how one parenthetical phrase could change so much

parenthesiscertainty.  i miss the days where i was certain, where things were black and white, where i knew the answer “because the Bible says so” and that felt like enough.  i can’t tell you the number of times i pulled the card “this is what the Bible says about x, y, or z and so that’s that.”  (it has been an awfully long time since i’ve done that so i hope i get some extra credit for increasing the “number of years i have been a nicer Christian”).

i also can’t tell you the number of times it’s been pulled on me.  100% certainty on the biblical interpretation of a passage.  “this is precisely what this means and i will die on a hill i am so sure of it.”  i had a friend who became ultra-conservative about the Bible and boy did it get ugly between us years ago when i started at seminary for a counseling degree.  she said that it was “unbiblical and worldly” and that the only thing she believed in was “biblical counseling,” applying scripture to people’s problems.  the biblical counseling course she was taking at her church was grounded in “truth”. i challenged her saying ” i hate to tell you but you are only learning what the author of the class you are taking says about certain passages. it’s just his interpretation, his best shot, and there are other people out there who see that exact scripture totally different from him and believe just as emphatically that they are right, too”  she could not for the life of her budge on this thought.

i think this is what has gotten Christians into so much trouble with the world.  they rarely, if ever, add one little simple parenthetical phrase that i believe would dramatically change the perception of christians.  i am talking about just a simple few words here and there that implied a bit of uncertainty since the truth is that we don’t know 100% without a doubt that this unequivocally positively what it means anyway.

what if we were just a little more honest and prefaced some of what we said with:   “here’s how i see this passage”, or “this is what i think this passage could possibly mean,” or “i am not sure exactly what this means, but i’ve heard some people interpret it as,”i could be wrong but,” “i don’t truly know, but….” “yeah, it doesn’t really make sense, but…”  all’s i am talking about is taking ownership ourselves instead of pulling the God card as a cover.   i mean how hard is that?  why is it so hard for us to admit that anything we pass on about the bible is truly just our interpretation of what we think it means?    biblical “truth” isn’t quite as objective as people make it sound.  i know i can get in all kinds of trouble here with lots of people, but i gladly take the risk.   i love the bible.   i love its intricacies, how i can see a passage one way one day and the next day it speaks to me from a totally different angle. i believe its power to heal and change and move a person and God speaks to me through it now and then.

but i am so utterly sick and tired of the bible getting thrown around like people own the rights to exactly precisely what God means by every word in it.   they hide behind “biblical truth” when in fact they have just heard or read someone else’s interpretation of what it means and assume that is 100% right. i don’t care how much biblical scholarship goes into a passage (although it’s helpful) we will never be 100% certain what God meant this side of heaven and honestly, i don’t think it even matters all that much to try to figure it out.  why not spend just a little more time loving and applying Jesus’ ways in our lives instead of trying to prove a point about what a word supposedly means??

why is a simple parenthetical phrase that softens the know-it-all-ness so hard to do?    if we gave it a try, i really believe our reputation in the world would greatly increase, but i am also realistic enough to know that there are far too many people out there terrified to think that if you add a phrase of doubt you are heading down a slippery slope and the whole damn thing might fall apart.

when we take our grip off the bible we actually have to trust there’s something bigger at work:  aka God’s Spirit alive and well, unexplainable and mysterious and superseding black and white words on pages.  now for some, that’s scary.  for me, i’ll take it any day.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

14 Comments

  • Great post, Kathy! I wonder what is behind the excesses of the “the Bible says” mentality. Maybe, a well meaning desire to state “God’s position,” or an enlightenment/educational model paradigm, or the arrogant desire to be the most “right” of all the preachers. It is wonderfully refreshing to hear… I don’t know, I think, It seems, or What do you think?

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  • AMEN! I have yet to find a good answer to the concept of Biblical inerrancy and infallibility when I ask a couple questions. If the Word is God’s immutable Truth and our interpretation does nothing to change the veracity of the scriptures, then which version of the Bible is God’s Truth, the truth according to Jim Wallis or James Dobson, Martin Luther or Mother Teresa, John Calvin or John Wesley, Benny Hinn or John MacArthur?”

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  • As a former bible expert and current bible enthusiast, I’d like to point out that you used the word, “damn”, which is a biblical word I rather like. I wish I could type a laugh track that read like Beavis and Butthead…but I can’t, so just play the soundtrack in your head here.

    I admire the humility it takes to let go of certainty. I don’t think I’ve arrived there yet, but I find myself more and more compelled by love, grace, respect, awe and wonder these days. God is so much bigger than I give him credit for (so much bigger that he doesn’t mind if I don’t capitalize the personal pronoun when I refer to him, which is still hard for me to let go of).

    Thanks, Kathy, for the inspiration and the invitation to humility as we read the scriptures. I pray we can become less arrogant and pig-headed, and more like Jesus.

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  • While I can sympathize with the desire for “rock solid certainty”, I also believe Randy’s comment above about giving up certainty as a pride issue is very important. Thank you Kathy for this thoughtful post. As I stated today in the post on my blog, I’ve had a rocky relationship with the Bible myself for the last while trying to figure out how to relate to it. I believe that God is in the process of teaching me how He wants to use it in my life rather than me following it as my god.

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  • My favorite words these days are “I could be wrong”. Like you said…this is what I believe or how I see it, but “…”.

    What I can no longer embrace is the idea that someone holding a personal understanding of scripture is a heretic. Wasn’t it the Jews who took on a “yoke” of interpretation? Like Gary said, why do WE have to do that with our Christian leaders and teachers? Jesus said His yoke was light – a.k.a. simple.

    Sorry, that sounded a little preachy. What I mean, is this is what I believe, but I could be wrong.

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  • glenn – i like your addition of “what do you think?”

    gary – yeah, it’s a lot of times the truth according to…

    randy – you crack me up! i am pretty sure God isn’t overly considered with our capitalization, eh, but isn’t it funny how engrained the importance of those kinds of things are when kindness, love, humility are i am pretty sure MORE OF THE POINT! hahaha. i will let you know about our reno trip in march.

    hanan – pride is a big issue with this whole certainty thing for sure. i think so many of us are learning new ways to appreciate the bible without elevating it above God.

    erin – since our conversation i have thought so many times about your parenthetical phrase “but i could be wrong…” so good! and i say preach it girl! (i didn’t think you sounded preachy at all but you know what i mean, let it rip!)

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  • What???
    No WAY!!!!
    But…but…but…this would make me think!!!! 🙂
    (sarcasm at it’s early morning finest!)
    Good morning Kathy!!

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  • donna, yeah, no one really wants to think! i have to admit, it was so much easier when i didn’t!!! my head sometimes hurts! (in a good way). hope all’s well up there…

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  • Ken and Deborah Loyd coined a term for this:

    “scripturized.” At our women’s group one of the rules is, No Scripturizing.

    I used to be an expert scripturizer.

    Thank God I’m not anymore.

    Great post Kathy!

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  • Kathy, I agree so much!

    You know, I heard something about a year ago that I think explains why some feel they have to have definitive, 100% truth. A teacher of a Sunday School class I was in stated “If any one thing in Bible is proved wrong, we might as well throw out the whole thing.”

    When this is the point of view someone is coming from, allowing for an individual interpretation is frightening because then they faith they hold is worthless. That’s a pretty scary place to be.

    There is so much freedom that comes with that parenthetical statement. Hopefully as we live with the freedom and continue to follow God in our journeys we can open pathways for those who feel this fear to walk with us.

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  • amy, it is so interesting to me, the fear. one thing, the whole thing unravels. how scary to live like that, but i do know the feeling because i used to be there. hope we can hook up soon and that all is well with you and your family!

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  • Just thought I’d throw a few thoughts in- this is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately…

    I can imagine having this conversation with some of my more fundamentalist friends, and eventually I think it would come down to “well when CAN I be certain? What would it take to be 100% certain about what this scripture means?” I think probably the answer is “of course you never can, and by the way why does that bother you so much?”

    It’s those same people who use this other phrase -possibly the antithesis of “but I could be wrong”- which is “If you REALLY study the scriptures, you’ll find … ” I’ve heard this used to defend and justify any one of a number of ideas. It really bothers me.

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  • j ted voigt: thanks for stopping by. how’d you find this blog? oh yeah, i can hear those words chiming away… “of course you can be 100% certain, it says it right here!” …the “if you REALLY STUDY THE SCRIPTURES it says” all in capitals. it bothers me, too!! it’s so funny how it didn’t used to years ago, though, so i guess that’s the part i can have a little bit of understanding on. it sort of scares me that i just used to take it all lock stock and barrel the way it was fed to me.

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