Recently I came across a very interesting blog called “A Skeptic's Journey Through the Bible”. The author's mission statement is this: “Growing up a believer, I left my faith in my teens. Now that I’m at the age of starting a family of my own, I need to know in which direction to guide them. I’ve decided to document my journey through the entire Bible with my own questions and commentary in order to decide once and for all if this is for me.”
It's an interesting concept, and I'm curious to see where he ends up when he's done. One post on the blog particularly intrigued me. It's a response to a question from a reader which asks:
“Did you just realize the flaws in religion when you read the bible or did you just ignore them as a Christian?”
The author's answer:
My doubts mostly floated to the surface when I began reading the Bible. While I was a genuine believer, I thought it was so hypocritical that so many millions of people claim Christianity as their religion (and allow what they think it is to affect their decision making in a lot of serious ways) when a lot of them have never read more than a few verses in the book which they believe their God wrote for them. I decided I wanted to have a closer relationship with God by reading the Bible, and when I did, I immediately began seeing a lot of things that I didn’t agree with. I realized that God is not the sugarcoated god they teach you about in Church. I think that would be when the real veil came off my eyes as far as the flaws in religion go.
This struck me as profoundly true, although he's coming from a sceptical, and I from a believing, standpoint. It fits perfectly with my experience of many churches and many Christians.
Churches rarely preach through the entire Bible. Instead, pastors tend to focus on verses or books that they like. Instead of getting “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) believers get a limited selection of the passages that appeal to the particular personality, interests, and hobby horses of their pastor or leadership. Certain denominations and movements have particular focuses that they home in on to the exclusion of others. Pastors often don't preach on topics they fear will alienate people.
In many churches I've attended the subject preached on, week in and week out, is the grace and the love of God. Difficult passages of Scripture, and subjects such as sin, judgement, hell, and repentance, are avoided almost completely. The message ends up being: no matter what you do, God accepts you anyway. That's dangerous because it's only partially true. In my observation, it produces a weak group of “Christians” who look almost exactly like the world. Christians' viewpoints on many topics seem to be shaped more by the culture around them than by God's word.
What struck me most strongly is this sentence: “I realized that God is not the sugarcoated god they teach you about in Church.” I could not agree more. When you actually read the Bible, God is awe-inspiring. He promises he will judge sin, including that of those inside the church. He issues strong warnings to repent. He disciplines us. He allows people to get sick and even die in response to their sin. He says certain behaviours mean that someone is outside of the kingdom of God. None of these things negate the grace and love of God, thankfully. But they're part of the whole picture. He's the kind of God who, if he were to show up in church, would probably make many of us uncomfortable.
Timothy Keller says it brilliantly: “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.”
I believe the danger is that many, many people who sit in church week in and week out and never hear anything which challenges or offends them, who say they are Christians but live almost exactly like the world, are likely deceived. When confronted with some of the more challenging teachings of Scripture, particularly those that speak against sins in their own life, they are offended.
Going to church is easy. Following Jesus is hard. A shallow, anti-intellectual Christianity that ignores difficult swathes of the Bible may appeal to people initially. But in the end, it doesn't produce real disciples. The mark of a true Christian is one who believes and obeys even when it's costly; who is eager to understand and do the will of God, even when it challenges his preconceived ideas; who searches the Bible and believes and lives accordingly. These people are not perfect. But they are fundamentally submitted to the Lordship of Jesus and committed to change in belief or behaviour where they realize Scripture calls for it.
How can we, as individual Christians, avoid self-deceit and believing in our own version of God?
- Read the Bible regularly, all the way through. There are online plans that allow you to read the whole Bible in one year. I like the ESV Study Bible, which includes a portion from the Wisdom Literature, Old Testament history, prophets, and New Testament.
- Engage with what you read in Scripture. When you come across something challenging, seek answers. Ask mature Christians. Read Bible commentaries. Ask God for understanding. There's nothing wrong with questioning—that's the mark of robust faith. If you don't own it and haven't wrestled with it, it's not yours.
- Recognize that none of us have perfect understanding, and that we're more bound by our culture, experiences, and presuppositions than we think.
- Be humble and open. Where the Scriptures challenge your thinking or behaviour, be shaped by what they say. Don't twist Scripture to fit your personal inclinations. Be ruthlessly honest. Submit yourself to the Spirit of God for change, and grace to obey.
- Be in community. We all have blind spots. We are all prone to being deceived (Hebrews 10:24-25). We all need to be challenged in love by our brothers and sisters, and to hear other points of view.
These are just a few ideas; I welcome you to share yours in the comments!