Preachers, teachers, and fellow Christians, from any tradition or background, from straight-up cessationist to Neo-Reformed Calvinist to unashamed Charismatic: please, please, please do not sell out on the Bible.
I know this will probably never be your intention. You want to remain true to Scripture. You are passionate for proclaiming God’s Word. But by incremental degrees we can lose sight of the awesome glory of Jesus if we turn this into a man-centered, therapy-only, self-help manual. I understand how this happens and I’m not above it. But more than ever in our up-and-down times, I want to remain faithful to God’s Word.
Four ways we can slip on this, and how to re-adjust.
We’ve sold out on the Bible when —
1) We turn storms, demons, disease, and death into metaphors and allegories.
I totally get how this happens, but the Bible is about as literal as it gets. The Bible authors did not intend for real events to be turned into metaphorical therapy devices for a healthier you. When Jesus told the storm to shut up, this is not a “storm of your life.” Sorry, but Jesus had freaking power over a gale-force hurricane.
If you can imagine Paul or Peter or Ezra or David or John sitting in the back of your church during a sermon or Bible study, then consider how they might hear you. Goliath is not a metaphor for your financial issues or marriage problems or time management. David killed Goliath with a real stone and then cut off his head. This, you know, like actually happened.
And come on, no one wants to “be like David” anyway. He was an adulterous murderer. The Bible is not a glossy photoshopped album of muscular glistening heroes. It’s full of fallen broken people that needed God’s grace: like you, like me.
Every miracle, story, and fallen Bible character points to Jesus. If Jesus had power over demons, diseases, and death, then surely he has power over our daily lives. But the point is always to worship him in gratitude, not simply re-arrange our psychology. The name of Jesus is always the point of everything.
2) We flip the switch from redemption to righteous living.
Enough of lazy preacher tactics. No more guilt, fear, shame, and stupid probing questions. “When’s the last time you evangelized? When’s the last time you sincerely worshiped Him? How are you doing with accountability? Are you committed or not? Are you really following Jesus or just a faker?”
How about I suck at all of these things and my hospital-bills/family-death/secret-addiction is killing me?
When we teach exclusively on behavioral externals, we run into wild guilt-driven legalism that boxes us into anxious panic mode. The preacher might make you feel like you need to step up your game and “make it right with the Lord,” but that’s why Jesus came to die in the first place: because we couldn’t do it on our own.
The Bible is foremost a historical event of redemption, not a guidebook on righteous living. There’s definitely practical wisdom in there, but we need the Living Redeemer to empower us with daily grace. As I’ve said before, we are works in progress looking towards the work finished, Jesus.
3) We turn God’s Promises into reward-based principles.
I don’t just mean Prosperity Theology, where enough faith makes you rich or cures your cancer. I also mean when a preacher yells at you to avoid consequences and run after God because then you’ll always have “peace” and “blessing” and “strength.” That if you follow His rules, then rewards must follow.
Life does not work this way. When we invest an hour of work, we don’t always get back an hour’s return. The problem of “linear thinking” with God is we assume God is angry when life goes wrong, we presume God will bless us if we work hard enough; we feel we can’t pray to Him if we haven’t prayed in a while, as if God is keeping score.
If we read the Bible with a results/rewards orientation, we can easily abuse it to control everything around us. At best, we’ll be disappointed when God doesn’t deliver on promises that He never made anyway.
When people say, “God you owe me,” I don’t think they know what they’re asking. God is not fair: otherwise He would explode you out of your seat right now. God works on grace and mercy, which none of us deserve. God gave you His Son; anything else is bonus blessing.
4) We use the Bible as scaffolding for inspirational, pick-me-up, pep talk.
I struggle the most with this one. I can easily lose the bigger picture of the Bible.
I forget that when David faced Goliath, it was not merely a story of God-given strength, but a narrative of God being glorified through his chosen people in an impossible situation where only the supernatural would work.
I forget that Ruth isn’t just about godly romance, but a picture of God’s eternal love for us through His providence and the foreshadowing of His Son.
I once preached a sermon on insecurity when in the middle of it, I realized God isn’t just here to remove our insecurity. Certainly He can do that and I’ve experienced victory over it through Him. But that’s only a microcosm of God’s power.
The greater story of the Bible is so exponentially glorious that real problems like insecurity lose their momentum in the light of the Gospel. The bigger we know God is, the smaller we are, and we won’t have to resort to emotionally-driven, eloquently constructed, rally charges to have daily victory.
If we’re only teaching practical wisdom for inspirational living, this is pretty much just good advice competing with not-good-advice. Essentially it doesn’t take us anywhere or have any purpose by itself except to make you feel better, which a hot bath or a box of chocolates or a counselor can do any day of the week. You wouldn’t need the Bible for that.
But God’s Word transplants you into the Good News, a story beyond your life that is bigger than your feelings and your dreams and your ambitions. When God’s Word is seen as the overarching narrative of God’s Story —not yours or mine — you can breathe out. It’s not about you “keeping up” or self-maintaining. It’s about the God who keeps you. It’s about the God who keeps reigning when your life is a mess, which is a truth bigger than what we feel.
Our God is the same God who was sovereign over the Exodus, over the Babylonian Captivity, the Roman Rule, and is sovereign today over your homework and career choice and panic attacks and depression and rough relationships. God has put us in the middle of this continuing narrative called the Bible, and if we can start there, then the daily grace for practical wisdom will make that much more sense.