Let’s say you’ve developed a love for archery and you’re trying to master it…
In a typical scenario, do you live in fear of punishment if you miss the target?
No – you simply keep trying until you get better and better and better at it.
If you miss, you try to learn from it and don’t let it derail your love for it.
If someone tells you you’re a horrible example of an archer, you can admit that you’re not as good at it as you’d like but you smile as you tell them you’ll keep trying until you finally master it as well as you can in this lifetime.
It’s the Greek word that was translated into English as “sin”. It’s an archery term. Yes, archery. It means “you missed the target”. Oops.
If you love God and the way of Jesus and you’re trying to get better at it, you don’t live in fear of missing the target because your love propels you forward in the face of failure. Or as the apostle John wrote, “Perfect love casts out fear because fear has torment.”
Love casts out fear.
So if you’re in a religious tradition that focuses more on fear of missing the target than a love for keeping at it until you improve, you may want to step back and think about this a bit more.
God is not an angry judge waiting for you to miss the target so God can punish you for the wretch that you are. God is NOT angry.
God is the patient father of the kid who demanded his inheritance early (i.e., “I wish you were dead! Give me my money NOW!”). The kid went on to squander all of it, yet the father kept scanning the horizon until he saw the kid return and he beat the shit out of him. Oops, no – the father EMBRACED him and threw a PARTY!
THAT is what God is like.
The biggest “sin” (missing the target) that Jesus came to “save” (rescue, restore, heal) us from is this:
Our flawed idea
that God is angry with us
and won’t accept us without
punishment, torture, even bloodshed.
Sure, in Hebrews it says “according to the law without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins.” But did you see the first four words? “According to the LAW“. And who wrote the LAW? Men.
Specifically, Moses adapted it from what he learned as a prince at the best schools in Egypt – Hammurabi’s code, Enuma Elish, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and all those other topics more ancient than the Bible itself. Moses adapted them to his view of God. Others came along and made their own additions.
It’s called “The Law of Moses”.
It’s not the law of God.
It’s not the law of Jesus.
It’s not the law of the Christian church.
Jesus came to FREE us from all of that.
The only thing you need to be rescued from are erroneous thoughts about God.
You are loved.
You are accepted.
You are embraced.
You are free to miss the target and keep trying.
It’s no sin.
“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk,
so that by it you may grow up in your salvation,
now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”
1 Peter 2:2-3
I remember a friend telling me about some special times he had reading scripture with another friend. With a look of wonder in his eyes, he talked about how they “drank from the pure milk of the Word”.
It “sounded” good, but a few things struck me in that moment that I put in the back of my mind for future reference. Today it’s the topic.
First off, “the pure milk of the Word” isn’t even a thing. The scripture he was referencing in 1 Peter does not mention scripture at all. In fact, scripture does not refer to the collection of writings we know today as the Bible as “The Word of God” at all. In the opening of John’s Gospel we see him refer to Jesus as the Word of God, but scripture (which was still being written) was never referred to as that. A “word from the Lord” didn’t mean scripture but rather meant a message a prophet believed he was given by God to give to others. There were many of those, but not all were written – sometimes it was acted out, sometimes it was implied. The “pure milk of the Word” is not a thing.
Secondly, what they actually elevated as “The Word” was their own thoughts – in that moment – as they read scripture. Their thoughts may have been true to some extent… or not. But one’s thoughts about scripture passages do not equal “The Word of God”. God’s Word according to scripture is Jesus – his life, his example, his message. His WAY.
Thirdly, the “spiritual milk” in Peter’s letter is a starting point, not a destination. It’s where babies start. Middle-aged men raised in church shouldn’t be drinking milk, as the author of Hebrews opined:
“…by this time you ought to be teachers,
you need someone to teach you
the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.
You need milk, not solid food!
Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant,
is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.
But solid food is for the mature,
who by constant use have trained themselves
to distinguish good from evil.”
The “elementary truths of God’s word” are milk. The basics. What are the basics that Jesus taught and lived?
Love. A love willing to endure suffering for the sake of others. This is what we refuse to do. We’d rather avoid the pain altogether and focus on trivial things – the distant future, the distant past, esoteric notions, atonement theories, nationalism and political battles – anything other than the basics of what Jesus actually cared about. Sacrificial love.
It’s hard to do. We don’t naturally want to do it. But when we actually get a taste of God’s love – that merciful, gracious love that accepts us right where we are warts and all – we see that the Lord truly is GOOD and we want more. More than milk, though that’s where we all start. More than the “elementary truths”. Solid food – the tough stuff you have to chew on for a while as you with self-discipline train yourself to distinguish between actual good and evil.
Not what the church tells you is good and evil – that more often than not has a vested interest to it and a lack of trust that the Holy Spirit promised by Jesus will actually do what Jesus promised – “guide us into all truth”. Churches tend to usurp the role of the Holy Spirit as they try to constrain behavior with their silly little child-proofing rules and avoiding being exposed for missing Jesus’ point on what is truly good and evil.
The religious conservatives of Jesus’ day are the main ones Jesus had harsh words for. They had all kinds of rules, excluded all kinds of people who didn’t fit their profile, and used scripture to burden people rather than to free them. People who thought their understanding of scripture was automatically correct and condemned anyone who didn’t agree. It’s still the same today.
These people miss the point. They should be teachers helping people to see true good and evil but instead they sip their milk and cannot see how they could possibly be off base. They cozy up to powerful people thinking that there is something stronger than sacrificial love when there isn’t. They cozy up to famous people thinking that better marketing is the key to changing the world rather than sacrificial love. They cozy up to wealthy people thinking that money is the resource they desperately need when it’s actually sacrificial love.
Then they get all butt-hurt when someone implies they are off-base or dares question their system.
- When someone writes a book asking age-old questions about heaven and hell, they lose their minds and immediately boycott, protest, castigate, demonize, and write books in response to double-down on their system.
- When someone calls them out on their support of political figures who claim to follow Jesus but whose lives make it clear they don’t, they insult, accuse, condemn, and use every other non-Jesus tool to silence their detractors.
- When great injustices are done against groups of people and the environment, they side with the abusers without an ounce of compassion or sacrificial love.
Whatever “pure milk” they think they’ve been drinking… it’s obviously soured a long time ago.
“Test everything. Hold on to what is good.”
– Paul writing to Timothy
When I was an Evangelical/Fundamentalist who claimed to believe and follow the scriptures, this was one verse that somehow got practically interpreted as:
“Avoid anything I might disagree with;
point out what is wrong about it.”
This shows up in boycotts, like when Scorcese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” was released many years ago. People picketing and shouting (and providing free advertisement) who had not seen the movie, did not intend to see it, but knew in advance that it was “evil”.
A number of years later when I couldn’t sleep one night, I stumbled upon that movie on cable TV and – contemplating the “Test everything” verse – I decided to watch it.
I learned several things that night:
1. The movie was a work of sacred art
2. I found great encouragement spiritually from it
3. Paul’s advice to Timothy was wise
4. Those afraid to follow Paul’s advice are neither strong nor mature
If I insist on avoiding being exposed to things that might cause me to change my views – whether religious, political, relational, whatever – I’m not allowing change and growth in my life. For those who say they follow Jesus and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they’re likely avoiding the very things that God wants to teach them.
When you start with the assumption that you and your tribe are “right” and everyone else is wrong, you close yourself off to the world rather than being like light in the darkness or salt in bland food. You rob yourself and the world by digging a deeper trench and holding your ground. You’re merely confirming your bias instead of being open to truth wherever you find it.
It’s scary, I know. I avoided it for many, many decades. I used to think that people who seriously questioned my beliefs were those of whom Paul also wrote to Timothy about:
“For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear.”
But now I see that it’s all inverted. People who are open to truth wherever they find it are OPEN, not closed. That’s how I am now.
It’s those who insist only hearing what they already agree with who demand teachers to tell them what they want to hear. Yes Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, I mean YOU. You (and I used to be in your company) are the ones who refuse to consider the possibility that you just might be wrong, that scholarship and science and well-reasoned arguments that differ with your thoughts must be boycotted, shouted down, avoided, perhaps even made ILLEGAL.
I remember the fervor when Rob Bell dared to release his book “Love Wins”. Oh my the hatred! Oh the many, many articles (and I read many of them) declaring that what Rob said was wrong, contrary to scripture, contrary to church history, etc.
The only problem is… most of those authors had not read Rob’s book, and when they did they didn’t read to understand his point but instead were just “quote mining” trying to find something nasty to write about him and his book. It was intellectually dishonest.
They also outright LIED about it, claiming Rob wrote things that he did not write. The biggest lie was when they said Rob claimed that there is no Hell. I’ve read the book several times and that is NOT in there. Rob actually, and very artfully, raised many questions without answering them, providing a number of perspectives, and left it to the reader to conclude things for themselves.
It’s also funny that a teaching that is clearly and obviously based on nothing but FEAR and that has been used to manipulate people for centuries could be seen as part of Jesus’ “good news”… because it certainly wasn’t part of the good news he was proclaiming:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
THAT is the good news message of Jesus. Nothing about Hell and fiery torture from a God whose mercies are supposed to “endure forever”. No threats, veiled or otherwise.
Now, if this resonates within you, my encouragement to you is to take Paul’s advice:
“Test everything. Hold on to what is good.”
If you disagree with something or think it’s just crap, simply discard it and move on. THAT is the mature approach. And if instead it makes sense to you, then have the courage and FAITH to figure out how to integrate that into your life in a way that will inspire and bless others. As John wrote:
“There is no fear in love.
But perfect love drives out fear,
because fear has to do with punishment.
The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”
Don’t be afraid – you’ve got this.
Do I “believe the Bible”?
I believe many people interpret things very differently when they read the Bible.
I don’t believe any of them have the “one right understanding. But then… when were we ever asked to believe the Bible anyway?
What I recall – from the Bible itself – is that our faith and trust is to be placed in God. I don’t ever recall Jesus instructing people to believe and assent to human interpretations of scripture. Rather, I recall Jesus saying things like:
- follow me
- love one another – by this shall everyone know you follow me
- preach good news to the poor, sight to the blind, healing to the lame, freedom to prisoners, etc.
- don’t condemn people; trust God with their growth and stop shoving your precious pearls of wisdom on them when they aren’t ready yet
- don’t worry – about the future, about food and clothing, etc – just manifest a society that does God’s will
- don’t be troubled – I’ll send the Holy Spirit (not a book) to guide you into all truth
Do I “believe the Bible”?
I believe Jesus.
His words and actions resonate within me.
His portrayal of what God is like rings true.
He doesn’t reflect an angry God who says “love me or I’ll torture you in fire.” No, this is a God who says “do what you want to me – kill me if you must – but I’ll still love and forgive you.” This is a God who loves and forgives so much he’s willing to sacrifice himself.
So when people use the Bible to propose an angry, Zeus-like thunderbolt thrower of a God, I’ll pass.
When people propose a weak, sociopathic God who “doesn’t want anyone to perish” but “oh well… I guess I can’t get what I want so welcome to Hell”, I’ll pass.
When people propose a God who says we should “forgive 70 times 7 times a day” and then doesn’t have to live up to his own rules… I’ll pass.
When people propose a God who resorts to genocide to get his way – killing men, women, children, and animals – I’ll pass.
The problem isn’t God, nor is it the Bible.
The problem is what the church – very late in church history – has declared the Bible to be (something the early church never claimed): The inerrant words of God clearly communicated once for all time.
And the truth is that no one actually believes that. No one.
What they ACTUALLY believe is that THEIR UNDERSTANDING OF THE BIBLE is inerrant, that THEIR UNDERSTANDING OF GOD is infallible.
This arrogance has led to the creation of tens of thousands of so-called Christian denominations, all who think they are the “most right”.
It’s a distraction that enables them to ignore the life and example and teachings of Jesus so they don’t have to actually follow Jesus to be a “Christian”.
It’s an alternate gospel that merely focuses on getting into Heaven when you die and avoiding an imagined Hell that none of the early church believed in.
It ignores the fact that the early church fathers saw scriptures as the testimonies of HUMANS, not of God, and they considered and appreciated multiple interpretations rather than claiming they had the “only right interpretation”.
It ignores that God “morphs” across the Bible (because peoples’ understanding of God evolved over time, not because God actually changed).
It ignores the serious contradictions in scripture that are easily explained by studying the thought evolution of the authors and the cultural meta-narrative that coincided with it.
It’s worse than a paper pope because everyone who has access to the scriptures can assume THEIR understanding is the one right one. EVERYONE is a pope.
Do I believe the Bible?
Well, I don’t automatically believe that YOUR understanding of it is the most right one.
I’ll go with what the Holy Spirit confirms in my heart, with what resonates within me and makes sense to me. I won’t pretend anymore.
I’ll believe Jesus – both in what I understand he said and what I’ve personally experienced following him because THAT is REAL.
I’ll trust God with my life, my family, my prosperity, my health, my opportunities, with everything.
And I’ll fail. And I’ll try again. And I’ll fail again. And I’ll rise again knowing that God LOVES me, forgives me, roots for me, and sustains me. I’m not afraid of God. Certainly I’m in awe and reverence God, but afraid? “Perfect love casts out fear” wrote John.
Do I believe the Bible?
What kind of question is THAT? It’s a dishonest question and it totally misses the point.
What is the point of worship music?
Does God need to be reminded that he is great, awesome, powerful, etc?
Does God need to hear us remind ourselves that he is great, awesome, powerful, etc?
Does God really inhabit “refrigerator magnet poetry” set to music?
- “Lord, you are worthy…” – tell him something he doesn’t know
- “We praise your name…” – and?
- “We lift you high…” – oh yeah? How?
- “We gather around your throne…” – uh, no you don’t, you’re just co-opting a verse from the Book of Revelation that actually applies to something else
- “Your mercy endures forever” – but we ACTUALLY believe it stops when you die and people get sent to Hell
I could go on and on and on (as many of these songs do).
What’s worse is when someone adds a custom chorus to a public domain hymn so they can earn royalties on it. Yes, I’m talking to you, Chris Tomlin, and others like you.
What’s even worse are the songs that speak of some horrible human experience that God delivered them from… except it never actually happened because it’s written and performed by good church people who grew up in a safe church environment (possibly even Christian school and college) and have never once been in the pit of despair or feeding pigs like the Prodigal son. These lyrics are simply lies that reinforce the illusion of being saved from something that never actually cost the singer anything.
One might reference the passage in Hebrews about offering “the sacrifice of praise, the fruit of our lips”… except sacrifices actually COST something. Sacrifices were a way of making restitution in an agrarian/herding society – “I hurt you badly, here’s a cow – go have a nice barbecue and I’m out a whole cow because that’s how sorry I am.”
So what does it cost anyone to sing songs that are bad re-hashes of scripture and/or lies about their human experience and/or bad poetry and/or theological propositions that the singers don’t even actually believe in when you look closely? And why co-opt the secular music that you condemn as if an inferior version of it is more pleasing to the Lord?
Why sing about God’s never-ending love when you believe in never-ending torment?
Why sing about God’s universal mercy when you don’t actually believe that?
And why sing about God’s goodness to all when you condemn and turn away at-risk foreigners for trying to come to your country seeking asylum from cruelty in their homeland as you seek to retain the wealth that you have?
I think the only things today’s worship music actually proves is this:
- Most people would rather have professionals play cool music at them
- Most people don’t care about quality music
- And most people never really pay attention to the lyrics.
“One thing can lead to another –
it doesn’t take any sacrifice.
Father and mother, sister and brother –
If it feels nice, don’t think twice.”
– James Taylor
“And it’s no sacrifice
Just a simple word
It’s two hearts living
In two separate worlds
But it’s no sacrifice
It’s no sacrifice at all.”
– Bernie Taupin
Perspective. How you see and understand what you see. What facts you allow for and what facts you conveniently ignore or disregard. Everyone has their own perspective. Everyone.
Even in a cultish situation where a charismatic leader attempts to make the thoughts of the group uniform, there still exists an essence of individuality in each member even if their actions have been homogenized.
So in any organization – work, politics, religion, family, whatever – each individual ultimately makes up their own mind regardless of what is dictated to them as the “official viewpoint”. That’s not only our individual right… it’s also our individual responsibility.
Let’s take an example from religion. Many faith communities have a printed statement of what they believe, and leaders who teach accordingly (or usually are asked to leave). Those being taught – whether or not they actually agree deep inside – tend to go along with it all for the sake of unity and harmony. But when one’s actual beliefs conflict too much with the official viewpoint, such dissenters must make difficult decisions.
One technique used to bring dissenters into conformity with the official viewpoint is threat – the threat of being outcast, excluded, shamed, and ridiculed. This is often enough to reign in dissenters. It’s manipulative.
Another technique is to appeal to a higher authority as proof that the teacher is right and the dissenter is patently wrong, ill-informed, and requires additional education, more faith, or is covering up dark secrets. Again, this is clearly a manipulative way to constrain and conform behavior.
When all else fails, the higher authority approach plays the trump card of divinity – that “God Himself said it” and any dissent is an argument with God, not with the teacher. Phrases from a sacred book are quoted as the very voice of God and the dissenter is presented with the manipulative devices of fear and more threats.
When the dissenter questions the validity of the sacred book (or at least of the teacher’s understanding of the sacred book)… that’s when all hell breaks loose. Because at that point the teacher and the techniques the teacher uses have been exposed. The teacher has lost control of the dissenter and will either desperately try to reign in the dissenter with strong threats, force, arguments filled with logical fallacies… or the teacher will strongly condemn the dissenter, often with presumptuous accusations, derogatory labels, and insults.
Everyone makes up their own mind. Everyone. Nobody in any faith community, place of employment, political party, etc. thinks exactly the same way. Everyone ultimately believes what makes sense to them, what resonates deeply within them. There is a kind of knowing that is deeper than a logical construct. Manipulative teachers hate that kind of knowing because they cannot control it. And, in truth, neither can the dissenter – this heart knowledge is something that can’t be reasoned away or reasoned into – it just is. You might call it that person’s “individual, personal truth”. It’s not created, it simply exists. Dissenters just happen to listen to it.
I know for a fact that actual human beings (and primarily if not entirely males) penned the collection of writings known as the Bible. The more I read and process it, the more I see the beautiful, messy humanity in it. The more I see the evolving perspectives of people grasping at the divine in their times and places, informed by their cultural stories. I see some paint harsh, angry pictures of a Creator, while others declare the Creator’s love, mercy, compassion, and understanding of our human frailty.
Some teachers take a passing poetic statement about the scriptures being inspired (literally “God-breathed”) and latch onto it as their power tool of divine authority. They assume that inspired means certain things that work in their favor as they attempt to control dissenters with their higher authority. They will forcefully teach that this inspiration implies a kind of divine perfection without error, and that the teacher is the one that has the correct understanding of what God meant. WOW! What a power play!
There is another time earlier in the scriptures where God is said to have breathed… into dust… and a man came alive for the first time. And this man was far from perfect… he made bad choices and tried to cover it up. Whether this story is legend or not, we can at least see that God’s breath doesn’t imply perfection… though it might imply life.
But we also have to consider that inspiration – “God breathing” – is something that Greek mythology was talking about regarding The Muse long before Paul wrote his letter to Timothy and used that term in passing as he was actually telling Timothy that reading the scriptures are profitable for many reasons (he lists four). Paul’s point wasn’t inspiration, it was that there’s a lot we can learn by reading the scriptures. And there is.. when we read them for what they actually are and not what some teacher manipulatively wants to cast them as.
Maybe this discussion resonates deeply within you. Maybe you (like me) have been emotionally abused by controlling individuals who wanted to silence your heart and overrule your mind for their purposes. Maybe you (like me) have been one of those controlling, manipulative people. Maybe you still are.
If so, I’d suggest it’s time to start listening to your heart, to that inner voice that you can’t really turn off and never really turned on in the first place. Be honest with what really resonates within you. Be honest with what aggravates or repulses you deep within. May you refuse to let controllers control you. May you refuse to let manipulators manipulate you. May you learn to own your own, unique perspective and never apologize for it.