Wednesday, February 5, 2014

It Ain't Necessarily So

Jake, Curtis, Elwood

The Way Some Folks Read the Bible

The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.

It ain't necessarily so
It ain't necessarily so
The t'ings dat yo' li'ble
To read in de Bible
It ain't necessariy so.

The words quoted above reflect diametrically opposed views of the Bible.  

The first shows confidence in the Bible. What the Bible says this person believes (I know some nitpickers say the middle statement is irrelevant), and so with regard to whatever particular matter of faith or life on which the Bible may be speaking, the matter is settled. What the Bible says, God says, so no further discussion is needed.

Cab Calloway
who sang it
The second, sung by a drug dealer in the Gershwin musical, Porgy and Bess, undermines confidence in the Bible. The devil may not be the villain the Bible says he is. The Bible may say to live clean and without fault, and you may take that as gospel whenever possible, but sometimes you have to take it with a grain of salt. The things it says in the Bible ain't necessarily so. 

Both views are wrong. 

That is obviously true about the song from Porgy and Bess which I always cringe to hear. But it is also true of the first statement that respects the Bible's authority.  Let me explain.

What we think the Bible says may not be what the Bible says, even if we are quoting it verbatim. Here's an example: 

Andree Seu Peterson wrote a column for World magazine on the text, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16 - 17). She tells of a trip to the funeral of her mother-in-law when her husband's sciatica was acting up, and they got stuck in several of those parking lot on the Interstate  situations. Then she poses the question:
Is this a time for discouragement and mild grumbling, or is this a place for praising?
There are perennial debates about whether God expects us to have joy and to rejoice when we are under great suffering. Some say yes. Others say that’s ridiculous. Still others find an inventive solution...
 She settled this question for herself by remembering the excruciatingly painful and tragic experience of a couple whose vehicle's gas tank was punctured by highway debris on a family excursion. The result was that six of their nine children were consumed by flames in their van, while the couple, though burned, were spared. As the wife was receiving emergency attention, she began to say, "I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth" in response to her husband's having called to her to remember Psalm 34.

That is about as powerful and moving testimony as I (or you) am likely ever to hear. Moreover, it is cuttingly convicting to one who with much less sadness in his life is more likely to join the Israelite wilderness travelers in grumbling about some hardship, or, worse, to join Ahab by going to bed and turning his face to the wall over a disappointment.

My problem, however, is with the use that Mrs. Peterson makes of the text and the story:
That ends the perennial debate for me. What (they) did right there undercut all argument that says the Bible doesn’t mean what it says when it tells us to “Rejoice always..." 
That is to say, if somebody has done it...then the bar is raised and it becomes impossible for us to say that the Bible doesn’t mean what it says. These people have robbed us of our self-justifications for disobedience and excuses.
...What a liberation! For I need to know that God’s Word is truth and that we can always put the Word of God above the word of man...
Note: (1) Mrs. Peterson gives us a text (1Thessalonians 5: 16-18) that tells us it is God's will that we should rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances. (2) She gives us the example what she believes the text means even in the most tragic circumstances. (3) She presents us with two options: (a) discouragement and grumbling, or (b) rejoicing. (4) If we do not take the rejoicing option, then we are saying the Bible does not mean what it says (or else we are not going to obey it).

But with Gameday host, Lee Corso, I'll say, "Wait just a minute there." Consider:

(1) The Bible has more to say about our response to suffering and tragedy than to rejoice and give thanks. 

What are we to do with all those sad songs in the Psalter? Of an individual who is sick, convicted, attacked, abandoned, and still waiting on deliverance when the song ends (Psalm 38)? Of a depressed soul cut off from public worship, asking God why, exhorting himself to hope, and longing for the return of joy (Psalms 42, 43)? Or song that is all darkness and breathes not a word of explicit hope (Psalm 88)? These laments are also a part of the Word of God. It would be a denial of God's Word to say that lament is the whole of our response to suffering. But it is misleading to set before God's people on the basis of three verses of the New Testament two stark options - discouragement/grumbling or rejoicing.

Then there is the Apostle himself who wrote 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18. In the same letter, he tells the Thessalonican church not not to grieve the loss of those they love but not to grieve as those who have no hope (4: 13). In Philippians, "the Epistle of Joy" there are revealing words about the sickness of his friend Epaphroditus who had been sent from Philippi to minister to the imprisoned Paul in Rome: "Indeed he was ill, near death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow" Philippians 2: 27). 

Then there is the experience of our Lord himself. At the grave of Lazarus he wept, though he knew Lazarus' life was about to be restored. And, while we must not forget the uniqueness of our Lord's sufferings in the garden, yet we must note, too, the humanness of his experience. There "he began to be sorrowful and troubled," and he did not keep it to himself but revealed his soul to his three closest companions, "My soul is sorrowful, even unto death..." (Matthew 26: 37,38).  His agony was so great that "his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22: 44). If we follow our Lord's example by praying, "Thy will be done," surely we are not called to say to ourselves in agony when our hearts are troubled and sorrowful, "Now I must choose between discouragement and joy."

(2) As there is a diversity of gifts within the body of Christ, so there is a diversity of natural and sanctified temperament and experience among Christians and even within the the same Christian at different time. 

Martyn Lloyd-Jones as he was dying asked his family, "Do not hold me back from the glory." On the other hand, the last intelligible words of John Murray were, "God, be merciful to me a sinner."  We would be unwise to elevate the one dying over the other, or, for that matter, some very different dying. 

It is not to be denied that the couple who lost their children turned to Psalm 34. But was all their experience during those terrible days in Psalm 34? Was the whole of their response rejoicing and giving thanks? We do not know, but we doubt it, and, to some extent, for the sake of their healing, we hope not.  And, we think that for most Christians the quoting of Psalm 34 would not be the first response, but a later one.

Mrs. Peterson's column is not wrong because it focuses on one text but because it absolutizes that text as though it is all the Bible says about responding to suffering. It is not wrong because it calls attention to the remarkable experience of one couple, but because it denies the appropriateness of the experiences of other believers.

The issues are the accuracy of interpretation of the Bible and pastoral wisdom in applying it.

What people say the Bible says ain't necessarily so. In fact, it ain't, even if it uses the exact words of the Bible, if it lacks Biblical and pastoral nuance.  


mozart said...

You seem to have a "thing" for sweet Sue, Curmudgeon Man!

The Christian Curmudgeon said...

It bothers me that Andre handles Scripture as she does. It's a pattern - simplistic, absolutist, without nuance, without context. It bothers me even more that she does most of the "devotional" columns for World and that World puts her in that place. There are plenty of people out there who could write columns relating the faith to the struggles of life and in doing so rightly handle the word of truth.

mozart said...

I know, I know, her columns drive my PCA pastor up the wall as well. To tell the truth, I gave up on "World" a long time ago.

Curt Day said...

There are a number of reasons why people will want to rejoice and not feel the pain of sadness. And some will use the Bible in an overly simplistic manner to rationalize that. However, you did a good job warning against such a use of the Bible.