I’ve noticed a gap between what feels right to say about the Bible in the abstract and what actually happens when we read the Bible as part of our daily discipleship. When many Christians talk about the Bible in the abstract, they talk as though it’s a collection of “perfectly clear” but tough to stomach rules that people don’t want to obey so they pull out words like “mystery” to justify their disobedience. It makes me wonder how much time a person who talks that way actually spends reading the Bible, because when I read the Bible, the way I rebel against what God tries to teach me is to insist that I’ve already understood him with “perfect clarity.”
An example of this happened yesterday when I took a look at the Old Testament passage for the week for Pentecost. It’s Genesis 11, the story of the tower of Babel. I’m already “perfectly clear” on what that story is about. I preached a sermon on it. It’s actually a very uncomfortable story for a Biblical inerrantist, or it should be, because it shows God reacting to humanity purely out of fear of human potential and not out of any sort of righteous judgment against sin.
God says in response to the Tower of Babel: “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7). Despite whatever you were taught in Sunday school about this story, there’s nothing moralistic in God’s speech here about the sinful “pride” of the humans building the tower. He is simply afraid of what will happen when humans realize that “nothing… will now be impossible for them,” which sounds more like the response of an insecure capricious deity from another ancient near Eastern religion (where the story probably originated) than the omnipotent creator of the universe we believe in. You just can’t make those words say something else in their plain literal meaning. Any other meaning has to be eisegeted into the text.
But yesterday God made this passage mysterious to me. When the Tower of Babel builders discuss their rationale for building the tower, they say, “Let us make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). That’s the line interpreters cite when they try to moralize the story and make it about sinful pride. Now God doesn’t say anywhere in the text that he’s confusing their language because they were trying to make a name for themselves rather than glorifying him. It’s “perfectly clear” according to the plain meaning of the text that God is simply afraid of human potential and that’s the extent of his rationale.
But here’s what the Holy Spirit said to me as I was reading this text yesterday: if what you care about, Morgan, is making a name for yourself then I will confuse your language and scatter you. I have no way of proving to you that this was actually the Holy Spirit and not just a random thought in my head. It’s a mystery, but I really believe it happened. It wasn’t a “perfectly clear” rationally deduced commandment that I got from “submitting” to my best guess of the original author’s intended meaning of the passage (the way that many of my fellow evangelicals talk about reading the Bible in the abstract). It was a mysterious conviction that I gained from reading the Bible prayerfully instead of dispassionately. Most of the teaching I receive from God in the Bible comes in the form of these mysterious convictions that almost always deviate at least some from the “perfectly clear” grammatical-historical meaning of the text in order to speak directly into my discipleship journey.
Yesterday’s word had a very specific application for me. I’ve been writing a book, and the wind has been kicked out of my sails lately due to rejections from publishers and literary agents as well as recent medical challenges. The clarity I had when I started out has been confused and scattered. So my takeaway from my Bible reading is that God is continuing to purify me of my need to make a name for myself with my writing. I had such a sense of urgency about this book for so long. I thought the worst thing in the world would be for me to put it on the shelf for a while since the world had to receive my words as quickly as possible.
Now I’m starting to make peace with the book happening according to God’s time. I’m hoping that somehow God will heal me from my need to make a name for myself so that what I care about is simply being a faithful disciple, a loving husband and father, and a good shepherd to the college students at Tulane and Loyola. Maybe there are things I have to learn from ministry in that new context before I can write my book. I was so devastated about losing my momentum a couple of months ago. And now I strangely have peace, all because God said I’m pushing the pause button on your book for a reason, even though this pause button involved conviction of my sin. Because to hear God actually speak to me is way more wonderful than being right about anything.
What God said to me is still a mystery that I’m chewing on. Not because I’m trying stubbornly to resist it. That’s not what it means for something to be a mystery. On the contrary, it means it doesn’t let go of you. When things are “perfectly clear,” you put them aside because there’s no reason to waste any more time with them once you’ve solved the puzzle unless you need to use them as support for an argument with somebody else. So you just start building a wall of all the bricks of perfectly clear passages from the Bible that you understand perfectly so you can have them ready to throw at other people when it’s time to have a theological debate.
There is definitely some second-guessing and pushback involved in my wrestling with the mystery of what God said to me yesterday. God, does this mean I don’t follow up on my pending book proposal with Abingdon Press but just trust that their door will somehow still be open two years from now or whenever I get back to it? Is it really you saying that I care too much about making a name for myself or is that just me being overly self-critical in order to suck up to you? What about all those Christians who are misrepresenting Jesus? Isn’t it my duty to correct them with this book? As all these questions swirl around in my head, the two things that do become clear are 1) I want to be free from all the unhealthy anxiety I’ve had about the publishing process and 2) I want whatever I write to be the prayer-bathed words that God has given me no matter how long it takes.
I have a hunch that the “perfect clarity” many Christians talk about with regard to the Bible happens in a very different context than listening for God speak into your discipleship journey. For me, the Bible is always “perfectly clear” when I’m pulling together scriptural proof-texts in order to argue about something on the internet. And I get flabbergasted when I make an exhaustive exegetical case for something and my ideological opponent refuses to submit to my teaching and obey it. The Bible is always “clear” when you need to submit to and obey me about something I’ve found in the Bible, and usually the “clearer” something in the Bible is for me, the less it has to do with me personally. The Bible is “perfectly clear” for example in its opposition to capitalism. I’ve got plenty of proof-texts about it. And a lot of other ideological causes I’ve strung together Biblical arguments to support. And I get really suspicious of myself in this regard because it seems like “clarity” becomes an actual strategy for making the Bible impersonal.
In our social media age, I don’t think there’s a greater temptation than to substitute online ideological swordplay for lived personal discipleship. There are so many Christians today whose Bible is so “clear” about so many things that they quote on their Facebook walls, but I wonder if they ever savor the mysteries like the fruits of the spirit whose depth is so much richer than a passage you can just slap on your wall to say see, this proves I’m right. What about the heart of Christ? Is there a deeper mystery than that? That’s what we’re supposed to be searching for throughout scripture. When we read it without any interest in its mystery, we’re ensuring that we’re not going to see the person amidst the words.
Jesus quotes a strange prophecy from Isaiah 6 that captures the need for mystery when he explains to his disciples why he teaches the crowds in parables: “‘in order that they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand” (Mark 4:12). If Jesus had simply quoted Torah to people matter-of-factly, they could have said, “Oh, I know where he’s going with this; my rabbi preached that sermon last week” (and tune him out). By telling parables that the people in the crowds couldn’t pin down with “perfect clarity,” Jesus was able to draw the crowds in and create conversations that would linger for days.
Mysteries haunt us and work on our hearts for a long time; “perfect clarity” gives us permission to be “impartial observers” simply reporting objectively what the Bible says (for somebody else to follow). So don’t use “clarity” to dodge the still, small voice that will talk back to you through the words you’re reading in your Bible to congratulate yourself for being right about God again. Let that still, small voice haunt you with a mystery that makes you second-guess yourself. That second-guessing need not be a dreadful thing. Faith is not the absence of mystery and second-guessing, but the courage to face God’s teaching honestly and subjectively instead of making it into a strictly objective truth for humanity in general. It’s a delightful though awesome and fearful thing when God makes his Bible breathe a mystery over you that won’t leave you alone.