Dealing with a Disturbing Bible
by Ed Cyzewski
Lots of people talk as if all of our problems would be solved if only we read the Bible more and memorized it. The Bible has answers, solutions, comfort, counsel, wisdom, hope, healing, and instruction. However, plenty of us have a nagging hint of doubt, if not a driving suspicion, that framing the Bible as our answer book may cause more problems than it solves.
I’ll be the first to admit that I want a Bible that makes my life easier, providing comfort and certainty. However, this supposed source of comfort and spiritual guidance can send us into a tailspin when we read about the troubling events such as the flood, God-sanctioned genocide, divine election, and hell.
Perhaps you’ve been spinning for a while, not quite sure what to make of this God with such a past.
Perhaps your religious affiliation on facebook reads: It’s Complicated.
On the one hand, we have Jesus, a meek and loving deity who died for sins. On the other we read that Jesus and God the Father are one, meaning he’s connecting with all of the floods, battles, and plagues that God directed throughout the Old Testament.
What should we make of God? In fact, should we even try to make sense of this in the first place? What should we do when the Bible disturbs us?
Disturbing passages in scripture throw a wrench into things. God’s relationship with violence has been especially controversial of late in some circles. How can Christians committed to following Jesus but disturbed by the Bible live in the tension such passages create?
What do we gain by explaining difficult Bible passages?
When I read the Psalms, I often find the poets ask difficult questions. Why are you far away God? Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the righteous suffer? This reveals a complex picture of God that defies simple rules or our hope that the Bible fits together neatly as a continual source of comfort.
God is both comforting and quite baffling. The Gospels clearly teach that the God of the Old Testament and the God revealed in the love and suffering of Jesus are the same. And this leaves us with an important question. What do we gain by trying to weave them together seamlessly?
Christians in various camps have tried different ways of fitting together the disturbing and comforting stories of God. The various sides offer a series of scenarios to explain the tough, disturbing passages of the Bible. However, I’d like to ask, should we expect to find satisfying answers?
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t talk about these passages. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t always expect clear solutions to disturbing passages in the Bible. In fact, there are some good reasons to believe that sometimes our attempts to perfectly explain these tough passages are not always grounded in positive motives.
What Do We Gain by Explaining the Bible’s Tough Passages?
If we want the Bible to fit together perfectly and to never disturb us, we reveal some of our presuppositions about God. We presuppose that God will always act within our understanding. In fact, we put God in a box: if God can’t act in ways that we understand, then he can’t be God or at least a good God.
Christians and atheists make this mistake. While we can try to figure God out, there is room in the scriptures and our traditions for accepting faith and mystery when we can’t make sense of things in the Bible.
If we are dealing with a deity who is truly greater than us, it’s reasonable to expect some uncertainty in the Bible. In fact, I’d say that the Bible encourages hard questions and sometimes does not offer the simple, assuring solutions we crave.
If the Bible itself refuses to offer simple solutions to hard questions, we need to ask what we gain by trying to “solve” the passages in the Bible that disturb us. No matter where we land on these issues, such as the conquest of Canaan, we’ll have a measure of uncertainty and dissatisfaction.
We can still try to understand the disturbing passages of the Bible, but we should expect to sometimes hit a number of possible intersections that leave us confused and lost. A disturbing passage in the Bible may rattle our faith, but our faith can endure because God is alive today and calling us to follow him despite our doubts.
God can live with our doubts. Can we?
Do the Disturbing Passages Negate the Rest of the Bible?
I’ve read quite a lot about the disturbing passages in the Bible, and I know that many learned authors have tried their best to sort out the nature of God and possible explanations for events such as the conquest of Canaan or the flood. I appreciate their contributions, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from wrestling with their work.
Some of us may accept their theories, but I’m willing to bet that many of us are dissatisfied by them.
I’ll admit it: I don’t have satisfactory explanations for certain events in the Bible that I simply can’t match up with Jesus.
For me, roughly 99% of the Bible fits together relatively well. There are just a few instances that are hard to stomach. I don’t want to set myself up as a judge of God, and therefore I have an important choice to make. We all do.
Do we let a few troubling passages overshadow everything else in the Bible and, more importantly, the experience of God in our midst today? Must God be fully within our sphere of understanding in order to be worthy of our worship or can we tolerant some unexplained gaps?
After spending so many years studying theology and wrestling with tough passages, I hit a point where I just needed to follow Jesus, worship him, and live in a daily loving relationship with him. There are some gaps in what I understand, but I take these gaps as further evidence that I am not God.
I’m sure my wife appreciates that.
Some may not be able to stomach a God they cannot fully understand. Honestly expressing and wrestling with our doubts is commendable. I don’t want to minimize these doubts, but to rather offer hope that wrestling with these uncertainties is a normal, expected part of the Christian faith.
God has created us with the ability to discern moral choices. I believe he wants us to consider these tough issues. He wants us to read about the conquest of Canaan and ask him, “What the hell?”
However, he doesn’t want us to stay there feeling bitter, self-righteous, or superior. We have to bring our honest questions to God, while also remembering that we aren’t in this to get 100% on the test, to prove the Bible is flawless, or to prove we have the cleverest theology.
We are committed to Jesus because he is passionate for his people. He doesn’t have to explain every single detail to us, even if we can’t quite understand why he’d leave us hanging sometimes when we bring questions to him. God welcomes our honest questions, but that doesn’t mean he has to answer all of them.
At the end of the day, we can rest assured that we know quite a lot about God. Jesus is our Savior, his Kingdom is coming, and we’ll have to rely on faith when we run into mysteries. I’m OK with that, even if it’s uncomfortable at times.
I don’t need to spend my time sorting out every little problem in the Bible because I am fully known by God, and, despite this, God still wants to be with me.
Ed Cyzewski is a writer and speaker in Eastern Connecticut. He is the author of Coffeehouse Theology and A Path to Publishing. He blogs on Christian belief and practice at www.inamirrordimly.com.