Being Scorned on the Wrong Side of God
Words, by their very nature, are supposed to be indivisible. They capture the right parameters of a given idea and exchange the whole of that idea for a handful of characters. Our brains become familiar with these collected symbols–these words–and synthesize ideas without keeping us aware of the process.
Have you ever read a word you didn’t know the definition for, and you just kept reading because you knew you’d seen that word before and you were familiar with what it felt like? What about the reverse–when you think you understand a word or a turn of phrase, only to realize much later just how wrong you were? When people in our church were going through hard times, my Dad would say to me, “they just can’t make ends meet right now”. Of course, this idiom for you might invoke a picture of a person trying to tie two ropes together, and they’re just inches too short to reach each other. Instead, I always read and heard it as, “make ends meat”–as in, a butcher who only offers the leftover scraps of the pig carcass to the poor families because they can’t afford the more expensive, “beginning” meats.
There are many amazing ideas within the faith perspective I’ve been born into. Christianity is the worldview I inherited from my pastor parents but I’ve chosen it as my own. One of my favourite concepts is how God’s Word–the one thing He says, and the one thing that defines Him–at the beginning of His story, forms the world. Then later, at the story’s climax, this same Word takes on human form and lives an ordinary life among us.
I think this idea is beautiful. The Divine knows our limitations, and decides to live within them. God does not want to hide from us–God wants to be known. God can explain Himself without any misunderstanding.
He doesn’t just give us a book to read. He gives us a human life to experience.
In the story of Jesus, God rides everything on His ability to express Himself through flesh: in the incarnation, God is fully human. Then, He has the audacity to claim we must ingest His body (Christians call this mystery the sacrament of Communion). Then, to top it all off, Jesus claims the people who follow this way of embracing His divine humanity by ingesting Him will become part of His very body.
The trouble comes when we try to reverse engineer the process, and put the divine back into words again. We’re wrestling with concepts far beyond the boundaries of our language. We ache and clamour for the right sentences and statements so we can call them “the truth”. Everything outside of our truth is falsehood. Everything outside of our right is wrong.
The question is not whether truth exists. The question is, have we ever apprehended it with just our petty language? If God chooses to explain Himself though a human life, then what am I doing stringing sentences together? I’m not claiming all truth is relative. I’m simply saying if this incarnation idea is real, then truth must be embodied–it will corrode all other characters and containers.
This is where we Christians appeal to the authority of the Bible for our notions of truth. I can’t speak for all of us, but I’ll confess how my thinking used to go: the stories I got about Jesus came from the Bible, and the Christians who taught me the Bible said the book was both perfect and holy, and because God can’t disagree with Himself it must mean the Bible is the same as Him somehow. Obviously, you can’t have relationship with a book, but you also can’t just trust your friendship with an invisible Jesus who might think entirely different than you imagine He would.
Therefore, the connection you feel to Jesus is how you get life both now and after you die, and the Bible is where you get the truth.
Have you ever gotten in an argument with someone and lost, only to remain unconvinced of their opinion? You both leave the disagreement feeling justified in your position, but the most tangible thing you’ve gained between the two of you is distance. Of course, here again, I can’t just appeal to my invisible friend Jesus. Your Jesus and my Jesus might say different things. So it becomes a perfect time to use the Bible to defend the truth.
I’ve recently found myself in conflict with someone who was trying to defend the truth from dangerous me. I’d like to think I find it easy to dismiss the passing criticism of strangers, but I felt like I had some level of relationship. Where we disagree, we disagree–but in this such case, I am being dismissed for my perspective. This friend no longer wants to know me because we can’t come to terms over their issue with my beliefs.
Of course, on one hand it makes sense for them to treat me this way. Their reading of the Bible is the correct one to them, because of how they understand the words and sentences within it. They’ve passed judgement and I’m on the wrong side of God.
Here’s an update in case you were wondering on the state of children’s church these days: stickers don’t motivate kids like they used to. Now, kids will only take candy as a bribe for the coveted prize of their best behaviour. Back in my day, (man it feels good to use that line), the kids were the ones competing for the prize–and the ultimate contest was always the same.
It was the sword drill.
We would take our bibles and raise them closed above our heads. When the teacher called out a certain verse, we would pull our “swords” down from above our heads and flip to the passage as fast as we could. The winner, of course, got a sticker. I memorized verses. I learned a song to help me with the order of the books in the Bible. Anything and everything I could do to get those stickers. And yes, I crushed the competition with my sword drill skills.
The idea of a Bible being a sword comes from the book of Hebrews, which says this:
If the Bible is where the truth comes from, and if this passage means the heavy book I lifted over my head was meant to be treated like a sword, then I know exactly what to do when I disagree with someone: I use the book to slice and dice their wrong and evil opinions.
I may even have to stab them, too.
Sure, I’ll give them a fair warning first. And if it comes down to a fight, I’ll be kind enough to let them get their sword up. In the best case scenario, we’ll duel for a while until we resign ourselves in a mutual sort of disagreement. Most of the time, however–especially on the internet–someone ends up looking like the Black Knight in “Monty Python’s Holy Grail”: dismembered and in denial.
I’ve had a chance to stop and reflect on my desire to use my Bible like this. As I’ve grown older, my arguments over spiritual things have become more muted and sensible, but my “sword” is still armed and ready above my mind, ready to be pulled down if I must defeat someone else’s differing opinion. My bloodlust rises every time I feel like someone is using their beliefs to hurt others. Isn’t this our way with all violence? We justify our use of the sword by claiming to defend the innocent. I guarantee it’s what my former friend is trying to do to me–protect others from my dangerous opinions.
But I’ve decided to put my sword down because I no longer believe truth works this way. I believe the one true Word became flesh, and has decided to stay that way.
God did a reckless thing by exhausting the Truth within a human life.
Jesus invalidates our arguments about God by personifying virtues we can only describe in tension. Is God loving? Is God just? Is God happy, or sad, or funny, or serious? Whatever He is, our attempts to describe Him are going to fall short in some way. Jesus is indivisible.
Have you ever been to a funeral for someone you loved–someone you really knew–and read the “In Memoriam” they reprinted in the bulletin? It probably ran in the local newspaper, so it was limited to about fifteen sentences. The words you read were kind, sentimental, but wholly inadequate to capture their entire life. As a tribute to them, the words are functional for their intended purpose: to help you remember who your loved one was to you. But the words still fail the experience you had when you were known and loved by them, and could know and love them in return.
What if the only way to get the Truth right is to–like Jesus–let the Word become Flesh? Instead of trying to get the right opinion and then prove everyone else wrong, what if we lived out the virtues and beliefs we’ve experienced?
What if the only way to share the truth is to embody it?
This is the astonishing truth of the Resurrection: the disciples didn’t just talk about the Jesus of their history. They claimed the Jesus from their history could be made tangible again in their community–through the love they had for one another!
The greatest thing about people is how they exist. They substantiate the feelings and perspectives they carry. Calling your friend “funny” isn’t anything like being moved to tears when they inspire your laughter. Claiming your child is cute is a good thing–although your baby isn’t near as cute as mine–but your words fall flat in comparison to seeing your child smile. Whenever Christians treat the Bible as our first source for truth, instead of Jesus, we end up projecting our dead language on His living body and we use our “sword” to divide Him. And we end up being the ones who kill Him for the sake of our rights and opinions. The Pharisees did it to Jesus the carpenter’s son, roughly two-thousand years ago. We’ve been doing it to Him by burning people at the stake, and by casting dissenters out of our lives, ever since.
I don’t think the Bible should be my sword anymore. Instead, I now see Jesus–the Word which God is still speaking–as the sword. He’s piercing through my own heart. He cuts and convicts because overtime I try to use my best language to sum Him up, an encounter with His essence transcends me.
In this way, though, He divides me perfectly. He cuts away my petty desire to injure others, and he mortally wounds all my attempts to justify myself. In short: His love has cut me deep. And when I live out of this love I’ve experienced, and allow the conviction in my heart to take on human form, I know the Truth is radiating through my being.
Does this mean we shouldn’t try to describe God with our words anymore? Should we abstain from having opinions about anything? Is it wrong to distinguish between right and wrong? No. But we must remember the first lesson we learned while opening up our fetal pig in Biology class: everything you have to dissect is dead already, or else it will be very soon.
Christians who think they're getting their truth from the Bible, as though there is only one true way to read it, dissect Jesus to death. Believers who instead allow the Bible to compliment and enrich their living connection with the Resurrected Jesus will personify His truth without loss.
Look, you may stand over your dissected carcass (of ends meat) and know how all the systems work. You might have removed the vital organs and pinned them to a board, and your presentation could be flawless! But the body is never going to resurrect to life if you keep the heart and the lungs pinned to your systematic poster-board.
Do you want to defend a dead religion, or do you want revel in the messy and indeterminate living organism of the Truth?
Of course, as a consequence of all this, I’ve had to examine the role the Scriptures play in my Christian faith. I still believe they’re inspired by God, and I believe they are true. I consider their voice, through the counsel of the Holy Spirit and my community, to be authoritative in my life. But I am open to the idea that there’s more than one way to read the Bible, and I don’t have it right all the time. I don’t need to have it right all the time. I’ve given up on trying to earn those Sunday school stickers. I don’t get my life from the Bible–I get my life from Jesus.
I may not be able to reconcile with my friend. But I have decided I would rather be pierced by another person’s judgements than to pick up the sword in defence of my own. Whatever lives will have to die if I go down that road, and I will not crucify the Truth again.