How I Read My Bible

I asked an evangelist once how she read her Bible. I had the privilege of driving her to the airport and I wanted to know about her Bible study habits. I expected her to tell me she read so many chapters a day, or maybe that she studied the Bible for an hour a day. Her response was, “I read until it speaks to me.”

I have met Christians who have a light in their eyes and sometimes even a glow on their faces. It is as though they have a secret “source.” I’ve heard testimonies of people who could tell  before they became Christians which people were Christians. The Bible actually instructs us to identify and “mark” those who stand out as Christian leaders. I compare this to placing a bookmark in a book where there is an important passage I want to return to. I remember them because I have “marked” them.

This evangelist had that light in her eyes and I have met others like her. I think this light comes from seeing God on the page when they read the Bible. They read it in such a way that it speaks to them and feeds them and gives life to their souls.

In the Bible we read accounts of people who understood God in a unique way. I sometimes feel an intimacy with characters like Queen Esther, Ruth, Sarah, Mary, and other women. I have studied them, and I get a thrill of expectation at the thought of meeting them one day. They are almost as real to me as the evangelist whom I drove to the airport.

One of the characters that I have “bookmarked” in my Bible is Job. I sense there is so much to learn from him. In my recent study of Job certain passages leapt out at me with a compelling message. I often have this experience when I read the Bible. It is as though new sections are highlighted each time I read and they speak to me in a specific way.

Job was highly honored in his community before tragedy struck. He lived an outstanding life. People greatly revered him. We can read about his former honor in Job 29. Here Job is reflecting on a time in his past when the people “waited for me as for showers and drank in my words as the spring rain.” He starts the chapter this way,

How I long for the months gone by,

for the days when God watched over me,

when his lamp shone on my head

and by his light I walked through the darkness!

Oh, for the days when I was in my prime,

when God’s intimate friendship blessed my house,

when the Almighty was still with me…

The poetry of this book is a true work of art. Job clearly had a very personal intimacy with God and now he feels he has lost this. It is heartbreaking to read.

The core issue of the book is something I have struggled to understand and accept. Why would God remove his protection from one of his favored servants and allow Satan to torment him?

The understanding in Job’s time was that tragedy was a sign of God having removed his presence from a person or a nation. Even Job has this perception. It was believed that God allowed bad things to happen to cause people to reflect on their path and change their course and then God would once again restore them to a place of favor. The only thing is, Job does not agree that he has transgressed and so he is at a loss to understand why God is punishing him. We find out later that he was right. This was not the reason for what happened to him. It wasn’t punishment.

Job’s friends, who are sincerely trying to make sense of what is happening to Job, insist his trials are a consequence of Job’s sin. This is their limited understanding of the workings of God. However, they are about to receive a broader understanding of God and his ways.

I find this is often the case when I read my Bible. It speaks to me and opens my understanding to things I have not previously seen.

Job’s friends were in the wrong and God forgave them. God actually required that Job pray for his friends so that he would pardon them, after his trials ended. It appears that God was not too pleased with them.

There is much wisdom in the words of Job’s friends but not all they say about Job applies to him. The disrespect his friends show to Job makes it apparent that he is no longer favored as in former days when “old men rose to their feet (and) the chief men refrained from speaking” in his presence. Now even “young men mock me (and) throw off restraint in my presence.”

Job is tormented by his loss of family and possessions and the afflictions in his body, but he is also tormented in his mind by the loss of his former status. We can imagine how we would feel in his place.

I have been baffled to think that God allowed Satan to torment someone, essentially to prove a point. I’ve been tempted to think this was some sort of “sport of the gods.” But I’ve been humbled by a deeper reading of the text to see that it is actually a story about God’s confidence in his servant. It also reveals the sinister intention of the enemy of our souls to “take out” God’s faithful servants and the fact that he has access to us in some cases. Although God allowed the match, he set parameters and kept a watchful eye throughout.

Satan claimed Job only served God because God blessed him. I suppose he was trying to argue that God had an unfair advantage and Job would not honor God for his goodness alone if God removed his blessings. Job proves that his commitment to God is not dependent on blessings. Job makes the striking statement, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” Job 13:5 KJV. In his heart and mind Job believes there is no better alternative than to trust and serve God.

There are many kinds of writings in the Bible and they speak to us in different ways. We find comforting passages, convicting passages, wisdom and guidance passages, inspiring stories, disturbing stories, eternal hope passages, laments, praises, histories and genealogies, laws, theology, prophesies, condemnation passages, salvation passages, and more.

The beauty of the Bible is that it communicates to us in so many different ways. If we approach the Bible with an expectation that God will guide us in our reading, he will speak to us.

Why Does God Allow Evil in the World?

Why does God allow evil? Because to prevent it would go against his just character. I will explain my reasoning.

In the book Worldviews in Conflict, Ronald H. Nash tackles the question, Why is there evil in the world? I think he merely side-steps the issue with his explanation:

  1. God exists, is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and created the world.
  2. God created a world that now contains evil and had a good reason for doing so.
  3. Therefore, the world contains evil (p. 98).

It is rather like a parent saying to a child, you must obey me because I know better than you, instead of going through the work of giving a deeper explanation. Admittedly, the explanation may need to come later when the child has developed a capacity for reason.

Because humans have this capacity for reason, we are restless when it is not satisfied. This is particularly the case when we consider that a God we believe to be loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful would withhold significant information from us. We long to have a full understanding, but, temporarily, we only see through a glass, darkly.

For some this creates an internal dissonance and may even give rise to a belief that God is malevolent. But, like children, we are not always ready for deeper truth. We may even find ourselves rejecting truth claims that do not agree with our worldview.

I agree with Nash that God has reasons beyond our comprehension. After all, he is God. However, I am not satisfied with stopping there on such an important subject. We also have to consider that we may be the ones hindering our own understanding by holding to our preconceived or trite notions.

In cases like this I am overcome with wonder to have possession of written accounts of men and women who, through the ages, have lived with a consciousness of God as a God who communed with them. God actually revealed his character through his dealings with them. This is the revelation we find in the Bible. I am astounded that the Bible contains conversations God had with people. There is no other source of information about God that compares with what is found in the Bible and the Bible contains a component that needs to be a part of this discussion of the reason for evil in the world.

I’d like to take you to the story of Adam and Eve, God’s first created human beings. If you are not a believer in the creation story, please bear with me for the sake of this discussion.

We read that evil was introduced in the Garden of Eden through the serpent. The serpent had a nature contrary to God. It is reasonable to assume that this particular serpent was indwelled by a spirit that spoke through it. The serpent had a knowledge of God and of his instructions to Adam and Eve. God had told Adam and Eve that they could eat of any tree in the garden; only one tree was forbidden—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God warned Adam and Eve that they would surely die if they ate of this tree.

The serpent came with a different message. He began a conversation with Eve by cleverly introducing doubt into her mind, “Did God really say you must not eat from every/any tree in the garden?” Well, no, not exactly. Just the one tree.

Now that Eve’s focus was on the tree in question, the serpent continued with the reassurance that, contrary to what God had said, she would not surely die if she ate of the tree, thereby attempting to allay her fears.

Before this there was no dissonance in the garden. There were no conflicting worldviews.

The serpent apparently had new information for Eve. Since we know the story, we know what he said was untrue. He was introducing an alternate worldview. But, as is usually the case, there was still an element of truth in what he said. The serpent slightly embellished it, “God knows that in the day you eat of the tree your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods (or like God, in some translations), knowing both good and evil” (Geneses 4). Yes, their eyes would be opened. But this was not the good thing he made it out to be. The knowledge of evil would spell disaster for them and their offspring.

The serpent’s deceptive worldview has been successfully perpetuated through the ages. Summarized, it is the concept that God is not truly good. That what he says cannot be believed. That he is withholding something from you. And that the real reason he does this is because he doesn’t want you to have access to the same power he has. He doesn’t want you to be like a god. He doesn’t want you to have this much control. He wants to limit you.

I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s song, Gotta Serve Somebody… “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”

Who would refuse the possibility of becoming like a god? Remember that Adam and Eve will not have known the meaning of the word evil at this time because they had never experienced it. They didn’t know what they were buying into.

The way to obtain this supreme knowledge of good and evil is simple. Just question the ultimate goodness of God and defy his command.

The Creator placed Adam and Eve in a garden, a protected place, a unique place, a place of beauty and sustenance. However, he did not withhold choice from them. In the middle of the garden was a tree from which they were instructed not to partake. They most likely had not concerned themselves with this one tree, until now, because there were so many other trees they could eat from freely. But this tree, of course, was the central focus of the serpent. It was his entry point. It was the means for him to gain access to humans and wield his influence over them.

After they ate of the tree, there was an immediate change in their outlook. Shame and guilt—the natural consequence of disobedience—became a part of their reality. We see these emotions in every child who willfully disobeys his parents. Suddenly there is a divide, a distance. There may also be sorrow and regret. All of these emotions were foreign to Adam and Eve up to this time.

These emotions wreck havoc in our lives. We don’t know what to do with them. We feel uncomfortable, even tormented. We want to rid ourselves of them. If we cannot find forgiveness and be restored to our former relationship, then we will struggle to justify, or excuse, or numb our feelings.

Thankfully, in the Bible, God explains how we can be free from our sin, as well as the consequence of eternal death. God never intended for Adam and Eve to die. It looked, at first, like the serpent was right because they did not die immediately. But they ultimately died.

God is the life-giver. The serpent destroys life. All of his work is contrary to God’s goodness. There is evil in this world because God allowed people to choose. Even today we battle evil spirits, serpents of various kinds seducing us into unbelief.

That brings me back to Nash’s insufficient explanation for why there is evil in the world. I would revise his explanation as follows:

  1. God exists, is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and created the world.
  2. God created both heavenly beings and humans with the power to make undetermined choices.
  3. God allows heavenly beings to influence humans and impact life on earth.
  4. Heavenly beings influence humans to rebel against God’s perfect will.
  5. Therefore, the world contains evil.

The logical conclusion of allowing “undetermined choice” is that it will result in “alternate choice.” God knew this, and he allowed it. He would not dictatorially override another who willed to disregard his wishes, be it angels, or demons, or humans.

A righteous and loving God is engaged in a battle against evil forces in heaven and on earth. He will prevail. But we will need to wait for the end of the battle before we see justice meted out and his full glory revealed.

We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We read, “Whatsoever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” There is an interplay between earthly and heavenly powers.

Jesus was constantly confronting demonic forces. Only demonic powers could cause men to nail the righteous Son of God to the cross. Is it any wonder that believers continue to be under vicious attack? Is it any wonder that the church so often falls under deceptive influences?

One of the most clever tricks of the enemy has been to misattribute his actions to others, and to cause people to believe that there really is no enemy—no devil, no demons, no evil spirits. Without this understanding of the spiritual realm we will never be able to grasp why there is evil in the world.

God has allowed choice. God has determined to deal with the consequences of choice. We can be assured that he is opposing evil. We might also appreciate the dilemma he has created for himself. He allows the evil one to sow bad seed. The bad grows alongside the good. To uproot the bad may mean to uproot some good. So he has to wait for the harvest. One day there will be a harvest, a separation, a judgment. Even the devil knows this and trembles. Without redemption, the consequence of sin is still death.

To conclude, I add the following

  1. God exists, is omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and created the world.
  2. God created heavenly beings and humans with the power to make undetermined choices.
  3. God allows heavenly beings to influence humans and impact life on earth.
  4. Heavenly beings influence humans to rebel against God’s perfect will.
  5. Therefore, the world contains evil.
  6. God will deal justly with evil in his own time.

Imagine there’s no heaven

I am reading Matthew 10 today and I admit I am surprised. Jesus sends out his disciples to declare the message of the kingdom of heaven and instructs them to heal the sick, cleanse the leprous, cast out demons and even raise the dead. This seems to be common around Jesus and his ministry.

What surprises me is that people will hate them for it. Hate them for preaching about the kingdom of heaven. For living it. Why?

I’m of the naive school that believes that if I am kind to others they will be kind to me. It works, sometimes, but not always. And when it doesn’t, I am always surprised. But I shouldn’t be. Because Jesus warns his disciples of this very thing happening to them. In fact, he says parents will turn against their children, and children against their parents and actually have them put to death. Why? It looks to me like this will happen because they hold strongly to different beliefs.

Many wars have been fought over ideologies. Some of my readers will recall the John Lennon song, Imagine. “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today. Aha-ah…. Imagine there’s no countries, it’s easy to do. Nothing to kill or die for, no religion too. Imagine all the people, living life in peace….” Lennon’s dream was that the world would live as one, admittedly a good dream. In the song the enemy appears to be religion, the fact that people hold to different beliefs, ideologies, worldviews.

Religion is pretty diverse. I recently read in a book by Bruce K. Wilborn, entitled Witches’ Craft-A Multidenominational Wicca Bible (2011), that Wiccans consider themselves as part of the oldest religion on earth. I read further that, although they don’t believe in “hell,” in regards to the breaking of one particular law they will condemn the violators to the “Curse of the Goddess” with the result that they are never to be reborn, but to remain, “where they belong, in the Hell of the Christians.” It fascinated me that Wiccans may not not confess to believing in hell, yet are quite willing to utilize it on their enemies.

We can imagine whatever we desire about the life hereafter. It will not make it real or false, although it will create a sort of “reality” for the present life and possibly affect our behavior. I am of the Christian belief that there is both a heaven and a hell and that I can’t wish them away, even if I try. In other words, there is future reward and judgment, or punishment, for behavior. Some would call this justice.

On a personal level, I have family who don’t believe in hell because they cannot reconcile a “God of love” being a God of judgment as well. In their mind evil doers will go unpunished. At least, not sent to hell.

I have a lot of questions about hell. Do only our spirits go there, or do our bodies go there too? Do people go there immediately after they die, or is there a kind of “purgatory,” a holding place, where they wait until the judgment on the last day? The Bible doesn’t give us a clear treatise on hell, just bits and pieces of information here and there and some of them don’t jive. One thing seems to be clear in Jesus’ mind. God, his father, ought to be feared as the one who has the power to cast both body and soul into hell (Matthew 1:29).

I’m very uncomfortable talking about hell. I don’t like the idea of the motivation for serving God being to avoid being sent to hell. I admit that I, too, am culturally influenced. I may even find, down the road, that some of my current beliefs need to be modified. But one thing seems logical. It seems logical to hate someone who believes in hell. It seems logical to hate someone who declares evil will be punished. It seems logical to hate someone who calls you out on your lifestyle, maybe even on your beliefs, and says you will go to hell if you don’t change.

Christians have been called haters (because they believe in hell)…by haters. But we can’t change the score. Nobody can. What will be will be. We may have faith that it will be one thing and find out one day that it turns out differently.

John Lennon’s song has a basic flaw. He believes the world will “live as one” if we do away with religion. The trouble is that religion is just the label we put on a set of beliefs and the practices flowing out of those beliefs. Religion generally involves a deity or deities, and, depending on your definition, it can even have no “god.”

People will always organize themselves around a set of beliefs. That is where the song is flawed. One man may believe that he can have many wives and another that he ought to have only one wife. Because there will always be greed, there will always be unfairness. And for this reason there will always be rules made around distribution and things like how many wives a man can have or how many husbands a woman can have.

The early Christians sold property and had everything in common, we read in the book of Acts, much like Lennon says, “no possessions…no need for greed or hunger.” But later we read that other churches had to make donations to the believers in Jerusalem. Who bought the land that they sold, I ask? Where was the power re-distributed? After they sold their land they no longer had a place to raise their livestock and grow their crops and so they became impoverished and dependent on others for supply. It was a very short-sighted plan.

Jesus saw that religion was not the issue. There was a heart issue. People lacked love, compassion and generosity. When he told one man to, “Go, sell all you have and give the money to the poor,” he was not setting him up as an example of a precedent. He was merely pointing out how attached we can become to our possessions. He was encouraging generosity and sharing as opposed to hoarding for ourselves.

The reason Marxism, for example, does not work, is that people actually need leaders and unfortunately leaders will often be corrupted by power. Even in Marxism there will be leaders who will tell people what they should and shouldn’t do and who will feel responsible to police this. Who owns the land? Who distributes resources? Who decides how much a person receives? Who decides what they must do in exchange? This quickly turns into a situation resembling slavery if people do not own land.

We will never all “live as one” as long as not every single person has a perfect heart towards God first, and then towards his neighbor. We need to be answerable to someone, and we need someone to settle our disputes. We need a common compass. This is what religions have sought to give us. They have sought to teach us “what is right” as opposed to “who is right,” so that we all adhere to the same guiding principles.

We need commandments such as “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his man-servant, nor his maid-servant, not his ox, nor his ass.” Without this, we will covet. It is not because some people have more and some have less that we see corruption, as it is a lack of generosity on one side, and jealousy and resentment on the other. We need exhortations like “Godliness, with contentment is great gain.” We need to aspire to something higher and greater and more righteous and more loving than merely acquiring and hoarding in this life.

We need to believe this world can be better. That people can be better. John Lennon was definitely right about that. We need to believe that we have a significant part to play in making this world a better place, by virtue of the fact that we were born on this earth.

In fact, we need heaven. We need the hope of heaven on earth. We need the prayer, “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” John Lennon didn’t know how close he was to saying this.