Deep Dive: Unlearning the Bible

unlearning the Bible

This is part of my Deep Dive series into religious hot topics. For more deep dives, check out my resources page.

Introduction: The Most Important Thing You Need to Unlearn about the Bible

The Bible is the highest selling book in human history. According to Wikipedia, Guinness World Record stated in 1995 that five billion copies of the Bible have been sold. I don’t know if Guinness has updated that number since 1995, but I’ve bought at least 5 Bibles since then and my church just bought 15. So we know that at least five billion and twenty Bibles have been sold since 1995. That’s five with a B plus 20!

Does this mean that billions of people love the Bible like I do? Do they buy it for the stories, teachings, wisdom, and diversity of emotions found within it?

Maybe. But it might also be that those books sit idle on shelves, unopened for years. Maybe like me many people have grown to see the dangers inherent in the Good Book. When we look for the beauty in the Bible, we also find stories of God-ordained genocide, laws that make no sense in our modern context, and what seem to be threats of eternal conscious torment in hell – all of which has caused real pain to real people for thousands of years.

In spite of all that, I want you to know that there is good reason to open your Bible again. Because there is a way to read the Bible that makes sense of why so much bad is found alongside so much good. I’ll say more about this later in the introduction, but to put it in its most basic terms, it’s to read the Bible the way that Jesus taught us to read it. After all, Jesus is the Word of God made flesh so if anyone can teach us how to make sense of all the words in the Bible it would be him.

Which leads me to this…We need to unlearn a very important thing about the Bible, something Jesus never taught but which we have come to accept without question: The Bible is the Word of God.

Now, if that last sentence really bothers you, this book might not be for you. If that scandalized you, then I’d suggest that you stop reading. Maybe come back to this later. You might not be ready and the upcoming content might just make you upset. I don’t want to upset you, so feel free to put stop reading.

Okay. If you are still reading, the point I’m going to be making in this ebook has opened the Bible up for me in fresh ways that have increased my love for it. The Bible is a powerful book that is full of insights and wisdom, but it is not the Word of God.

It is crucial to unlearn this concept because this teaching about the Bible has harmed countless people for thousands of years. It has been used as a claim to power over others. After all, if the Word of God promotes slavery, genocide, and hatred against our LGBTQIA siblings, who can question it?

We should question it. After all, this understanding of the Bible has led to great harm, and it has harmed even those who interpret the Bible that way. It has prevented Christians from becoming our most awesome selves, and in fact has led to a version of Christian life that is mean, harsh, and exclusive.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, what’s remarkable about the idea that the Bible is the Word of God is that the idea isn’t even in the Bible.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say anything like, “The Bible is the Word of God.”

But the Bible does say in John 1, “In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh.” The Bible nevers says, “The Word of God became a Book.” It says that the “Word of God became flesh” in the person Jesus.

This matters for the basic fact that Christians are Christians. We are not Biblians. Jesus calls us to follow him. He does not call us to follow Moses or Joshua or David or Elijah or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Nor does Jesus call us to follow Paul or Peter or James or Revelation or even the Bible. Those people and books can all be wonderful examples of a life of faith. But they are ultimately not the point.

Jesus calls us to follow him.

Of course, there is no question in my mind that the Bible is important. In fact, the Bible has become more important and more revelatory for me because of what I’m about to tell you in this book.

Some people will point to 2 Timothy 3:16 to claim that the Bible is the Word of God. But that passage says that all scripture is “God breathed,” not that the Bible is the Word of God. Another way to translate that verse is that all scripture is “inspired by God.” That makes sense because to inspire is to breathe life into something. The Bible is inspired and God breathed. But do you know what else was God breathed and inspired by God?

The first human named Adam. As a fellow Adam who messes up, I can assure you that the first Adam was God breathed, but he didn’t always get it right.

The Bible was written by people who looked at the world and thought they saw God working in it. And they came to different conclusions! For example, in some books of the Bible, like Isaiah, God seems to be involved in almost every event. But in other books of the Bible, like Esther and the Song of Solomon, God is never even mentioned.

And then there are the inconsistencies in the Bible, which causes all kinds of problems for those who believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Biblical inerrancy refers to the idea that the Bible is without error. But once we read the Bible, we discover problems. Some problems are minor, like was Jonathan’s son’s name Mephibosheth, as 2 Samuel 4:4 states, or was it Merib-baal, as 1 Chronicles 8:34 and 9:40 state?

The Bible also contradicts itself. For example Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21 each have some version of the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” law. But in Matthew 5, Jesus directly quotes these verses in order to contradict them. He says, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evil doer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (38-39).

So what is a Christian to do with the Bible? I think the first step is to unlearn how we’ve been taught to ignore or paper over the inconsistencies and contradictions in the Bible. It may be that the more we pay attention to the things that feel wrong or make us uncomfortable, the more we will discover why the people who preserved those stories hung on to them so tightly. They were people like you and me doing their best to follow God.

Well, maybe they weren’t exactly like you and me. After all, they did live 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. They didn’t have the internet or cars or modern medicine. But there’s something else about the people who wrote that Bible that we often miss: You’ve probably heard the statement, “History is written by the winners.” Well, that’s generally true. But the Bible is the first book in human history that was written by losers.

The Bible was written by a group of people who were brutally oppressed, conquered, enslaved, and killed by different empires, including the Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman.

This matters because the people who wrote the Bible were not political powerhouses of the ancient world. They were brutally dominated. And we get to read their story in the Bible. We read everything we would expect to find in a story told by a conquered people who suffered from generational oppression — trauma, pain, suffering, hatred, violence, revenge, internalized oppression, and graphic stories that make us squirm.

But we also receive something that can only come to us through divine inspiration. And here is one of the essential points of this ebook: The Bible was written by humans who somehow knew that God had not abandoned them in their times of hardship and suffering. In fact, God was found right there in the midst of the worst that humans can do to one another, even when we torture, kill, and abandon each other.

And so in the Bible you get the Word of God working through the pain and violence of life. For example, the Hebrew people began their story with Abraham and Sara. God called Abraham and Sara in Genesis chapter 12 to go on a mission. God blessed them so that through Abraham, Sara, and their descendents, “you will be a blessing … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:1-3).

The Bible speaks with raw honesty about trauma. It’s uncomfortable, but going through trauma with raw honesty is the only way we can heal. It’s the only way we can move forward to realize that, like Abraham and Sara, we also have a mission, which is to move through the trauma so that we might be a blessing to “all the families of the earth.”

But how do we know what is true and beautiful in the Bible? For Christians, it comes down to this: Jesus is our guiding principle. When some of his religious opponents asked him why he hung out with the wrong people, he quoted the prophet Hosea and said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire chesed, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13).

I left the Hebrew word from Hosea’s original quote chesed untranslated. We usually translate it as mercy, but it means so much more than forgiving people. It also means steadfast love. God doesn’t just forgive you if you say you are sorry. No matter what you have heard from religious authorities in the past, no matter what certain passages in the Bible might say,

Jesus teaches us that the Word of God is Steadfast Love. He also teaches that God’s greatest desire is for you to receive God’s Word, God’s Steadfast Love, into your life.

In this ebook we are going to look for God’s Steadfast Love in three Biblical stories in which God’s love has been hard to find. I hope this ebook helps you discover God’s love for you, and for all of us, in the pages of the Bible .

Chapter 1: Creation – It’s Not Science. It’s a Love Story.

“In the beginning…”

You’ve heard the story before. But tragically many Christians today have taken this ancient story and made it into something it was never meant to be: a scientific account of the creation of the universe. And since modern science tells us something different about creation, we have an unfortunate rivalry between scripture and science: if one is true then the other has to be false.

But that misses the point of this ancient story.

The ancient Hebrews weren’t writing a scientific explanation of how the world began. They were writing Story, with a capital S. As opposed to story, those who write Story attempt to tell us something really Real about the world. Stories provide us with a deeper worldview that re-shapes how we think and act.

So, what worldview were the ancient Hebrews narrating when they told their Creation Story in Genesis 1?

In order to answer that question, it’s important to know that the cultures surrounding the ancient Hebrews also told creation stories. For example, the Babylonians told their creation story in a book called the Enuma Elish. It went something like this:

Tiamat was the original mother goddess. She had many children and was a helicopter parent of the worst kind. Her children felt oppressed so the teenage gods rebelled against their mother in an all out civil war.

Marduk, the leader of the teenage gods, finally led the teenagers in defeating the evil Tiamat and her army. Marduk took his mother’s body and tore it in two. Then Marduk created the earth from one part of Tiamat’s body and from the other part he created the sky.

Oh, and get this! Marduk also killed Tiamat’s evil general, Kingu. He took Kingu’s blood and from it created human beings.

This Story emerges from a worldview that sees violence as integral to creation. The gods are not good and merciful, but evil and vengeful. The book of Enuma Elish proclaims that violence is an essential part of creation because creation was born from sacrificial violence.

Contrast that with the Story in the first book of the Bible, Genesis chapter 1: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…”

“Wait a minute!” the people of the ancient world would protest. “Where’s the war? Where’s the battle between good and evil? Where’s the sacrifice! This story is so boring.”

The ancient Hebrew story tellers weren’t interested in telling an entertaining story through sacrifice and violence. They were interested in telling a radically alternative Story that was rooted in nonviolent mercy and gift-giving love.

Have you ever noticed in Genesis 1 that after each day of creation it repeats the phrase, “And God saw that it was good”? There’s a reason for that. Like the Babylonian creation story, many other creation stories of antiquity claimed the world was evil. But the Hebrews told a different Story. They claimed that fundamentally, at the core of everything in creation, is an inherent goodness that nobody can take away.

And that inherent goodness is inside of you and me and all of humanity. In fact, Genesis 1 makes this radical claim that you won’t find in any other creation story:

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them. (27)

All of us are created in God’s image. We carry the likeness of God. All of us. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, cisgender, heterosexual, black, brown, Asian, white. If you see another person, you are seeing the very image of God.

After God created humans, it says that, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (31)

Please note the radical differences in these stories: In Enuma Elish creation begins in war. In Genesis, it begins in peace. In the Enuma Elish humans are created from hate; in Genesis humans are created from self-giving love.

With this background, we can see more clearly that the authors of the Bible didn’t have modern science in mind when they wrote their Stories, including the creation Story. They were revealing a different kind of truth. The truth about God’s desire is for us to imitate God by living in peaceful and loving relationships where we treat ourselves and others as the divine image bearers that we are.

And yet the writers of the Bible knew that something went terribly wrong. The Story of the Garden of Eden is an explanation of how human relationships become dysfunctional and often violent. But the point of the Bible is that, unlike the Babylonian creation myth, the world isn’t supposed to be this messed up. The Bible insists that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can live together in harmony and peace.

And that brings us to a bad guy named Naaman.

Chapter 2: God’s Love Is For Everyone. Wait! Even God’s Enemies? Yes.

In 2 Kings chapter 5 we find a Story about an enemy of ancient Israel, a general named Naaman. He was from Aram, he worshiped foreign gods, and he led his army to victory over God’s people. The writer of 2 Kings tells us that Naaman “was a great man and in high favor with his master because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram.”

Wait! God is on the side of those who don’t worship God the way we do? Heck. Naaman worshiped other gods and yet God gave him victory?

That’s just not right! It goes against everything we’ve been taught about God and the Bible.

That’s why we need to unlearn what we’ve been taught about ignoring or papering over the contradictory parts of the Bible. Because if we don’t, we’ll miss the point of this really weird, mostly ignored story: that apparently God might just love our enemies, too.

Despite being blessed by God, Naaman had a form of leprosy. Did God bless Naaman with military victories while at the same time curse Naaman with leprosy? The story doesn’t say that. It just says Naaman had leprosy.

Naaman did what many other bad guys did in the ancient world — he raided other nations and stole their gold. He kidnapped people and force them into slavery. In other words, Naaman was a terrorist.

Though we can see just how bad Naaman was, if you were successful and rich, no matter your methods, in the ancient world many people thought you were blessed by God.

On one raid, Naaman kidnapped a young girl from Samaria and forced her to serve his wife. The girl saw Namaan’s leprosy and somehow found the grace to advise him to go to her nation to meet the prophet who “would cure him of his leprosy.”

Maybe this was the first documented case of Stockholm Syndrome. Or maybe the girl was just trying to survive. Or maybe she genuinely wanted to help another human being who happened to be the enemy of her people.

Life is complicated and messy. So is the Bible.

Namaan decided to follow her advice. He entered enemy territory with his entourage of horses and chariots, the tanks of the ancient world, and arrived at the prophet Elisha’s house. But Elisha couldn’t be bothered and he wasn’t intimidated by Naaman’s show of force. Elisha didn’t see Naaman himself, but he did send a messenger who told him to “wash in the river Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be made clean” (10).

Sounds like a bit of hocus pocus, right? Well, Naaman couldn’t believe it, either. He became enraged. First he was insulted that Elisha wouldn’t see such an important person as himself. Then Namaan complained to his soldiers that the waters in his hometown were better than the river Jordan! Why couldn’t he just go to the waters closer to his house?

And do you know what God did to Naaman’s insolence? Strike him down with lighting bolts? Stone him? Threaten him with eternal conscious torment?

Nope.

One of Naaman’s soldiers convinced him to give the Jordan river a try. It was easy enough to do and, who knows? It might just work.

So Naaman followed Elisha’s advice. After washing himself seven times in the Jordan river, “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean” (14).

Interesting story, huh? God doesn’t get angry at Namaan for his doubts, but shows him mercy, even when he resisted the will of God.

Oh but wait, the story gets even better…

Naaman returns to Elisha and after being healed says, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” Namaan now only believes in one God, the God of Israel. The gods of the ancient world were thought to be connected to the land of their particular nation. So, Namaan asked Elisha if he could take “two mule-loads of earth” from Israel so that he could continue worshiping the God of Israel when he arrived at his home in Aram.

Weird, I know. Naaman is at the beginning stages of faith and that’s okay. Maybe one day he would understand what the Prophet Isaiah said, that God is not isolated to land or geography or a house of worship, but the earth is full of God’s glory. (Isaiah 6:3).

But Naaman had a problem. Sure, he had some holy dirt, but when he returned home, he’d have to help the King of Aram worship Rimmon, the great god of storm, rain, and thunder of Aram.

Naaman’s anxiety heightened and he asked Elisha for forgiveness saying, “But may the Lord pardon your servant on one account: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one account.”

Enraged, Elisha yelled at Naman, “You worthless sinner! You must not bow down to Rimmon or you will burn in the everlasting fires of Hell! Moreover, God demands that you convert your master so that he believes in the God of Israel. You must go to Aram and give the people an ultimatum — either they repent and believe in the God of Israel, or they will burn in hell! I don’t care that the king might kill you. You must sacrifice yourself to show your loyalty to the God of Israel!”

Did I getchya? Sort of? No? Okay, Elisha didn’t quite say that. He actually said to Namaan three simple words,

“Go in peace.”

Elisha responded with mercy, not sacrifice.

Have you ever been in a similar situation as Namaan? Maybe you are at work or a neighborhood party and you’re made to feel guilty by fellow Christians if you aren’t out there evangelizing for Jesus. Or maybe you’ve been told there is a right way to worship God or be in God’s favor and you felt judged because somehow you didn’t get it right.

Maybe God isn’t quite as judgmental as many Christians can be to one another. Maybe, just like Elisha, when we encounter the “Namaan’s” in our midst, doing their best but not quite getting everything just right, we can say “Go in peace.” And maybe when we feel we’ve let God down, we can remember Elisha’s merciful blessing to Naaman and know that it is for us, too.

Chapter 3: Mercy Sounds Nice, But Didn’t God Sacrifice Jesus on the Cross?

Jesus summed up the essence of his message by quoting the Hebrew prophet Hosea: “God desires mercy, not sacrifice.” But if you are like me, you grew up hearing a lot about Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross.

I learned that God needed Jesus to be sacrificed on the cross to save us from God’s wrath. You may have been taught a similar Story: God created the world and humans sinned. God became wrathful and channeled his wrath against his only Son Jesus on the cross so that anyone who believes in him would be forgiven and saved.

Apparently, this was God’s plan from the beginning, which raises all kinds of questions. Like, if God is all-knowing, did God know before creation that humans would sin? If so, why would God get so upset if he already knew what was going to happen? And why would God create billions of humans knowing that the majority would never come to know Jesus and so they would spend eternity in everlasting torment?

Unfortunately, I see this teaching about a wrathful God all the time on social media. I’ve heard similar teachings from pulpits. Many Christians believe that Jesus came to save us, not from Satan or demons or hell or death, but from God’s wrath.

Christians have traditionally called Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross the “atonement.” You might be surprised to learn that the version we’ve been discussing is not the traditional view of atonement. The idea that God channeled divine wrath against Jesus actually came very late in Christian history. It reflects a view that came to prominence 1,600 years after Jesus was crucified.

The earliest formulations of the cross didn’t say anything about Jesus protecting us from God’s wrath. The very first formulation is known as Christus Victor. It claims that the problem Jesus saves us from was not an angry and wrathful God, but that the cross saves us from Satanic forces. On the cross, Jesus, the One who is fully God and fully Human, tricked Satan into thinking he was just another human. Jesus acted as the bait and Satan was the monstrous fish that snatched Jesus up.

But since Jesus is fully God and fully Human, Satan didn’t have the power to kill God, and so Jesus resurrects. Satan rules the world through death, but Satan and death have no rule over God. And so Jesus enters into Satan’s bowels, only to resurrect and destroy Satan by exploding Satan from the inside. (How’s that for an image?!?) This is the first understanding of the Atonement. The earliest Christians understood that God’s wrath was not the problem Jesus came to save us from. Rather, Jesus came to save us from Satan and death.

The next formulation is known as the Ransom Theory. This comes from passages in scripture that say Jesus gave his life as a ransom for many. But scripture doesn’t say to whom Jesus paid the ransom. The Ransom Theory of the early church followed a similar line of thinking as the Christus Victor theory. It claimed that God’s wrath is not the problem that Jesus saves us from on the cross. Jesus didn’t pay a ransom to God in order to get us off the hook. This theory claims that Satan held a debt over us that we had to pay from the time Satan tricked us in the Garden of Eden. Jesus paid off the debt to Satan and set the captives free by going to the cross. God’s wrath does not play a role in this theory either.

In the 11th century, Anselm of Canterbury thought that Christus Victor and the Ransom Theory were incorrect. He thought it was beneath Jesus, who was fully Human and fully God, to have to trick Satan or pay Satan a ransom. Anselm lived in a feudal system, which influenced his understanding of the cross. He decided God was the Lord to whom humans owed a debt. He said that God’s honor was insulted by human sins and so Jesus had to pay a debt to God by going to the cross.

While Anselm did not connect God’s wrath to his theory on the Atonement, he did make the move toward saying that the problem Jesus saves us from is with God.

It wasn’t until the 16th century with the advent of Calvinism that a teaching of the cross was explicitly connected to God’s wrath. Calvinism took Anselm’s theory and basically added a wrathful god to it. This theory claims that Jesus had to go to the cross as a sacrifice to appease God’s wrath. And only then could God forgive us of our sins. Today, many Christians think that this theory is the traditional theory of the Atonement. It is not. It is actually a modern formulation.

What we find in the Gospels is an understanding of the cross that has nothing to do with God’s wrath and everything to do with God’s mercy. In the Gospels we see Jesus again and again forgiving people for their sins before he went to the cross. (See Luke 7:48, Matthew 9:2, Mark 2:5, Luke 5:20, Luke 7:47.) Jesus didn’t have to go to the cross in order for God to forgive us because God forgives us before we even know to ask.

Jesus didn’t go to the cross in order to change God’s mind about us. Jesus went to the cross in order to change our mind about God. Jesus went to the cross so that we might see, as 1 John says, that “God is love” and “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.”

In fact, the first preaching about the cross in Christian history never mentions God’s wrath. In Acts chapter 2, Peter delivers the first sermon after the resurrection. He says about Jesus, “this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.”

What was the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God”? It was to hand Jesus over to us. In handing Jesus over to us, God did not kill Jesus on the cross. God offered Jesus to us in the spirit of love. God’s offer was not conditional and held no hidden risk of God’s retaliation if we did the wrong thing. God gave himself to us in human form with the freedom to do with him what we will.

The big question at this point is, ‘What will we do with the Son of God?” As Peter says, “you crucified and killed [Jesus] by the hands of those outside the law.” And of course, Peter had to deal with his own part in Jesus’ death, as he denied and abandoned Jesus to the cross.

According to Peter, what was God’s role in the cross? It was not to channel divine wrath upon Jesus. It was to reveal that even if humans were to kill Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, God would not respond with wrath. Rather, God would resurrect Jesus to life, because, as with Christus Victor and the Ransom Theory, not even the powers of death could keep him down.

So who killed Jesus? For Peter and the early Christians, humans killed Jesus. Human wrath was the problem that killed Jesus; not divine wrath. Of the Atonement theories we’ve talked about, I prefer Christus Victor and Ransom Theory, but even they miss the mark of Peter’s sermon. Anselm was right that they paid too much attention to Satan, but he was wrong to make God out to be the problem. The problem, as Peter claimed in his sermon, was that when God offered God’s Self to us, we vented our wrath and violence against him. The problem was with us; not with God.

In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection, God’s Steadfast Love is revealed most fully in how Jesus responded to his persecutors.

Jesus was abandoned and betrayed by many of his closest followers during his time of need. They lost faith and trust in him, so they left him to suffer and die alone at the hands of the religious and political elite.

Jesus hung on the cross in all of his naked shame. And do you know what he prayed for as he hung there?

“Father, get the bastards for me!”

Of course not. Jesus responded with mercy, not sacrifice.

He actually said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Much of Christianity teaches us that if we deny God, God will deny us. In other words, God imitates humans. The truth of the cross reveals how wrong that is. It’s always been wrong. God doesn’t respond to us in kind. God responds to us, even at our worst moments, with mercy and forgiveness.

The point of the cross is that Jesus responds to human violence by absorbing it and responding with the only thing that will stop the cycle of violence from continuing — forgiveness.

Jesus’ resurrection confirms this. When Jesus returns and appears to his disciples, they were afraid. If the person I just abandoned while he was on his way to die suddenly appeared in front of me, I’d probably be scared, too. I mean, we’ve seen how this story goes. All stories of people coming back from the dead are the same — they come back to haunt us and get revenge.

Except for Jesus. He didn’t come back for revenge against anyone. Nor did he lead them in a war against those who killed him. Instead, Jesus responded with mercy by saying, “Peace be with you.” He then said to them, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathed the Holy Spirit on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

I used to have a sacrificial understanding of that last statement. I used to think that the disciples now had the power to choose who deserved forgiveness and who doesn’t. But notice that Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” How did the Father send Jesus? In the Spirit of radical forgiveness, even forgiveness of his persecutors while he hung on the cross. When Jesus says, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained,” he is telling his disciples to hurry up and get on with the business of forgiving so everyone can experience God’s radical mercy.

Conclusion – You Have Doubts? That’s Normal. Relaxing Into Your Most Awesome Self.

I imagine you might have some more questions about the Bible. Like what happened with the flood that killed virtually every human and every animal on the planet? What about Sodom and Gomorrah? And everyone’s favorite Bible story, that time when a man named Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter, apparently with God’s approval, because God gave him a victory in war.

Gross.

There are some horrible stories throughout the Bible that depict God in some nasty ways.

But here is the key for Christians to always remember: for us, the violent, messy, uncomfortable parts of the Bible are there because the Bible isn’t just about God. It’s about us, too.

If we throw out all the violent stories in the Bible or stop reading it because of them, we lose access to God’s persistent, relentless, determination to reveal God’s steadfast love to us in the midst of the worst times of our lives and when we are our worst selves.

As we saw in the last chapter, the cross and resurrection reveal that killing is something humans do. And we will find all kinds of excuses to justify it, including the Bible and God.

Jesus warns his followers, “Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me” (John 16:2-3).

This is an important truth about humans from the beginning of our history. We have killed one another in the name of God. Sometimes we have taken God out of the equation and have killed our enemies in the name of peace or justice or prosperity.

It doesn’t really matter how we justify violence against others. Jesus came to show us another way — the way of self-giving love.

Jesus knew the mind of God better than anyone else. God doesn’t desire sacrifice. God desires chesed, mercy, steadfast love, precisely because God is chesed, mercy, steadfast love.

And this is where relaxing comes in. So many people contact me with a version of one major question: How can I increase my faith in God?

Here’s what I recommend when it comes to faith: Relax.

You can do all the work of prayer, reading the Bible, going to worship services, and feeding the hungry, and yet still feel a lack of faith.

Many of us have been taught that the Bible says you have to believe fully or you are going to hell. So get rid of all your doubts!

We need to unlearn that. If you are feeling a lack of faith because you have doubts, that’s okay. It’s normal. In fact, it’s Biblical.

I’ll leave you with one last story. In Matthew 28, the resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples. He’s standing right there in front of them in all of his resurrected glory for their eyes to see. And do you know what the story says?

“When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted.”

Wait. They worshiped him and some doubted? Did some of them doubt while they worshiped him? So, it’s okay to doubt?

Yes! And notice how Jesus did not respond to their doubts. He didn’t say, “You still doubt me! I’m sending you straight to hell!”

That would be sacrifice, not mercy.

No. Jesus responded to their doubts by having faith in them, even as they doubted him. He continued to give them a mission of sharing the Good News of God’s love throughout the world.

And that’s where relaxing into faith comes in. As we saw in the first chapter, you are the very image of God here on earth. In the second chapter, we saw that God’s chesed extends even to God’s enemies. And in the third chapter, we saw the radically nonviolent God of love on the cross and in the resurrection.

Relaxing into your most awesome self is to relax into the Christian truth that you don’t have to earn God’s love by changing who you are. You don’t have to meet the expectations others might have for you, or that you might even have for yourself. You are already sacred, holy, and loved, just as you are, and just as you are becoming.

For Further Study:

People often ask what books I recommend to learn more about these ideas. Here are a few books that have influenced me:

Rob Bell: What Is the Bible

Nadia Bolz-Weber: Pastrix

Rene Girard – I See Satan Fall Like Lightning

Melvin Bray – Better

Diana Butler Bass – Grounded

James Alison – Jesus the Forgiving Victim

Adam Ericksen

Adam Ericksen

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