I love crosswords with all their delicious words, foreign words, words that only appear in crosswords, words so delightfully obscure they send you scurrying to the dictionary! I love the fact that crosswords are a closed universe: a perfect square containing more perfect squares, intersecting and interacting in perfect harmony.
Whatever the day’s frustrations or how much chaos threatened to overwhelm, crosswords offer the consolation of order, the satisfaction of correct answers, and the beauty of symmetry. I can, by the sheer force of my intellect, will, and a good eraser, achieve perfection and bring order out of chaos.
In other words, crosswords offer what the world does not.
There are frustrations, too. Sometimes I scratch my head, saying, “If this answer is right, then the answer it crosses can’t be right.“ You see, the answers don’t exist in a vacuum; they are dependent on one another, like scaffolding. Each piece supports the other, or else the whole of it falls.
Which is why crosswords remind me of Scripture. Like an answer that seems right, but somehow isn’t, you can think something in Scripture doesn’t fit with what you’ve been taught about the nature of a good and loving God. Perhaps it seems to conflict with another part of Scripture. So some questions arise: Why are there two creation stories, that differ (even if slightly)? What kind of God orders genocide so His chosen people can occupy the land? How could a loving God consign someone to eternal damnation? How can God love mercy and demand justice?
These are some of the questions that believers puzzle over and non-believers use as “Gotchas!” to prove that this foundation is cracked and thus cannot bear the weight of belief. These questions can be like a critical crossbeam whose removal threatens the whole structure.
We can react in one of three ways. First, we can throw up our hands, and abandon the belief that the Bible is authoritative and worthy of our trust and obedience. This is what those hostile to the faith hope their “Gotchas!“ will do.
Second, we can willfully ignore the contradiction or troubling passage because it is just too painful to contemplate that we have built our faith on shaky ground.
Or, Like Jacob at Penuel, we can wrestle with God and His word and emerge with a better understanding of God and ourselves. In 20 years of leading Bible Studies, I have grappled with such questions in a community of believers who are not willing to give up, even when understanding or interpreting scripture is difficult. So, the question behind the questions that arise is: “How are we are to understand and live with challenges that Scripture presents?”
How Does it Fit Into the Big Picture?
Creation, fall, rescue, restoration. These four words describe the arc of the Bible story. Difficult passages can become less so when they are viewed in the context of this Big Picture. Why is there suffering and pain? Genesis explains they are the result of our rebellion. Why does God forgive and show mercy when it doesn’t seem warranted? Scripture tell us His goal is relationship and restoration. Why does God’s judgment seem harsh? Scripture says God is holy, and cannot be in the presence of sin.
When we struggle with Scripture, we should ask “where does this fit into the big picture?”
Scripture Interprets Scripture. Like crosswords, Scripture is a closed universe — not in the sense of not allowing interpretation, but complete, and sufficient unto itself. For all its supposed “contradictions” or ideas that make us uncomfortable, the Bible is remarkably consistent for a document written over the span of thousands of years, in three different languages, across different cultures. So the first question I ask when presented with a challenging passage is — what does it say elsewhere in Scripture? Is the idea positively affirmed or denounced elsewhere? What can we learn from other passages that touch on the matter we’re considering?
I have heard it argued that if we are to take the Bible’s view of marriage seriously, we should allow polygamy, since that appears in Scripture, and is not explicitly forbidden. While it is true that polygamy is mentioned, it is never held up as good or desirable. In fact, if you read the instances of polygamy mentioned (for example Abraham, Jacob, or King Solomon,) it always leads to pain, brokenness, and in the case of Solomon, nothing less than the demise of the Kingdom. In other words, in Scripture (as in crosswords) “answers” do not exist in a vacuum.
Many Books, Many Genres
The Bible is not any one thing; in fact, the word from which it is derived (biblios) means books. And those books are written in a variety of genres. There’s history and poetry and metaphysics, prophecy and apocrypha, wisdom literature, prayers, and letters. When you read a book of poetry, you don’t expect to find history. When you read a metaphysics textbook, you won’t find prayers there. So the first order of business when confronting something difficult or discordant is to ask “How does the genre of this scripture affect my understanding of it?”
When we read in Psalm 22, “I am poured out like water and all my bones are out of joint,” we do not think think this poor wretch has dislocated every joint in his body. We understand he is using metaphor to describe his anguish.
People are sometimes puzzled when the Gospels seem to disagree on details or chronology. We need to remember that the Gospels aren’t biography, at least not in the way we read biography today. Each one was written in a particular way for a particular audience, through the lens and memory of a particular writer. Like any writer, they emphasize some things, exclude others. But the Gospel writers, in spite of any different paths they may use to lead us there, bring us to the same, immutable truth: that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Leave Room for Mystery
Sometimes, despite our best efforts, answers elude us. And that is when we need to allow for mystery. I know it sounds like a cop out. But if we believe what is written in 2 Timothy 3:16 — “All scripture is breathed out by God”— then we have to admit to some mystery because we cannot completely know the mind of God. Perhaps it is a mystery that will be revealed to us at a later reading; perhaps not until we we see God face to face.
How to understand and interpret the Bible has been discussed and debated for millennia, by people far more learned than me. These are just some of my musings, by no means exhaustive or even authoritative. I do have some suggestions for resources if you’d like to explore this further:
- A Good Study Bible. These are enormously helpful in understanding difficult passages by giving historical context, explaining word meanings and cross references to other related scripture. Some study Bibles are too “directional” for my taste, especially the ones that say “This is what this passage means.” But that’s just me.
- Commentaries. A great place to start is a series of commentaries by Tom Wright (for example, “John for Everyone”). These are solid theology written for the lay reader.
- Shaped by the Bible by William Willimon
- Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson. This is a good treatment of “the art of spiritual reading.”
- The Bible Jesus Read by Philip Yancey. This is an engaging exploration of the Old Testament and its relevance to Christians.
And these are just the ones on my bookshelf! I leave you with this:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete for every good work.”