Beyond Justifying: How To Read the Bible For All It's Worth

Sunday, July 17, 2016

There are two basic ways we can approach living out the teachings of Jesus and our own spiritual and moral growth and development. One is by seeking to justify the morals we have now, and the other is by seeking to grow deeper. While you can probably guess that I’m going to advocate for the second, the first approach of “justifying” is far more common among evangelicals – and that’s true for both conservatives and progressives.

A common example of this “justifying” approach can be seen in how many Christians seek to deal with parts of Scripture that they find problematic. Let’s say for example you read somewhere in Paul’s writings something like “women should shut up because men are better” (or something that sounds like that to you anyway), and you think “what the hey!?” The justifying approach will look for a way to justify your not following this. For example you might say “many scholars believe that Paul did not actually write this book, so therefore I can ignore it.”

Or to take another example you might read Jesus saying something that sounds to you like “Do not protect or defend yourself or your loved ones when they are hurt by someone. Blessed are those who passively tolerate injustice” (again, I’m expressing more how the verse feels, rather than what it actually says). Again, the approach of justifying might seek to say something like “When Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek he was not referring to personal self-defense” or if seeking to defend the military one might say the opposite “When Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek he was only referring to personal self-defense, not to the state.”

This is not to say that the justifying approach is incorrect. It may very well be that Paul did not write such-and-such book, and it may be quite true that Jesus was not specifically referring to the particular situation we have in mind today – indeed literally everything you read in the Bible was said to a different people in a different situation in a different time in a different language. However, the goal we have with the Bible is to ask “How can I apply this to my life?” and more specifically “How can I apply the way and teachings of Jesus to my life?” That’s kind of the whole point of following Jesus. That’s pretty much the main reason we bother to read the Bible at all. The approach of justifying, however, instead seeks to do the opposite of that. It seeks to find ways to justify not applying it. That’s why as a general approach I think it not a good one, or at least I think there is another approach that is much better.

I also want to stress that I am not saying that the justifying approach is illegitimate. If you as a woman don’t want to be quiet and submit, I can totally relate. I also relate to wanting to defend myself and those I love. To take it even further, I can certainly understand why a person who is attacked could respond with violence. I feel the moral drive as a parent to defend your family. I think one can legitimately claim that it is justifiable, in certain circumstances, to use violence in order to protect. We can make similar arguments with many things – for example we can say it is justifiable to get a divorce in certain circumstances.

The point is not to deny that it is legitimate to see this as justifiable. But what I want to do is ask if we can go beyond this, if we can do something better. I’d like to sketch out what that might look like.

First of all I begin with a simple rule of thumb: If the way I am interpreting the Bible seems wrong and bad and hurtful to you, then I stop right there. Don’t do something that you feel is hurtful. That means that in the above examples where you hesitate because it seems wrong to not to defend yourself, that’s a good instinct. Pay attention to that. Your life matters. Injustice is not okay. That is perhaps not where we will end, but it is certainly where we need to start.

The next step is to entertain the possibility that if it seems to me that Jesus is saying something that seems foolish, naive or even bad, that just maybe it is not the case that Jesus is naive and dumb and wrong, and quite possible that actually he is saying something that is morally over my head. So I need to seek to get to the place of actually understanding how I could take what Jesus is saying and apply it to my situation in a way that leads to moral transformation. That is, in a way that takes me out of the typical loop I get stuck in, and brings me out of that, above it. In other words, I need to appreciate how Jesus is showing me a better way, and really get how that could work in my life. If we can begin to ask this question as we immerse ourselves in the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament, if we can have this question on our lips as we open our hearts to listen to the leadings of the indwelling Holy Spirit, then we open up a whole world of possibilities to walk in the way of reconciliation and peacemaking that Jesus embodied and calls us to as his followers.

Conversely, when our only response to Jesus is to seek to justify our hurtful actions, to say “Yes, but what about...” (fill in the blank with whatever horror scenario gets you emotionally triggered, so your amygdala is flooded, and all rational conversation is completely shut down). When we do that, we close the door to finding any other possibility besides the one where we justify hurting someone else. That results in moral stagnation. It means we close the door to learning another way. We close the door to doing better, to growing morally, to making our world more into the kind of place that Jesus prayed for “your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”

So how can we move towards doing that? The first step is to get past seeking to justify not doing it. Rather than continually rehearsing all the emotionally upsetting scenarios where we think we are justified in being violent, rather than continually asking “but what about...?” what if we instead spent our energy trying to figure out how we could apply the way of Jesus in our own live contexts and situations? When groups like the Mennonites have attempted to do that, they have come up with really groundbreaking, society-transforming ideas like restorative justice. That’s exciting, and I want to be doing that. I want to be morally innovating and creating, rather than spending my time seeking to justify why I am not.

I think I get to say that. After all, I’m the guy who wrote a book on how it’s okay to “pick and choose” what parts of the Bible will shape and guide us morally, and which parts do not. So one could think that I would be all for the justifying approach. After all, I am, to an extent, providing a justification for not following certain teachings which we determine are hurtful (or at a minimum, certain interpretations of those teachings). Again, those justifications are legitimate. They are a good place to start, but a bad place to stop. So I maintain that we must go beyond this. In fact, the only reason I still read the Bible is in the hopes of going beyond this. I read in the hope that I can connect with the Spirit who will lead me into a deeper understanding of the way of Jesus that can transform me and my world.

That’s the attitude, and it’s a critical starting position. But let’s get to the practical. What does it look like? On a very simple level it begins by simply asking “How can we do better?” and “What are ways to reach the goal we have without harming anyone?” or at a minimum “How can we work to reduce harm?” Yes, we can justify divorce for instance. But is there a way to save the marriage, restore the relationship, and keep the family together? If there is, shouldn’t we seek to do the hard work to get there? Yes, we can justify violence used in self-defense, but if there is a way to resolve conflict peacefully, shouldn’t we seek to learn how to do that? If there was a way to reduce the amount of deaths due to guns in our country – whether from suicides, mass shootings, gang violence, or police shooting unarmed people of color – shouldn’t we seek to do everything we can to learn how to do that?

Yet so often, rather than working together to do that, what we find are people who feel the need to instead justify keeping things the way they are, and as a result actively block others from working to make it better. What I want to state is that this is not a good way to “defend” morality because it ends up in stagnation and status quo, and prevents growth and development and healing. We need to go beyond justifying things, and instead learn how to seek to make things better. That is where Jesus was trying to take us when he said all of his “I know it says... but I say to you” and “don’t even the unbelievers already do that?” statements. He wanted us to go beyond status quo religious morality, and “be perfect” which in Hebrew means to take something to completion.

Why is it that we gravitate towards seeking to justify, rather than seeking to improve and go deeper? A big factor is the feeling that we need to defend ourselves from blame. Every child does it. You could almost say it comes hardwired into us. “He started it!” we learn to say. Yes, I absolutely am implying that justifying is an immature response because it absolutely is. I’m guilty of it, too. We all are. But I don’t want to justify that (see what I did there?). I want to instead seek to follow Jesus, who calls us instead to the way of repentance and humility, rather than the way of justifying ourselves. That’s just Gospel 101, people. Moreover, Jesus calls us to be at the forefront of working to bring about peace in our world, to be ambassadors of reconciliation, to demonstrate the same kind of love Jesus did. That’s our calling, our mission.

I think that’s an exciting possibility, to be in the place of moral innovation, to be active in pushing ourselves and our world towards being more humane, more loving, more like Jesus. I also think it opens all sorts of doors into really encountering the divine in the Bible, allowing us to read in a way that deepens and challenges us. I hope you find that as exciting as I do, and will join me in going beyond justifying ourselves. Let’s stop asking if there is a way for us to justify not applying the way of Jesus to our lives, and instead seek to find how we can. Jesus tells us that way is life. Let’s not rest until we understand why that is true.

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At 8:27 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Yes, I keep hearing people — mature, intelligent, well meaning people — justify their narrow minded, tribal ideologies by pointing to the narrow minded tribal ideologies of their "enemy." And I have to say it over and over, "Ok, that may be true, but you... You still have a choice, and there's a higher calling for you, and me."

At 1:14 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Be kind whenever possible, with God, it is always possible.
Thanks for this Derek.

At 8:05 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes kindness needs to be the baseline of how we read and how we live!

At 8:08 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Yes, totally. The irony of course is that the response you are observing in these mature people is one that is common for every child. It's the "but he started it!" argument. It's just hard for a person to see that in themselves, I guess.

At 10:39 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I wonder if the current environment in the public square might be pulling everyone down a notch or two below their best selves.

At 11:24 AM, Blogger Jonathan said...


I have been reading your blog now for a few years and am very grateful for the time you put into it and learning from your perspective. I was raised in a loving conservative evangelical family and even went off to bible college after highschool hoping to become a pastor or missionary. I have been wrestling with a lot of the theology I grew up with thinking it was the only correct way to view Jesus and "the Bible". I put that in parenthesis because I now think it is more accurate and reflective of my view to refer to them as "the scriptures". Anyways, have your written before about Jesus and first century church's beliefs and writings on the second coming of Christ? Both Jesus and his followers seemed to believe his return and the last days were imminent. Yet here we are 2,000 yrs later and no Jesus in the flesh or end of the world. Was Jesus wrong? Is our record of what he taught wrong? If I am honest I can see how people can dismiss Jesus as an end times prophet anticipating a soon coming final judgement that has not come soon. Growing up shaped by Pentecostal emphasis on the second coming I have heard many explanations of this that just seem to ignore the simple conclusion that Jesus was wrong. And if so, was he in fact divine like no other? And if he was wrong should I treat his teachings as authoritative? Can you point me to any resources on these questions?

At 2:18 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

That's a deep and involved question, so I wrote a two part blog post about it:

At 2:19 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

"I wonder if the current environment in the public square might be pulling everyone down a notch or two below their best selves."

haha, I think that is what they call the art of the understatement!


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