What really is true about God and what is not? Why do I even believe what I do? What of my faith could I be wrong about? And how much of my understanding of the gospel and stories of people in the Bible, including Jesus, have been shaped by my western evangelical Christian influences and their take on them? This is my current state of wrestling and tension with my faith. I don’t question the Bible per se. But I question how I’ve read it all these years and how the people who taught me read it. And how my culture so far removed from the original context of the Bible have read and expounded it. It’s a hard, yet healthy place to be. I simultaneously hate and love it.
Since beginning to read and listen to more Jewish authors and historians of Jewish culture, compiled with my returning home from Israel a year and a half ago, I have been in a continual tension with the Bible, the western church, the character of God, and asking hard questions in which I’ve not liked all of the answers I think I’ve found. (You can read more about the beginnings of these wrestlings in my blog “Permission to Not Like God”.) It’s led me to inquire how much my western version of Christianity has shaped my theology and beliefs.
In learning such things as different writing styles of the Bible and diving further into cultural and political dynamics of the time periods then than I’ve ever done, I realize now how I’ve misunderstood so many aspects of the stories of God and history of Jesus and the Bible. And if I’ve misunderstood a few, how many more have I thought I’ve known all this time that I’ve misunderstood… or at least have only understood in part? And why is this important? Because the declarations of my faith and what I’ve hinged much of my life on are dependent on how I’ve understood the God of the Bible and the Bible itself. Since the Bible has informed so much of what I think about and how I see the world, and is the language that I use, I have to examine how partial and influenced my reading of it has been.
I would hope that anyone who knows me would describe me as a woman after God’s heart because I know He has the heart of a loving Father, and who is passionate to seek out truth and obey Him. But the only way to seek out the truth beyond the surface is to ask uncomfortable questions and actually do the digging. So I grab a shovel and go to work. A few thoughts I’ve been digging through are…
How much has my faith and my understanding of the Bible been influenced by western culture, the way the gospel is presented to Westerners, specific teachers that I have sat under and authors that I have read and their interpretations of the Bible?
When people say “the Bible is inerrant”, which version of the word do they mean? And do they mean God’s words, the selections that have been canonized, the one that English reading Americans have today, the original scrolls, etc?
Could I be misunderstanding or have an incomplete understanding of the Bible? If so, which parts?
And, what could this mean for my understanding of the gospel?
Have I been touting a version of Christianese and Jesus and salvation that is far removed from the real Jesus, his words and actions and purposes, and the culture in which he lived?
Is God really as exclusive with clearly defined lines of required belief as I’ve always thought?
Is He more inclusive than I’ve understood?
Does He “accept” more people “into” heaven than I’ve thought He does?
What is real about heaven and hell, and what has been fabricated or implied?
The touted phrase “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” hasn’t always been a thing. So when did the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” (who no longer lives among us) become the Christian phrase and why?
What does “progressive Christianity” mean?Why is it such a popular/hotly criticized term? And am I one?
If Jesus lived in America today, what would he say about our politics and systems that are set in place?
What should my role be in these systems?
How did evolution vs creationism, Calvinism vs Arminianism, an ONLY literal reading of Genesis 1 instead of a poetical reading, and heaven vs hell become such theological important issues? (Because they haven’t always been.)
Could the gospel message in western evangelical Christianity be touted differently than in India, Zimbabwe, Iceland, and Vietnam… and yet they all expound on the same loving God?
Does it make one less “saved“ if chunks of the gospel are missing?
Is it possible that my understanding of the story of God and Jesus is vastly different than that of theology to first century Jews who watched the story unfold right before their eyes?
I live in the constant tension of seeking truth yet humbly admitting that my version of truth might not be “right”. Is it possible that what I have believed about God and who He is wrong? Not all of Him, but pieces. I am not so arrogant as to say no.
J. I. Packer writes in “Fundamentalism: And the Word Of God” that…
“We do not start our Christian lives by working out our faith for ourselves; it is mediated to us by Christian tradition, in the form of sermons, books, and established patterns of church life and fellowship. We read our bibles in light of what we have learned from these sources; we approach Scripture with minds already formed by the mass of accepted opinions and viewpoints with which we have already come into contact, in both the Church and the world.” (italics mine)
So what traditions, sermons, books, interpretations and patterns of western Christian church life did I initially come into contact with that have influenced me? And were they even right?
Do I find in the Bible what I’ve been taught? Or was I taught first, then read the Bible through that lens, convinced that who I’ve been listening to was right? So now I am reading. Finding out. Digging. With as fresh of eyes as I can muster up.
I am in a season of no longer looking at the Bible as a place to go for answers. For knowledge. Trying to figure it out and find the scripture that means such and such. But I’m trying to take on the mind of an original Jewish reader and let it compel me to ask questions and think deeper. Letting it be a starting point for conversation about and with God. Instead of answering questions with the same answers I’ve always heard and said or with Scripture which so often ends conversations because the point has seemingly been made, I’m trying to use questions as diving boards to spring into conversations and ask questions with.
I feel like I am reading the Bible for the very first time ever and letting it stir me to dig deeper than I ever have. Admit where there are tensions within the Bible that I can’t understand. There are situations in and aspects of God in the Bible that I can’t understand.
And I find it okay to ask questions about the character of God that I used to easily dismiss because everyone’s answer was supposed to be “God is good all the time. All the time God is good.”
I think this is why Jesus often answered questions with questions. Because the simple short answer isn’t always the goal. In the culture in which he walked and dwelt, the process and conversation was the goal. Forming a picture of a concept instead of having the right words. The penetration of the heart and the quest to know God deeper instead of figuring Him out and knowing the response to a topic. In what is literal, I’m asking God to reveal when I need to read the Bible literally. And what is written figuratively, hyperbolic, or poetic, that I may look at with more play and openness as the Jewish readers did. The Bible is not as black and white as I’ve typically thought. (Which means, I don’t know if His answers for our social and political issues are as black and white as many think they are either.) But I need grace from God to be able to hear the Holy Spirit and know the differences. It can be hard. Confusing. But I think it’s worth it.
If any of you have ever been where I am, you’ll know it’s one thing to examine our beliefs critically and wrestle with them. Find holes we think we see. Tear stuff down that doesn’t seem to really make sense and destroy our faith. In some ways this is a bandwagon that many are jumping on and “deconstructing” their faith. This part of refining one’s faith is easy. It’s simply poking holes in the tensions and tearing it apart. Any critic can do it. (And aren’t we all critical of something?) It’s the study, research, deep conversations, reading, praying, and dedicating the time and effort to reconstruct and refine one’s faith that is the hard part. But worth it. Not just asking what I might be wrong about or what tensions in the Bible I can’t overcome or make sense of. But also solidifying what I DO believe.
At the end of the day, when I lay my head down on my pillow, my faith is not dependent on what I don’t believe, but on what I do.
And what if I never figure out the answers? Well, I’m okay with that, too. Because I know enough about God and my faith to be true.
What I do know to be true is…
God is real. The story and history of Him is throughout the Bible. The good, the bad, and the confusing. He is Ruler and King and ultimate authority over everything. He loves me as a daughter and pursues me even when I don’t pursue Him. I can count on Him for grace and peace. He is faithful. He delights to show mercy over judgment. God is love.
Jesus is the Son of God and Son of Man. Was born of flesh, as Emmanuel, “God with us”. Tempted yet was without sin. Modeled a life and spoke words to be followed. He was not always sweet and docile. He was encouraging and loving yet harsh and convicting at the same time. He called people to more and spoke out against the government and systems that ruled his day. He has changed my life and I am too often not as much like Him as I want to be.
He died for me and I owe him my life. He is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus is the cornerstone of the church. He’s called people to work and live and pursue shalom together. To restore the earth back to its original harmony before any wrong was ever done.
The Holy Spirit is real and dwells within believers. He teaches us over time how to discern His voice and be led by Him. I know Him. I feel Him. And He points to the Father and the Son.
Anything I’ve learned or know about God is only because he has revealed it to me.
I am a confused believer in a certain God.
I know some other things. But these are my foundations. When my questions are pressing and my misunderstandings are revealed and I feel overwhelmed with questions and feel crazy, I can count on these truths. I rest in them.
When I don’t know what to pray or what the most important things in my society and world are, Jesus has told me. His utmost desire is that I be with Him, and that His kingdom come and His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. So what is His Kingdom and His will that He wants me to work towards? How do I know? I can watch His life and live His words. And remember the perfection of the Garden of Eden.
I think God is more pleased with my deep quest to just be with Him in questions and wrestlings than speak a right answer. Which is good because I confess I have less answers to questions of my faith than I ever have. And I’ve replaced them with more and more questions. What I don’t understand about the Bible. What doesn’t make sense. Why God would do many of the things He did. But I’m okay with this. I invite it. More questions than answers. More unknowns than I’ve ever had before.
Because when I strip off my previous understandings that may or may not be incorrect or incomplete, He can show me and speak to me from scratch.
It seems to me that too often we don’t ask the questions that might shake our theology because either we stopped thinking to ask particular questions because we have already landed on what we think is definitive or we don’t want our theology to change… because it would be hard. Or we think that means we’re doubting and we have come to believe that questioning and doubting is bad. I realize, I think, that many of us have done this for years. So what would it look like to try to start understanding God and the Bible and my faith from scratch?
I confess that I’ve been on this journey for too long and feeling alone in it. I need others to wrestle with. So my humble plea is to do this digging with brothers and sisters in Christ. Or even those who are just curious. (Because I am too.) If you’re in this tension of questions, let me know. I’d be happy to do it together. Let me get you a shovel.