The uncomfortable exercise of Bible reading

  • Tim Grant
  • 13 July 2016

Grater and cinnamon

Truth is unchanging. That’s what makes it truth: it lives independent of the world around us—a world that is in a constant state of change. This is even more true when it comes to the truth about God, who never changes (Mal 3:6).

However, this creates a problem for us when we read and understand the Scriptures. The problem is not with God or with the Bible he has given us, or with even the process of reading; the problem is ours: when we come to the Bible, we bring all of our baggage, shortcomings, cultural assumptions and experiences with us. When I read about the fatherhood of God, I cannot help but draw on my own experiences of both having a father and being a father—for better or worse. I’ve had a modern western secular education and I think the way I do because I’ve been taught to think a certain way—a way that has been reinforced by the community I am a part of. Perhaps most significant of all, I have a heart naturally inclined to disbelieving God’s word and resisting his rule over my life. What all this means is that when we read the Bible, we should expect it to grate against our worldview. We should expect to feel challenged, confused and more than a little bit uncomfortable.

We are products of our time and culture. We can’t avoid them, and they shape us and our values far more profoundly than we’d like to think. This becomes apparent when meeting someone from another culture: they have a different way of thinking and reasoning, they have different values, and sometimes they have a completely different way of seeing the world. We bring our own cultural assumptions to our reading of the Bible.

If I were to talk about biblical sexual ethics with someone from the Middle East, it’s unlikely to raise even an eyebrow. But the idea that God might offer free forgiveness to any who seeks it is, at best, bizarre and, at worst, offensive. An unbeliever in Australia, however, would have the completely opposite response: God has no right to impinge himself on my self-determined identity and sexual desires, but forgiving people, well, that’s God’s job.

It’s not hard to find other places where the Bible grates against the values of our society and culture. Post-capitalism, it’s hard for us to read and comprehend what the Bible has to say about caring for the poor and sharing. Post-feminism, it’s hard for us to read and comprehend what the Bible has to say about gender and identity. Post-sexual revolution, it’s hard for us to read and comprehend what the Bible has to say about sex and monogamy. These are all topics the Bible deals with at length that we’d prefer were not there. Which, I take it, is why many Christians and some churches avoid those passages all together.

Because God transcends culture, we should expect that in one area or another, the words that he has spoken will always stand in opposition to it. In the same way that those issues listed above were, perhaps, not controversial at all for our grandparents, our grandchildren will in turn experience their own difficulties with the Bible that will shock and surprise us.

No matter what age or what country you live in, at some point or another, your society will find the Bible offensive. And you will be tempted to ignore, skip or even refute those parts. But this must be resisted, because truth is not in flux. The God who has spoken to us through his word speaks for our benefit—that we might know him and know how to live in his world.

As our world progresses from one unsatisfactory ideology to another, we have an unchanging word from God—a God who speaks into all cultures and calls us to know him. This means we need to get used to being uncomfortable. This means we need to wrestle hard with passages we find offensive or confusing. But God has saved people from every time and culture, gathering them so that they belong to a new society—a society designed to last forever—a society that is being changed from one degree to another into the likeness of his Son.

So get out those Bibles. Grapple prayerfully with the hard parts. And trust God—that his word is not just right, but the best thing for all of us.