Monday, December 29, 2014

The Problem With What

The purpose of this blog is to look for the "why" of the bible. But what's so good about the "why" that we should have a whole blog on it?

Put another way, why aren't we focusing on the "what" of the bible?

What is the What?

When we read the bible looking for the "what" we're looking for the right answer. What am I supposed to do at church? What do I do to be saved? What makes a person a Christian? What sends a person to hell? What was the process of creation? What did the angels with eyes all over them do when they got sand in an eye? 

Okay, maybe that last one was a stretch, but you get the idea. 

The "what" is the attempt to extract all of the right answers from the bible. It treats scripture like the back of a math textbook where you flip to look for all the answers after you've tried to do the problem.

But the bible wasn't written to give us all of the whats (to be certain some of it was). Instead the bible is a collection of useful ideas that have consistently pointed God's people toward God throughout history.

Some of the bible tells people what not to do (don't murder, don't steal, don't abuse people, etc.). But some of the bible simply records people processing faith. The Psalms are full of poetry in which people praise God or doubt God or doubt and then praise God. Some of the bible tells us what happened in the past (like Kings and Chronicles), but other parts of the bible are more concerned with why things happened (like Esther or Job).

When we treat the whole bible as a what repository we're losing the distinctiveness of different parts of scripture, but we're also running the risk of missing out on the more important parts of the bible.

Why is the Heart

Jesus told the Pharisees and teachers of the law that they had mastered the finer points of the bible (for them the Hebrew scriptures) but neglected the weightier matters of the law (Matt. 23:23). Those weightier matters are the why of scripture that we're trying to get to with this blog. The weightier matters, Jesus says they are: justice, mercy, and faithfulness, are why the bible was written. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandments he didn't refer to the prohibition against mixed cloth (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:11), but instead told his questioner that loving God and loving neighbors summed up the entire purpose of the scriptures. 

Why gets us to What

Too often we try to take things the wrong way around. We move from what to why instead of from why to what.

The flow of understanding in Christendom for centuries has been to gain intellectual and verbal assent to a series of ideas and then hoping that a combination of guilt and shame will prevent people from doing wrong after that. The logic is very what-focused. 

What will happen to you when you die? What do you need to do to be saved? What church is the right church? What will keep me out of heaven? What will get me into heaven? 

The problem with using those as starting points is that the what rarely leads to the why. Trying to avoid hell when we die doesn't lead to self-sacrificial giving, godly love, seeking justice or loving mercy. It leads us -- as it did for the Pharisees -- to look for the minimum requirements we can meet to achieve our goals. 

Why, however, stops caring about the minimum requirements and instead focuses on the end result. Jesus calls us to be his disciples -- his students -- who obey his commands (which is a what), but the why of it is to love God, to love our neighbors, to love justice, mercy, and faith. The why of it is to become image bearers of God. The why of it is to have the image of Christ formed within us and to show that image to the world. 

The why of scripture can get us to the what, but the what of scripture rarely gets us to the why. 

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