Growing up under fundamentalism, I spent a lot of time defending the Bible. After all, I loved the Bible–Old and New Testament. Still do. It has been my life manual, my source of wisdom, and (most recently) a divine source of comfort. Nothing else quite sets my heart at peace like reading and meditating upon the scriptures.
Unfortunately, I was taught to read the scriptures only one way–according to the narrow doctrine of my church. In that view, the Bible had only one message, and that message was crystal clear to everyone who wasn’t blinded, in some way, by the world and its sinful liberalism. According to my church, the Bible contained absolutely nothing contradictory; it all lined up perfectly from beginning to end and could be explained in absolute terms.
So imagine my shock when people outside my faith tradition began pointing out ideas and messages in the Bible that actually were contradictory. Imagine further my surprise when I began discovering some of these conflicts on my own. For instance:
Frustration is better than laughter,
because a sad face is good for the heart. (Ecclesiastes 7:3)
A happy heart makes the face cheerful,
but heartache crushes the spirit. (Proverbs 15:13)
And this was a relatively minor infraction compared to Paul’s writings about women or some of the prophecies pertaining to Jesus. What was happening with my beloved book, here? If this was the divine Word of God, how could these conflicts exist? And how could I be certain of the truth if the truth wasn’t clear and absolute?
These are questions that, I believe, most people of faith struggle with at some point, especially those leaving fundamentalism. And make no mistake: they are big, critical, unsettling questions. But I believe I’ve found a way of looking at the Bible that allows me to live in peace with the contradictions and still view it as something meaningful, sacred, and divinely inspired.
See, I think the Bible’s multifaceted nature reflects the multidimensional character of God. As I posited in a previous blog post, we are 3D; He is 4D. Scripture even suggests as much. Ezekiel 1 describes God’s spirit manifested in four faces: those of an eagle, lion, ox and man. And then scripture goes on reminding us that we’ll always fall short of comprehending Him: His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. He has numbered our hairs and our days. He feeds the sparrows and clothes the lilies. He laid the foundations of the world, spoke the sun into existence and stuffed the snow into storehouses. He can make a donkey rebuke a prophet and cause the rocks to cry out in worship. God is the ultimate prodigy in a classroom full of noobs. Is it any wonder, then, that His textbook–penned secondhand by the noobs, no less–might be difficult to grasp at times?
But I believe it’s this multifaceted aspect of scripture that actually reveals who God is…and who we are by comparison. The contradictions keep us seeking, and the seeking keeps us humble. It makes us realize that, in spite of all our knowledge, we cannot know it all without Him. If the Bible really were complete and crystal clear and lined up perfectly from beginning to end, our egos couldn’t handle it. We’d have no need to walk the path of divine relationship with our Creator. Our knowledge would be complete, and we would devise a system around that knowledge in which we could be righteous in and by ourselves. Heck, we do that now with incomplete knowledge!
Also, I’ve discovered that, due to the nature of life, what seems like a contradiction today may not be one tomorrow. Take the two verses I quoted above: Ecclesiastes 7:3 and Proverbs 15:13. They seem to contradict, but I have found them both to be true. At times, a sad face has been good for my heart. You can’t experience the heights of joy without, at some point, knowing the depths of pain. But I’ve also felt brokenheartedness so intense that my spirit was literally crushed, and it’s not anything I could call healthy.
The problem with the one-way fundamentalist view of the Bible is that it robbed me from experiencing this full life-giving breadth of scripture. Everything in my fundamentalist world was black and white. Situations (such as abject poverty, mental illness, rape, child abuse, spiritual turmoil and racial discrimination) that fell outside of these rigid structures was shamed or ignored. Because I was taught to read the Bible in only one way, there seemed to be no good answers or comfort in the face of life’s most horrific tragedies. But now that I’m open to the contradictions, now that I’m seeing the Bible in a new way, it has become a fresh source of strength when the world is wreaking its worst. It is metaphor, history, letters and poetry coming together to reveal the Person of God and His compassion for mankind; for men, women and children; for Jews, Romans and Greeks; exhortations for the faithful, warnings for the wicked; scriptures for happy times and for sad–a little something for everyone.
It’s beautiful. Confusing at times, yes. Maddening, absolutely. But beautiful in its own right. And necessary. Contradictions and all. I love it.
April. In those last two paragraphs, you described something that is alive.
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Since the bible is inspired by God (God-breathed), it is Truth. God cannot lie or contradict Himself. Perhaps when we read something that looks contradictory in our “3D” eyes, with our failed human nature, with our limited experience, it is our own misunderstanding of what the text means. Also, some words or concepts don’t translate perfectly from Hebrew and Greek into English. God is “4D”, as you say, and surely we cannot understand everything about Him or His Word. His ways are called mysterious. If we could completely understand everything about Him, He wouldn’t be much of a god.