There is an epic movie in existence called The Princess Bride. I’ve seen it way too many times, on school trips, in class at the end of the school year, and for fun in my own home when I needed an hour and a half of entertainment and zingy one-liners. If you haven’t seen it yet, I suggest you stop reading right now, find the movie on Netflix, and watch it. Then, and only then, should you return and finish reading this post. (Or at least watch this clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qhXjcZdk5QQ)
(Also, there is also an epic woman named Rachel Held Evans who wrote this epic blog post (http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/love-word-means) from which I borrowed this Princess Bride example. If you have not heard of her, I also suggest you stop reading this post, check out her site so you can start learning about her awesome-ness, and then return to finish this post.)
In this epic movie, a so called “wise” Sicilian named Vizzini keeps using the word “inconceivable” to describe certain events. A mysterious ship is following the group at sea? “Inconceivable!” The ship’s captain starts climbing the group’s rope up the Cliffs of Insanity, and even begins gaining on them? “Inconceivable!” The villain doesn’t fall from said cliff after Vizzini cuts the rope all of them were climbing? “Inconceivable!” Finally, Inigo, famous for this and other awesome catch-phrases, comments on Vizzini’s use of this word:
“You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
In the same way, I believe we throw the word “biblical” around in the same careless fashion, using it in contexts and to describe ways of life in ways that, quite honestly, demonstrate our lack of knowledge of the complexity of the biblical canon.
People talk about “biblical” worldviews, marriage, families, politics, teaching, manhood, womanhood, music, and so much more. It seems we think throwing the word “biblical” in front of anything we encounter on a daily basis, from our own daily routines to the world news, legitimizes what we do and how we think. After all, if it’s “biblical,” it must mean God is on our side, and if God is on our side, He obviously wouldn’t be on the side of those who oppose our views. Suddenly, “biblical” becomes a barrier used to keep those who don’t agree “out” and allow those who do agree “in.” In this way, the “enemy” can be clearly labeled and avoided while we sit in the comfort of knowing we are right and “they” are wrong.
In our culture, we’ve also done a great job at separating our logic and emotions. Sometimes this is a good thing. As someone who tends to be more emotional than logical, and therefore more impulsive and quick to act before I think, I love having a partner like Bryce who makes more balanced decisions that he has thought through (although there have been plenty of instances where he does act in whimsical and, dare I say, somewhat dangerous ways. Including but not limited to the many instances he continues to climb trees even after his doctor has told him he’s not in the best condition joint-wise to be doing this.)
However, when we do this with God, it often looks a little ugly.
For example, look at the phrase, “God’s ways are not ours.”
I understand why people use this phrase. Sometimes, I see some validity in it, in that this phrase reminds us that we cannot make following God all about us, especially when God calls us to places and people that make us uncomfortable. Some would say this passage is “biblical,” because of a reference in Isaiah 55:8:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
Nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.” (NRSV)
In certain Christian circles, this verse clearly points out that God is God, so He can do whatever He pleases, because as God, He has that right and authority. Our own emotions, thoughts, or ideas cannot phase God, because as humans, we just don’t understand Him or His ways, so there’s no point in arguing against Him.
But more often than not, when people use this phrase, I see them make God look like a monster.
I’ve heard this phrase used to explain the tornadoes and natural disasters that destroy the lives of so many as nothing short of an execution of God’s wrath, and obviously these people did something to deserve it. I’ve heard this phrase used to deny people basic human rights, from the times of slavery to the current struggle for gay rights, and continue cycles of oppression and entitlement. I’ve heard this phrase used to “comfort” those who have lost loved ones, young and old, to tragedies, when what these victims really need is someone to hold them and say “I’m so sorry.” I’ve heard this phrase used to defend abusers who claim they were only acting on their convictions, tell women like me that our gifts are not welcomed in leadership for the sheer fact that we’re women, and condemn people who don’t believe exactly what we believe straight to hell.
Even if my emotions tug my heartstrings to believe that a God whose love seems bigger than I could ever imagine couldn’t possibly be like this, the “logic” of this difficult phrase tells me I’m focusing too much on my emotions, and God is beyond my own frivolous, human ways. In short, God ain’t got time for these silly feelings.
I get that God is big. I understand that God doesn’t need to cater to every whim and fancy of ours. I realize we shouldn’t disregard things just because they make us uncomfortable.
But for the love of God, can we please stop making him look like the biggest bully on the playground?
At RISE, instead of “Kid’s Church” or “Sunday School,” our kiddos participate in a little thing called “Happy Hour.” This started as a joke at a leadership meeting due to the fact that our kids meet at Capital Ale House, the bar above our worship meeting place of Court Square Theater, but the joke rang too true to us as a community and became the legitimate name for our crazy community’s children’s ministry. At Happy Hour, when there’s an argument between the kids over how a game should be played, accusations that one child stole the other’s toy, or someone throws a fit out of frustration, the leaders take the child or children aside, look them in the eyes, and ask this powerful question that should be extended to people of all ages:
“Are your actions bringing more love into this place, or less love?”
When we condemn those who have experienced tragedy, saying they have received what they deserve, while they are burying their loved ones and rebuilding their homes, are we bringing more love into this place, or less love?
When we tell groups of people they don’t deserve the same rights as others because, in the eyes of God, they are “different,” “less deserving,” and “living lives of sin,” are we bringing more love into their lives, or less love?
When we defend those who have caused physical, emotional, spiritual, or sexual harm to others by saying they were only acting on their convictions and God was fine with them resorting to these horrific actions to act on them, are we showing more love, or less love?
When we tell extremely gifted people that because they were not born heterosexual males, they cannot lead behind the pulpit, are we showing more love, or less love to them?
Honestly, I don’t see a lot of love when we use “biblical” and “God’s ways” in these contexts.
Because honestly, the Bible recounts many instances in which God, or in my opinion peoples’ interpretation of the world around them as people of God, upholds polygamy, genocide, slavery, and child sacrifice. Technically, these occurrences, which most of us would agree today are not in God’s plan for us as His people, are “biblical,” in the sense that they literally occurred in the biblical text.
But what does Jesus show us about God, and the term “biblical”?
Because when I look at the Gospels, and when I read Jesus’ words and actions, I see a lot of his ways were not what most people of his time (or in ours) considered “biblical.”
In a world where stoning adulterers was upheld by the Law, Jesus told a group of Pharisees, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7, NRSV).
In a world where women were legitimized by marriage alone, Jesus told the religious leaders that there would be nothing of the sort in the Kingdom of God (Luke 20:34-38).
In a world where legalism was so strict there were rules about how far you could walk on the day of rest, Jesus broke Sabbaths to heal people and defended his actions in the name of God’s love (John 5:16-17).
In a world that valued status, wealth, and reputation over compassion for the less fortunate, Jesus told the parable of a rich Jewish man condemned and separated from God because of his inattention to the poor man at his gate (Luke 16:19-31).
In a world of division and hatred between Jews and Romans, Jesus told them to love their enemies, turn the other cheek, give up their tunics, and walk the extra mile (Matthew 5:38-48).
In short, Jesus told them to let their humanity, their God-given capacity to love and their God-given responsibility to show it, shine bright.
Jesus didn’t say to let the rules dampen our light. He didn’t say God’s logic and ways trumped human emotion and compassion. On the contrary, he constantly commented on how the Law was not made for the sake of being Law, but for the sole purpose of showing love and compassion for others.
Jesus embodied a God of second chances, who cares for the poor and defenseless, gets irritated with legalism, and calls out those who live in comfort at the expense of those who have nothing.
Jesus embodied a God who calls us into relationship with those we would not normally seek out and even make us uncomfortable, to listen to and be with them even if they are our greatest enemies, and die to our old selfish ways so we can live with and for each other as God intended.
What if, instead of saying “God’s ways are greater than ours,” we told the mourners, the oppressed, the silenced, the abused, and the whole world we encounter, “God’s mercy and love are beyond comprehension?”
What if we told those in mourning, “God is with you and loves you, and I know his heart is breaking for you”?
What if we told the oppressed, “You are important, and you are of value”?
What if we told victims of abuse, “This is not OK”?
What if we told those denied their voices, “Keep on speaking”?
What if “biblical” became more about the love God gives to us so we can give it back to a world in need, and a whole lot less about rules, guidelines, and legalism?
Did Jesus really come to make a checklist on who to be with and avoid, how worthless we are, and how we deserve nothing but hell on earth because that’s better than the hell we really deserve?
Or did he come proclaiming the good news that God has a love so radical and beyond our comprehension, a love that is, to many (including myself), “inconceivable”?