Those Who Sugarcoat the Bible Dilute Its Message
By Rev. Paul J. Bern
The Bible is a gritty book. It’s very raw and very real. It deals with people just like us, just as needy and screwed up as we are, encountering a God who would rather die (as if He could) than spend eternity without us. Yet despite that, it seems like some Christians are uncomfortable with how earthy the Bible really can be. Although the Spirituality of the Bible through the belief in the Holy Spirit is the foundation of all the Scriptures (with Jesus being the cornerstone), the Bible has a way of being just as earthy as a day of doing yard work around the house (if you’re lucky enough to still have one of those after the real estate crash of 2008). But there are others who feel the need to sanitize God by making His Word politically correct. God has already instilled true correctness within each of us because He alone is our source and our strength.
For example, look in any modern translation of Isaiah 64:6, and you’ll find that, to a holy God, even our most righteous acts are like “filthy rags”, as the more sanitized King James says. But the original Greek and Hebrew didn’t say “filthy rags”; it said “menstrual rags.” But that sounded a little too crass to the Bible’s 17th century English translators, so they just relabeled it ‘filthy’ instead. And while we’re avoiding talking much about Jesus being naked when He was on the cross, let’s pretend Paul said that he considered his good deeds “a pile of garbage” in Philippians 3:8 rather than a pile of crap, as the original Hebrew and Greek would have more accurately been translated. Oh yeah, and let’s definitely not mention the ten commandments in the Old Testament. That might be unpopular. Never mind that between the books of Exodus, Numbers and Deuteronomy there are a total of 630 of them. That could expose people as being the sinners that we all truly are. God forbid!
The point? God’s message was not meant to be run through some arbitrary, holier-than-thou politeness filter. God couldn’t care less about political correctness, and I feel the same way. When I open my mouth, I don’t care if anybody ‘likes’ me or not, and so it is with God. He intended the Bible to speak to people where they’re at, caught up in the stark reality of life on a fractured and dying planet. There are dozens of Psalms that are complaints and heart-wrenching cries of despair to God, not holy-sounding, reverently worded soliloquies. Take Psalm 77:1-3: “I cry out to God; yes, I shout. Oh, that God would listen to me! When I was in deep trouble, I searched for the Lord. All night long I prayed, with hands lifted toward heaven, but my soul was not comforted. I think of God, and I moan, overwhelmed with longing for his help” (New Living Translation).
And rather than shy away from difficult and painful topics, the Old Testament includes vivid descriptions of murder, cannibalism, witchcraft, dismemberment, torture, rape, idolatry, erotic sex and animal sacrifice. According to St. Paul, those stories were written as examples and warnings for us, as he wrote: “These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has seized you except that which is common to man. And God is faithful, he will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so you can stand up under it.”(1 Corinthians 10:11-13, NIV). So obviously they were meant to be retold without editing out all the things we don’t consider nice or agreeable. I have gradually arrived at the conclusion over time that the Scriptures include such graphic material to show how far we as the sum of humanity have fallen and how far God was willing to come to rescue us from ourselves. God is much more interested in honesty than piety, and in our Spirituality rather than in how religious we are. And that’s what He gives us throughout Scripture by telling the stories of people who struggled with the same issues, questions and temptations we face today.
Peter struggled with doubt and with a bad temper, and we read all about it when Jesus is arrested at Gethsemane. Elijah dealt with depression; Naomi raged with bitterness against God; Hannah struggled for years under the burden of her unanswered prayers. David had an affair and then arranged to have his lover’s husband killed. Noah was a drunk and Moses was on the run from a murder charge. Even Job came to a place where he found it necessary to make a covenant with his eyes not to lust after young girls (Job 31:1). Was it not Jesus who said, “I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance”? It’s all a matter of priorities. “I desire mercy”, Jesus said, “not sacrifice”. Don’t boast to God about how often you attend church, or how much you “tithe” each week. Never mind your rituals, Jesus was saying. Tell me about how much you did for others whether they deserved it or not. I want to know how well you treated others, and I want to know what you did to make a positive difference in their lives. That’s all that matters in the end.
It’s easy to make “Bible heroes” (as Protestants might say) or “saints” (as Catholics might refer to them) out to be bigger than life, immune from the temptations that everyone faces. I find it encouraging that Jesus never came across as being pious or condescending. In fact, he was never accused of being too religious; instead he partied so much that he was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton because he was perceived as associating with “sinners” (Matthew 11:19). His first miracle was changing water into wine, and it is documented in all four gospels that wine was served and consumed at the Last Supper. So, people who insist that one must be a teetotaler to go to heaven when they die are not only incorrect, they are judging people they don’t even know.
Jesus never said, “The Kingdom of God is like a church service that goes on and on forever and never ends.” Our church services can’t hold a candle to what heaven will be like. Jesus promised us that heaven would be like a homecoming celebration, an enormous block party, and a wedding feast to which all are invited, all at the same time! This idea was too radical for the religious leaders during the time of Christ, and in some cases it still is. There are too many churches today who are more concerned about vain traditions and pompous religious rituals that aren’t even in the Bible than they are about partying with Jesus. And that’s why they missed out. That’s why many of us miss out. Pardon me, pastor, but did you say ‘party with Jesus’? Yeah, I sure did. (Before I go any further, I am well aware that there are some individuals who simply cannot touch alcoholic beverages at all, and there are others who abstain by choice, and I have no problem with that whatsoever. I’m only saying that I don’t think it’s a sin to drink unless it is done to excess.) Following Jesus is more than just being dutiful or subservient, but instead it is richly rewarding and exhilarating.
According to Jesus, the truly spiritual life is one marked by freedom rather than compulsion (“So if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” John 8:36), and by love rather than ritual (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these. ‘Well said, teacher’ the man replied. ‘You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but Him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices’.” Mark 12:30-33, NIV).
Another hallmark of a truly Spiritual life is one focused on peace rather than guilt (“Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27, NIV). Jesus saves us from the dry, dusty duties of religion and frees us to cut loose and celebrate. I don’t believe we’ll ever recognize our need for the light until we’ve seen the depth of the darkness. So God wasn’t afraid to get down and dirty with us about life and temptation and forgiveness and grace. Only when the Bible seems relevant to us (which it is), only when the characters seem real to us (which they were), and only then will the message of redemption become personal for us (which it was always meant to be).
We don’t need to edit God. It’s our brains and our hearts that need a good editing. We need to let Him be the author of our new lives and the construction superintendent for our growing and expanding faith. The time is getting short, people. It’s time for all of us to lead more Spiritual lives, because Jesus will be returning soon, and at a time when you do not expect him. The stakes are where we will spend eternity, and there is no more serious subject than that.