Does anyone else remember sitting in Sunday school in front of a bright red flannel-covered board, watching the teacher set the scene of a popular Bible story with colorful felt characters and props?
We followed Abraham from Ur to Canaan and learned about God's promise to make a great nation of him - and saw that bad guy, Lot, selfishly choose the valley of the Jordan near Sodom and Gomorrah. And while we were successfully familiarized with the major characters of the Old Testament, we didn't know that our subconscious was being shaped to see those characters as flat and one-dimensional - to categorize them simply as "good" or "bad."
And so we learned to consider the Bible a book of moral laws and their case studies - in which every story has a good guy and a bad guy, making good choices or bad choices, pleasing God or making Him angry. We learned that every story must have a moral, that we must always have a tidy answer to every question; we learned that God is predictable, and so are we.
Perhaps the most prevalent myth about the Bible that I encounter among Christians is the idea that it's meant to provide us with a complete code of conduct - a formula for "how to make God happy." (And a lot of us believe this without even knowing that we do.)
But if we read the historical narratives of the Old Testament for ourselves, we'll find that there is really almost no moral commentary whatsoever to be found there - much less tidy answers to our many, many questions! No code of conduct is given. The "good" characters do horrible things, and the "bad" characters often surprise us with their goodness.
God's responses are often a mystery, too. Was He angry when Moses killed the Egyptian or shattered the stone tablets? If He wasn't, does that set Him against His own laws of righteousness? If He was, did He make an unfair exception by not punishing Moses? What about Abraham, when he betrayed Sarah twice to save himself? We see that God was angry at the men who took her, but why did He seem to let Abraham off the hook?
So, to satisfy the flannel graph, we make our own inferences on and excuses for the text - anything, to cram God back into our tiny perspective, safely locked up in a category we can understand; to avoid having to wrestle with Him in the night, like Jacob - all with the best of intentions, because we simply want to know that we know how to make Him happy.
We want to be one of the "good" guys.
And yes, moral instruction does account for part of the Bible - but the vast majority of the text is narrative or wisdom principles, not prescription. A few characters are explicitly stated to have been "righteous" or "evil" in God's sight - but for most, the jury's still out. (Not to mention that some of the most clearly righteous men also committed the most galling sins.)
All of this is by design. The Bible is not meant, ultimately, to be a book of moral law. It is intended, instead, to tell a huge and epic story which spans millennia of human history - a story which leads us as readers to a deeper and much more complex understanding of who God is, even as it deconstructs our neat and tidy categories for who we think He should be.
As Mr. Beaver so wisely said about Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: "Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king, I tell you."
The joy of the Bible, I believe, is learning to wrestle with it as an awe-inspiring revelation of our God, and then letting that revelation change us fundamentally by the power of His Spirit - just like Jacob was fundamentally altered by the power of the angel of the Lord that night, right down to his name, his identity, and the way he walked for the rest of his life.
My prayer for the Sehnsucht blog is that it will give us the space and the resources to dig into the Scriptures and wrestle with God until we, too, have been sanctified to His likeness - given our new name, and taught to walk a little differently.
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