I’ve been trying to find a sort of nexus where some of these ideas that have been swirling around in my head can meet and coalesce: One thought centers on what promises, if any, are given to us and can be rightly claimed as Christians. What about God’s Word, how do we properly interpret those promises? And finally, what happens when we apply theological arguments in a clunky wooden way toward our “neighbor?”
In the context of every day family life (especially in our culture today) it is very tempting to try to hold on to bright boundary lines. We tend to read our Bibles with our antennas up, searching for black and white, cause and affect, promises and curses, and so on. In a relativistic world it’s easy to understand how some honest Christians have taken to preferring the use of a ruler as a measuring rod, rather than the more difficult road of wisdom. In a day where society says there is no objective truth, it’s easy to fall prey to an oversimplified reading of Scripture, and therefore, to the tendency to misunderstand the promises of God, to oversimplify and misapply the word of God, and to beat people over the head with ill timed and misguided theological arguments.
I’m doing the M’Cheyne Bible reading plan this year along with D.A. Carson’s devotionals that accompany that program. One of the daily readings lately has been in the book of Job. Commenting on Job 16-17 Carson says:
“There is a way of using theology and theological arguments that wounds rather than heals. This is not the fault of theology and theological arguments; it is the fault of the “miserable comforter” who fastens on an inappropriate fragment of truth, or whose timing is off, or whose attitude is condescending, or whose application is insensitive, or whose true theology is couched in such culture-laden clichés that they grate rather than comfort. In times of extraordinary stress and loss, I have sometimes received great encouragement and wisdom from other believers; I have also sometimes received extraordinary blows from them, without any recognition on their part that that was what they were delivering. Miserable comforters were they all.
“Such experiences, of course, drive me to wonder when I have wrongly handled the Word and caused similar pain. It is not that there is never a place for administering the kind of scriptural admonition that rightly induces pain: justified discipline is godly (Heb. 12:5-11). The tragic fact, however, is that when we cause pain by our application of theology to someone else, we naturally assume the pain owes everything to the obtuseness of the other party. It may, it may—but at the very least we ought to examine ourselves, our attitudes, and our arguments very closely lest we simultaneously delude ourselves and oppress others.”
–D.A. Carson, For the Love of God
Now, God knows, Job knows, and the reader knows, that Job is a righteous man. His friends, however, “miserable comforters” that they were, heaped upon him one “truth” after another. They had all three come to the conclusion that Job was wicked. So we see that a crucial question we must ALWAYS be asking ourselves is: “Are we handling the Word of God rightly?” Other questions include: “Am I turning Proverbs into promises? What promises does Jesus give us in the gospel? Have I been let down or hurt in some way and am I responding back with cynicism? How do I trust the Word of God if I’ve been let down?” And so on and so forth….
I want to look at Luke 1:32-33 and tease out some germane points from the text. The angel Gabriel has appeared to Mary and is telling her about Jesus:
“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
The angel Gabriel is no liar, he comes to Mary bringing the Word of a covenant keeping God. So when he says, “He will be great… And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign…” We have to believe what God is saying here. But when we look at the earthly ministry of Jesus, we see that he wasn’t “great” in the sense that first century Jews would have attributed “greatness.” Nor did he receive an earthly throne for all to see, nor did he reign over the house of Jacob in the way they would have expected a king to reign. So if these points of promises from God to Mary were not seen with the human eye and were not lived out in a way that the human mind could understand and categorize does that mean that God did not accomplish what he promised to Mary? Did God lie? No! Of course not! What we see from this small example and from so many other Biblical texts is that God’s ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thought, and therefore his ways of keeping a promise and bringing his Word to bear fruit may not be in a way that we would recognize, understand, or even desire.
The nexus then, and a way to avoid becoming like Job’s friends, is to be watchful of our handling of God’s words for our friends and even for ourselves. Especially as we seek to claim certain promises and discern with wisdom what is applicable, when and how.