The First Step in Dealing with Difficult Texts

There is a reason why John 3:16 is still probably the best known ­passage in the entire Bible. Not only is it because it provides a great summation of the gospel message; it’s also because it is, in some ways, easy to talk about. The verse in question is about God’s great love for us; it puts a spotlight on this love and it opens the door to eternity to “whosoever will” regardless of your past or your present.

It is, you could argue, an easy text.

But if you look at the Bible holistically, “easy” texts like that sit side by side with more difficult ones. Take, for example, the story you find in Numbers 31.

Moses, at the command of the Lord, leads the Israelites to attack the people of Midian, and the Israelite army killed every last man (Num. 31:7). They captured the Midianite women and children, though, and took them back to Moses. That’s when Moses ordered not only the women but the children to be killed (Num. 31:13-16). It’s disturbing to say the least.

Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue as easy as John 3:16, does it? Some have tried to deal with texts like these by simply throwing them out; this is the Old Testament, after all, and there’s a reason why we have the New Testament. So the simplest way to deal with difficult texts like these is to act like they don’t exist. They don’t get preached; they don’t really even get mentioned except along with phrases like, “Well that was weird.”

But if you believe in the whole revelation of God in Scripture, that’s really not an option. These Bible stories are there; indeed, these are the stories the early church looked at and preached to each other as the New Testament was still being inspired and written. So how do you deal with difficult texts like these?

I want to offer a potential first step. This first step is the one that comes before all the historical analysis and word studies. It’s before the careful examination of the context of the writing and the discovery of what this reveals to be as equally true about the character of God as the love that John 3:16 highlights.

The first step is to acknowledge that the problem with the text lies with me – not with God.

See, when we find a text to be difficult, it’s usually because of one of two reasons. Either it offends my preferences, or it offends my supposed sense of morality. In the first case, we don’t like a text because it demands us to change some loved behavior in our lives, and most of the time we don’t want to do that. It’s easier, then, to make the problem seem to be about the text itself.

In the second case, we have a problem with God doing something that doesn’t seem to be moral or right as we understand morality and rightness. So we think and we ponder over how this God who is supposed to be so loving can do something that seems so vicious.

In either case, though, the starting point of our objection is ourselves. We are assuming that we know the standard of right and wrong, good and bad. We look to ourselves to define what is love or moral. And in so doing, we reveal that we still have a very high opinion of ourselves.

When we are willing, on the front end, before anything else, to assume the opposite – that good and truth and love are all defined by God, for He is the Author of them all, then we must also assume that the problem in our understanding is not in the action of God but in our understanding of that action.

That’s when we’re ready to start digging in. Until then, though, we will still at some level read the Bible not in an attitude of humility but in arrogance, looking for a God that fits perfectly with how we think He should.

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1 Comment

  • Brodie Smith says:

    Thanks, mK! I like this! It is helpful as we walk our students through the book of Malachi the first part of this semester. This little book has some tough things to say, including one of the most difficult passages to translate (so I’m told). There is plenty of shock in those few pages, and taking ours own attitudes and reactions can be very beneficial for us as we study. What is my reaction/response, and WHY is that my reaction/response?

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