m going to be free and I’m going to free you. They may choose, and we often to do, to remain captive, but we refuse to and refuse to put them in the cell.

But why? Shouldn’t we want justice—for things that were wrong to be made right? Yes, we should. However, it is knowing that God is the perfect judge and choosing to say, in the words of Sting, “I could be you in another life, in another set of circumstances.” The apostle Paul explains grace to the church in Rome like this

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Rom 5:8

While we were still opposed to who God is—while we even walked our own direction—while we still admitted no wrongdoing, Christ gave his life for us. The day of the crucifixion, Jesus could have taken himself off the cross and said, “forget about helping all you ungrateful people.” Or while in the grave, as we waited for Saturday to end said, “well, they abandon me in a minute. They don’t really believe. Peace out.”

Though we didn’t deserve it, God showed us, love. He made the first move. This is the picture of a desperate Father running to his kid. Augustin writes,

“He did not delay, but ran crying out loud by his words, deeds, death, life, descent, and ascent—calling us to return to him.”

God knew we couldn’t do it on our own. That’s what the law was all about. God stoops his ideal to reach us. However, He knew we could never do it, that is why the law is proceeded with, “when you fail.” Though we had no power to pick ourselves up out of the muck of life, Christ can. If we back up from verse 8 to 6, we God’s love shining through. The Message puts verse 6 like this,


“Christ arrives right on time to make this happen. He didn’t, and doesn’t, wait for us to get ready. He presented himself for this sacrificial death when we were far too weak and rebellious to do anything to get ourselves ready. And even if we hadn’t been so weak, we wouldn’t have known what to do anyway.”

Ro 5:6

If asking forgiveness is putting the power into someone else’s hands, then grace is God saying, I will put the power back in your hands. However, this isn’t power so you can lord over others. This is the power that allows you to step out of the prison cell Christ has opened for you.

This power Christ puts back in our hands is the power of humility. It’s the power to say, I can’t do it on my own, I need the eternal God. While forgiveness can create superiority, us waiting for someone else to look up and say I’m sorry. God gives grace. Grace lifts the other up and admits you are not superior, we are all the same. We all make bad choices, some more destructive than others, but we are always one decision away from finding ourselves in the same shoes. Grace is saying, but for God, I too would be lost to the eternal consequences of my misdeeds.

Grace is always greater than forgiveness

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