We often wonder, “If the Bible is God’s Word, why did He make it so difficult for me to understand?”
I think that there are many explanations for this:
1. Cultural and Linguistic Differences
2. Scribal Errors
3. Our Own Biased Presuppositions
However, biblical interpretation – understanding its teachings in a harmonious way – is going to be difficult for another reason. Its content often transcends our understanding. And why shouldn’t it if it comes from above! Our Lord even warned us about this:
- “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
If this is true, we shouldn’t be so quick to discount what the Bible teaches, when we can’t get our mind around it. One example of this are the teachings about God – namely, the Trinity. Another example are the teachings about the sovereignty of God – that He is in control and will bring about what He wants – together with the seemingly opposite assertions of our freewill and moral responsibility.
There are numerous examples of this combination – the perplexing mix of God’s sovereignty with our own. After the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, the Prophet Jeremiah lamented
- Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come? Why should the living complain when punished for their sins? Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord. (Lamentations 3:37-40).
According to Jeremiah, God is in control. He brings “calamity and good things,” but Israel had to take full responsibility for their sins. Paul even claimed that we are His workmanship. Consequently, God had pre-ordained all of our works for us to do (Eph. 2:10). Nevertheless, we are responsible for our sins.
Those who crucified the Messiah were responsible for this monumental sin, even though they acted in accordance with the will of God:
- “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross." (Acts 2:22-23)
What brought about the crucifixion? God’s plan formulated before he had even created the world! Nevertheless, those who carried out the plan were also responsible! Peter gave no hint that they weren’t responsible, merely because they were carrying out God’s will. Instead, he directed them to repent of their sins:
- When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:37-39)
Although they were acting in accordance with God’s pre-ordained plan, they weren’t granted a moral free pass. They were still guilty, and therefore Peter insisted that they had to repent of their sins. Somehow, God’s sovereignty – His control – is compatible with human responsibility and freewill!
How do we put these two disparate truths together – God is responsible but so are we? We accept them both, even if we don’t completely understand them! Our welfare depends on this. Here’s an example of this. What if you son tells you:
- I’m not going to look for a job. I’d rather just trust that God He will open the right door for me.
How are you to answer such a pious-sounding statement? After all, trusting God must come first. We have to insist that both truths count – trusting God and also taking responsibility. As a result, your response might go like this:
- I’m certainly glad that you are trusting God. But if you are trusting God, you will do what He tells you to do! And one of those things is to work!
This response illustrates the need to embrace both truths – to trust and obey. They go together. If we trust God, we will do what He tells us to do. If we don’t trust God, we won’t!
The Apostle Paul illustrated this dual embrace in many of his teachings. He often preached the need to work hard along with the need to trust in God for our hard work:
· But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (1 Cor. 15:10)
Although he claimed that he took charge and worked harder than the others, he gave all of the credit to God for these labors, demonstrating his embrace of both truths – our responsibility and God’s sovereignty. It’s not a matter of one truth or the other but an incomprehensible combination of both. Likewise, he often gave commands to the church that were undoubtedly perplexing:
- Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:12-13)
On the one hand, Paul taught that we had to take responsibility for our salvation. On the other hand, God was completely in charge. In His mind, it is already a done-deal. He would work in us to create the right desires and obedience according to His intentions. Although we may not understand this completely, we must nevertheless embrace both truths. We must reach forth having the knowledge and confidence that He will perform His will.
This understanding eliminates all boasting and gives all the credit to God, where it belongs. Some will counter that we reap what we sow. Therefore, we are responsible for the blessings we receive. In a limited sense, this is true. But according to Paul’s teaching, the only reason that we can sow is because God is working in our lives to accomplish His glorious purposes.
Of course, the skeptic will say:
- Your Christian faith is idiotic. If God has a comprehensive plan for your life, it’s going to happen no matter what you do! So you might as well live like the devil!
Admittedly, we cannot answer this challenge completely. So rather than trying, I’d recommend a different tact:
CHRISTIAN: You believe in science, don’t you?
SKEPTIC: Of course!
CHRISTIAN: Doesn’t science yield us many perplexing findings, like the behavior of waves and sub-atomic particles. We don’t even understand elementary concepts like time and space! If you are willing to accept such perplexities in the realm of science – in this world - why do you look down on the Christian faith for its willingness to accept perplexity in the realm of the other world!
We should expect that much of what God tells us is going to be perplexing. If it wasn’t, we have to wonder whether it is really from God.