Not getting what you need from the Bible? Well, just listen for God's voice elsewhere, we're told. But here's a fair warning, we often do a convincing impersonation.
A page torn from an inspirational daily calendar of Bible verses is making rounds these days on social media. It features a pretty purple flower and a quote from Luke 4:7: "If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine."
It's meant to inspire — until you realize who said it: Satan.
Now whether this was an oversight by the calendar designer, or a clever Photoshop job, the takeaway is the same: Context matters when it comes to Scripture. But today, there's an even deeper problem with how we use Bible verses, and a recent article in the Huffington Post offers a sad example of why.
Brandon Robertson, a young Bible institute graduate, recounts how his faith was shaken when he couldn't find what he thought he needed in the pages of Scripture.
"Every time I found myself in turmoil," he wrote, "I would reach for the Bible … [but] I was most often coming back empty handed." That disappointment, he explained, left him "radically disinterested" in God's word.
Describing a moment of a particular personal crisis, Brandon looked to the Bible looking for comfort.
"With tears in my eyes," he writes, "I opened up the Scriptures and landed on Isaiah 3 — a chapter about God judging and destroying his enemies ... not exactly the encouragement I was looking for," he said. "I turned to the typical 'encouragement' passages like Romans 8 and Philippians 3, but they didn't seem to be working."
Brandon recounts that his disappointment continued into college, until, during a lecture by biblical critic Peter Enns, he had an epiphany: "We need to be training our children to cultivate a relationship with God, not a relationship with the Bible."
Now at face value, of course, this statement is true. The purpose of the Bible is to reveal God. But for a growing number of progressive Christians, the God they want can't be found in the pages of Scripture. So they look for Him elsewhere — in personal experience, through relationships with other people, and through private interpretations of when they say God "speaks into" their life.
Effectively, this approach untethers God from the Bible. For example, the United Church of Christ recently insisted that "God is still speaking." Another true-at-face-value statement, until you realize they're actually suggesting that God's changed His mind on issues like morality and marriage, and that their ideas of who God should be trumps the God His Word reveals.
Many point to Jesus Himself as their alternative to Scripture. For example, Enns, in his book "The Bible Tells Me So," writes that "for Christians, Jesus, not the Bible, has the final word."
But in response, Christian blogger Derek Rishmawy asked a very important question: to which "Jesus" are these folks referring? "… [T]he only real Jesus we have intellectual access to," observes Derek, "is the Jesus revealed to us in the Bible." That Jesus reaffirmed the exclusivity of natural marriage, endorsed every "jot and tittle" of the Old Testament, and talked as much about hell and judgement as He did the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Jesus that progressive Christians claim has no source other than, well, themselves, their own feelings, beliefs, and preferences.
J. Gresham Machen wrote back in 1924, "The real authority, for liberalism, can only be … individual experience; truth can only be that which 'helps' the individual man. Such an authority is obviously no authority at all."
Our approach to the Bible is vitally important. God's inspired word is not a calendar of inspirational, therapeutic quotes. When we open the Bible, we are stepping into God's story, understanding our place in His design, and encountering Him on His terms. When we don't find what we're looking for, we should ask whether we're looking for the real God — or remaking a god in our image.