Living In the Grey

When we are young, we are taught about life in black and whites. Good versus bad, it is or it is not, right or wrong, are all ways we gain understanding of the world around us. When we are younger and have family to help guide us and watch over us, these black and whites make sense and provide us a clear boundary. However, as we get older and experience more of life outside of our homes, the black and whites are not so clear cut. Our world appears to us to be more grey in some areas. This can create times of confusion and tension. Yet through this process we grow and mature.

One area where this becomes clearly true is in relation to our faith. Young Christians are taught Bible stories and given examples of how God chooses us to live our lives. When we are young, these are given in very black and white terms. However, as we mature in our faith and in our lives, we start bumping up against details which cause us to question the clear black and white understandings. We learn more about God and realize that God is much more complex than black and white.

There are some individuals who never seem to make the transition from looking at the world solely in black and white to understanding a world filled with grey. These people have definite views which create an either/or dynamic in their lives. They cannot accept that life can be a both/and situation. Often they experience life on the extremes. Compromise is difficult. Uncertainty creates anxiety for them. They only see two options and determine which is the right option. Easily they can become judgmental of others. In regard to faith, they often ignore other possible interpretations outside of their chosen perspective.

I often tell people that if you truly study the original languages and cultures from which our modern day Bible emerges, you will soon discover that there is a lot of grey. First, it is difficult to truly grasp the ancient civilizations from which the stories and words of the Bible are generated without years of in depth study. Even if a person is a scholar in these ancient cultures and languages, there still are unknowns. Second, since the modern day Bible has gone through a multitude of translations and interpretations, the words we read are filtered through the experiences of Bible scholars and then refiltered through the experiences of us, the readers. Finally, there are multiple versions of the Bible today and in some cases, the words vary greatly depending on which version you are reading because of different word choices available during translation. This all points to the reality that there is grey in the main written source of the Christian faith.

Life is not black and white. There are choices based upon interpretation, experiences, culture, and new understandings which we make every day. These choices can change as we gain new insight. Understandings can be redefined as new revelations occur daily. Throughout all our life this is reality. When it comes to our faith, I believe in a living God who continues to reveal God’s self all the time. As God reveals more and more, we are moved from one interpretation to another. The grey is there because we do not fully understand God. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this when he says, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV)

Punishment Free

One of the misconceptions that I encounter when in conversation with people about God is that God is all about punishing humans. This is an idea which has stemmed from interpretations of Scripture passages and been perpetuated by some churches. Various passages from the Bible, especially from the Old Testament, are lifted up as proof that God desires to punish those who do not follow God’s instructions or even those who God does not like for some reason. I would argue that these passages are often misunderstood and usually taken out of context. I find much more language regarding God’s love for all humanity in the Bible than I do any words which may support the image of a punishing God.

First, let me talk a bit about what I view as misinterpretation of Scripture. One problematic trait which I see too often when someone is trying to claim that the Bible is presenting some negative image of God is that the individual is often attempting to use the words literally. Why this is a problem is something which I have blogged about previously in Word by Word on April 19, 2019. Let me lift up a few key points from that post. One must remember that the Bible which we hold in our hands in the United States today is part of a line of translations which date back to the original writings in Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic. We actually have none of those original writings today. Translation requires a level of interpretation since words from ancient languages many times have no modern day equal. Next, we have the fact that the whole of the Bible was originally communicated in an oral, not a written manner. This required the listener to hear what was being said and communicate that to others effectively which opens these stories up to minor alterations. Also, the fact that cultural understandings are not at all the same today as they were then so is important to place whatever we read/hear into the cultural context of the original speakers and listeners. All these realities cause us to use caution when interpreting and applying stories from the Bible into our everyday life. I would argue that the only way we are able to effectively do so is to seek the main point of what we read and avoid any attempt at literal interpretation.

In a similar vein, it is important to remember what was occurring at the time a story was created and/or interpreted into writing. This historical context influences how a concept is communicated. In the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, there are often times a passage is stated during times of war, destruction, and disease. These human factors will influence how a message is communicated and what types of imagery are used.

The next issue which arises is one which I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Scripture must be taken as a whole. What I mean is that we need to identify the major theme of all Scripture before we attempt to interpret a specific portion of Scripture. Earlier I mentioned that I have discovered more passages about God’s love for all creation and humanity than I find passages which talk about God’s wrath and punishments. The major theme of Scripture is that God loves us even when we cannot find a reason to love ourselves. This love is manifested in what God does to and for each one of us. Jesus provides the greatest demonstration of this love which is why he is referred to as the greatest revelation of God. Any passages written about God’s wrath and punishment should be understood in this light. There clearly are times that punishment is used in human life to redirect individuals. These should be moments where the redirection is provided out of love and a desire for the well-being of a person. Unfortunately, humans do not always have this as the motivation but God always does.

By combining all these factors, a person can see the pitfalls of coming to conclusions about God and the behaviors of God. We receive only a minuscule glimpse into the full nature of God. I believe that this is one of the truths Paul tries to communicate in 1 Corinthians 13:12, ” For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I caution people that making the assumption that we can predict the actions of God, the motives of God, or the thoughts of God based on words in the Bible is a dangerous assumption that can lead to error in thought.

I share these words to support my conclusion that God is NOT a God of punishments. I experience God as a God of complete love. God avoids punishments in all ways possible. God does redirect. I also claim that humans are actually much more inclined to punish ourselves or one another than God ever does. In fact, we may even think that we deserve to be punished for failing God in some way.  Though even if we are inclined to think in such a way, God shows up and gives us grace and full forgiveness. God tells us that we are not deserving of punishment but instead of the greatest love possible.