My relationship with the Bible has always been one of intense love…and at times almost crippling doubt. And it all began for me with a fairly lukewarm prayer.
Jesus, I’m going to try to take you seriously for a while. As best I can remember, these are the words I prayed down in the basement of my childhood home when I was 18 years old. It wasn’t a very poetic prayer, and it even seems a bit half-hearted, but it was enough. That night Jesus grabbed onto this reluctant convert and nothing for me has been the same since.
That moment set me on a path–a lifelong quest–to learn how to trust and love the Bible.
I’d grown up in church. My dad was a pastor during my formative years. I knew the Bible pretty well, and if we were doing a Bible trivia night, I could dominate. But it wasn’t until that lukewarm prayer that I began to hear God’s voice through its ancient pages. I could see God’s love for me. I could see myself in His words. A life and a love and a joy calling out to me from its pages.
Weird, right? As a senior in high school, unsure of my future, lonely and depressed, God found me and He used His Book to do it.
I couldn’t get enough.
Almost instantly, I couldn’t get enough of this Book. It was like food and I hadn’t eaten for years. I’d read it in the morning before school and at night before bed. Sermons (at Christ Community no less, vintage Pastor Tom) came alive. I began discussing it with friends and a few months later even began leading a Bible study with my peers.
I wanted to know it and understand it and trust it and obey it and build my life on it. I wanted to know the One who’d made me and there He was on these dusty pages.
But then doubt settled in.
I don’t know if you know this about the Bible, but it is a hard book. Once you start reading (more than just the inspiring soundbite), questions surface. Brutal, sometimes seemingly unanswerable questions. And then, of course, doubt.
The next fall I headed off to Bible college (I told you, I fell hard for this book!), yet the more I studied and read, the more questions I had. In fact, the greatest season of doubt in my life (so far) happened while in Bible college and then seminary. Could I really build my life on a Book so old, so often confusing, so very difficult at times, with so little certainty?
Can we really trust (and love) the Bible?
Well, no surprise, I’m going to say yes. Let me go ahead and name my bias. Big shocker that a pastor says we should trust the Bible. But it has never been easy for me. Doubts still surface. Regularly. As I said, my relationship with the Bible has been one of intense love…and at times almost crippling doubt. To some extent, that remains true today (though thankfully less debilitating).
I know that there is nothing I could say to instantly make you trust and love the Bible. Faith is still required. But I want to share with you why I believe. Or perhaps more importantly, why I keep believing. Why do I keep returning to this beautiful, difficult, mysterious, ancient Book? Here are the three most important reasons for me personally: the person of Jesus, the character of God, and the testimony of its pages.
But first, a few warnings.
This is not meant to be exhaustive and it should be noted that everything here has been the subject of countless blogs and books. There are people smarter than me if you want to dig deeper. I also want to acknowledge that my reasons can easily be questioned. I don’t have any unassailable arguments and some of what I’m going to say is clearly circular in its reasoning. (Trust the Bible because the Bible tells you to trust the Bible–it’s great logic, I know.)
Here’s the deal. If you don’t want to trust the Bible, there is nothing I can say to convince you. Faith is still required.
That is exactly right. My goal is not to convince those who don’t want to believe but to encourage those who do.
The Bible is a difficult book. It’s ok to admit that. Yet being difficult to understand isn’t the same as being untrustworthy. There is a lot I still don’t understand about the Scriptures, and a few things I just don’t like. But I keep coming back for these three reasons.
- The Person of Jesus
Everything in my faith comes down to the person of Jesus. Everything! I answer each of my doubts with this: did Jesus rise from the dead or not? If He didn’t, I’m out. But if He did, everything changes! If Jesus actually rose from the dead that is the most important truth the world has ever known, making Jesus the most important person. You see, one day I’d like to rise from the dead as well. So if He did, I want to hang on every word He said and all He did.
There is good historical evidence (not just the Bible tells me so) supporting the validity of the resurrection. While much could be said, until someone more compellingly answers the following questions, I will continue to believe Jesus did come out of the grave alive.
- Why was the tomb empty and why couldn’t anyone find the body?
- What about all the eyewitnesses who saw Him alive?
- If it was a legend, why would the inventors make women (who couldn’t even testify in court in that time period) the first eyewitnesses? And why would you make all the men doubting cowards?
- How do you explain the transformation of the eyewitness, from doubting cowards in hiding to literal martyrs for their faith that Jesus was alive?
- Where did the church (and this crazy movement of His followers) come from, in the midst of so much oppression?
If Jesus rose from the dead, then it doesn’t matter if you like what He said or not or whether or not you find Him personally compelling. If He rose from the dead, He wins, and I’m listening.
Jesus believed the Old Testament.
And Jesus believed the Old Testament. I struggle with the Old Testament. I love the stories and poetry, but I find it much harder than the New Testament. Not only did Jesus believe it, He loves it! He quotes it and makes references to it constantly. You can’t even really understand Jesus without understanding the Old Testament.
He said things like …Scripture cannot be broken… (John 10:35), referring to the Old Testament. In His most famous sermon, considered to be a kind of summary of His main passions, He says: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:17-18).
He even referred to Himself as the center of the Old Testament Scriptures and the key to their understanding. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me… (John 5:39).
...beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself… Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead… (Luke 24:27, 45-46)
The one who defeated death believed, taught, loved, obeyed, and even revealed Himself as the focus and fulfillment of the Old Testament. I’m siding with the One who defeated death—every time.
Jesus commissioned the New Testament (sort of).
It also seems like He commissioned the writing of the New Testament through the work of the Apostles. The people who knew Jesus best were the ones who wrote these things down for us.
Jesus told them: I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you (John 16:12–15).
It is reasonable to believe that Jesus wanted His Apostles to write these things down, and promised that His Spirit would guide them in it.
Jesus reveals the character of God.
Jesus also shows us who God is. Whoever has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9). And what does Jesus reveal to us about God the Father?
Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection show us that God wants to rescue. God wants to love and be loved. God wants a really big, beautiful, diverse family. God wants a relationship with His creation. Our God wants to be known. That doesn’t prove He gave us the Bible, but it does give us a motive. Jesus shows us that it is God’s heart to communicate with His people.
Hebrews begins with these words, making a similar connection: Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son… (1:1-2) The Apostle John does the same when He refers to Jesus as the Word of God (John 1).
If God so wants to be known that He would send His own Son, it’s at least plausible that He would find other ways to reveal Himself as well. I trust the Bible because I trust the person of Jesus.
- The Character of God
I also trust the Bible because I trust the character of God. Jesus shows us the character of God, but so do the Scriptures. You cannot read the Bible without the overwhelming sense that God wants us to know Him. The reason we exist is to know God and be known by Him. Here are just a few such scriptures:
Exodus 6:6-8: I am the Lord… I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians… I am the Lord.
Psalm 46:10: Be still, and know that I am God.
Proverbs 8:17: I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me.
John 17:3: And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
Jeremiah says it perhaps most beautifully. What is the most important thing any human can do? Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (9:23-24)
And what is God’s goal for humanity? I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
God wants to be known. This doesn’t mean the Bible is His Book but it does show us a deep motivation for self-revelation.
God cannot lie.
It’s also important to note here that God cannot lie. He wants to be known and, as God, He has the power and creativity to reveal Himself. But how can we trust Him? We can trust Him because He can only be truthful. He can only be faithful and honest.
1 Samuel 15:29: The Glory of Israel [meaning God] will not lie.
Numbers 23:19: God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?
If God is real and if He wants to be known, He will reveal Himself accurately and honestly. I trust the Bible because I trust the character of God.
- The Testimony of Its Pages
I also trust the Bible because I trust the testimony of its pages. If the Bible is not God’s Word, it is perhaps the most arrogant, self-confident, full-of-itself book ever written.
If it is not God’s Word, it is not just a nice book with nice stories and nice morals. If it is not God’s Word, it is evil, because it claims to hold the very words of God, and to be the greatest, most important, most sacred book ever written. Trust it or trash it.
The claims it makes.
Listen to just a few of its claims:
2 Samuel 7:28: Now, O Lord God, You are God, and Your words are truth…
2 Samuel 22:31: This God—his way is perfect; the word of the Lord proves true.
Psalms 12:6: The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
Psalm 18:30: As for God, His way is blameless; the word of the Lord is tried…
Psalm 19:7: The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
Proverbs 30:5: Every word of God proves true.
2 Timothy 3:16-17: 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, equipped for every good work.
2 Peter 1:19-21: And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
Revelation 22:6: And he said to me, “These words are faithful and true”; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must soon take place.
The Story it tells.
The Story it tells also nudges me toward belief. I can’t tell you if its words are true, and perhaps I’m only speaking from my own experience, but the Story of Scripture has a ring of truth about it. Yes, it is easy to get lost in the details or all the individual stories, but when you see its grand narrative, many of our questions and longings find compelling answers. The grand Story can be summed up in four chapters: Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation.
Creation. The world had a beginning. It was made with purpose and significance, with humans made in the image of God. Regardless of what you believe about how or when God made the world, the fact that He made it answers so many questions. It compellingly explains why we live as if our lives matter, why beauty touches us so deeply, why love and relationships are so essential, and why, even now in the 21st Century, we just can’t seem to shake our longing for a Maker. The Bible shows us how we were created with these things in mind.
Fall. But everything is broken. We hurt the people we love. We run from God. We choose self-destructive paths. We break the things we touch. And despite all our effort, we can’t fix it. Then add to that cancer, viruses, tornados, infertility, pain in childbirth, loneliness, depression, anxiety, terrorism, war, racism, trafficking, and eventually death. We know in our bones the world shouldn’t be this way. The Bible tells us why.
Redemption. Yet we long for things to be better, and we work to that end. We strive toward self-improvement and we long for it in the people we love. We celebrate stories of forgiveness and reconciliation, rescue and redemption. These things are hard-wired into us by a God who offers them to us, and we see them on display through the climax of this Story in His Son. The Bible explains these longings.
New Creation. One day things will finally and completely be made whole. We want utopia. We want to live forever. We want to be reunited with the people we’ve lost. We want to see God. All these longings find fulfillment in the Story of Scripture.
No, none of this proves the Bible is true or that this grand narrative is the narrative we’re living. Yet, it gives me just one more piece of confidence in believing. It tells a compelling Story.
The way it speaks.
And if you thought that last point was too subjective, you’ll hate this one.
The way this Book speaks to my heart reinforces its veracity. When I read it I can almost hear God’s voice. I feel comforted in my heartache, convicted of my sin, and exposed at my deepest level. I don’t just read this Book. It reads me! It knows me and speaks directly to me. I trust the Bible because I trust the testimony of its pages.
So what now?
So what are we supposed to do with all this? I want to end with three action steps.
- Bring Him your doubts
First, bring God your doubts. I know I didn’t answer your questions and I realize there are fair reasons to doubt the Scriptures. Don’t sweep your doubts under the rug. Take your doubts seriously enough to look into them.
Sometimes people say things like “the Bible is full of contradictions” without actually looking at any supposed contradictions. Or sometimes we reject the Scriptures not because of any logical argument, but simply because we don’t like what it says. I don’t want to obey this so it must not be true. There are also times when we assume the Bible must be false simply because we haven’t taken the time to properly understand it in its cultural context.
Instead, take your doubts seriously enough to do some of the work to really understand. I discovered early on that many of my doubts had more to do with a lack of understanding or an unquestioning loyalty to my own cultural assumptions than with anything inherent in the text. Do the work. Bring Him your doubts.
- Trust that God knows better
Second, in all matters, trust that God knows better. Easier said than done I know, but if God has spoken, trust that He has spoken for our good. His Word is for your good. I love how the statement of faith for our denomination the Evangelical Free Church of America summarizes what we believe about the Scriptures. Pay close attention to how it ends.
We believe that God has spoken in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, through the words of human authors. As the verbally inspired Word of God, the Bible is without error in the original writings, the complete revelation of His will for salvation, and the ultimate authority by which every realm of human knowledge and endeavor should be judged. Therefore, it is to be believed in all that it teaches, obeyed in all that it requires, and trusted in all that it promises.
Believed, obeyed, and trusted. Not just read or studied or proclaimed, as important as those things are.
Jesus said: Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it. (Matthew 7:24-27)
Trust these words. Obey them. Build your life upon them. They are for you from God. Trust that He knows better.
- Make this Book your food
And finally, eat this Book! Make it your food. It is strange to me how regularly the Bible refers to itself as a kind of food, sweeter than the best dessert and more satisfying than the richest feast. For Jesus while fasting even chose God’s Word over bread. He said, quoting the Old Testament: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4).
So eat up, Church! Read it regularly and systematically. Memorize it and meditate upon it. Learn to study it and dig deeply into it. Know it so that you can trust it, love it, obey it, and build your life upon it.
Where else can we go?
I love this Book and I want you to love it too. It has been twenty-three years since that half-hearted prayer in my parent’s basement. Twenty-three years and I still feel like I’m just barely at the beginning, still struggling, still doubting, but still growing.
Whenever I’m wrestling with my faith (which is more often than I care to admit) I often think of one of my favorite stories from the Gospels. Jesus was at the height of his popularity but then preached a really hard sermon. After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…” (John 6:66-69).
I often feel like Peter. For I am often burdened by doubt and unanswered questions, tempted, like the crowds, to walk away. But where would I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life! So here I am, learning to trust (and love) the Bible.
I am restless. There is a question I cannot get out of my head despite my best efforts.
How did we end up with two billion Christians in the world?
Or, to ask more provocatively – how did the early church go from a small, persecuted, hated minority to the only diverse (in wealth, gender, and ethnicity) religious movement the world has ever seen?
I ask that question because as I write, the church in America is seeing the opposite. We are witnessing a massive decline in American Christianity. The statistics are everywhere so I won’t bore you with them (just Google “decline in American Christianity”).
I ask that question because I believe in the promises of God. His plan for the world is not a spattering of churches scattered throughout the world. God’s plan for this world in His Scriptures are bold, outrageous even. Habakkuk says, The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (2:14). Jesus Himself said, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18). These promises are just the tip of the iceberg, and God has plans for every square inch of His creation.
Why, then, the decline on our square inch of creation, the United States?
Like a good pragmatic American, my first response is to ask, What did the early church do that we are not doing? That question is instructive. One of the key texts of the early church’s “New Members Class,” a text the early Christian scholar Origen tells us Christians knew by heart, was Isaiah 2, with words of peace promised to a world of war:
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
Alan Kreider, in his book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, says early Christians memorized this text because they were committed to loving their enemies. In that day, when a Roman citizen became a Christian, they almost certainly lost money (maybe even their job), lost relationships, lost reputation, faced insult, and at times even risked threats to their physical safety. So, the early church intentionally trained itself in love for enemies.
That is interesting, and memorizing Isaiah 2 might be a good idea for my own discipleship and growth in loving my enemies, but it doesn’t answer my question. What enabled the people of the early church to love their enemies?
Kreider points out that the early church had an almost irrational level of confidence, much like my nine pound miniature dachshund (think hot dog, like Oscar Mayer; also, if it’s not clear, this is my illustration, not Kreider’s). My dog has the confidence level of a military tank. If you walk onto our property, he will prepare himself for attack, not realizing he is actually an old dachshund that basically has no teeth.
Yes, in this analogy I am comparing my dog to the early church. While this level of confidence is just odd and misplaced for my dog, it was not for the early church.
The early church did not look at the surrounding world of Rome and fear their persecutors, or their enemies. Instead, Kreider writes:
During the early centuries the Christians gave the impression of being confidently powerful. Why? In part because they believed the struggles they were involved in were above all, spiritual. They saw themselves as fighting not primarily against humans or institutions but against spiritual forces that were hostile to them and that impeded human flourishing….The demons did have power – their role in engineering the crucifixion of Jesus was evidence of this. But the believers confessed that on the cross Jesus had exposed the true nature of the demonic powers and vanquished them. And not only that – he also, through the Holy Spirit, had unleashed unimagined spiritual power for good in the world. The Christians claimed they had access to that power.
I have my answer.
In the last year, we have processed a pandemic together, rioting, racial injustice, political upheaval, and violence. Christians have asked me to read, listen to, and watch a LOT of things. Social media posts. Articles. Podcasts. YouTube videos of someone “destroying” another argument.
But I can count on just one hand the number of times someone has told me what they have heard from God through prayer. Through Scripture. Through the Spirit of God.
Despite the decline in the American church, I am not worried. Unimagined spiritual power for good has been unleashed in the world through the resurrection of Jesus. We have access to that power.
Let’s access it.
I have clear and vivid memories of standing over the same baby crib as each of my four children slept. Many times I would enter the room to check on them, admire their peaceful resting state, or wait to see if they would crack an involuntary smile while sleeping. But the clearest memories I have are of simply praying over them. One of my most common prayers is that they would grow to love God and love the things that He loves.
But there came a time when I realized that I was only praying one side of the prayer coin, so to speak. We fall short if we only love the things that God loves. To be a follower of Jesus who is devoted to His ways and to His kingdom, we must also hate the things that God hates.
In fact, in Paul’s famous words in Romans where he essentially lays out the profile of a Christian, he makes the strong connection between love and hate.
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. – Romans 12:9 (ESV)
Isn’t it fascinating that the first thing Paul says regarding the genuine nature of love is about hating something? True love demands hating evil. In a way this is an echo of the timeless words of wisdom found in Ecclesiastes 3. There is a time for everything, including hate (Ecclesiastes 3:8).
We are in such a time when our genuine love demands this kind of hate.
In recent weeks we have witnessed multiple incidents of evil made manifest through racial injustice. Space won’t permit me to share the details of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Christian Cooper, and George Floyd. Not to mention the increased hostility and racism towards the Asian American community in the spread of COVID-19. I encourage you to read about these image bearers who were the victims of racial injustice. But even more than that, I encourage you to love enough to hate.
Love enough to hate that Ahmaud Arbery was killed for being a black man on a run in his own neighborhood. Love enough to hate that Breona Taylor’s life was taken as a result of a no-knock search warrant that had nothing to do with her. Love enough to hate that a white woman called the police on Christian Cooper and leveraged his ethnicity on the call to criminalize him. Love enough to hate that George Floyd lost his life because of the unnecessary and unwarranted pressure placed upon his neck by a police officer.
We must see these situations for what they are.
They are injustices that should be called out.
A people committed to Jesus and His kingdom, built upon righteousness and justice (Matthew 9:13, Psalm 89:14) must understand justice completely. And that means understanding injustice whenever, wherever, and whomever it strikes. Our failure to see and hate injustice is evil.
That is why we must love enough to hate.
As Proverbs 28:5 says, Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the LORD understand it completely. These events, and many like them, should cause us to grieve, lament, cry out, and plead with God to bring justice and peace.
Our love for the God whose image is imprinted upon every human being should lead us to hate the racist beliefs and behaviors of individuals, including ourselves (James 3:9). Our belief in the presence of powers and principalities in our world should empower us to identify and work against the structures and institutions that perpetuate subtle and not so subtle acts of oppression and inequality (Ephesians 6:12). Our faith in the reconciling power of the gospel should compel us to work toward all matters of justice, be they racial, economic, social, or political (Ephesians 2:11-22). Our identity in Christ should lead us to combat the pervasive white superiority that still lingers in the air of our nation, and perpetuates a divide among ethnicities (Galatians 3:27-29). And our hope in the new heavens and new earth where Christ will be praised by all tribes, tongues, and nations should motivate us to pursue a gospel-infused diversity within our local churches (Revelation 7:9-10).
May the church of Jesus Christ be known, seen, and heard as those who love enough to hate.
But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:24 (ESV)