Did God Really Say?I've been thinking about this statement, "Did God really say?" I'm sure, if you have been in the Christian church for any length of time, you've heard this. It's context comes out of the creation story in the book of Genesis when the serpent says to Eve, "Did God really say you must not eat any of the fruit in the garden?" (Genesis 3:1)
Where we typically hear this text used today is when someone is trying to warn or prevent another from questioning anything in the Bible. I'd been thinking about how this phrase has been used to manipulate, shame, instill fear, and control. It is like playing the ultimate power card: "If you protest then you obviously do not love God as much as I do, you obviously don't care about the Scriptures like I do, you obviously just want to do what you want to do". Somehow, I wanted to comment on what I felt was a misuse of Scripture and then last night, I followed a link in a Christianity Today e-newsletter to a blog post called, "Christians and Homosexuals". As I read through the comment section, I came across this comment:
"You know what? I have a close family member who is a homosexual who I love very much. But all of you who make excuses and say "Did God REALLY say that?" (as satan said to Eve in the garden) have not made God number 1 in your lives. God is to be before ALL things, and until you do that, you obviously are unable to understand Scripture, or you do not want to believe it, or you do as you do, and make thousands of excuses. God is extremely clear on this issue. It doesn't matter what you think or what you hope for. God has said what the eternal fate of those who are homosexual is. I believe God over man any day."
Certainly, there are people who want to twist Scripture to make it say whatever will justify how they want to live. I'm afraid I see that every day in my comfortable life so pervasively informed by the consumeristic and individualistic culture in which I live. I find a way to ignore Jesus' words, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Matt. 19:21) The truth is, I have private property, I keep things for myself and my family. I put away money for my retirement, and my children's educations ... and I placate myself with the commitment we make to charitable giving. But even while our family grows in our ability to be generous and live more simply, in my heart of hearts I am terrified of Jesus' words to let go of the security I've created for myself and live in full identification with the poor.
And in the midst of it all, I can't help but wonder why it is so convenient for so many Christians to get all bent out of shape about gay people reading Scripture in a manner that affords them the opportunity to experience love and companionship in a gay relationship while we rarely challenge ourselves and one another about the comfort we choose in our privatized wealth. I hear so often, "The Bible is clear ... about homosexuality." Well friends, the Bible seems even more often clear about the call to not only care for the poor, but to live in solidarity with the poor.
But alongside those of us who pick and choose and selectively follow the texts that don't shake up our world too much, there are those who are honestly trying to wrestle with God, to glimpse more of his character through the story of Scripture, to discern the way forward to both follow him and experience his best for their lives. If we fail to listen to these stories, if we fail to see their pilgrim spirit, if we simply presume a selfish agenda, I fear we fail to honour the Biblical legacy of people of faith wrestling with God.
In Genesis 18, Abraham questions and challenges God:
Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham approached him and said: "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing?to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?"
In Genesis 32, Jacob struggles with God:
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." The man asked him, "What is your name?" "Jacob," he answered. Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
Throughout the Biblical story, people of faith encounter a God who welcomes their questions and invites them to struggle with him.
Many of the same-gender attracted followers of Jesus I know have wrestled with God through prayer and through asking questions of the Biblical text. I often see people shift back and forth between a more traditional understanding that precludes same-gender sexual behaviour and a more gay-affirming perspective that views covenanted gay partnerships as an expression of God's grace. This back and forth journey is not because the issues are trivial to them - rather precisely because of the depth of commitment to be faithful to Christ many continue to wrestle. Many live with a deep sense of uncertainty. But I have also often heard them testify that this uncertainty has drawn them into deeper, more trusting and dependent relationship with Christ. The convictions they hold have often come through much study, prayer, and a desire to submit to God's will. And while I may not agree with some of their conclusions, I often find that I deeply respect the intentional journey that has brought them to where they are. And I respect those who continue to wrestle.
Blogger "poserorprophet" in a post entitled, "Abandoning Certitude: Walking Humbly with God" reminds us that our connection with God is mediated by Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience but that our engagement in each of these four areas is always impacted by our own fallibility. He goes on to say,
"An honest confrontation with our situation requires us to confess that we can no longer be certain about anything. Maybe we are eisegeting (ie. when a reader reads his own interpretation into the text) the Scriptures. Maybe we are highlighting the wrong parts of the Christian traditions. Maybe our reason is fatally flawed. Maybe we have misunderstood ourselves and our experiences. Maybe that which we have taken to be God, is not God at all. We must confess that any and all of the above is possible.
So we must abandon certainty, and we must flee from anyone who promises us certitude lest we become lured into false comforts and a world of illusions.
This, I think, is what it means for a person to "walk humbly with God" (cf. Mic 6.8). Walking humbly with God means confessing that, hey, maybe we've got it all wrong. Maybe, instead of being part of the solution, we're part of the problem. Maybe we're just making one giant mess of everything. So we pray: "Lord, have mercy".
Finally, I have recently come to the conclusion that this movement into uncertainty is actually an expression of one's maturation in one's faith. This goes against what I was led to believe about faith when I was growing up. When I was younger, I thought that uncertainty was a sign of "spiritual immaturity" and that "spiritual maturity" would be expressed in an increasing sense of certainty. Indeed, I think many Christians were led to believe that this is how "spiritual maturity" is expressed. I no longer believe this. I now believe that it takes a great deal of maturity to confess that one is uncertain (about everything), and the reason why we have difficulty confessing this is because we remain in places of immaturity. This, at least, has been my own (neither infallible nor completely trustworthy!) experience: the more deeply rooted I have become in my faith, the more I have been able to abandon certitude in order to walk humbly with God " and with my neighbours as we, together, strive to do justice and love mercy (Mic 6.8, again)."
When people misuse the text "Did God really say?" to shut down someone's honest wrestling with God, they betray what seems to be their own lack of faith, lack of humility, and their own fear and anxiety. We ought not be threatened by someone's searching. We ought not to try to control the outcomes in another's journey. We ought not to resort to using shame or fear or guilt to ensure others share in our certainties. God can be trusted to lead those who question and struggle with him through prayer and his Word making good use of their minds and their experiences. Let's focus on encouraging one another rather than accusing and condemning one another. In such a spacious place, I believe more people will have the opportunity to discover the truth of Jeremiah 29: 13: "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."