What To Do When You Don’t Like What the Bible Says
I came very close this week to doing something I have never done before.
I came very close this week to cheating and not preaching on the assigned scriptures for the day.
There’s no way around it, they’re just awful.
But I’m not one to run away from a challenge, so let’s see what we can make of them. Even if we come out of this only having learned that there are some parts of the Bible that just do not feel like Good News, at least we will have engaged honestly and asked the Holy Spirit to reveal to us why we had to read these lessons today.
Job is a deeply problematic text.
People for generations have found comfort in Job’s stoicism through suffering.
I admire Job’s stubbornness, but God in this text?
As Virginia Woolf said, “I read the Book of Job last night. I don’t think God comes out of it well.”
I hardly recognize the loving God I know in this story at all.
God makes a bet with Satan on the suffering of a human being.
I don’t know how to find that anything but cruel.
Ten children are killed off in the first chapter, only to be replaced by ten more in the last chapter, as though children are somehow replaceable, as though Job would rejoice that he now had this random herd of new kids to replace his beloved family.
God, after turning Job over to be tormented by Satan, grandstands around about how great creation is for most of the book, and in the end it seems like Job is simply browbeaten into submission.
This is the scripture that is put before us, what are we to do with it?
I read Job and my heart aches at its ugliness.
But that’s when the page begins to turn for me, so to speak, and I start to form a new relationship with the book.
If there’s one great thing about the Bible, it’s that every human emotion and human experience can be found in it. There is nothing so dark, so ugly that it didn’t happen to someone in the Bible.
One human emotion that we don’t talk about much in church is anger at God.
I wonder if the author of Job didn’t have an intimate understanding of what it is to be angry at God.
I wonder if this portrayal of God in Job is not so much an accurate picture of God, but rather an accurate picture of how we feel about God when terrible things happen to us.
My theological world simply can’t hang together if our loving God truly would place a wager on a human being’s living suffering.
But I can absolutely see the value of a scripture that shows how bitter and angry we can become when we so desperately want to blame God simply to have some explanation for why our world has fallen apart.
We see Job at the very worst moment of his life in our scripture today. His money, his house, his family and his physical health have all been taken away from him.
And worst of all, it is all in public view. He has nowhere to hide.
Have you ever had a situation or relationship in your life that gets worse and worse?
You keep thinking, well, this is it, it can’t get any worse than this, and then it somehow does.
And then sometimes, it coalesces into the worst moment of your life and you know what it is to be truly angry at God.
You might have been angry at God when you read our scripture from Mark today.
Jesus comes across as very strict and very unforgiving in the words Mark gives him about divorce.
Many people in this church this morning have been through the incredibly painful process of divorce, and contrary to the motivations Jesus attributes to it, it was not a tool to enable adultery.
Although infidelity may have played a role in some of your divorces, it was not the common ingredient.
The common ingredient was the incredible pain of two people who couldn’t make a relationship work anymore, whose marriage had died a lingering death.
The Jesus I know responds to that kind of pain with love and compassion.
Well, let’s take a step back for a moment and remember the context of what Jesus is saying here.
Remember that this teaching on divorce comes right before his saying, “Let the little children come to me,” i.e. in the midst of his welcome of vulnerable people.
Consider his words on divorce in the economic context of his times. Women who were divorced were utterly without economic resources.
Marriage in those days was not a love match but a financial partnership.
Jesus is probably actually trying to defend economically helpless women from being abandoned on the street in first century Israel more than speaking to middle-class divorcees in twenty-first century Indiana. Does that make sense?
There was only so much he could say that could apply equally well to people of his time and people of our time, and this is a prime example of a teaching that has been used to abuse and shame and beat down people in church far outside its original context.
So, that caveat aside, how do we make these two texts hang together? What do we do with the intro to Job and Mark’s gospel passage on divorce?
How do we read them on Sunday morning together and proclaim that this is the Good News of Jesus Christ?
Back when I was considering cheating and not actually preaching on these texts, I was looking through my electronic file folder labeled “Sermon Ideas.”
And I came across a note I jotted down back in October of 2013, an idea I heard somewhere and thought remarkable.
And it says this: “The Bible is based around two great acts of destruction.”
And that’s true.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the defining event is the military defeat of Israel, the destruction of the Temple and the taking of the people into exile.
In the New Testament, it’s the crucifixion.
The Bible is essentially telling the story of how God’s people lost.
Wow. That puts a new shine on Job and Mark, doesn’t it?
It gives us the opportunity to come at the texts from two new angles that will definitely bear fruit for us.
The first is the knowledge that the Bible does not shy from the reality of the pain in our lives.
The Bible is not a clean and shiny, PR department-approved press release.
It is people telling the stories of how they got sick, how they were afraid of Satan, how they got in debt, how they argued with their spouses, how they got divorced, how they were bad at their jobs (disciples, we’re talking about you on this one).
It’s the stories of people’ real lives with God and all their ups and downs and peaks and valleys.
Whoever wrote Job potentially had some real anger at a God he perceived as uncaring and capricious, and whoever wrote Mark had some really strong feelings about the economic destructiveness of divorce in his community.
I can understand that. In fact, it makes me feel kinship and affection and solidarity with these writers.
I may not go around putting words in the mouth of God and calling it a book of the Bible when I’m angry and upset with my life, but I get how tempting it would be to do that.
So when we get to these texts that seem to push us away from God rather than drawing us closer, we might allow them to draw us closer to the very real human authors who wrote them, and thereby come back to a space of compassion and openness to grace.
And then let’s look at it from one more angle.
So the Bible is built around two major acts of destruction.
What if, along with acknowledging the profound pain and loss that come with destruction in our lives, we also remembered that destruction can be a creative force?
What if we considered all those awful memories, those terrible times in our lives from two separate points of view simultaneously?
Namely, we know that God’s heart is broken with us in our pain, and that Jesus is in solidarity with us in his gift of his suffering on the Cross.
But then we also remember that God took death and destruction and turned it into resurrection.
What could the breaking down and destroying of things in our lives, even things we love, lead to in terms of new life and resurrection?
We’ll never know until we embrace the possibility.
The death of a marriage, the death of loved ones, the death of our faith and our hope and sometimes even our beloved communities and relationships—they don’t have to end in death.
They can be death that leads to resurrection, if we let them.
If we listen.
If we wait on the Lord.
If we follow Jesus through death to new life.
And there is the Good News of Jesus Christ we have been wanting to proclaim all along.
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