Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Scalpel or a Sword: Surgery or Slaughter?

What's the purpose of the Bible? What can a son or daughter of Adam expect from soaking in the Scriptures? This is an important question because we go to the Bible, not only with preconceived ideas about what it says, but also with predetermined expectations about what it will deliver. This is definitely seen in preaching and counseling. Preachers often hear things like, "I wasn't being fed over at First Holy Bible Church." "I don't want a sermon where I feel beat down or heavy." "The Bible should give us joy, not grief." "The preaching isn't lifting me up lately." "His preaching is too hard to take." "I need steel-toed shoes for his sermons." Each of these statements is pointing to an underlying expectation that the listener is placing on the sermon. And if the sermon is a faithful exposition of the Scripture, then the expectation is also an indictment of the Bible as well. In other words, a heavy text of Scripture should produce a heavy feeling in the heart, or it isn't being taken properly. But a listener of the Word who only wants to be "lifted up" will not be satisfied with that.

In his excellent book, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal, Eric L. Johnson reminds us of "the biblical text as subversive interpreter." What does Johnson mean by subversive interpreter? To subvert is to overthrow or to undermine. So to say that the Bible is a subversive interpreter is to say it overthrows or undermines something. But what? Let's let the Bible speak for itself.

"For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (Heb. 4:12-13).

I've heard it said that the Bible is a scalpel in the hands of God - doing surgery on our souls. I don't know if that's the best metaphor. It seems to me that the writer of Hebrews didn't see the Bible as a surgical instrument as much as a slaughtering instrument. It's a two-edged sword. The Word of God is also called the sword of the Spirit. When Jesus returns, he's coming with a sword from his mouth. What are swords used for? Surgery? Healing? Of course not. Swords are used to kill, not heal.

I fear that we think of the Bible as a scalpel because 1) we think we need a precise instrument to meticulously cut out the evil amidst all the good inside of us, and 2) we'd rather our evil souls be healed than killed. I've been guilty of saying the Bible "does heart surgery on us." I've repented of such thinking. The Bible is a killer, and this life is a battlefield rather than an operating room.

I know this sounds radical, but think through this with me. The Bible is meant to subvert or overthrow and undermine that part of us that we've inherited in Adam. Bonhoeffer said that when Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die. Jesus said in order to live for him, we must first die to ourselves. Anyone who gives up his life for Jesus' sake or the gospel's will gain eternal life. The Christian must go through daily crucifixion to be a disciple. Jesus calls out his disciples to death, and the Bible is the instrument of slaughter.

Here's where it gets tricky. We like to assume that Christians identify more with the Spirit than with the flesh. So we don't realize just how much of us still needs to be laid bare by the Bible. Most of us hear about the old self and new self, the flesh and the Spirit, this life and the life to come, earth and Heaven, old creation and new creation, and we convince ourselves that we're on the side of the new self, the Spirit, the life to come, Heaven and the new creation. We just assume that our default position is righteousness and humility. This is hogwash, and cannot be sustained by the Bible. Let's not forget that most of the Bible, including the New Testament, was written as a response to man's selfishness and pride!

So the Bible is designed by God to kill the old self that we love to coddle. We can't just assume that we want to hear what the Bible has to say, or a preacher or counselor or husband or wife who speaks the Bible to us. There is a very stubborn and evil core in us that doesn't want to be subverted. It helps us to know this up front. Reading and meditating on the Bible, though pleasant to part of us, is also almost always painful to another part of us. If all you get from the Bible is uplifting and positive feelings, you're likely not reading it rightly.

I'm a very positive thinking person, and very little gets me down for more than a couple minutes. However, I rarely read the Bible without the weight of it crushing my soul. Yes, the gospel brings me hope, but only after it has first thrashed my sin. Where's the hope in all this? The hope lies in the fact that Jesus doesn't let us live as rebels. His word kills the rebel within us, little by little now, and fully at the resurrection, so that we will be fit for eternal bliss in Heaven. My next post will flesh out how seeing the Bible as a sword works practically in the life of a Christian.