Have we outgrown the Bible?

Sunday, November 23, 2014

I know a lot of Christians who say that the Bible has become boring to them. They've read it a zillion times. The lessons seem so familiar that they are self-evident at best, and frankly a lot of them can seem kinda regressive. Have they outgrown the Bible?

There was a time when the Bible was amazing. They drank up every word, and marked each page with rainbows of highlighter colors. The words were alive. But now it just seems as dry as a stick. What's wrong?

I'd like to propose that what they have outgrown is not the Bible, but rather a particular phase of moral development. They have outgrown the childhood stage which is focused on learning rules. There is also the teenager phase when we rebel against all those rule, but what I really want to talk about is the adult stage of moral development which I think is where many of us find ourselves.

When you are in the adult stage you recognize that the rule-focused stage is childish and overly simplistic. If you only know how to read the Bible like that, then the Bible will seem childish too. Fact is, most of us learn in church how to read the Bible in exactly this childish way. We learn to find what the "right" reading of Scripture is. There are a whole lot of people with PhDs who only read the Bible like that. There are a whole lot of pastors who teach that every Sunday.

That is, however, not what I see Jesus doing when he reads the Bible. Instead I see him questioning things. I see him innovating and creating. I see him constantly pushing people to think about things differently, pulling the rug out from under them. If we want to learn how to do that too, we need to learn how to be creative, how to innovate, not just how to memorize the rules. You might begin as a musician copying the notes from someone else's song, but really the goal is to make your own music. The same is true with following Jesus.

That is where the Bible, and in particular the way of Jesus, is supposed to take us. That means that Just as Jesus read an eye for an eye and said "hey that's pretty good I guess, but I have an even better idea..." we need to also catch the spirit of Jesus and be able to say our own "It has been said, but I say to you" statements where we blow the old religious ways of thinking out of the water with way better ones. Just as Jesus spoke to the cultural issues of his time, we need to have our own things to say to the problems of our day as well.

That's not moving away from Jesus, rather it is moving forward in the way he wants us to go. That's what we need to be trying to do. We will of course make mistakes along the way (as adults I hope we all know this by now), but that does not mean we should stop walking.
 There will of course always be those who are at an earlier stage of moral development who will freak out about this, and all I can say here is don't let those people drag you down and keep you from moving further along in the way.

To me that way of creative innovation sounds really exciting. It means we can be at the forefront of moral innovation in the world, breaking new ground. If we can read the Bible like that, like we see Jesus doing, then it becomes a totally different book. It becomes a source for creative moral innovation. It becomes a launchpad, rather than something that tethers us down.

The trouble I think is that we have learned to read the Bible in a way that works well when you are a moral-kindergartner, but that does not work as a moral-grownup. If we go to a church that is stuck there, then all we hear is that same kindergarten-morality message over and over, Sunday after Sunday, like Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day. If that's the case, then I have to say I don't blame people who leave church, if it is keeping them stuck, not challenging them to grow, to move forward in the way.

But it doesn't have to be like that folks. Christianity does not need to be stagnant and stuck. Following Jesus should be a revolution.



Part 2: Why Love the sinner hate the sin doesn't work

Thursday, October 30, 2014

This is a follow-up to my previous post Why Love the Sinner Hate the Sin doesn't work. In the comment section for that post Matthew writes this,

"I think you make some good points here about how we use the phrase 'love the sinner, hate the sin' and how it can become a destructive political statement. The concern with reputation was something Jesus hammered the Pharisees on more than once. 'Love the sinner, hate the sin' becomes a sort of a misnomer when used in this way--are we really loving someone by judging them as 'other' and 'inferior' simply because they sin differently then we do?

However, there's another sense of the phrase that I would add here, related to the first version you mentioned. That is, when the phrase is used about someone who is suffering under their *own* sin. In this sense, 'hate the sin' is not a balance for 'love the sinner', but rather a natural consequence of 'love the sinner.' For example, with an alcoholic, I should love the person and desire his well-being. Because I desire his well-being, I hate the addiction that he is a slave to. Not because it's theoretically 'wrong' or 'sinful', but because it is damaging. I desire to see him free from this addiction."
Now let me first clarify that I am not proposing that we should love sin. In the example of an alcoholic that Matthew mentions, let's begin by all agreeing that alcoholism is a serious problem that can devastate a person's life. I don't "love" alcoholism or addiction. I don't love hurt.

The problem is that even though this seems pretty obvious, when we actually tell someone that what they are doing is wrong or damaging, what often happens is that they deny it. We might tell someone "Hey you have a problem with drinking" and instead of saying "Yes I know, how can I get help?" they will instead say "No I don't! I'm just having fun, and who are you to tell me how to live my life!"

Here's the crazy thing: They probably know they have a problem. So why then are they denying it? What's going on?

The big reason that "love the sinner, hate the sin" does not work is that it is virtually impossible for us to separate our actions from ourselves.  So when someone criticizes what you do, you feel personally attacked. That's just human nature. If I said to my wife, "Honey I love you, I just think your cooking sucks" that would not go well at all. If you tell a kid "good job" they beam with pride. We connect what we do with our worth. We all do.

That's the reason people get defensive. They feel that they are being rejected as a person. So when they say "I don't have a problem, and who cares anyway!" what's going on underneath that is the fear of being devalued as a person. It's about rejection. That makes us get defensive and put up walls.

So when a person thinks their therapist or pastor disapproves of their drinking (to stick with that example), they will try to hide or minimize the problem in order to gain their approval. The sin does not stop, it just gets pushed into the dark in order to maintain the human connection.

But what would happen if a person instead got the message that our love was unconditional? What happens when they understand that we will not reject them, not turn them away, no matter how messed up they turn out to be? What would happen if you knew someone would stand by you, even if they knew about all the dark and messed up parts of your life? 

That's liberating.

Being loved unconditionally like that allows people to open up. It allows them to put down their guard and be vulnerable, to admit their real struggles and wounds. It allows people to bring their problems into the light, rather than hide them and pretend everything is fine.

That's why I say that "love the sinner, hate the sin" does not work. It does not work because it results in pushing the person away and causing them to cover up their sin rather than facing it. What we need to instead communicate is love the sinner, despite the sin. Because the only way we can face our sin is when we face it with love. That's how you need to face your demons, and that's how I need to face mine. 

So if our desire is for the good of others, if we really want to see people healthy and whole, I want to have you try this experiment: Don't tell them about their faults and failings at all. Instead go out of your way to communicate unconditional love to people.

What you will find when you do this is that people will come to you and tell you about their struggles on their own, they will open up their hearts because they feel safe. See, we all have things in our lives that we struggle with. We all have dark parts, wounded parts. We might look fine on the outside, but there are all sorts of hurts that are going on behind closed doors. The question is how do we get people to open their door? Unconditional love is the key.

Try it, it really works.

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Does the Bible Teach Love or Hate? Peace or Violence?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

In discussing my new book on violence in the Bible, which focuses on reading the Bible from the perspective of peace and love, I often hear this objection,

"But doesn't the Bible speak of God's wrath?"


"But doesn't Jesus use fear and threat to motivate people?"


"What about this verse here [fill in the blank] that seems to promote violence"

All of these questions are asked by people who want to believe in compassion, who see the moral problems with fear and threat as moral motivators,
Read more »



Why Love the Sinner Hate the Sin doesn't work

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Love the sinner, hate the sin. I'm sure you have heard the phrase a million times. Some attribute it to Augustine. Those who use it view it as a generous position to take. But many "sinners" are protesting and saying that they find it unhelpful and even arrogant. So maybe it's time to take a look at love the sinner, hate the sin.

The first thing we need to consider is the context: Who are we addressing when we say this? The way we answer that question makes a huge difference.
If we are speaking to people who feel wronged, wounded, hurt, by others--addressing people who are struggling with loving and forgiving those who have deeply hurt them--then "love the sinner, hate the sin" can be a powerful push towards recognizing the humanity in another and thus taking a step towards looking to mend the relationship. In this context "love the sinner, hate the sin" is about recognizing the humanity of the other. It moves the one who hates to instead learn to love in the face of hurt with the hope that love can act to mend the wrong.

However, much of the time when people say "love the sinner, hate the sin" the focus is not on helping another move away from hate and towards compassion, but rather it is more of a political statement, a way of saying publicly "I'm a compassionate guy, but let me make clear that I don't approve of this!" It's motivated by concern for our own good reputation--not wanting to be associated with those of questionable morals.

This is a focus that is primarily concerned with self-protection, with preserving one's own good name, as opposed to a focus on the needs of the one who is accused and condemned. This is the focus of PR firms,  advertising companies, and those concerned with the "bottom line" of public image and money.

It is decidedly not the focus of Jesus who had a reputation of being a "friend of sinners" (not a compliment) and was because of that association judged by the religious people of his day as a sinner himself. Hear me when I say this:

Jesus didn't give a damn about his reputation in their eyes.

What he cared about were those in need--the poor, the disenfranchised, the neglected, the condemned, the forgotten. That's who we should care about, too, if we truly care about the things Jesus did.

This brings me to the third focus of "love the sinner, hate the sin" which is when it is addressed to the sinner. This is where the phrase becomes especially unhelpful. In this context it sounds arrogant, patronizing. This is because people recognize that the real focus is not on them and their welfare, but on making a public statement to protect the speaker's reputation. People recognize that the statement is self-focused and that the professed care for them is disingenuous.

If our desire is truly focused on helping people move away from hurtful behavior then we need to realize that saying "love the sinner, hate the sin" simply does not lead to change in a person's life. In fact, it acts to push them in the opposite direction. Let me explain why:

When someone tells you what you are doing is wrong, your natural reaction is to become defensive. This is about self-preservation, and we all do it. What we need to instead communicate to a person is that we care about them, that we value them. When people feel safe--that is, when they know they are unconditionally accepted--this safety creates the possibility for vulnerability and reflection and openness.

Now, we may think that having a non-judgmental environment would be promoting sin, but actually the opposite is the case: When a person feels shame, they tend to hide the behavior. Defensive walls go up, things are covered up. If you want to see change, then what is needed is honesty and reflection--in other words, an atmosphere where things can be brought into the light, rather than hidden in the dark--and that requires a non-judgmental environment where a person feels secure and accepted.

That unconditional acceptance, rather than promoting sin, creates the setting where people can actually be real, where they can face the dark and broken places we all have. In that place we can own up to our weaknesses, to the parts of ourselves we are ashamed of and hide from.

That's beautiful when that happens, but I need to add a word of caution here: Be careful who you open your heart to. If we are vulnerable like that in a place where we are not in fact secure--where the love and acceptance is conditional--then that vulnerability can be dangerous, leading to condemnation and rejection. That of course can deeply wound us.

Behind that condemnation and rejection is fear, wrapping itself in a religious mantle. The Bible says that "love casts out fear" but the reverse is equally true: Fear casts out love. Many Christians are sadly driven by fear instead of love. They do not stay with God in response to love, but because they fear punishment. Take away the threat, and they will leave. Because they never really loved.

Love works. Love leads us to repentance. Love moves us towards healing and wholeness. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love always protects, always trusts, always perseveres.  Love never fails.

So I hope you stay because of love. I hope you can find a place where you are loved unconditionally and experience how that makes you come alive. I hope you find a place you can really be real, where you can admit your struggles and failures and hurts, and hear those two powerful words: Me too.

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