The views we prefer & believing in self over God

One of the dangers when it comes to biblical interpretation is leaning towards views that we prefer. We may hit on bits of the Bible that jar with us. Otherwise, there are interpretations of passages that would justify what we want to be true while others rub against what we wish was true. When we hit upon them, it is always tempting to run with the translation we prefer.

This is not a new problem. Augustine of Hippo said, ‘If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.’ More recently, in a similar vein, Tim Keller said this:

Both thoughts speak to this tendency.

And we must be honest, all of us are tempted to it. We are all prone to wanting scripture to agree with us, or interpreting it in ways that suit whatever we wish it said. There are doctrines that are easy to believe because they chime with our culture or personal disposition and there are those that are harder to swallow because they are not well regarded by our culture or they do not suit us. The temptation to re-interpret those that don’t suit us is ever present.

The issue when we hit on bits of scripture that jar with us is not to do with what God has said. Any issue in the ways it jars lies with us. When we feel uncomfortable with scripture, if we re-interpret it to be more palatable to us, we are essentially saying God has gotten it wrong and we know better than him. If only he knew what we know, he probably wouldn’t have said this. Doing that makes God the problem. When, in truth, the issue lies with us.

There are doctrines that I believe, not because I like them, but because they are what I genuinely believe the Bible teaches. They are things I believe despite what I wish the Bible said. That, of course, doesn’t mean God got that bit wrong. Nor do it give me the right to find an interpretation that allows me to get around the very worst of what I think the Bible teaches. It means that my will, my holiness, my right judgement is out of kilter with God. The problem isn’t with him, it is with me.

There are doctrines that I simply do not fully understand. Whilst I think some Christians are a bit quick to throw out the word ‘mystery’ without fully thinking through what we can actually know based on what has been revealed, there are some things that cannot be fully understood. Nobody will ever fully understand the Trinity. That isn’t to say there aren’t things we can and do know about it. It is just to say we will only ever know as much as God chooses to reveal. It doesn’t matter whether we can fully wrap our heads around it or not, we believe it because that is what God has revealed about himself. It is a point I make regularly with our Muslim friends. I don’t believe the Trinity because I think it makes sense (though I do think it makes more sense than they credit, they just aren’t working with a framework that allows them to make sense of it), I believe it because that is how God has revealed himself and, if I really trust him, I will accept his self-revelation on the grounds that he understands himself better than I do. It doesn’t matter whether I can fully grasp it or not, it matters that it is true.

This is just as true in all sorts of areas of life. I, frankly, have no idea what is going on under the bonnet of my car for the most part. I understand there are things like spark plugs that fire and turn pistons, I get it some level. But in practice, I don’t really understand it. I just trust that when engineers tell me this is how the car works that they know what they’re talking about. This is pretty much true of any tradesman who has ever been in my home and explained to me problems with my electrics or heating system. I can grasp what they tell me when they say ‘the expansion tank is broken’. I trust that is true. I don’t really claim to properly understand what that means, how to fix it or exactly why it is important. I just know my heating doesn’t work. I trust the guy who wrote the manual and the dude who is trained to fix my boiler.

When it comes to scripture, we have to ask ourselves whether we trust the person who wrote it. It doesn’t matter whether we can fully understand the doctrine or we can see the reasons behind whatever is commanded or affirmed. The nature of faith is that we trust what is actually written, even if we can’t fully comprehend why it is written. This is the nature of believing God knows better than us.

Of course our interpretation may be skewwhiff. But we will only have any hope of believing any interpretation if we are at least committed to allowing what the Bible says to speak on the terms that it says those things. If our default is to ask, ‘what’s the point of that?’ or ‘I don’t like some possible outworkings of where this might lead if I’m reading it rightly’, we are probably heading into some problematic interpretation based on how we feel about matters. The first question has always got to be, what does this actually say? What is the apparent meaning of this particular text? Once we’ve worked that out, we can deal with any theological implications later. After all, our interpretation shouldn’t be driven by potential implications, rather we let the Bible speak for itself and then draw our implications from it.

Where there are concerns about what the Bible says, where we land on our interpretation because there doesn’t seem to be any other credible way to read what it says, we then have to face the implications. If we don’t like them, we are saying God got it wrong. But faith does not say I know better than God. Faith says, I’m not sure I like this but I trust that the Lord knows better than me, I believe he is good and I believe that he has the right to command whatever he will. The issue, in the end, is not with God, but my self-righteousness suggesting I am more righteous than the one whose Word determines what righteousness is! Sometimes we simply have to say, I don’t understand, I don’t know why God says this is good and right, but I trust that it is because he is and I will submit myself to him and his greater judgement. As per Augustine, and later Keller, doing much else is not so much to believe in him, but yourself.