Why the Bible is a Tough Book for Americans

Donald Miller

I’m not a big fan of the “there are only two kinds of people” breakdown of humanity, and yet in the past few years, I’ve found myself wondering if, well, there are only two kinds of people. I’m not talking about people who either like Neil Diamond or don’t, I’m talking about How and Why thinkers. Let me explain:

We all live life asking questions, questions about how to get ahead, how to make life more meaningful, questions about how to survive or help people survive. The question how is an American question, and it rests on the presupposition that we know what life is really about.

Some friends and I were walking down the street in Vancouver, BC last week and I stopped our group and asked them to look around and count the ads that they noticed. We were downtown in a major shopping district, and even though we could see for blocks, we found only two billboards or posters advertising stuff. If we’d been across the border in the states, we’d have counted, perhaps, hundreds. The difference was striking.

Advertising is part of the reason we have become a how culture. Commercials make us think we need things, and then the dominant question (thus the story we end up living) is about how we get what we think we are missing, so we wake up every morning wondering how we are going to get ahead, how we are going to get paid and so forth.

The problem Christians face is the Bible is not attempting to answer how questions. And if it is, it’s a terribly written book and not practical in any way in terms of addressing how to succeed, how to get married, how to be more sexy, how to lose weight, how to organize your finances or how to build a business. Instead, the Bible is a why book. The Bible is answering much larger questions: Why do we exist, why do we not feel loved, why is there pain in the world, why has God left us and so forth. Are there exceptions? Sure. The Proverbs has some wisdom on how to live, and there are other examples, but they are few.

So the question is, are you trying to answer small questions with your life or big questions? If you are trying to answer small questions (how do I turn earth into heaven because there is no greater epic for me) then the Bible fails. But if you are trying to answer larger questions (all of this will someday go away, and life is short, so what is really important in light of this) then the Bible is a book for you.

American culture is a how culture. We ask almost exclusively how questions, because our commercialized culture is not interested in why. If we really started asking why questions, our entire economy would collapse, and honestly, we wouldn’t care because once we answered the why questions, we wouldn’t want all that stuff in the first place.

So what does the Bible say to the Average American? Among other things, it says this: You are asking the wrong questions.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.

  • Jan Vidar

    The Bible is full of principles for how to live,
    for every area of our lives.

    One example:
    Hans Nielsen Hauge started to disciple the nation of Norway
    more than 200 years ago, training people in how to apply
    God’s Word in every area of their lives, and starting businesses, etc.

    “…he wrote about how to educate children, how to create wealth
    through righteous commerce, and other subjects he found in God’s Word.
    As Hauge delved into the Bible, he was absolutely practical about
    life here on earth. He found The Book packed with principles for
    everything humanity faces.”

    He believed it and he applied it, and “Norway’s history stands as a monument
    to how quickly The Book can change a nation.”

    (Quotes from: Loren Cunningham, The Book that Transforms Nations, page 68, 164.)

    Jan Vidar,

    • VZ

      Why has Norway only got Bronze in London? No Gold!

      Actually my Grandmother was 100% Norweigan and although I haven’t been to Norway yet, I’m dying to visit the fjords!

      Go Norway!

    • Todd Jenkins

      I believe the point Miller is trying to make is that if we begin with the HOW questions, assuming (as he states) that we have everything figured out, we will most likely never make it to the WHY questions, and therefore, the answers to our HOW questions will prove useless. Keeping the WHY on the front burner is key to avoid being swallowed by the HOW.

    • Paul

      Maybe the Bible isn’t a tough book for Norwegians. Who knows, they might have first asked why they would educate children before they tackled how to.

  • Pingback: Why the Bible is Hard for Americans « Insomniac memos()

    • Natalie

      I agree with Jan. I believe the Bible to be a how and a why book; for all peoples at any time in history: past, present and future.

  • Pingback: A hodgepodge of links | Enough Light()

    • DAP

      Tons of “how” questions are answered in the Bible. No doubt we tend to ask the wrong questions, and that’s not an American phenomenon.

  • Mark S. Phillips

    Be careful, Don. Telling the truth will get you accused of heresy. Glad to know I’m not alone in my conclusion on the matter — arrived at, much like you, over a long period of time. Thank you for your honesty.

  • American culture is dominated by “how” . . . we are a culture that produces and is in love with technology . . . which is all about “technique.” But I’m not sure that’s why the American culture (and that is such a broad word as to be almost meaningless) has a hard time with the Bible.

    IMHO, it is how the book is positioned by evangelicals: as the final, authoritative “answer book” to why questions. Moreover, these believers insist that it is a divine text (2 Tim 3:16 – which actually refers to the Old Testament. But I digress . . . ) Add to this the claim that the only way to enter into a relationship with God is through a personal relationship with Jesus (or, if you are Catholic, by entering into the communion of the church and God, celebrated by the Mass).

    In the post-Enlightenment culture of the West, there is simply no basis for a reasoned discussion of these two beliefs with a true believer. They are matters of faith and stand outside the realm of reason. But this intersection of belief in a divine text and eternal exclusivism are not unique to Christianity at all. In fact, fundamentalist Muslims have gone a long way to instantiate these ideas in the culture and political systems of several middle Eastern and African countries . . . with horrific results.

    And that for me is the reason “the Bible is a tough book.” It isn’t the Bible that’s tough . . . it’s the constellation of non-rational beliefs and behaviors that surround it and is manifest in the lives of the “true believers.”

  • Kellie

    I think Jan has a good point. And it does tie into what Donald is saying. The Bible’s instructions are based on justice, fairness, righteousness, mercy, grace towards each other. We like to forget that part and focus on greed, more, better instead of “enough”. I’m in advertising and publishing and I do try hard not to play into that game much. Thankfully my clients are a little different, not much, but a little…

  • Jed Walker

    Excellent observation Don.

    Perhaps the problem is “how” questions are ultimately about us. How do I get the life I want? How can my business be blessed? Why questions aren’t always about us. They can be, but ultimately if we keep digging, why questions lead us to a sovereign, uncreated God.

    As much as we may try to make the Bible about us, its not. It’s not about Americans (or any other current culture). It certainly speaks to us, but ultimately its about God revealed through Jesus. The purpose of God’s Word is not to give us instructions for a better life (it may become a bi-product), it’s to show us who God is so we might know and love Him.

    As long as we try to force ourselves into the stories we’re destined to misunderstand Scripture.

  • Aaron

    I don’t really get this:
    “If you are trying to answer small questions (how do I turn earth into heaven because there is no greater epic for me) then the Bible fails.”

    Isn’t trying to turn earth into heaven one of the “big questions”? After all wasn’t that Jesus’s mission. To bring the kingdom of heaven to earth?

  • Jer

    I love these kinds of thoughts. I tend to think of the Bible as an answer to a who question though. Who is God and what is He like? Anyway – that’s where my mind went.


  • Jack Cuffari

    Some great points here. But if we want answers we should play “Jeopardy”. Life is a mystery, the Divine is a mystery, and the questions we have have been given to us to define our journey. Those questions are our path. We should be grateful for them, and embrace and inhabit them, not try to follow the post-Enlightenment drill of needing and seeking answers. We inhabit a mystery, and should not pretend to know too much, as Eugene Peterson says.

  • Jack Cuffari

    PS: Buddhist teachers respond to the wrong question/digressive query with the single syllable “Mu!” That means, exactly, “Wrong question!”

  • timmy blue

    so what happens when you find the basic to the ‘why’ questions?

  • timmy blue

    + answers +

  • There are only 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.

  • Tom

    Don…..No I can honestly say that YOU are asking the RIGHT QUESTIONS!! If more people understood that getting the question right is more important than the answers, we would ALL be able to answer that all important question:


    with a resounding “YES!”

    Now then….figure out HOW from there!!

  • I so agree with this article. Our culture let’s itself be too busy to ask the “why” of anything. It takes too much effort to think about the “why”. It takes too much time to think about the “why”. It takes too much vulnerability (bad word in our culture) to think about the “why”. It takes too much “courage” to think about the “why”. But without trying to understand the “why” of anything, we deceive ourselves to think that we can actually find the “how”. And we always come up short and therefore, we are disappointed. Then we have to create our own quick fix “whys” to give our “hows” some credibility. This is exactly what we do with the Bible. It takes little effort, little time, little vulnerability, and little courage to read the surface words; then we give our own meanings to those words, which usually leads to frustration because we don’t undertand God’s meaning to the words. Every endeavor needs a strong foundation. “Why” needs to be the foundation of any “how”.

  • I have been rethinking a lot along these lines lately.

    But mine has been more WHO than WHY. WHO is the kingdom of God for me? My wife? Is that why my “prayers are hindered” — because I’ve not treated her well? WHO is my neighbor? WHO can I serve?

    HOW may be a distraction, and WHY can’t always give me direction, but WHO seems to require me to live and rely on Jesus.

    • Bryan Jensen


  • Mathew

    scary the unintended consequences of our actions like excessive advertising.

  • Chase Trimmier

    love it.
    The OT is a huge book of how to NOT do things. The focus is all about why. Why did God choose to act the way He did? Why did king David not accept the sacrifice from Araunah? Not how did those things happen, how did Elijah perform many miracles? How did Paul survive a snake bite?

    WHY-God is Sovereign

  • I agree with Miller that we are first, most typically, HOW people in the U.S. We are capitalists. How drives us for the most part. The Bible is about WHY. Why are we here? The Bible is about fulfilling our purpose – Body, soul and spirit. Trusting Christ in order to know peace and live the abundant life and exist eternally in heaven. But we are distracted with visuals, noise- and flesh. It is difficult to stay focused on why rather than how.

  • Thanks Don. We live in such a consumer-driven culture that the Bible only has value when we can benefit from it. We need to change that mindset to “Who is this God? And how has he chosen to reveal himself?”

  • Pingback: How exactly do you get “called” to a place? | Water in the Wilderness()

  • Why is the Bible the best selling book in our How? culture if How? is the focus of its attention?

  • Carol

    When reading the Bible, the Holy Spirit brings understanding to you. Every question you have is answered in the scripture, and if you cannot find the answer it may be because you don’t want the answer, or you don’t want to be obedient to the Lord. God wants us to abstain from sex before marriage, respect each other, learn about each other, prepare for our lives together. He has never left us, He is with us at all times, within us. God teaches us to work, be good stewards of our money, pay our tithes, save our money, set aside money for emergency. He also teaches us love our neighbors as we want to be loved. The bible is full of advise to discipline our children, advice on financial moves, wisdom and guidance on making decisions on family matters, direction on moves, changing jobs, even buying homes, cars, loaning money, schools to attend and giving us confidence taking exams, and finally even who to vote for. There is so much in the bible it would take years to study. It like peeling an onion, each skin reveals more and more about the knowledge He wants us to learn about. So yes in a way the bible is tough, but the tough is the challenge for you to sit down and commit yourself to learn what God has to say to you. God Bless

  • Carol

    James 1:5 – If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
    1Cor 7:1-2 – It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. (this is how you get married)
    1Corinthians 7:8-9 – I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them even as I. (single)But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry then to burn. (HE teaches us to be evenly yoked, same faith) the man being the head of the household, he prays over issues, making joint decisions, teach the children the adminision of the Lord, obedience and to honor their parents.
    There much more in Proverbs that teaches about life issues, and through out the epistles. God Bless. Study, Study. The Word says to receive knowledge, to study the Word. You receive not, because you ask not.

  • Tina D

    I find that when I answer the “whys” the “hows” fall into place. If I don’t have a “why” the “how” is pretty pointless. The “why” changes character, and the “how” changes behavior. It’s ironic, because once you change character, you change behavior naturally. And behavior can change character, but not in all cases, and it only really changes character if you reflect on “why” you changed behavior.

    I’m glad a public figure said it.