Recently I started reading the New Testament again. My friend Ron Frost recommends reading the Bible all the way through, then reading it again, and then again, until you die. So I am taking his advice. And I’m enjoying it. I didn’t start in Genesis this time, I started in Matthew, and so read the account of the Birth of Christ.
Each time I read the Bible I’m taken aback by how much we dilute the power of its stories with sentimentalism. The story of Noah and his Ark has been reduced to a Children’s story (a God-orchestrated massacre of all humanity) and the story of the Birth of Christ into a regal pageant complete with gifts and robed choirs of angels (A poor virgin and her new husband delivering a baby in a manger of a stable. Followed by an angry king slaughtering all children under two years old to try to kill off the Messiah.)
What I like about the Bible is it doesn’t clean up history. It isn’t a clean book, and God does not always look good (from our finite perspective) and yet it doesn’t hide or sell or bait and switch, it just tells the truth.
One of the problems with sentimentalizing the text is that we begin to sentimentalize our actual lives. We begin to think the Christian life should be free of hardship. We think God is going to navigate us around the hard things. But there is really nothing in scripture that should lead us to believe this. What God offers, instead, is to be with us, to not abandon us, even in the midst of our hardship.
Laying in bed this morning I was thinking about a difficult thing I have to do. It’s nothing compared to some of the stuff you might be dealing with, just a big job I have to complete. I remembered the scripture from Philippians 4: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I’ve said that verse to myself a thousand times, I am sure. But laying there, I realized something the verse didn’t say. It didn’t say “I can do all things through Christ who makes it easy.”
This paradigm shift is important because if we think God is going to take away our troubles, we assume there is something wrong with us if He doesn’t. We assume we did something bad, or that God doesn’t like us, or perhaps even God Himself isn’t good. To be sure, some of the hardships in our lives happen because we made bad decisions, but even in this we are given the grace of a God who is willing to discipline us in love and restore us. A careful understanding of Biblical stories reveals every hero goes through difficult trouble. Nobody is spared.
In an age where we are taught through commercialism there should be no struggles in life that the purchasing of a product won’t relieve, the Bible is incompatible. But the age of commercialism has let us down. Many have found their stuff has made life more meaningless. What we’ve forgotten is that every great story has to involve a difficult ambition, and must then travel through the land of conflict. The best stories have their protagonist wondering if they are going to make it. What scripture teaches us, then, is that God will be with us in that place, and will give us the strength to endure a hard thing.
Here’s to the courage to face conflict, the bonding benefit of hardships, and to living better stories.