The Consequences of Ignoring the Hard Parts of the Bible

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joshua-bibleWhen I didn’t think about the hard parts of the Bible, I had a very simplistic view of God.

You could boil it down to the conflict between Job and his friends. A complex, mysterious God vs. a simplistic, almost mechanical God who operates according to strict rules. I had no way of processing the difficult parts of life, let alone to face the difficult parts of the Bible.

My fragile faith depended on simple explanations for everything. If I couldn’t explain part of the Bible, then I feared that I would lose the Bible. If I couldn’t explain the hard times in life, then I feared I would lose God.

Atheism isn’t necessarily caused by asking hard questions of the Bible. I came closest to losing my faith when I asked a hard question about God or the Bible and could only find an unrealistically simple answer.

God does not owe anyone an answer or an explanation for the parts of the Bible or life that we can’t understand. However, we do God no favors when we brush away unspeakable tragedy or troubling passages with an explanation that fails to truly grapple with the full testimony of scripture.

Answers that don’t work for me in the face of difficult passages/circumstances include:

God is holy.

God is sovereign.

God is all-powerful.

I started writing this post with the goal of addressing difficult Bible passages like the conquest of Canaan where God essentially commanded the Israelites to commit war crimes. However, after reading about the unspeakable tragedy unfolding in the aftermath of tornadoes in Oklahoma, I’ve found the focus of this post widening a bit. Perhaps working through some of the difficulties in the Bible will help us as we grieve and process this tragedy as well.

A Complicated Picture of God

As I’ve been reading through the most disturbing passages in the Old Testament, I’ve seen the loving kindness, patience, and mercy of God come into tension with the justice, anger, and judgment of God. While God’s defining characteristics are love and patience, it’s a mistake to think they rule out his anger and justice.

There is sin and evil in this world, and God consistently makes it clear that he will not tolerate them forever. In fact, he will punish those who go too far down that road and never repent.

We don’t know how to measure God’s patience or his limits for dealing with evil. There aren’t formulas or clear guidelines. However, the stories in the Old Testament consistently show God giving time and warnings to people about their choices.

The Old Testament also shows that God is sometimes involved in natural phenomena, but isn’t intricately orchestrating every single thing that happens on earth. The “plan” of God is for people to obey him and to one day bring peace and justice to the earth.

When Jesus’ disciples thought that the Tower of Siloam fell on a group of people because they were wicked, he quickly rebuked them.

The Bible shows us that God is deeply invested and involved in our world. Sometimes we can understand the ways of God and sometimes we’re left confused and even disturbed by what we’ve just read. The story of the conquest of Canaan has been among the latter for me.

Why would God command his people to commit war crimes?

There are Two Ways to Ignore the Hard Parts of the Bible

I have found two ways to side step the difficult passages in the Bible.

I can avoid reading the hard parts of the Bible and settle for simple answers and explanations without digging deeper.

Or I can just rule out those passages as later additions, distortions, or myths.

There’s a part of me that wishes I could just rule out those passages.

The story of the conquest of Canaan is quite difficult to handle because I can certainly understand part of the story. The people of Canaan were doing some detestable things. They were killing children in order to worship their false gods. They prostituted women in the service of their gods as well. When the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, they attacked them.

The Canaanites weren’t powerless, innocent people. I can understand that God would desire to deliver justice and to end their evil actions.

However, when I encounter the story of the conquest of Canaan, I’m also hesitant to say that I understand why the Israelites were commanded to kill off all of the people in several towns. These are war crimes by our standards today, and it’s hard to reconcile that with God and a command for God’s people.

By confronting this story in all of its complexity, I have found that I don’t necessarily have to run from it or explain it away, even if there are still some aspects of it that I can’t quite resolve.

Jesus Makes More Sense

Some have argued that the “violent God” passages in the OT show that Jesus represents a radical change in direction. It’s almost borderline Marcionism, dividing the Gods of each testament. However, Jesus represents the culmination of God’s desires throughout the Old Testament.

There are far more passages in the OT that look ahead to Jesus, predicting a suffering servant, the triumph of God over evil, and the restoration of peace on earth. The matter of the OT isn’t that God is always violent. The picture is complex and difficult to piece together.

I’m all for discussing a variety of ways to interpret or classify a story in the OT. Modern history as we know it didn’t exist back then, so there could be some stories that function more mythically than we would suspect. However, I prefer to make my first move toward reconciling the narratives, laws, and prophecies of the OT based on the assumption that they happened as reported.

And while including a story like the conquest of Canaan puts us in a tight spot, I don’t think it necessarily ruins the whole Bible. We can look back through the ministry of Jesus and see God’s compassion and desire to save all nations. God himself was willing to come down and die for all people.

I can’t reconcile the conquest of Canaan with the radically different conquest of the cross, but there are so many significant stories, prophecies, and poems in the Old Testament that show us a loving, self-sacrificing God is far from a new innovation.

What Does the Bible Reveal to Us About God?

The full picture of the Bible shows us that God is just and holy, willing to punish those who persist in doing evil. However, God is patient, kind, and ready to forgive. God so badly wants to restore people to a relationship with himself, that he sacrificed himself to defeat the grip of evil on us, dwelling among us today through the Holy Spirit.

God chooses to live among us in a world where there is evil, pain, and conflict. While God will one day judge evil and restore peace to this world, things are not yet as God or any of us would want them to be.

I can’t understand everything about the past judgments of God, but I can see that God has taken action against evil on the cross, paying a price that few of us would ever want to pay.

A Complicated Bible for a Complicated World

Avoiding the hard passages of the Bible altered my understanding of God and didn’t prepare me for the complications of life.

If all we have is an easily understood, easily explained, neat and tidy Bible, then it’s not much good in a world that is confusing, mysterious, and extremely messed up.

I’m less and less convinced that the Bible exists to give us straight answers. If that was the purpose of the Bible, then it does a bad job of it.

Rather, the Bible comforts, questions, and disrupts us. We can see that our troubles today are nothing new and that people have been seeking out God for thousands of years, asking questions, making requests, and finding hope in the presence of God.

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19 thoughts on “The Consequences of Ignoring the Hard Parts of the Bible

  1. Ray Hollenbach

    Call me a fanboy. This is outstanding work, Ed, and needs a wide audience. It’s principled, honest, and unafraid. I’ll resist the temptation to add 2-more cents worth, and say simply, “Amen.”

  2. Margaret @ Felice Mi Fa

    Very interesting. I often find people ignoring more of what the Bible says about us than what it says about God. Many of the hard parts for people, in addition to the ones you mention, are the ones that ask things of us that we might not want to do.

  3. Herm

    Good start. Why do we waste so much time trying so very hard to define our Father in Heaven … or just who is this Jesus … or exactly what are the physics behind the Holy Spirit? When we were in our terrible twos did we have such a need to define those who gave us birth and/or were our caregivers (whom without we know now we could not have survived and yet they could not be 100% sure they could keep us from harm)? Does Luke 10:25-37 work or doesn’t it? Does the Holy Spirit share in my heart and mind or not?
    I am a child of God who would just love to share my divine adopting Parent with the lost children playing around me. I know there are more than 100 words each time that need to be shared between us who understand to share that this is an opportunity we need not waste. We can love and trust Daddy to be there when we play in this His backyard that many children share but do not know Him. We can trust Dad to do the knowing and he will teach us how to do the loving. I have so much to share and so much to learn and yet it is lost to our immature attention spans that give up trying to understand something knew offered before 100 words. Ed you just proved that but Bill and Ray trusted you to read through to the end. Did you have more you could have said?

    All I know for certain is loving my neighbor as myself and my enemy actually works and nobody but Jesus got that in writing before Him. I do see eternal light at the end of the tunnel for all who try to love without getting lost in the knowing. What possible good is having an eternal life if there isn’t that much more to learn? I grieve and empathize for all loss of life but I can no more explain or digest our recent losses than I can the 70 thousand in one Sichuan earthquake five years ago. God can and does to each who ask but not any more fully than we explain to our five year old children why their school mate won’t be there anymore.

    Let’s ask and share some New Testament hard parts?

    1. Herm

      Thank you Rob! I read and listened to each. The video made it very clear to me that a shadow is an image without light. God is light and I pray that His light shows through me so that I’m not blocking His light (that I’m basking in right this moment)from others. God shows who we are in all we write and say and all of the Old Testament was inspired to honestly share what His image looks like without light except that which told of what would come. All of the New Testament is the Way into the light. Thanks for the reference.

    1. Herm

      Jamie, tell Him directly in no uncertain language. He likes to wrestle and He doesn’t let go, we do. He is immediately available for one on one relationship. He is not a symbol pasted on the wall in the east or mounted on a steeple. Do it, now!!! I worship Him and our relationship because He answers me directly, really! Enjoy

      1. Jamie Wright Bagley

        I have told Him, I do tell Him, and I will keep asking! If I take my questions to heaven with me, you can bet it will be the first thing I ask of Him. And I’ll hope against hope that all those victims will be there and answered, too.
        I, like you, am not willing to throw out the Bible because I can’t understand it all; neither will I dismiss these concerns and pretend it’s ok because God…
        Thanks for your encouragement. This post is spot on and needed to be said!

  4. Melinda Viergever Inman

    Though I don’t agree with you on every fine point, I say well done! You’ve captured God’s patience and mercy and lovingkindness in balance with his justice. I am full of hope and glad I love and pursue this God as he pursues me. I look forward to more on this, Ed.

  5. Bill

    Excellent post. I’ve struggled mightily with how to reconcile God as revealed in Christ with the stories of the Caananite genocide.

    They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it— men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys. Joshua 6:21

    “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Matthew 28:52

    For what it’s worth, here’s my humble attempt to sort it out.
    http://practicingresurrection.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/conquest-and-christianity/

    1. Herm

      I am over 21 years younger than my eldest Brother whom I’ve never met. At bedtime my Father passionately read me this story that I’m afraid I might have slept through most of; The Grapes of Wrath. The next morning my 1st grade teacher asked us to write a story that means a lot to us. I wrote about The Grapes of Wrath. I knew how greatly both my teacher and my father inspired me and that’s what I put on my paper. I didn’t understand nearly as much about The Grapes of Wrath until my Brother came home to tell me His adventures while picking His Way across our great nation. We are children for God’s sake and that is how He receives us.

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  9. Jo

    “The more regimented and structured we made our prayer time, the more prayer happened spontaneously and freely.”

    I was so shocked when I found this to be true of my prayer life also. It seems contradictory, but then God is pretty good at turning things upside down. :)

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