If I had to name the most common obstacle for Christians to a life of true trust in God, it would be fear—mainly the fear of being wrong about the Bible, which is often equated with being wrong about God.
– Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So
Growing up in the PCA, I was taught to treat the Bible with more reverence than we accorded the Holy Spirit. The Bible was our manual, our guide, our roadmap to faith, our source of all the answers about God and doctrine and how to be a good Christian. It was inspired, inerrant, God-breathed. It was the end of every argument and the source of all authority. Any person who dissented with– or even questioned– the “Clear Teaching of Scripture” was spoken of in disapproving voices as someone who rejected the authority of the Bible.
I submerged myself in this model, this life where the Bible was the only trustworthy source of Truth. By the time I was twelve I was reading a chapter of the Bible every night before I went to sleep, ploughing my way through the whole thing, even through the Scriptural equivalent of Death Valley (the books of Leviticus and Numbers.) In my mid-teens I felt convicted about needing to “hide God’s word in my heart”, and I started memorizing– Psalms, mostly, and parts of Paul’s letters. I would fall asleep saying them to myself in my head. When I was upset, sad, lonely, or scared, I would open my Bible, seeking the comfort I had been taught I would find there. In my young adulthood I tried to journal about my Bible reading, writing out long prayers and examining my day, my feelings, and my current circumstances through the lens of the day’s selection of Scripture. I fervently believed that if I just dug deep enough and submitted my mind thoroughly enough, I would encounter the peace of God.
Underneath it all– buried so deeply that most of the time it was subconscious– was fear. Fear that I was going to get God wrong by getting the Bible wrong. Frustration that I didn’t find the peace and answers in the Bible that everybody else seemed to get.
I grew to loathe the phrase “quiet time” which I heard frequently in church youth group and college group and Bible studies. The phrase conjured up for me a picture of someone communing in serenely with God (via the Bible), their mind a receptacle for the wisdom God would pour into them (via the Bible). Whereas, the older I got, the more my “quiet times” were like wrestling matches as I tried to wallop my intellect into submission and silence the questions and doubts and fears that increased the more I delved into the Bible. When people would talk about not making an important or difficult decision until you had “prayed and read Scripture”, I always squirmed. I had never heard or felt God speaking to me through prayer or the Bible when I had decisions to make (I always ended up seeking the advice of people I trusted and then making the decision that made the most sense to me.) When people would talk about finding peace and refreshment in their habit of Scripture-reading I always wanted to scream at the top of my lungs Are you even READING WHAT’S IN IT?!
(I didn’t scream, of course. After all, I had been taught that the Bible is the number-one nourisher of our faith. If my faith grew more and more conflicted as a result of the Bible, it must be my own fault. Cue shame.)
Every year that passed I felt further and further away from the peace that I had been promised the Bible would give me. Instead, the questions grew louder and more insistent. I had heard of famous atheist Richard Dawkins’ attack on the God of the Old Testament as “the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Like most evangelicals I had been incensed. But the older I got, and the more I really looked into the Old Testament, the more I had the uncomfortable feeling that Dawkins had a point.
After all, the history books of the Old Testament are one long trail of blood with God at their center commanding the carnage, and women and children are the constant collateral damage. The Flood. The firstborn children of all of Egypt (and that was because God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, just so God could prove a point!) Repeated instances of entire families being put to death because of the sins of one man (see Achan, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.) The Israelite man stoned to death for gathering wood on the Sabbath. The Canaanite genocide. The child of Bathsheba and David.
I memorized Psalm 19, which contains a paean of praise to God’s law:
The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul;
The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
Yea, than much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
Moreover by them Your servant is warned,
And in keeping them there is great reward.
It sounds really lovely and poetic and inspiring until you actually read all those laws and commandments. Like how a woman who cannot show “evidence of virginity” to a jealous husband after their wedding night (i.e. blood on the sheets) must be stoned to death. Or how a rebellious son is to be stoned to death. Or how the Israelites must not keep each other as (permanent) slaves, but it’s totally cool to buy slaves from the surrounding nations. Or how a woman who is raped must marry her rapist. And yes, I read all the explanations saying that that was so much better than all the surrounding cultures where a girl would just be killed, and by forcing her rapist to marry her she was protected and wouldn’t have to become a prostitute. But I always thought, if this is God’s literal word then how hard would it have been for God to say DON’T RAPE, AND IF YOU DO, YOU WILL HAVE A HORRIBLE PUNISHMENT, AND BY THE WAY RAPE VICTIMS SHOULD BE PROTECTED THE REST OF THEIR LIVES WITHOUT HAVING TO BE MARRIED IF THEY DON’T WANT TO. I mean, come on, God.
There were the prophets. Book after book of what sounds like an incredibly bipolar God– promising love and tenderness to the Israelites one moment, then whiplashing into threats, curses, and judgment the next. The Christian circles I was in loved to quote Zephaniah 3:17- “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” Nobody ever talked about what comes before that– three chapters of predictions of God’s wrath and punishments. “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. (1:2) “Gather together, gather together, O shameful nation, before the appointed time arrives and that day sweeps on like chaff, before the fierce anger of the Lord comes upon you, before the day of the Lord’s wrath comes upon you. Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility, perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger. (2:1-3, emphasis mine) I’ve never seen those verses turned into a meme and Instagramed.
Then there was Job. Mysterious, ancient, righteous Job. Job, afflicted by untold suffering with the full permission of God, just so God could prove a point against Satan. (Not to mention poor Job’s wife, vilified through all of history because, after having her entire home and livelihood wiped out and enduring the death of all her children, she speaks out of the bitterness of grief against God.) There I was, fully believing that God’s character is revealed in every part of the Bible, that if the Bible says God said it and did it then there can be no doubts and no debates. And the God revealed in the pages of Job was a Deity who would torment a human life just so he could win a bet against the devil.
My questions and conflicts were not limited to the Old Testament. Why was it that the Jesus of the Gospels could be so tender one minute and such a jerk the next? Why were there inconsistencies between the Gospels? In Matthew and Mark both thieves on the crosses next to Jesus “heaped insults on him.” But in Luke one of the thieves rebukes the other and asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom. In Mark, the multiple women at the tomb see one young man dressed in white who tells them Jesus is risen. They flee and say “nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” In Luke, however, there are two men dressed in white, and the women tell everything to “the Eleven and to all the others.” The disciples don’t believe them, but Peter goes to the tomb and sees that it is empty. In John, Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb alone, sees the stone rolled away, and goes to tell John and Peter, who run to the tomb and see that it is empty. Later Mary Magdalene alone sees the two angels, and then encounters the risen Jesus. What’s going on? If the Bible is written by God, couldn’t he get his facts straight? Especially when it comes to Jesus’ death and resurrection?
And then, of course, there are all the New Testament letters. Why in Evangelicalism are Paul’s commands about the submission of women/wives emphasized so strongly while his command for submission of all believers to one another is generally ignored? Why is it ok for modern women to wear jewelry and braided hair (Paul forbidding that is a cultural suggestion) but not be pastors (apparently that’s a timeless command?) Is it faith alone that grants you salvation or is it faith plus works? Is Paul endorsing slavery when he commands slaves to obey their masters? What about women being silent in church? Did God choose only a select group to receive his love and mercy, indifferently condemning the rest to burn eternally?
The inner turmoil grew and grew. When I sought help, I got pat answers or a refusal to engage, or, in the case of the Christian-living books that were popular in my circles, the implied reproof that these doubts and turmoil meant I wasn’t submitting myself to God’s authority, that I was trusting my own judgment over God’s Word. I wanted, more than anything, to believe that God is good, a goodness that is tangible and understandable, a goodness that overflows in love, kindness, and compassion. This was the God I was told to evangelize about to unbelievers. Yet here I was with a Christianity founded on a book that was God’s Word, and this book revealed a God whose actions and attitudes I could no longer explain away to myself. I couldn’t understand why the Christians I knew seemed so sure that God is good and pointed to the Bible as proof.
At last I came to the point of no return, a fork in the road of my faith.
Either God was not the loving God whom I wanted so desperately to believe in.
Or the Bible, the bedrock of my Christianity, wasn’t what I had been taught to believe it was.
to be continued…