Most of us want to think of ourselves as reasonable people. When need be, we can think logically and rationally about things and come to reasonable conclusions. We know at the least the basics of how to recognize fallacies in other people’s arguments and how to put our own thoughts together.
For those of us living in Western nations (and I’m guessing some other locations that have been influenced by Western ideas), the education we received in relation to logical reasoning is based in Grecian and Roman philosophies. This system of reasoning and logic laid the groundwork for our scientific method and our ideas about how to figure out if something makes sense.
When we apply our modern human reasoning to the Bible, sometimes there are things which seem odd to us. We might notice contradictions in the text. We might wonder why God would tell people to do certain things, or why He makes some of the choices He does. We might look at some of the connections New Testament writers make to the Old Testament and think their conclusions seem far-fetched. And when we look at the Bible and it doesn’t make sense, we might become frustrated with our own limitations or we could become skeptical of God’s word.
The first of those problems has a fairly simple answer: pray for wisdom and understanding. James says that if anyone asks for wisdom in faith, God will give it to them (James 1:5-6). Paul adds that if we’re off-the-mark in our views, God can reveal the truth to us (Phi. 3:14-16). When we’re in a relationship with God, He also gives us His holy spirit that Jesus said “will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13, WEB). When we’re frustrated with our own lack of knowledge or understanding, we can take those frustrations to God. He might not give us the exact answer we’re looking for right away, but He will always help those who keep asking and seeking (Luke 11:9-10).
It can also help to keep in mind the things that I’ll suggest people consider if they think God’s word doesn’t make sense. There’s a dangerous sort of arrogance in thinking there’s something wrong with God just because He doesn’t make sense to us. Similarly, there’s danger in dismissing God’s word because we’re not sure how to wrap our heads around it or we think it’s just a good book rather than His divine revelation. There’s a lot we could say on this subject, but for today’s post I want to focus on just two things we can think about if we’re struggling with the idea that things in the Bible don’t make sense.
The Wrong System of Measurement
Suppose you come across a woodworking project, like a little birdhouse, at a resale shop. You like the way it looks so you take it home and plan to use it as a pattern for your next project. You get out your tape measure and start making notes. The roof is just shy of 7-7/8 inches long, and not quite 4-3/4 inches wide. You keep taking measurements and it gets more and more frustrating. Why didn’t the builder use nice, even, sensible numbers instead of all these not-quite-right fractions?
Then suppose you turn the tape measure around to the side with centimeters. Suddenly, the roof is exactly 20 by 12 cm. The problem wasn’t with the person making the birdhouse. The problem is you didn’t understand what system of measurement they used in the first place.
This is very similar to what happens when people approach the Bible with a cultural mindset different than the one the original writers use. The Bible is a text from the ancient Middle East. Even though we believe God is the ultimate author of the Bible, He still used people in that culture to write His word. When Jesus spoke to people of His day, He used examples and analogies they could understand. Those of us who are far removed from that original context (in terms of both time and cultural philosophies) often have a hard time figuring out the Bible. That’s not because there’s something wrong with the Bible or we’re incapable of understanding; it’s just that we need more contextualizing information.
For example, in Western culture we like having reliable rules and we think they ought to apply to everyone in the same way. If a rule is bent or broken for one person and not others, we call that “unfair” and complain about a lack of justice. If we see what looks like a rule in the Bible and then God does something different, we might think He’s unjust or that there’s some kind of hidden rule system that He’s unfairly keeping from us. But things are different in non-Western cultures where “rules apply except when the one in charge says otherwise. Westerners might consider this arbitrary; many non-Western Christians consider this grace (Richards & O’Brien, p. 174). That’s how Paul can (arguably) call Junia an apostle in Rom. 16:7 even though women don’t typically hold that office (p. 172).
That example comes from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes–a book I highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand the Bible better. Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus is also a great help with that. These books are excellent “tools” for making sure you’re using the right system of measurement when interpreting God’s word. You might be able to find one or both of these books in your local library, and here are the Amazon links if you want to check them out:
- Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien*
- Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus: How a Jewish Perspective Can Transform Your Understanding by Lois Tverberg*
- *please note that these are affiliate links, which means I’ll earn a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you purchase one of these books after clicking the links.
God’s a Lot Smarter Than You
There’s another truth that we need to acknowledge if we want to work through parts of scripture that don’t make sense to us. God is smarter than us. And when someone is a lot smarter than you, plus they have a perfectly clear perspective on everything going on, sometimes you won’t be able to make sense of what they’re doing.
For some people, it’s easy to admit that they’re not the smartest person in the room. For others, our intellect can be a stumbling block that gets in the way of a close relationship with God. This latter one is something I can struggle with. I get prickly when someone insults my intelligence or implies that I don’t understand what I’m talking about. I rely heavily on my ability to research things thoroughly and find good answers. I preen inside when a professor complements my writing or calls me an “academic.”
However, an academic understanding of scripture isn’t how we have a relationship with God. Our spiritual temperament might lean more on logic, reason, and knowledge (as Gary Thomas discusses in “Sacred Pathways”), but intellect isn’t enough to have a relationship with God. We also need humility and love. We need to admit that no matter how much we study, we’re not going to learn everything about God because the depths of His knowledge are unfathomable. We need to humbly marvel at–and love–the God who is way smarter than us, and ask Him for help when we’re struggling to understand something in His word.
My brothers and sisters, consider it nothing but joy when you fall into all sorts of trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect effect, so that you will be perfect and complete, not deficient in anything. But if anyone is deficient in wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without reprimand, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed around by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, since he is a double-minded individual, unstable in all his ways.James 1:2-8, NET
Sometimes, the “testing of our faith” is an internal struggle rather than an external trial. We might wrestle with our own doubts, questions, or fears related to God’s word. We’re not abandoned during those struggles, though. Sometimes I think we worry if our trials are doubt-related then we don’t deserve to ask for God’s help, but the truth is that He’s is eager to help everyone seeking His kingdom to understand and know Him more fully. Even the tiniest spark of faith is enough for Him work with if only we’ll come to Him and say, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, WEB).
Shifting Our Focus
There are still parts of the Bible that don’t quite make sense to me. But I think now I’ve reached a point where I trust that God knows what He’s doing even if I don’t understand it. I can also trust that someday He’ll help me understand those things, even if that “someday” doesn’t happen in this physical life.
I can also shift my focus off trying to make sense of everything and onto following Christ’s example. When Paul and Peter say we should have Christ’s mind, they aren’t focused on knowledge so much as on peaceful relationships (Rom. 15:5), God’s wisdom inside us (1 Cor. 2), service (Phil. 2:5-7), suffering, and freedom from sin (1 Pet. 4:1-2). There are far more important things to focus on than trying to make sense of everything in the Bible or put God into neat little categories. There is great value in knowing the Bible and understanding doctrine, but that’s all secondary to knowing God.
“Don’t let the wise man glory in his wisdom.Jeremiah 9:23-24, WEB
Don’t let the mighty man glory in his might.
Don’t let the rich man glory in his riches.
But let him who glories glory in this,
that he has understanding, and knows me,
that I am Yahweh who exercises loving kindness, justice, and righteousness in the earth,
for I delight in these things,” says Yahweh.
Paul quotes these verses at the beginning of 1 Corinthians when he’s counseling his readers not to let disputes and pride get in the way of peaceful relationships in the church or following Christ. Even the smartest among us don’t have anything to boast of when we compare ourselves to the wisdom, goodness, and glory of God. With this shift in mindset, we can pursue a closer relationship with God and eagerly learn more about Him while also humbly admitting that we don’t yet know everything (and that’s okay).
Featured image by Matt Vasquez from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “God of All My Days” by Casting Crowns
2 thoughts on “But What if the Bible Doesn’t Seem to Make Sense?”
Bravo, what a brilliant take on faith!
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I’ve always disliked it when someone comes along and claims to understand everything perfectly about God or Christianity. Even if they don’t claim this, there is sometimes an arrogance I’ve come across with knowing so much about x, y or z. Your blog was a wonderful reminder of humility and accepting mystery. Thank you.