When you were younger in the faith, did you hear the Bible interpreted in a way that hurt you? Maybe it was something silly like, “God does not like women wearing pants,” or even something hateful like, “God does not accept interracial marriages.” At the very least it may have distorted your understanding of God, and at worst it may have even damaged the way you made life decisions. Many who share this experience say it contributed to misunderstandings and the deterioration of relationships with others. If you are like them, at some point you had an eye-opening discovery that led to new understanding and changed your distorted belief.
By M. Mooney, ministry practitioner
Probably one of the biggest misconceptions I hear is in the way the Holy Spirit influences believers to interpret God’s word. There are a few verses in the New Testament that can easily lead to the misunderstanding that God interprets the bible for us. One good example is: John 16:13
“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” (ESV).
Some Christians read this passage and believe that it is a promise from Jesus that the Spirit will teach them “all truth.” Yet, this passage says nothing of the sort. Rather, it speaks to the disciples who were dealing with the anxiety of Jesus leaving them behind (and they did not have a complete Bible to offer them guidance). Further, the truth that is described here speaks of future events (prophesy). Since that time, the Holy Spirit did lead them into the future truth as Jesus promised. One perfect example is the Revelation of John. It is the apostle John who wrote the words of this verse in John 16:13, and the following words of Revelation chapter 1:1:
“The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place…” (Rev 1:1 ESV).
I point this out only to demonstrate that the Bible requires careful attention to detail if it is to be correctly understood. Yet, I think there may be an even deeper explanation for hurtful interpretations – something less obvious than careless reading.
Hurt Hurting Hurters
The world is full of hurting people. Naturally, people are hurting because someone hurt them. Sin is the cause and result of hurting people. This is why Jesus said that all of the law can be summarized in the concept that we must love God and one another (Mat. 22:39). At another time he told the Pharisees that Moses gave them the law because of the hardness of people’s hearts (Mat. 19:8). The law exists to provide justice in an unjust world. The act of hurting someone generally moves like a set of stacked dominoes. One person hurts another who in turn hurts another who then hurts another and so on… Jesus teaches us to stop the sequence of injury in the principle of turning the other cheek (Mat. 5:39). When a person slaps another, the natural response is to return the pain. Rather, Jesus tells us to stop this pattern by forcing the evil to stop with us. When we turn the other cheek, we do not repay evil for evil. Instead, we love the abuser (Mat. 5:46).
Ahhh, I See
At this point, you are probably wondering how this pertains to bad interpretations of scripture. The answer is easy. “We all read and interpret the Bible through the defective lens of personal experience”(Dr. Sandra Wilson). If we will be truthful with ourselves, we have all been hurt by others and we have hurt others. All of these hurts have resulted in personal experiences. Whether we like it or not, we really only know the world through the perceptions we have; which are built upon the foundations of our personal experiences. Further, experience and learning go hand in hand. Whenever we learn anything, it is because we are able to associate it with a previous experience. This is why we spank our children. We want them to associate wrong behavior with the pain of spanking. Similarly, we all have experiences that have caused us to learn negative associations.
I am reminded of a friend who became very ill at one point in his life. During that time, his wife burned a candle for fragrance in the room where he laid for recovery. His illness caused frequent nausea and vomiting. While the candles played no role in these symptoms, still to this day he becomes nauseated when he smells the fragrance of that particular candle. You may wonder why? The answer is because he had an experience with illness, and his brain associated the fragrance with the illness.
Tying it all together
Many people learn about God first when they are children. (Even when people do not learn about God until they are adults, they are still children spiritually.) Jesus supports this idea saying that the kingdom of Heaven belongs to children (Mat 19:14). Nevertheless, children tend to rely on adults to teach them about big subjects like theology. Additionally, because they are so young they tend to have blind faith. If the adults in their lives teach them that God does not approve of something, they simply believe it. Much like adolescents, it isn’t until they start to grow that they begin to question the things they believe. Eventually, at some time they will begin to take the initiative to read the Bible for themselves. This is usually when they begin to discover inconsistencies between what they read and the things they were taught. It is then that they begin changing their beliefs. Unfortunately, this usually results in conflict with their previous teachers.
The Big Mistake
If you can relate to this scenario, you probably already know what happens next. The young believer will break fellowship with the adults, and likely will be labeled as rebellious. In time the believer will feel hurt by rejection, and start identifying with the martyrs who died for truth. Unfortunately, it is usually here that negative feelings become associated with the experience of rejection. Then these negative associations become the lenses through which they interpret the word of God.
At this stage in their spiritual development it is common for believers to begin associating their negative experiences with negative characters in the Bible. For example, they may call women who do not hold their standards, Jezebel, or fellow Christians, Pharisees. Without realizing it, they began to perpetuate the hurt that they received from others by labeling people around them in terms of rejection. The irony here is that they do this with righteous indignation as though they are serving God. The greatest tragedy is when this behavior goes un-dealt with, in a short time they will become evangelists of their spiritual hang-ups rather than of the Gospel. Therein the cycle of hurtful interpretations continues.
Ministers Must Not Forget
As ministers, we must not forget to forgive, and to hold ourselves to standards above those that hurt us (Luke 17:1-5). Yet at the same time, we must also take care that we do not become unbalanced and read our negative experiences into the text and meaning of the Bible. James says, “My brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (Jas 3:1 ESV).
Further, we must remember that Jesus commissioned us to preach the Gospel. It is imperative that we do not allow the enemy of our souls to distract us with our own hurts and hangups, to the extent that we preach them and forget the liberating message of freedom in Christ! “So if the Son sets you free, you will be absolutely free” (Joh 8:36 GW). What kind of testimony do we have if our message is full of theological stumbling blocks? Even the world sees right through that with blind eyes…