Not naming names, but...

Not naming names, but…

No matter how many times I hear or read it, it always takes me by surprise when someone claims that personal bible study means picking a verse, meditating on it, and determining what that verse means for you in your life. But that’s something that people say a lot. In fact, what I just typed is fairly close to a direct quotation from something I saw online just the other day. I wonder where that idea even comes from in the first place, because it is just so obviously problematic.

First of all, why is it supposedly a good idea to deliberately take something out of context? That is inevitably going to create misunderstandings. You can make the Bible say pretty much anything if you just pick random phrases without taking into consideration what the whole passage is saying. I mean, technically the Bible says that there is no God. (Psalm 14:1. Look it up.) That’s obviously an extreme example, but it just goes to show that taking words out of context risks manipulating their meaning. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with memorizing specific Bible verses or even putting them on T-shirts and bumper stickers and wall decorations. But make sure they mean what you think they mean, and do that by reading the Bible, not by soul-searching and self-reflection. The human mind is no substitute for the Bible, and it can’t offer the context for a Bible verse the way that surrounding Bible verses do.

When I googled "Bible study inspiration" to see if it would be as corny as I feared, I got this picture. I am not even kidding about that.

When I googled “Bible study inspiration” to see if it would be as corny as I feared, I got this picture. I am not even kidding about that.

And why do we think that we’re supposed to decide for ourselves what a Bible verse means specifically for our own individual lives? What’s wrong with the idea that a Bible verse means the same thing regardless of who’s reading it or what’s currently going on in their life? Maybe there’s some comfort in the notion that God has things to say to specifically address your various life problems as they occur, but there’s greater comfort in the notion that God’s word and His gifts are constant and consistent regardless of the changes and difficulties that each individual faces throughout their life. The good thing is, that’s what happens to be true, as promised in Psalm 102, for example. There are zillions of other places in the Bible say that God and/or God’s word don’t change, but I’m not going to make a list here because I can hear some reader somewhere wondering how I can quote a list of individual Bible verses after writing the previous paragraph. (Although, incidentally, I would have looked up the entire chapter instead of the individual verses, just to make sure I wasn’t taking them out of context. Admittedly, another reason that I’m not doing that is because this is a quick and slapdash blog post, not a time-consuming and carefully-written one.)

fortune tellerThe only way to pretend that God’s word is subjective and relative, meaning different things in different situations, is to imagine that it is as vague and empty as a fortune or horoscope, which are ultimately meaningless because they are constructed with a deliberate attempt to be completely flexible.  I had written a pretty long paragraph about internet apps that give daily “personalized messages from God”, but I deleted that because I suppose someone could argue that I was building a straw man there; I doubt that many people actually believe that those kinds of randomized computer-generated messages are divine. But the idea that God sends you a new personalized message via the internet every day isn’t much different than thinking that the actual Bible shifts its meaning to reflect your changing circumstances and emotional needs. God’s word is better and more versatile than a “personalized” message or fortune because it actually is universally relevant without having to vary its meaning at all.

What results from a self-reflective method of reading the Bible is cotton candy theology. In the search for emotionally meaningful advice and words of comfort, the reality of sin gets ignored. People take the beautiful and life-giving words of forgiveness and salvation out of context and forget about their own sinfulness in the first place. Then Jesus’ death on the cross loses its significance, and thus the gospel becomes watered down as well. Now the law looks like a flexible and vague set of strategies to make your life better or to make you a cooler person, and the gospel looks like a cheerful and vague reminder that God cares about you. This is the cotton candy theology; nothing is left but overly-processed sugar, air, and a little pink food coloring to keep people interested. (That food coloring can take the form of emotional worship music, inspiring testimonies, fun church youth group activities… If it sounds cool and is supposedly religious but doesn’t have Jesus in it, it’s just food coloring.)

*sarcasm alert* You can tell it's good because people buy it, right?

*sarcasm alert* You can tell it’s good because people buy it, right?

My question is this: Why settle for fluff and air when we can have something substantial and important to say by acknowledging the reality and seriousness of sin? Why settle for weak artificial sweetener if we can have the true sweetness of the gospel by remembering what Jesus did for us on the cross? Why settle for artificial pink food coloring when we can have the genuine blood of Christ in the sacrament? And why settle for cotton candy by narrowing our study of God’s word when we could have cake by reading and trusting the whole Bible?