The Bible Is Not Trite (And Neither Is God) - Kyle Hanawalt
Sixth in series: When the Bible Came Alive to me
This week I am excited to continue our current series, that we have called When the Bible Came Alive. The basic starting point for this series is that I have found myself throughout my life to struggle with two big pitfalls when it comes to the Bible. SLIDE If you want to hear more about it, please feel free to go back and listen to one of the first two sermons in this series, On one side, you have treating the Bible with such reverence that you don’t ask proper questions, on the other is dismissing the Bible as antiquated and not worth listening to at all. And this series is exploring that middles of thoughtful, informed engagement of the Bible that allows it to come alive.
When I think about the experiences with the Bible that I have had that leave me with the worst taste in my mouth. The experiences that in large part led me for a time to disregard the Bible all together as not helpful in my life.
I think of all the trite things I have heard and I have said myself.
SLIDE The trite words of seeing suffering and saying, “God works in mysterious ways.” Or seeing some terrible thing happen and giving the trite words of “God has a plan.”
I think about the countless times that I heard some sort of trite platitude when I was talking to some religious person about my brother who who was trying to reassure me that it was all part of God’s plan that as 1 year old got meningitis and was left deaf for the rest of his life.
Or I think about when a women I knew when I was younger who was told, trust that God will provide, right before she evicted for being unable to pay rent.
Or I think about just this last week when Professional football player Corey Coleman was traded to another team and he tweeted out “God takes care of everything”
I don’t know why, but there was something about a football player getting traded from one team that paid him 1.5 million dollars last year, to a another team who will pay him 2 million dollars this year, saying “God takes care of everything” that hit me as particularly trite.
And it’s not just religion or Bible-thumpers that tends this way. No matter our backgrounds, we’ve no doubt all heard our fair share of stock phrases like “every cloud has a silver lining”
And as you can tell from my words, I can get pretty cynical about these things. I can get downright snarky when I hear Christian Cliches being passed around.
But, as I’ve grown older I have ALSO found that this snarkiness isn’t actually helping anyone either. Because people who use these kinds of trite cliches are not like terrible people.
They are people like me that see this world we live in and feel kinda out of control. SLIDE We see how unimaginably complex this life is and long to feel some sense of order, or some sense of simplicity running through it all.
I totally feel this desire to understand and try to simplify the world around me. This is why I almost obsessively spend time reading the latest research and studies coming out of psychology, sociology, and human behavior.
Frankly, trying to feel some sense of understanding and control over my life is a big reason I studied theology and religion, and why I ended up a pastor today. In the face of world that does feel out of control, I wanted to feel safe and to be able to wrap my head arounds things, see the order in it and thus somehow protect myself.
Well, despite my hope for more simplicity, and in contrast to all of those trite phrases I’ve often heard attributed to the Bible, I learned that a thoughtful and informed approach to the Bible and religion and theology did not make things feel more simple or well-ordered at all… SLIDE But the funny thing is, that was incredible news! I LOVED discovering that the Bible was not trite. I LOVED discovering that it was nuanced and complex and powerful and dynamic -- I couldn’t make my impossibly complex life and world more simple, but I didn’t need to -- because the Bible resonated with that impossible complexity and met me in the midst of it. The Bible came alive to me. It felt like it applied to my life like never before. I don’t think in anyway the Bible gives trite answers, I think the trite answers come from us.
And I want to highlight this by looking at one particular passage that I once thought used to make trite statements about God,
but so importantly, when read in context, it is anything but trite.
We could look at SO many such passages, but for the sake of time, I want to zoom in on one.
SLIDE Jeremiah 29. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
I like what this is saying. God has plans for me to prosper. Nice. And I believe that about God. And this is an oft-quoted Bible verse when one person wants to encourage another and in lots of cases that’s just super nice and great.
BUT, remember, we humans have that tendency to over-simplify, to make things a bit too neat and tidy to match with actual life.
I can remember being 16 years old and telling my friend who was suffering with depression that this was all part of God’s good plan for her life.
Can you believe that, I told her that her struggle with depression was a Good God’s plan for her. Trite.
And it’s because My initial experience of Jeremiah 29:11 was that it felt kind of like a security blanket: God has a plan for me that is good, so clearly any suffering I’m going through will end soon and then my flourishing will begin!
But, a simple assessment of the world, or your life, of reality makes this a tenuous truth.
Plan to prosper? looking at world wide poverty, hunger, inequity. Tough stuff to see how this stands up.
The truth is that in Jeremiah 29 that is not at all what God was promising to the Israelites, and it’s not what he’s promising us, either. But, as we’ve been talking about throughout this series, thoughtful, informed engagement of the Bible (which allows it to come alive to us) means we have to read things in context.
In this case, some historical context can help us...
SLIDE In this whole section of Jeremiah, Israel has been taken from their home and into exile. They are living under the rule of the babylonians. They have been, as the map shows, taken from Israel and moved to Babylonia, And their home, Israel, is everything to them. We’re more individualistic today, so we don’t get this -- perhaps if you come from a more collectivist part of the world, you can teach an American like me -- your home and your people is core to your identity. So, that’s the people being written to by Jeremiah, as he tries to pass on God’s encouragement: They are far from home, a key source of their identity, with no clear path back.
So, in hearing these words from Jeremiah, they would have had a pretty singular focus on what any plan of prospering would look like, it would look like God freeing them and returning them back to Israel.
So with that historical context, let’s jump back into that passage and consider a different context, the context of the passage itself, what is being discussed in the passages around it, we can’t just jump into it and ignore the context around it And what we find is quite interesting before we read we see in verse 7 Jeremiah write “seek the peace and the prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” What? If this passage was just trying to tell the Israelites that it is all going to work out, why on earth is god telling them to pursue good in the their current city. If God wanted to deliver a trite message to the Israelites, he very easily could have taken advantage of their longing to return home to Israel. He could have said: don’t worry it will all be ok you’ll get home soon, guys! And left it at that. But God’s words through Jeremiah don’t do that. God’s words treat the Israelites like adults. In verse 10, immediately before what we read first, Jeremiah passes on his message from God that the Israelites will only return to Israel “after seventy years are completed in Babylon.” This meant that none in the current generation of Israelites would ever return to their home. A return to that beloved home would be for their children, but not them personally. Take a moment to think about this. Those that just heard the words “I have plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” all those who just heard that message will spend the rest of their lives in exile. They will never see their home in again. And, with all of that context in mind, we can now see the full power and care behind this promise from God to these exiled Israelites that: “I, God, have plans to prosper you.”
in context it is impossible to read this as trite.
It is not a false promise that everything happening right now will sort itself out, or that God will make all things work out for you in the end,
but rather it’s an example of a time God is bringing life and comfort and hope to a people in the midst of suffering.
He is not lying to them to give them some false comforting platitude, he is being honest and straightforward about the challenges they are and will face. However, that even in the face of that challenge, he is with them and he cares for them, and in midst of their current painful circumstance, they can still experience life, hope and connection. Their suffering and struggle is not a sign that he has left them, but rather here we find an invitation to see God as close and with them in their suffering and struggle.
And when I read this on these terms, in context, I think this has powerful implications for us today.
That God still has life for us right now, but that does not have to mean that the circumstances of our life are going to be better.
I go back and think about my brother. I can’t tell you how many times a religious person said something trite about it all being a part of God’s plan. And I can’t tell you how many times I prayed that his hearing would healed, because surely that would be part of God’s good plan.
And Honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I was angry with God, at life because of my feelings of him failing my brother, but as I read this absolutely not trite promise, in context, as I read these words that were written to a people who die in exile. I can look back and see that God did have so much for my brother, that in so many ways God was with us in the midst of the struggle, offering hope, comfort, in the midst of it being hard.
Or I think about my desire to own a house one day
God does not promise me that it is all going to work out, that I am going to see my circumstances change.
He does not promise that I will prosper in that way.
But, he can help me find much of what I long for in a home, today. In my current apartment.
Like, I don’t have a home, but I can feel at home.
I have found that In the mornings when I pray, I often feel God’s warmth, acceptance, safety. A place that I belong
All the things that I really really long for in a house
So, do I really want a house, or do I want to feel at home?
Hope tells me that I can still feel at home, The things I long for in dreaming of a house, those can still happen, even if I never have a house.
There is some pretty well known research done by Dan Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard. He has a TED talk on it, about the science of happiness. And in short, what he found was that we overate the value of circumstances on our happiness.
We tend to think that we will be happier when our circumstances pan out. When we find romantic partner When we get that promotion or new Job When we finish school When we lose that weight When we get to that next stage of life. And what he found was that we overrate the effect of these things on our happiness. In fact they have far less impact in intensity and duration on our happiness than people expect them to have. However, our emotional reality, how we experience what we have right now, has massive impact on our happiness
Like, the Israelites will not have the specific circumstances that they attach to their dream come true, they will not return home and be given their land back,
but the longing they have in wanting the land, The parts that are not circumstantial, the deep needs behind that, that all humans have. the security, provision, statement of affection and care, that can be satisfied.
I may never have the job, spouse, home, money, the body I want, Those dreams may die, but I can still find life, I can still find the depth and meaning that I associate with those things, even if the circumstances of them never come true.
If I never lose weight, am I doomed to unhappiness?
If I never find my perfect job am I doomed to unhappiness?
if I never have a home, am I doomed to unhappiness?
If I don’t find the perfect partner, am I doomed to unhappiness?
I don’t believe that God is waiting for those things to change before he meets us. I don’t think God is waiting for us to get better job, to lose weight, to stop smoking before he has good things for us. I think he has actual good that we can experience right now, in our current circumstances.
And how much would that change how you lived? To know that you are loved, cared for, that you have companionship, you can find provision. In the midst of you current life?
I mean perhaps we need to change our circumstances, and that’s fine - we should pray for that! but God wants us to have life right now, in the meantime, not just in some version of the future.
This is the message of Jeremiah 29. Not that the circumstance of our life will get better, or that in following Jesus we will avoid or escape suffering, but rather that with God we can find the company, the companionship, the hope, life and fullness that we long for in the current version of our life.
The problem in reading the Bible and coming away with Trite statements, is not that those things can never be true, God is mysterious, God does have plans, that’s not the problem, the problem is that when we try too use those statements in some kind of wholesale way, or do so without acknowledging the complexity of it means,
Because the truth is that how God meets, helps, guides, and works with us is complex, and messy, and different for different people, it doesn’t fit neatly inside a box. But, in it’s messiness we find a God that is alive and dynamic and able to meet us in all the complicated corners of our life.
Ultimately this is why God being alive and the Bible coming to life are so important, because if we depend on the boxes of understanding we create, or a checklist of rules to offer us the help we need in navigating life, we will always find faith to just come up short. That is the danger of the trite sayings, they will eventually come up short.
But, when we come to the Bible expecting it to do what it is supposed to do, resonate with the impossible complexity of life and the world, it invites us into interaction and relationship with the living God, who can walk through real and messy life with us.
And in a moment I am going to pray that we can experience that.
But first I want to suggest A quick take away for us this morning
One of the number one ways we can put ourselves in a position to find God with us every day, every moment, constantly is SLIDE the spiritual rhythm of “Praising God in every circumstance” This is not because God is insecure, and need us to reassure him of how cool he is It is because it is amazingly good for us - When we practice thankfulness, thanking God for whatever there is to be thankful for, we actually begin to enjoy and appreciate our current life more. It is also not inviting us to call bad circumstances good, or saying God is behind whatever tough circumstance we are in, we are just saying that in every situation he has something for us, he is with us, and there is no situation that he can’t offer us good.
So if you would stand with me I would like to pray.