Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord;
My spirit pants for Thee, O living Word!
Mary Lathbury, 1877
39 You study[c]the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life, (John 5:39) Jesus says to the Pharisees.
Sad and scary words? All that diligent study of Scripture, and yet they did not recognise Jesus as the Christ.
* * *
I have been ScriptureGirl for most of my Christian life.
But I no longer play Scripture roulette. You know: Don’t know what to do—treasure-hunt a Scripture verse to guide you. Find one with relief. Rely on the letter more than the spirit.
As a younger Christian, when stumped in decision-making, I searched for Scripture verses. For instance, we were about to buy our second house in a private sale from our landlord, and pay cash, as we had for our first. The seller was difficult and each time we were closer to exchanging contracts came up with a fresh contractual change. I got so stressed that I refused to sign the day before the sale was to go through. (Now, who was I calling difficult?)
Why? This scripture verse kept running through my head. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peaceful, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere (James 3:17). There was no peace throughout the process, just stress, contention and suspicion. We got a house that cost twice the amount, in a posher neighbourhood, and got a mortgage, of course.
It probably worked out okay, but today, I would seek the face of Jesus, and to hear his voice, and not rely on a single verse of Scripture in spiritual decision making.
Other examples: sometimes, Roy might make what I consider a foolish decision. I might demur a bit, but sometimes run out of energy, and say to myself, “Wives, submit to your husbands (Eph. 5:22).” Ah, I can take the path of least resistance, and have a scripture verse to cover my back.
And sometimes, his decisions work out well, and sometimes they most certainly do not.
Today, I wouldn’t rest on a single verse as a cop-out. I would seek Jesus’ face instead and his guidance on whether I should gently pursue the bone of contention, or drop it.
I seek the Scriptures for wisdom and guidance, of course, but they are a single element in my decision making, along with seeking to hear the Spirit, and seek the face of Christ.
We do not worship the Bible; we worship Christ. We need the Spirit to help us interpret the word. We need the Living Christ to guide us.
Okay, another example. For the last seven weeks, I have worked hard, Monday to Saturday. I have written my memoir, about 800 words a day, publishing it on my blog, and I have written and published a blog post, about 800-1200 words. I have been running, up to 7000 steps a day. I have been reading. I have been disciplined. And by Sunday, I am shattered.
Sunday dawns, bright and clear. The sun shines. God is in his heaven, and all is lovely in his world. Do I obey the Biblical directive to rest? Sleep in, have a long nap. And heaven knows, my body needs it. Should I worship God today in the cathedral of the bird-loud open fields as I walk and pray instead of in a stained-glass-shady church?
Or do I obey the Scriptural directive to “forsake not assembling together,” and drag my groggy self—sluggish mind, sluggish body– to church, when I know I would be more energized by a run, and a nap, and praying in solitude.
If I were playing Scripture roulette, running my life by the written word, I would say, “Forsake not assembling together,” and drag my tired self to church, sometimes get bored and restless and irritated, and sometimes, be blessed by the music, and the atmosphere, and the quiet presence of a few hundred people worshipping God.
But, ah middle age, wonderfully liberating time of life! I seek a person: Jesus, more than random scripture verses. “So, what should be my game plan for today, Jesus? Should I be restored by going to church, worshipping in community, and be possibly inspired, and possibly bored by the sermon? Or should I nap, garden, pray, run, watch a movie, read, relax at home, minister to myself through prayer and scripture and worship music, and reach Monday bouncing?”
I do worship best in community. But of late, I have sensed Jesus giving me this wonderful, cherished permission slip to really rest. (Though I sense this is a very short-term permission slip!!)
So that’s how I increasingly make decisions. No more picking out Proverbs and verses. Instead, I sit quiet before Jesus, try to “see” him, try to hear his voice, and sense which way the wind of spirit is blowing.
* * *
Will this lead to what some evangelicals fear as the great folly of “the Jesus I know?” You know, where you suspect that Jesus would be full of mercy and compassion towards all those called to ministry, both men and women, gay and straight, because Jesus in the flesh was full of mercy and compassion towards everyone, except those who were judgemental and self-righteous.
“The Jesus I know.” Does it make sense? Why, yes, of course. That’s the only Jesus we can know—through a mixture of study of scripture in which he is revealed; and through the Holy Spirit who continued to reveal Him (“He will teach you all things, and make known to you everything I have commanded you,” John 14:26) and through prayer, talking and listening to the Living Christ, who makes his home within us (John 14:23). How foolish it would be to accept the Jesus someone else knows, rather than the Jesus we ourselves know.
No two people had the same relationship with Christ. He berated the Pharisees for their pride and obsession with reputation, but offered understanding and acceptance to the shamed woman at the well, or the woman caught in adultery or “the woman who had led a sinful life.” Naturally each of these knew a different Jesus.
How foolish it would have tell the demoniac whom Jesus instructed “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you,” Mark 5: 19 to obey Jesus’s directive to the rich young ruler, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Jesus said different things to each of them.
* * *
The church has always had dominant, vocal groups who soapbox about the Jesus they know, and the theology they have concocted, and bully, shame and silence the rest with their proof texts to accept their Jesus. A Jesus who thinks exactly as they do on all the hot button issues of the day, and is, for instance, complementarian, not egalitarian; who is anti-women -bishops and anti-gay marriage, but pro-life, pro-guns and pro-death penalty.
It is neither intellectually, spiritually nor psychologically safe to accept the Jesus someone else knows. We just have to do the difficult, time-consuming work of searching the Scriptures for ourselves, praying, and seeking Jesus.
Will we get things wrong in this process? Yes, probably. Possibly inevitably.
Will Jesus hold these things against us? No.
Stupidity is not a sin. Laziness and spiritual indifference which seeks acceptance by the dominant group by accepting other people’s theologies without searching the Scriptures or seeking Jesus and his Spirit for ourselves—these, on the other hand, would not impress Christ.
* * *
How scary it would have been to accept the Scriptural readings of the experts, the learned scribes and Pharisees who had spent their lives studying the Scriptures–and, as a result, totally not recognize the real incarnated Jesus.
We can risk that if we accept the dominant theology or theological-political discourse whether it is about hell or homosexuals, abortion or women when it lacks the mercy and compassion, the fresh grace, fresh fire, and fresh astonishment which characterized Jesus.
Return to the Scriptures, search them for yourself, ask Jesus to reveal himself to you, convict you, jail-break you, turn you upside down, fill you with the joy He came to give you, and which so often goes missing in action when we accept other people’s strait-jacketed, straight-faced, straight-laced Jesus.
Oh, but I want the real one–the wild-eyed, astonishing, scary, uncompromising, flexible, brilliant man who walks through the Gospels, and steps off their pages into my life.
Oh, just give me Jesus.