Are you willing to do whatever God says in scripture about this area whether you agree with it or not? Are you willing to accept anything that God sends--anything that happens in that area--whether you understand it or not?
These words, spoken by popular pastor Tim Keller, gave me pause. I have been listening to his excellent sermon series on wisdom and the book of Proverbs, and into the middle of a sermon called “Knowing God,” Keller dropped a question that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently: am I willing to believe that something God says can be true even if I don’t agree with it?
This seems like a dangerous question. In our intellect-heavy world, the idea of not just believing, but acting upon a belief that seems contrary to our best intuition feels crazy. To complicate the matter further, American Christians have often erred too far on the side of blind belief without fully investigating their faith from an intellectual standpoint, and it’s been detrimental both to them and to those who are looking on. Yet as I continue to think through this idea, I would argue (and so, apparently, would Tim Keller) that the answer must be yes. Part of being a Christian is being willing to believe truths that we don’t necessarily agree with.
This does not mean checking our brains at the door or having the “blind belief” that has been a fear-filled reaction of some evangelicals to the rise of science. Mine is a family full of scientists, historians, and mathematicians--which doesn’t mean we’re more curious or more intelligent than others, but it certainly means that none of us have been sheltered from the conclusions of science or the cycles of the past. I want to be clear that by approaching the topic of a wisdom beyond our reach, I am not saying that Christians should hide from knowledge.
Rather, I am realizing that what I and so many other Christians lack is a proper sense of humility. A common theme in a lot of my most recent posts has been the idea that God is God and we are not, and that is because it’s been the lesson God has hammered into my own heart consistently over the past year. Though I am, generally speaking, a feeler and not a thinker, I’ve found myself on a logical exploration of the Christian faith that has led me to the very question Keller posed.
I love my generation. But I will be the first to admit that our emphasis on feelings while also being on average the most highly educated generation to date has led to some pretty serious pitfalls when it comes to humility. This has translated into Christians who have emotion-led difficulty with certain doctrines of the church, and who have concluded that if they (and the larger culture) feel like a certain doctrine must be wrong, it can’t be believed. (A classic example is the statement: “I can’t believe in a God who would allow suffering.”)
But this way of coming at truth is extremely self-centric. No one should or can be forced to believe anything they don’t. And yet if God does indeed exist, he doesn’t particularly need our belief. Whether or not we have a hard time believing that something he said is right or true, if God is who he says he is it doesn’t really matter what we think.
It’s important, especially for those who have been raised as Christians, to not get the progression wrong. Rather than beginning with how we feel about God’s commands, it’s important to go all the way back to the beginning. Is God real? If yes, is the God of the Bible the real God? If he is, can we trust the Bible and rest on the fact that it is the actual communication of who he is and what he desires? If the answer to all of those questions is yes, our correct response is humility, and a genuine desire to see what he says, not a quick rush to translate our cultural perspective onto the words of scripture.
Part of the problem is that in order to truly follow the commands of God, we have to know scripture. Not what our favorite blogger said about scripture, not what C.S. Lewis or Rachel Held Evans said about it, not what a certain cultural movement or faith tradition said about it: we have to know what scripture actually says. As helpful and illuminating as all of those sources may be (and trust me, my life has been changed by other writers and thinkers) when we face God we will not be asked what our pastor or our favorite writer believed--we will be asked what we believe. If we claim to follow Christ and yet do not know his Word, we are lying to ourselves and to others.
Interpretation is a real thing; every believer is called to read and pray that the Spirit will help them interpret what the Word says, and I believe that sincere Christians do interpret certain aspects of scripture differently (see Why We Need to Disagree.) But there is a vast difference between earnestly reading and seeking a correct understanding of scripture and claiming that we don’t believe certain things about God because we just can’t understand how he would ask them of us. The Bible claims that our understanding is shadowed and our hearts are treacherous (Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 7:15-20, Proverbs 3:5 etc); if we believe that scripture is the Word of God, we must acknowledge that this is true. Some of the things that feel “problematic” in scripture may require us to humbly admit that only God completely comprehends them (like predestination) or admit that they are things we simply don’t want to believe are wrong (like sleeping around.)
There are parts of scripture that we will not want to believe because we are frightened, or selfish, or conceited. Some of our parents and grandparents chose to ignore the way scripture treated things like racism, the love of money, and being holistically pro-life. All of these things probably seemed like no-brainers to them--everyone else was doing it. How could they have fathomed standing against the popular teaching? Yet we see what damage has been done because they did not earnestly seek the truth of God’s word, even when it went against what they wanted, and what culture preached.
Though it changes in specificity with each era, every generation will encounter certain commands in scripture that seem countercultural to the point of being wrong. It has always been that way, and it will always be that way until Christ returns again. The question is not what we can bring ourselves to believe, but what scripture honestly says, and how we will conform ourselves in prayer and humility to submitting to the will of God--the all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God who in his gracious kindness has chosen to draw near to us. Thank God that he is good, and that his commands lead to a truly beautiful life.
For further reading:
I was getting drinks with a friend of mine recently, and she asked me a question I’d never thought about before. This friend had asked to get together specifically to talk about the topic of women in the Bible--one I care deeply about and have been steadily investing more thought in. She has her own questions about how God sees women, and about the differences in complementarianism and egalitarianism*, and she asked me: “Why aren’t there any couples in the Bible who are really good examples of male and female relationships?”
I was stunned by her question. Though I would argue there are a few instances of couples in the Bible who portray a healthy male/female dynamic (such as Ruth and Boaz) by and large she’s right--the vast majority of stories we’re given involve broken and sometimes truly horrific examples of men and women sinning against each other. Regardless of how one approaches the question of complementarianism/egalitarianism, her question is a very valid one. Why would God not provide an example to us of a blueprint for how men and women can thrive? Why would he not give us a model for how to treat one another, especially when it comes to things like marriage?
I have two answers--one that was immediate, and one that has come after mulling over the question for some weeks now. My first answer was this: there aren’t any examples of perfect male/female relationships in the Bible because it is not about us, it is about God.
I know how trite that sounds. Yet while it’s easy to say that the Bible is about God, it’s far from easy to believe it. This is why Sunday School teachers so often emphasize Biblical heroes like David and Abraham and Sampson instead of discussing their constant failures; we crave humans to aspire to be like. But the Bible is relentless in its emphasis on our own failures and its message of God’s faithfulness. We are not allowed to make an idol out of any of the humans in the Bible because it is God we must worship, and God alone.
The way relationships between men and women are depicted in scripture is no different; each story highlights the brokenness of humans and the faithfulness of God. Looking from the way Abraham cowardishly passed Sarah off as his sister to save his own skin, to how Rebecca deceived Isaac, to how David treated his many wives can be truly disheartening. These stories, and the many examples of women being abused within the pages of the Bible have caused both men and women to ask whether the Bible upholds and celebrates an ethic of abuse and the subjugation of women.
And yet the way we interpret these stories rests precisely in our understanding of my initial thought: the Bible only ever holds up God himself as the true example we must follow. Once we understand that we are not supposed to see the people in the Bible’s stories as examples to follow, but we are to see in their lives the brokenness of humans and the fact that God is displeased with them, it all makes sense. The Bible forces us to encounter the common failure of humanity and recognize the fact that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way men and women interact, and we cannot solve it by ourselves. There is no example of a perfect man or a perfect woman to point to in scripture because there will never be a couple perfect enough to warrant our imitation.
As I’ve thought this over, it has brought me to the second answer to my friend’s question: the fact that there are no perfect examples of male/female interaction in the Bible is actually really good news for us. Though the weight of our constant failure as people may seem disheartening, the stories of those who messed up over and over in scripture is a lifeline for anyone who has truly reconciled with his or her own sinfulness. I know my own heart well enough to know that I will never have a perfect marriage. I know the marriages of those close to me well enough to know that though I can follow their example in some ways, they will always disappoint me as role models. Instead, I am encouraged when I look to scripture and see people exactly like me--cheaters, liars, selfish people--who were shown grace. Who were still used in God’s rich and beautiful story--whose names were recorded not because they did anything special, but because through them God chose to work and to fulfill his purposes.
As I thought through my friend’s question, and thought about men and women in scripture who treated each other as they were meant to, the best role models I could think of (other than Adam and Eve before the Fall) were Mary and Joseph. They certainly were not perfect, but I love the way God used and blessed them. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, Mary models courage to us--saying yes to the terrifying prospect of having a child out of wedlock in a society that would stone a woman for such a thing. Guided by a dream sent from God, Joseph models the self-sacrificial love Paul talks about in Ephesians 5:25 and not only believes what Mary tells him, but changes his course of action based on that belief and joins her in the call God has given her. Their story punctuates just how much our relationships with the opposite sex--and particularly our marriages--need the work of the Spirit, and this is something to take seriously.
Together, Mary and Joseph give us a glimpse of what it means to be united to Christ--not that we will be made perfect in this life, for they certainly also had some spectacular failures. Instead their story highlights the great relief in the knowledge that we, like the rest of the men and women in the Bible, will never be the one people should point to. It is always God himself who deserves the glory and thanks for his lovingkindness to us. In a world of inequity and abuse, we can look to these stories and see that there is great hope in the redemption and reconciliation the Spirit brings to his people--both men and women.
*A very barebones summary of the two viewpoints: Complementarians believe that “God created two complementary sexes of humans, male and female, to bear His image together. This distinction in gender represents an essential characteristic of personhood and reflects an essential part of being created in God’s image.” Egalitarians believe “that not only are all people equal before God in their personhood, but there are no gender-based limitations of what functions or roles each can fulfill in the home, the church, and the society.” Follow the links to read more about each position.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele