Sunday, October 20, 2013

What Use is the Bible?

In The Omega Glory, an episode of the original Star Trek series, Kirk and crew beam down to a planet to find a vicious war going on between the native population, divided into Yangs and Kohms. In the final confrontation, Kirk interprets the sacred document of the Yangs, vouchsafed only to the chiefs, and finds it to be identical to the Preamble of the U.S. Constitution. On this parallel earth the nuclear confrontation between the Yankees and the Communists that we avoided actually took place, plunging both civilizations back to the Iron Age. And the words of the Constitution were slurred into a sacred language and the meaning was lost. Kirk tells them that all the people must be able to read the sacred documents and they must apply to all. The Captain of the Enterprise says, “Liberty and freedom have to be more than just words.”

Unfortunately today's Christians neglect even the words of the Bible. According to a recent survey done by the Barna Group for the American Bible Society, while 80% of Americans think the Bible is sacred, and 88% of Americans own a Bible, and the average home has 4.4 Bibles, only 20% have actually read the whole Bible. In fact 57% say that they have read it only 4 times in the past year. That's explains why so many people think that it says things like “God won't give you more than you can handle” or “God helps those who help themselves” or “cleanliness is next to godliness.” It's also a sad commentary on how little we know the book which we say is the basis of our faith. And it explains why so few Christians live differently than non-Christians.

In today's reading from 2 Timothy 3, Paul writes, “All scriptures are inspired by God and are useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” This is a very important verse and one that deserves closer scrutiny.

The first phrase is better translated “All scripture is God-breathed.” In other words, it is not like some movie that is “inspired by true events;” it comes from the mouth of God. Over and over again in the Old Testament, we read the words, “Thus says the Lord.” And in Paul's day, the Hebrew Bible was what he meant by scripture, since the New Testament is still in the process of being written. But again in the gospels, Jesus says, over and over, “Truly, I say to you.” Some editions of the Bible actually print Jesus' words in red to make them stand out.

But scripture has a purpose and it is not just to satisfy our curiosity about God. It is, Paul says, “useful” in many ways. The Greek word can mean “profitable or advantageous.” So scripture is meant to be practical. Indeed there is very little metaphysical detail in the Bible. The emphasis is on action, either God's or ours. The Bible doesn't have much use for speculation. The wisdom it offers is about how to live a good and godly life.

So what is the Bible useful for? Instruction, for one thing. And the Greek word is just as flexible as the English. It can mean instruction as in the act of teaching or as in the information itself. The Bible offers us a wealth of information about God and humanity and the very different values each holds. It is a treasure trove of wisdom on both how we should think, speak and act and how we do think, speak and act. And because the Bible is short on abstractions and rich in stories about fallible people trying and sometimes failing to follow the path of God, it is easy to use as a primer on how to deal with just about every aspect of life. The folly of youth, the challenges of old age, the trials and joys of marriage and family, the strengths and pitfalls of friendship, the deprivations of poverty, the temptations of wealth, the rewards of just behavior, the pain of injustice, the suffering of illness, the fear and acceptance of death, the hope of healing, the centrality of love, and much more are presented for our reflection and instruction.

The Bible is also useful for reproof. That's not a word we use much today. I personally think “rebuke” is a better approximation of what the Greek word means. It is about being convicted of your sins. Scripture is not shy about laying out what is moral and what is immoral. And if you have been reading the prophets, as we have in the Bible Challenge, you know God does not come off as blithe about bad behavior or even only mildly disturbed about it. He is outraged not only at disloyalty to him but also at the neglect, exploitation or oppression of the poor and disadvantaged, specifically the fatherless, the widowed, and the immigrant, at murder, at cheating, at lying, at betraying one's spouse sexually, at theft, at extortion, at incest, at animal abuse, at mistreating the handicapped, at gossip, at revenge, and more. Read enough of the scriptures and you have no excuse for thinking that God condones such behavior or that he demands anything less than repentance.

The Bible is useful for correction. The Greek word literally means “straightening up again.” Not only does it tell us to turn from sin but to turn to him and be transformed. When I worked in a Skid Row ministry in college, I was surprised by how many of the homeless men we worked with freely admitted they were alcoholics. Denial is considered one of the main symptoms of alcoholism. But they used it as an excuse for their behavior. By saying “I'm an alcoholic” they were in essence saying “It's not my fault; I can't do any differently.” Which is contrary to the experience of those who commit themselves to Alcoholics Anonymous. Change is difficult but not impossible, especially when one turns to God and lets him work in you, which is at the heart of all 12 Step programs. Without making it look easy, the Bible encourages this personal reformation. In Ezekiel, God says, “Suppose I say to the wicked, 'You must certainly die,' but he turns from his sin and does what is just and right...He will certainly live—he will not die. None of the sins he has committed will be counted against him.” (Ezekiel 33:14, 15b, 16a) Of course this involves God's action. “I will give you a new heart and I will put a new spirit within you....I will take the initiative.” (Ezekiel 36:26a, 27b) It is only by God's grace that anyone of us can become a new person.

The Bible is useful for training in righteousness. The Greek word here meant in its day being tutored. It also had overtones of being chastised. So “training” is a good word especially if you think of it in terms of athletic training, which includes being toughened. And once again, the Bible doesn't pretend that righteousness is easy or without risk. Logically, living a moral life—loving God and your neighbor, acting justly but mercifully—should pay off handsomely. And in general, it does. But when the culture goes with what is easy over what is right, when cheating, cutting corners and appealing to people's worst instincts is profitable in the short term, swimming against the tide can be hard and hazardous. Think of Daniel in the court of Nebuchadnezzar. Think of Jeremiah in the days before the Babylonian exile. Think of any whistleblower in a corrupt company breaking the law. The Bible can not only tell you how to think and speak and behave justly but it can prepare you for the reactions you get when you are one of the few who are standing up for the right.

The purpose of these uses of scripture is so that the person who is following the path of God will be proficient. Another translation would be “complete” or “perfect.” It's interesting that this Greek word comes from the word for “fresh.” So the idea is complete in the sense of ripe or mature. In many of his letters, Paul exhorted the churches not to remain infants in their faith but to grow spiritually and become mature in Christ. And the way to do that is to study the Bible and put it into practice.

Because, as Paul says, we are to be “equipped for every good work.” There are people who need healing, feeding, visiting and encouraging; there are injustices to oppose and oppressed people to free; there are people who have never heard the good news about Jesus or not heard it presented clearly and cleanly. These are all work God has given us to do.

God's Word is meant to be practical. Scripture is not meant merely to be intoned solemnly for inspiration, or to be used as magic formulas for getting God to do stuff, or to be treated like a secret code key for history or as a calendar and timetable for Armageddon. It is always to be studied with an eye to changing the way we look at and act toward God, his creation, our fellow human beings, and ourselves.

Mark Twain has been accused of saying, “It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me; it's the parts I do understand.” If he did, he probably meant it cynically. But it is true in a different sense. What is clear is that Jesus told us very explicitly what we need to know and do. And it is in ignoring and neglecting those things, like loving both our neighbors and our enemies, forgiving others, not resorting to violence, not judging people, being one as Jesus and the Father are one, showing we are his disciples by our love, that we are letting him down, by not being the complete and mature people of God he intends us to be, nor doing the good works he prepared for us to do. 

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