The blessing of certainty

Some years ago I caught part of a TV program involving a group of people from several different denominations discussing tolerance. How the conversation progressed was quite interesting. In the part that I saw, they were at first discussing how intolerance can lead to persecution of those who believe differently. Then someone remarked that even the term “tolerance” smacked of arrogance — that one group is right but they are going to tolerate, or allow for other groups. Someone else remarked that in order to tolerate others you must have a seed of doubt that your beliefs are right, that there is a possibility that you could be wrong and other belief systems could be right. The last sentence I heard before turning the TV off was, “There is no room for certainty.”

I couldn’t disagree more.

I do believe in tolerance. The first Dictionary.com definition is “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward those whose opinions, practices, race, religion, nationality, etc., differ from one’s own; freedom from bigotry.” I don’t believe “a fair, objective, and permissive attitude” smacks of arrogance: just the opposite. Nor does it indicate doubt of one’s own beliefs.

And I do agree that intolerance has led to persecution and should not have. New Testament Christians, especially, are not told anywhere to persecute in any way those whose beliefs differ from ours.We believe that those of other beliefs have every right to exist and practice their beliefs. We’re to love, both our neighbors and our enemies. We’re instructed to share God’s truth, but if people don’t believe, we leave them to the Lord and hope and pray they have a change of heart. We don’t persecute them.

But what I disagreed with most was that last line about there being no room for certainty. I don’t believe that faith is a nebulous thing, that as long as you have faith in something you’re fine, that all religions are basically the same and lead to the same place. You don’t have to examine them very long to realize they don’t have all the same values and ends.

Our postmodern world wants to move away from absolute truth. “The questions are more important than the answers,” we’re told. Even people who call themselves Christians chip away at doctrinal truth.

It’s true there are mysteries to life and faith. We spend way too much time arguing over things that are unclear rather than living out what is clear.I often hear people say, “We’ll never understand until we get to heaven.” Surely we’ll understand much more than we do now, but I don’t see any guarantees in the Bible that even then we’ll understand everything. God’s mind and ways and thoughts will still be much greater than ours. But our trust will be perfect then.

Yet there is plenty in the Bible that is clear. God communicates specific truth to us. And sure, there are things we don’t understand, things we gain insight on from talking with and reading others, things we wrestle with, things that are hard to come to terms with. Most of us wrestle with a measure of doubt at times and carry around a list of unanswered questions. There are things we wish were more clear.

But reading and hearing the Bible taught shouldn’t lead us into more and more of a morass of uncertainty. There are plenty of bedrock truths to hold onto.

There is a God.

He made everything, including us.

He gave us His Word.

He is righteous, holy, and just, and we have sinned against Him.

He is merciful, kind, gracious, and loving and has provided salvation for those who will believe in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who lived a sinless life, died on the cross for our sins, and rose bodily from the dead.

There is a literal heaven and a literal hell.

There are clear and definite sins.

Faith is too important an issue to leave up to uncertainty. God doesn’t leave us in a philosophical fog on the most important issues.

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. John 20:30-31, ESV

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. I John 5:13, ESV

For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount. We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. 2 Peter 1:16-21, KJV

 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.Hebrew 6:17-20, ESV

That doesn’t mean I feel I have all the answers to every little philosophical question or that I know how everything always works together. But I have a firm foundation, a “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”

See also:

Why Study Doctrine?
What Do You Know?
The Foundation of Our Faith.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Inspire Me Monday, Glimpses, Faith on Fire, Tell His Story, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Coffee For Your Heart, Porch Stories, Wise Woman)

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I found a lot of good reads the last week or so:

On Blind Faith and God.

Why You Desperately Need the Holy Spirit , HT to Challies.

The Power of De-Conversion Stories: How Jen Hatmaker is Trying to Change Minds About the Bible, HT to Challies.

Who Is the God of Mormonism?, HT to Challies.“One thing you’ll discover as you’re talking with your Mormon (LDS) friends is that though we use the same terms, we often mean very different things. Mormons have different definitions of Gospel, repentance, salvation, grace, Hell, and nearly every term you’ll be using in your conversation.”

5 Things That People Who Are Dying Want You to Know, by Kerry Egan, HT to Lisa.

How to Choose Worship Songs. Yes, to all the points mentioned here.

My Son, Withhold Judgment, HT to Challies.There are some times we need to act quickly; there are other times to realize we don’t know all the facts and need to wait.

How Do I Fight Pride When Competing in School, Business, and Sports? HT to True Woman.  “If we are better in some subject than someone else, God made us better. And his reasons for doing so are not pride and boasting and elitism. His reason for doing so is that we might use our competencies for the good of others.”

If God Doesn’t Heal You, HT to True Woman. “Although God can heal us, we must never presume that he must.”

The Why of Encouragement.

Why Do I Believe in Credobaptism, HT to Challies.

Why Young Christians Need Old Books, HT to True Woman.

In Defense of Evangelicals Who Support Trump, HT to Proclaim and Defend. Interesting, whichever side you’re on. Not written by an evangelical but by a Jew who acknowledges that “It is usually easier for an outsider to defend a person or a group that is attacked than for the person or group.” As he also says, “Character is a complex issue.” I’m not willing to say it’s not a factor at all – far from it, and I don’t think he’s saying that, either – but it’s true that some people with awful personal lives can be good leaders. But if we acknowledge that on one side of the ballot, we need to concede it for the other as well.

Growing Old Graciously, HT to Challies.”I don’t know everything, but what I do know, I can share.”

The Benefits of Listening to the Elderly, HT to Challies. “Why might the Lord, in his grace, cause the aged to repeat themselves as they do? What is the Lord showing us through it? Rather than rolling our eyes or thinking ‘Here goes Grandma again,’ what can be gained from these times?”

When I Give a Book.

On Writing Books and Getting Published, HT to Challies.

The Incredible “Mehness” Of Social Media, HT to Challies. An aspect we don’t often think of. Even if much of what we do there is harmless or even interesting, how does that impact our everyday lives and responsibilities? Do those things impact those with whom we have to do or take our attention away from them?

Ideas For Things to Do On a Snow Day, HT to Story Warren.

And in the “Seriously?” category: There’s a Reason using a Period In a Text Makes You Sound Angry, HT to Lisa. I never knew this was an issue – and it shouldn’t be. A period is just the end of a sentence, not the end of a conversation or an indicator of anger, disinterest, or insincerity.

Hope you have a fine Saturday!

(Links do not imply 100% endorsement.)

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Here are a few thought-provoking posts discovered recently.

Heart Check: 4 Questions to Gauge the Stage of Your Heart.

My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness. Interview with Rachel Denhollander.

Most of Life Is Waiting. “I feared my circumstances more than I feared God. I had lost sight of the reality that both trials and triumphs are part of the good story God is writing through me.”

On Threats From a Hostile Culture.

Don’t Hold Loved Ones Back From God.

The Simple Beauty of Wisdom. The ladies at Do Not Depart have been studying through Proverbs in January and end with the last two chapters. I thought the comments about the “virtuous woman” in particular were very practical and encouraging.

What Do We Do With the King James Version?

Enneagram: The Road Back to You, Or to Somewhere Else?, HT to Challies.

How the Mom Internet Became a Spotless, Sponsored Void, HT to Challies. I don’t think it’s totally dead, and I think there is a place for both the “raw” and the “pretty” types of mom blogs, but this makes some insightful observations.

Physician to Parents: You’re Doing It Wrong. The title is a little off-putting, but he has some practical advice here.

Why You Can’t Measure the Value of Homemaking, HT to Challies.

Don’t Stop Coming.

Happy Saturday!

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Here are recent reads that have captivated my attention:

Love Like Birch Trees.

How to Sit at the Table With Those Who Hurt and Offend You, HT to Linda. “Extending love to someone who offended you does not mean you’re accepting such treatment – it means you realize you cannot thrive in a place of anger and resentment.”

What to Say Instead of “I Know How You Feel” to Someone Who Is Struggling, HT to Linda. Sharing our similar experience in an effort to let someone know they’re not alone often just draws attention to ourselves and makes the other person feel unheard. This gives a helpful distinctive.

When Our Heroes Don’t Live Up to Their Theology, HT to Challies. How do we think about spiritual giants who were blind to the wrongness of slavery.

Helping Your Daughter by Being Her Emotional Coach, HT to Story Warren.

You Can’t Have Ethics Without Stories, HT to Story Warren.. “We often forget what the Bible actually is. If not a dictionary or an encyclopedia, what is it? The Bible is, among other things, he writes, ‘a faith-forming narrative.’”

Why Children’s Books Should be a Little Sad, HT to Story Warren.

How DNA Testing Botched My Family’s Heritage, and Probably Yours, too, HT to Challies.

And finally, this dog has a dedicated owner:

Happy Saturday!

(Links do not imply complete endorsement of sites or authors.)

What do you know?

I recently read about a young woman’s experience running into a beloved Sunday School teacher she’d had as a child. As her heart swelled with fondness and gratitude for this woman’s ministry in her life, she opined that it’s the relationships, not the instruction that matters.

While I rejoiced in the relationship this woman had with her teacher and the way it inspired her to teach her own students, I was saddened that she downplayed the lessons. Religious instruction matters very much. The epistles are replete with warnings about wrong doctrine and correction thereof. Yet relationships are important, too. They help flesh out the truth and get it from the head to the heart.

I’ve heard the acquiring of Biblical knowledge downplayed because “Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth,” according to I Corinthians 8:1.  That’s an example of ripping a verse out of its context and not couching it in the overall setting of the whole Bible. Yes, the Bible warns us against becoming proud of our knowledge, but it doesn’t discourage us from gaining knowledge.

Creation reveals knowledge of God’s existence, wisdom and ways. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” Psalm 19:1-2.

God was angry with Job’s friends because they had not spoken what was right about Him.

God asked Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?

Job was comforted by the truth of knowing that his “Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.”

The psalmist asks, ‘Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long.” Psalm 25:4-5

The psalmist urges people to “Give ear, O my people, to my teaching,” including “the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” – information about Him as a means to knowing Him – and to pass that knowledge down to the next generations.

The first few verses of Proverbs say that Solomon gave them, “to know wisdom and instruction; to perceive the words of understanding; to receive the instruction of wisdom, justice, and judgment, and equity; to give subtilty to the simple, to the young man knowledge and discretion. A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels.” By contrast, later in the chapter it says fools hate knowledge.

Paul prayed for people who had “a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:1).

See how many times in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul says, “Do you not know…?”

Paul told Timothy to “Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge'” (1 Timothy 6:20).

Peter tells us to supplement our faith with virtue, knowledge, self-control, and other qualities.

That’s just a small sampling of passages that talk about knowledge. If we also look at passages that talk about leaching and learning, we see that God places great value on them.

I have also heard the argument that it is more important to know by experience than to just know facts: for instance, it is better to spend time interacting with a person than just learning about them. It’s true that many of those passages about knowledge are referring to this experiential type of knowledge. But isn’t it also true that in getting to know someone you learn facts about them, their likes, dislikes, preferences, etc.? Years ago I saw a comical card for a wife from a husband depicting various domestic scenes. I don’t remember the exact wording, but the gist of it was, “I may not do A, B, and C that you want me to, and I may do D, E, and F that you don’t want me to, but I sure do love you, honey!” But living with an utter disregard for a wife’s preferences is not a manifestation of love. If husbands are to dwell with their wives according to knowledge, how much more should God’s people seek to know what pleases and displeases Him?

God has given us His Word, among other reasons, that we may know Him. We learn about Him that we might think of Him correctly and know how to please Him. Yes, just learning facts about Him is not sufficient and doesn’t take the place of knowing Him. But knowing Him without learning His Word makes for a shallow relationship.

God wants us to love Him with not just our hearts and souls, but our minds, to be transformed by the renewal of our minds, to gird up the loins of our minds.

It’s true that knowledge can “puff up” with pride, but rather than avoiding gaining knowledge, we need to remind ourselves that If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2), and we need to remind ourselves that the purpose of gaining knowledge is to better know the Lord and serve Him and others.

It’s true there are some things that surpass our ability to comprehend, like the love of Christ and the peace of God.

It’s true that if we have all knowledge, but have not love, we are nothing. But that doesn’t mean we abandon knowledge. That verse also says “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” We obviously don’t abandon faith. But we use knowledge and exercise faith in love.

We do have to be careful to keep things in balance and not become like the Pharisees, who were all academic knowledge and no heart and soul. We shouldn’t stop with just learning facts about God or think of knowledge as an end in itself, but we should acquire knowledge of God through His Word in order to learn to know Him better, to get to know Him experientially, and to show love to His people, our spiritual family, in a way that builds them up in truth, and to answer those who would pervert or distort the faith. Like Paul, we pray that our “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment” (Philippians 1:9) and that we might “[increase] in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10b).

That their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Colossians 2:2-3

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Inspire Me Monday, Glimpses, Tell His Story, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Coffee for Your Heart, Porch Stories, Faith on Fire)

 

 

When everything fails

I’m currently reading in the book of Isaiah, about 20 chapters in, to the part where God pronounces judgment on different nations. To be honest, it’s not a section I look forward to or revel in. In the past I probably would have summarized the chapters as:

Chapter 16: God judges Moab
Chapter 17: God judges Damascus
Chapter 18: God judges Ethiopia
And so on…

But this time, either because God is opening my understanding (something I have been praying for Him to do), or because I got a new ESV study Bible, or, more likely, those two factors are working together, I am seeing some things I never saw before.

It started with the footnote on chapter 18:4-6:

Working as silently as heat or dew, God frustrates human attempts at securing the world without him. He watches until the moment is right, and then acts. This is the truth underlying the appearance of human might in history. (ESV Study Bible, p. 1272).

Then I noticed a lot of things in chapter 19, focusing on Egypt.

In verses 1-4, the “idols tremble at his presence” and there is social unrest.
In verses 5-10, the Nile is dried up, affecting their economy and daily lives.
In verses 11-15, the wisdom of Egypt (which the ESV footnote says they were famous for) fails and “the wisest counselors of Pharaoh give stupid counsel.”

But this is not just dishing out judgment. It’s showing the futility of everything they trusted in, much like the plagues that occurred before the exodus of Israel from Egypt were not just random events but a triumph of God’s power over that of supposed deities. And why do that? Because that’s the only way they’d turn to Him, the one true God, the only One who could help them.

19 In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. 20 It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt. When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and deliver them. 21 And the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them. 22 And the Lord will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the Lord, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them.

All of the terrible things in the first part of the chapter were not just a matter of judgment, but they were an evidence of mercy, to open their eyes and bring them to Himself.

And someday, Egypt, once an enemy and an oppressor of God’s people, will take its place with Israel as a blessing:

24 In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, 25 whom the Lord of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.”

A few take-aways I’ve gleaned from this section so far:

  • God is not only behind history, always observing and evaluating what’s going on, but often orchestrating it.
  • His purposes are mercy and redemption unless that mercy is spurned, and then there is nothing left but judgment. But God is patient and longsuffering, giving nations and individuals as much of a chance to repent as possible.
  • Sometimes awful things that happen are not just a matter of His judgment, but of His opening eyes to false hopes and saviors to the only true one.

What does this mean for us in our day?

If these things are true in Isaiah’s day, they’re still true now. I see a lot of people, especially young adults, despairing over the state of the world. Sometimes it seems like God is not at work. But He is. He’s doing things we can’t see with larger purposes and on a grander scale than we can take in. Some day wrongs will be made right. We can trust Him for that and for every day until then. That doesn’t mean we don’t pray, speak out, or act – God often uses those efforts. But our dependence is on Him.

Also, there are times when everything we look to or rely on is taken away or fails us. That’s an opportunity to look to Him. That was my situation when I was saved: my family was falling apart, my parents were divorcing, we moved from everything familiar to a large metropolis, I had no contact with friends for a while. I felt like the rug had been completely pulled out from under me. I’d had encounters with the gospel and believed to an extent, but at this time everything crystallized for me. I became aware of deep spiritual need and cast myself on God in a way I hadn’t before. It’s not that God orchestrates problems in our lives to create a need for Him: rather, He strips everything away to reveal a need that was already there that we couldn’t see or hadn’t paid attention to. Sometimes He has to show us that nothing else is sufficient to meet that need before we’ll turn to Him. It may seem terrible and confusing and unsettling, it may seem like God is absent or doesn’t care. But He’s very much there, He does care, and He is acting in wisdom and mercy. He’s more than sufficient to meet any need we have.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Telling His Story, Coffee for Your Heart, Porch Stories, Faith on Fire)

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I’ve come across a lot of good reading already in 2018! Here is some that stood out to me in various ways:

How an Old Man Helped Save My Faith, HT to Challies.

I Couldn’t Call God “Father,” HT to Challies. A sweet testimony of an Iranian woman’s journey to Christian faith.

Show Me Your Endurance. “While church leaders dismissed my friend as unpolished and uneducated, I realized her experience was a part of my discipleship journey in ways that information acquisition and discipleship habits alone were not. I saw in her life what my own could look like as I trusted God to be there for my child and for me.”

These Hibernation Days, HT to True Woman. “Winter is a fallen seed, before it has sprouted again. It is God’s gift to us, to teach us of the value of rest, quiet, hiddenness, and death.”

Harsh Light, HT to Story Warren.

A few with the new year in mind:

Bible Reading Schedules. A couple of these I have seen before, a couple were new to me.

Preventing Spiritual Scurvy this Year: The Micronutrient Bible Reading Plan, HT to Challies.

Beginning of the Year Check-in Questions for Christians, HT to Challies. “Don’t leave your spiritual growth up to spontaneity. Make a plan. Now that we’re in 2018, here are some questions to ask as you formulate ways to grow.”

A Launch-Yourself-Forward Worksheet. If your resolutions or “one word” choices fizzle out sooner rather than later, this worksheet might help you implement those changes.

How (Not) to Read Next Year, HT to Bobbi.

They are our children, after all. When everything does not turn out all right in our children’s lives.

Clearing to Neutral: The One Habit That Stops You From Procrastinating, HT to Lisa.

What Sugar Does to Your Brain, HT to Challies. Not good news after the excess sweets throughout December.

And finally, many of us are in a very cold weather system right now. We haven’t had snow here except for about an hour one day. I hope those of you “snowed in” get some sunshine and warmer temperatures soon. Meanwhile…

Happy Saturday!

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I don’t usually post these two weeks in a row, but I came across a number of good reads this week!

Answering Claims That the Bible Contains Errors, and Why It Matters That It Doesn’t, HT to Challies.

What Expository Preaching Is Not, HT to Challies.

God Has a Heart for the Vulnerable. Do you?

Feel the Love

Doing Church Away From Church Isn’t Church, HT to Challies.

Nine Questions to Ask Yourself to Prepare for 2018, HT to Challies.

100 Years. 100 Million Lives. Think Twice, HT to Challies. I’ve been quite alarmed in recent months to see young people lauding communism. “For many students, casually endorsing communism is a cool, edgy way to gripe about the world.” “Communism cannot be separated from oppression; in fact, it depends upon it. In the communist society, the collective is supreme. Personal autonomy is nonexistent. Human beings are simply cogs in a machine tasked with producing utopia; they have no value of their own.”

On Leaving Jerusalem. “While the media is great at capturing events, they are not so great (or so interested) at capturing context or proportion.”

Living Out Our Faith. Great ways to serve the Lord as a family.

Crying in Home Depot at Christmas.

Lastly, I don’t know anything about the speaker here or the film he talks about, so this is not an endorsement, but a friend shared this on Facebook and I found it interesting. I had never heard what he shared about the significance of Jesus being wrapped in swaddling clothes before.

Happy next to last Saturday before Christmas!

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Here’s my latest round-up of thought-provoking, noteworthy reads discovered in the last few weeks.

Bibles are not talismans. It’s all about the words.

The Importance of Margins.

What Would Jesus Do About Transgender? HT to Challies.

13 Things a Pastor Should Never Say to a Congregation, HT to Challies. Yes.

7 Hard Truths About Retirement, HT to Challies.

Ban the bike! How cities made a huge mistake in promoting cycling, HT to Challies.

If you like writing about imagination, children’s literature, and families, you might be interested in writing for Story Warren: they’re looking for new contributors.

Finally, I was looking for this yesterday in talking about my young grandson’s imagination. I couldn’t find it then but found it later in the afternoon.

Happy Saturday!

Reading the Bible Literally

Some years ago I read something scoffing at Christians for taking the Bible literally. One example the author used was the Bible’s speaking of the sun rising and setting, because of course we know that the Earth revolves around the sun: the sun itself doesn’t rise and set. Yet meteorologists use the terms sunrise and sunset every day. We understand in the English language what those terms mean while not taking them literally.

Taking the Bible literally means we don’t interpret it as myth or stories, even though it contains a few stories in it. But we understand the Bible uses different expressions of literature which are not strictly literal without detracting from an overall literal approach to the Bible. What are some of these literary devices?

Idioms. Terms like sunrise and sunset, as mentioned, or phrases like “kick the bucket,”  a somewhat slangish euphemism for dying. Making a “bucket list” capitalizes on that idiom to mean having a list of things one wants to experience or accomplish before dying. On a side note, I was amused recently to see someone take that a step further in an article on “my bucket list for the summer,” apparently not knowing the significance of the bucket in that phrase.

A couple of Biblical idioms:

  • The land of Canaan “flowing with milk and honey.” We understand that to mean plenty, not literal rivers of milk and honey.
  • To be “stiff-necked” or to stiffen the neck indicate stubbornness, not a need to see a chiropractor.

Metaphors. A simile compares two things using the phrase “like” or “as”: “Her smile is as bright as a summer day.” A metaphor does the same thing but without “like” or “as.” In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, we have this famous metaphor: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

A few Biblical metaphors: ‘Behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves” (Song of Solomon 1:15b. “You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13a).

Anthropomorphism attributes human characteristics to something not human. “The flower lifted it face to the sun.” “The wind roared.”

Biblical examples: “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). The Bible says that “God is a spirit” (John 4:24) and as such does not have body parts as we know them. Yet to communicate with us in ways we can understand, the Bible speaks as if He does. “ And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them” (Exodus 7:5). Psalm 17:6 says, “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my words.” Deuteronomy 33:27 says, “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” We understand that to mean that God’s care is just as real as if He were literally holding us in his arms.

Personification is closely related to anthropomorphism, meaning to treat something abstract or inanimate as if it was human. One of Emily Dickinson’s poems personifies death: “Because I could not stop for Death,/He kindly stopped for me;/The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortality.”

Biblical example: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (Proverbs 1:20-23).

Hyperbole exaggerates something for effect. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

Biblical examples: “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). “The cities are great and fortified up to heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:28b).

Poetry uses many of these devices, but poetry itself is often phrased in a non-literal way. To quote Emily Dickinson again:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

Biblical examples: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). God didn’t actual send in giant birds, a la The Lord of the Rings, but His care of them was just as if He did. “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:9-10).

Parables are very short stories with a moral or religious meaning, like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” They differ from fables in that they have human characters and are plausible, whereas fables use animals, sometimes inanimate objects or nature, and are usually obviously fanciful.

In the Bible, Jesus’s teaching abounds with parables: the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the sower, the good Samaritan, etc. But there are parables in other parts of the Bible as well, especially among the prophets, like the one Nathan told that convicted David of his sin with Bathsheba.

Symbols involve an item being used to represent something else, like a newscaster referring to the White House and meaning the government: “The White House issued a statement today…”

Revelation is full of symbols. The dragon and the beast, for instance, are not animals but evil people whose characters are represented by those beings. There has been argument over the elements of communion, or the Lord’s supper, or the Lord’s table, for years, but it makes the most sense to believe that the elements of bread and wine are symbolic rather than actually containing the body and blood of Christ. One indication of this is the reaction of the disciples as they listened. They were not above questioning and even arguing with the Lord, but no one batted an eye at His statements at the last Supper, indicating that they didn’t think He was advocating cannibalism.

When we listen to the news, read nonfiction, or hear a speech, we can easily discern these literary devices, and we don’t dismiss everything else the speaker or writer says as symbolic or untrue because they use anthropomorphism or an idiom or a metaphor. We’re able to discern from the context whether certain phrases are literal or figurative, usually without even thinking about it, and we get the message the communicator is trying to convey.

I, for one, am glad the Bible uses different literary genres of devices rather than just giving us lists of facts and truths and teachings. Many of us “get” truth in different ways – some prefer it plainspoken, some benefit from a story or illustration. Hearing the same truth in the law, in a parable, in poetry, in prophecy, in an epistle, reinforces that truth to us.

The Bible uses these devices, but the Bible is not wholly a story or parable or fable. There are some who interpret the first two chapters of Genesis or all of Genesis or even the greater part of the Old Testament as myth. But much of the OT is literal history.

The better way to read the Bible is in an ordinary way like you would any other nonfiction, taking it as meaning what the words would ordinarily mean unless the context indicates it is figurative speech. For instance, there is nothing in the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts of creation that indicate anything is meant other than normal 24 hour days. Sure, Peter says “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” but that doesn’t mean every time you see the word “day” in the Bible that it could possibly mean 1,000 years.The ordinary reading of this passage would indicate that creation took place in the span of a week. That’s certainly not beyond God’s power to do. Good people differ on this, and I don’t think anyone’s salvation hinges on whether they think the days in Gen. 1 and 2 are 24-hour days or eons. But I have read accounts where this is taken as mythic or symbolic that then skew other parts of the Bible to mean something quite different from what a more literal reading would indicate. Though good people can differ here and there on some of the fine points, overall a literal approach (except where obviously figurative) is the best.

And by saying that we read it in an ordinary way, I am not discounting that we need the Holy Spirit’s help to open our understanding. The Bible is a supernatural book and we need God’s help to understand it rightly. I just mean that we read it as literal unless it’s obviously figurative.

There is much more that could be said about this, but I am way past the time I allowed for this post, and it’s plenty long already.

A couple of other helpful articles are Taking the Bible Literally (though I’d disagree with him on a couple of points, like hell) and Do Faithful Christian Take the Bible Literally?

(Sharing with Inspire me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Soul Survival, Tell His Story, Faith on Fire)