Over the last 2-1/2 years, I took a rather long and in-depth weekly Bible study class from my church. [For those of you that need to know, it was the 34-week Disciple course. The first one. The “red” one.] Okay, it didn’t take me over 2 years; I went through it twice: once as a student, and then again as a teacher/facilitator. I learned many new things during these years, about the Bible, God, Jesus, myself, and other people (in my church and elsewhere). I highly recommend it to everyone. Here are a few of the highlights of the things that I learned:
(1) The Bible is not inerrantly, word-for-word dictated by the Hand of God. I believe that it is inspired by God but written by people. I already knew this, but taking this course, listening to both experts (my pastor, and those on the videos) and classmates talk about it, and spending some time reading vast chunks of the text (twice!) greatly reinforced this belief. The argument can really be distilled into a single question: which translation is the inerrant truth?
(2) Some parts of the Bible are made up whole cloth. This goes along with the first one, but I am not just saying that the Bible contains a distorted or selectively-picked version of the truth, but that parts of it are pure fiction. I believe that the books of Daniel, Jonah, Job, and Revelation are novels. This doesn’t mean that they should be removed from the Bible, though. On the contrary, fiction is sometimes needed to poignantly yet concisely express a particular truth.
(3) We should ask “why” not “how” when reading the Bible. When we approach the Bible, we should not ask “how did that happen?” but instead “why does God want us to know this story?” Changing this mindset from trying to prove that the story is factually correct and piece together a plausible reconstruction is a huge relief to me. I used to need to find the explanation for how a certain story played out. I no longer have to do this. Instead, I read a passage and think about what that story means as far as my relationship with God and with other people.
(4) My relationship with God is equivalent to my relationship with other people. I do not mean that the two relationships are similar. I mean that they are the same relationship. I was always very frustrated by pastors or pious Christians would blithely state that we are to love God with our whole heart. I had no idea what that meant. Now, I have an answer: it means to love other people, to care for them, to be considerate to them, and to listen to them and try to understand their viewpoint and opinion. Interestingly, this is captured succinctly in one of the most famous verses of the Bible.
(5) The Golden Rule is what life is all about. That verse I just referred to is the one in which Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment from the Law. His reply is to love God with all of your heart, mind, body and soul, but he doesn’t stop there. He continues: and the second commandment is like it: to love your neighbor as yourself. The Bible quotes him several times giving this answer, in slight variations, the other common way is this: do to others as you want them to do to you. The kicker is the phrase in the middle, linking the two. Jesus gives an obscure answer that no one really knows how to do (love God, this invisible supreme entity) with a very specific answer on how to actually accomplish it.
(6) We should help those that ask for help. Again, this is how Jesus explains our relationship with God: when you help the least among you, you help God. This is one of the things I love about my church: it has many social mission activities at the local, national, and international levels for both youth and adults. We’re not a big congregation...we have maybe 300 official members, and far less than that on summer Sundays when we drop down to one service. Even still, we find a way to reach out and help other people: volunteering at the local family homeless shelter, collecting food and clothing for the local social service organizations, and going on work “mission” trips to far-off places. There is essentially no evangelism in these activities, just the example of helping others.
(7) God helps us through other people. This is the flip side of the above 2 points. You know the story of the guy who drowned on his rooftop during a massive flood because he was waiting for God to save him. Over the course of the day, several rescuers come to him, but he refuses their help. When he dies and goes to heaven, he asks God why he didn’t save him. God replies, “I sent you a truck, a boat, and a helicopter!” I think this joke is actually a fairly true description of how God provides help to us.
(8) God wants us to be in a community. Religion is a private affair, but it is also a very public and social one. God wants his followers to be in a community together, to support each other and help each other learn how to become better Christians. I think that such a community is necessary to develop or maintain a healthy relationship with God, and that those who think their Christianity is a solely private endeavor are severely hampering their spiritual growth.
(9) Jesus stayed out of politics and economics. He did not try to reinvent the local business practices nor try to instill a new governmental regime. The Bible barely mentions either of these major realms of human activity. Therefore, I don’t think it is appropriate to use Christianity to formulate an economic or political philosophy.
(10) Jesus directly challenged religious hypocrisy and continuously fought for social justice. While he didn’t try to shake up the political or economic structure of Judea, he did, at every opportunity, confront religious hypocrisy and injustice. Our spirituality is not defined by how many religious practices we follow, but by what we do for those in need around us.
I’ll probably think of more lessons I learned from this Bible study, but this is a good starting list for now. I will go into each of these in more detail in later posts, but it’s good to finally sit down and write out such a list. It’s been hanging around in my head for a while, and this blog is giving me a chance to finally write it down. Let me end this post by saying that I am profoundly thankful that I took the Disciple class and that I then got the chance to teach it. It is an excellent Bible study that has changed my outlook on life.
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