This is an excerpt from Chapter four of my new book “Listen Carefully”:
Text of Chapter 1.4
“When Diligent Study doesn’t Satisfy”
Hearing God Book
My golf partner was late. And I was surly. The two go together.
This was in the days when cell phones were as long as your forearm, which was okay because only businessmen had them in their big cars, big enough to store such things. But it meant I couldn’t find out where he was and no one was home at his house. I hung closely to my car, for this neighborhood was tenuous at best.
It was full of very religious people.
I had visited there before and my buddy had pointed out many of the properties with their huge signs plastered with Scripture. Most of them went to the same church and many were related. I wanted to ask if any of the couples were first cousins with each other or perhaps closer relatives than that, but I kept my unsanctified comments to myself. This was a rural enclave in an ever-developing urban area and generally the neighborhood was peaceful and law-abiding. No one would think of mowing their lawns on a Sunday and wild parties on the weekend were only mentioned in prayer requests for people who lived closer to “town”.
In short, it was a religious, bible-loving ghetto.
The next door neighbor was a kingpin in the Bible sign mafia. He had a Bible Sign lab going in his garage and he churned out kilos of the material to be handed out for free to anyone who wanted his product. On his lawn he displayed his samples, hundreds of signs in bright neon shades, announcing various evangelistic and moralistic verses from the Bible. There must have been 200 of them at least. My first thought was “how do they mow their lawn?” At almost the exact moment I was thinking that, he came out of his shed with the lawn mower. Now I found myself gravitating over his way.
“How do you mow your lawn with all those signs” I started.
He looked me up and down as if assessing a junkie or a newbie (or a colossal idiot). “I pull them all out and stack them up before starting the mower”.
“Can I help?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Glen’s golf partner” I proudly stated
“Golf!” he spat out. I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded like how he might describe Evolution or Woody Allen movies. There was no love lost between him and golf, so I went back to my original question.
“So can I help you pull out these signs?”
“Yeah, but be careful with God’s Word.” He looked me over as I started to pull the first one out of the ground. Perhaps he thought I was sent by satan to deliberately mangle the lettering of John 3:3. As I brought several signs over to the pile, I noticed the care and gentility he used to place them and I tried to copy his style, however ingenuously I felt about the entire project.
When we were almost done, my evil streak surged forward and I got to the real heart of my curiosity regarding his handiwork – his signs.
“So what is the purpose of all these Bible signs?”
“Are you saved?” he asked.
“Yes. I’m a pastor”. It looked like he was going to ask me the same question again, so I added “Our church teaches from the Bible”.
“Well, then you know what the signs are for.”
“No, not really.”
He sighed deeply and took off his mowing gloves. I could tell my conversation with him was taxing his patience, and secretly I enjoyed it. There was something about this menagerie of signs that rubbed me the wrong way. He thought for a moment and then went forward with his next thought.
“So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void” he declared boldly.
“Isaiah 55” I said. I was proud I even remembered the reference, framed as it was in King James language.
“Isaiah 55:11” he corrected me. “I make these signs and give them out to anyone who will display them publicly.
“The Word of the Lord is powerful. Don’t you know the rest of v. 11? It says “it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.”
“So people driving by at 55 miles an hour will be impacted by God speaking to them out of this Bible verse.”
“I reckon it’s so.”
“What if they don’t believe the verses, or what if they’re thinking about sex with their girlfriend…will it still work?”. I was baiting him, but I had a good reason.
“It is God’s Word. It shall not return unto Him void!” That was the neighbor’s Word and, in essence, he was warning me not to touch his pet belief any further. I helped him pull out the rest of the signs and about that time, Glen drove into the driveway. He saw me walk over from his neighbor’s house and he looked embarrassed as I walked up.
“Nice guy,” I said.
“He’s a nut” Glen countered.
We were probably both right.
A month later, I was teaching a seminar on the Gospels when at the break one of the church leaders came up to me with a question. Actually, it was more of a statement.
“Why do you keep telling us to write in our Bibles and mark them up?”
“Well, I want this group to get used to using their Bibles as a tool where they can keep coming back and pick up where they last left off. Why? Do you think there is something wrong with it.”
“Look at the cover of my Bible” he demanded. “What does it say on the cover?”
“Holy Bible” I said.
“There! You don’t deface something that is Holy”.
I felt like driving him out of town a little ways and introducing him to his spiritual brother with all the signs. They would get along famously. They shared a concept of the Bible which degrades it by making it more than it possibly can be. In order to understand this degradation, consider the title of this old hymn: “Holy Bible, Book Divine”. It’s a hymn that still graces the approved hymnals of many of the largest denominations. And though it is not sung much it hasn’t been removed. It ought to be; it is idolatry of the worst kind. It advocates making an idol out of something God breathed out. To call the Bible “divine” is to give it godhood status, something that God will never tolerate. 1 John warns us about such forays into foolishness when the last verse of the book says “Little children, keep yourselves from idols”. That truth applies, even when the idol has the word “Holy” on the cover.
Think about it. How can a book bound together in a Caribbean sweat-shop by pot-smoking Rastifarians for $1.74 and then shipped to Grand Rapids where it is marked up to $45.00 and sent out to Wal-Mart where it is marked down to $39.95 by the little blue happy face possibly be considered “divine”?
Recently, a celebrated mystery writer in his latest bestseller described a homeowner hitting an intruder across the head and knocking him out with the big, black Family Bible. This scene is crucial an underlying plot focus where all old beliefs are questioned and all new ideas are embraced. While reading this populist novel, I asked myself, “Is this the impact that Mr. Signpainter had in mind when he thinks about God’s word “accomplishing the purpose”? I know it is not what God had in mind when he breathed out the Scriptures.
Since the dawning of the Enlightenment, many Christians have retreated from God’s direct communication by the Spirit into a protected enclave provided by the Bible. The intention was to surrender the supernatural and the spiritual to the philosophers who categorically claimed that Natural man could never touch Supernatural things such as God, miracles, and God’s voice. Francis Schaeffer, in his book “The God Who Is There” claims that when Christianity abandoned the belief in the ever-present supernatural, it lowered itself below the “line of despair”. The Line of Despair is created when one believes that the natural and the supernatural cannot touch one another. Schaeffer calls it that because if you eliminate contact with anything above the line, it also removes all meaning, purpose, direction, absolute moral values and God’s presence from our lives.
Nineteenth century believers saw the implications of this, but because they couldn’t bring themselves to look stupid in light of Philosophers like David Hume and others, they admitted that the Natural realm and the Supernatural did not touch. They agreed there are no miracles today. They signed onto the idea that God does not speak today. They grudgingly allowed that healing could not take place today. But they did all this with their own personal ‘ace in the hole’. They stridently claimed that there was a point in time that the Supernatural God did touch the Natural world. As soon as the Bible was written, all that intermixing of realms was finished when into our Natural world came a supernatural artifact called “The Bible”.
No wonder they call it Divine. It is all they have left of God.
The Bible Can Be Dangerous
Yes, the Bible can be dangerous, and I don’t mean that it can do serious damage if you’re breaking into the wrong house. And I don’t just mean danger in the sense that it will challenge preconceptions and pretensions.
If you have the wrong idea about it, the Bible can keep you away from God!
One day, Jesus decided to have it out with the Pharisees. Instead of cryptic stories and pithy one-liners directed their way, he stepped out of subtlety and directed a full-frontal attack on them. In John 5 He essentially tells them that whatever God the Father is doing, he also is doing, making himself equal and on the same page with God. That was blasphemy of the highest order and they never expected him to be that blatant. Maybe that’s why they were speechless at first instead of ordering him arrested. While they caught their breath, he really leveled the attack.
Side-note: These guys he is speaking to really knew their Bibles. There is some discussion on what was required of new Pharisees, but everyone is agreed that they had to have memorized large portions of the Torah, the Talmud and the Mishnah. If those are new terms to you, there is no test, so don’t worry. The Torah was the first five books of the Bible, written by Moses. The Talmud was a commentary on the Torah and other writings. The Mishnah was like an expanded edition of the Talmud that was added to for centuries. The Pharisees committed large portions of all these books to memory.
They also could quote extensive portions of the poetical books (Psalms, Proverbs etc.) the Prophets and the Historical books of the Bible. Some even claimed to have it all memorized. This is the group to which Jesus will address the following words:
“You have never heard His Voice or seen His form. Nor does his Word dwell in you”. (John 5: 37, 38).
Can you imagine how scandalized his Pharisee listeners would be as they heard this? With all their prodigious memorization, how dare he claim that they had never heard God’s voice! The Scriptures were all the contact with God that they had. If they couldn’t hear God through the Scriptures, then they couldn’t hear God.
They weren’t familiar with the voice of God, because no matter how valuable the writing, a book is not God. A book may come from God, but then many things come from God and can be misunderstood and distorted. Though I have no way of verifying this by statistics, I would wager that more cults have laid the foundation of their beliefs on misinterpretation of the Bible than from supposedly hearing God some other way.
But how could the Pharisees have so much knowledge of the Bible and yet miss what God is trying to say? Though my premise in this chapter is that the Bible is not the only way that God speaks, the Bible certainly is the most faithful record of what God has said to man. The Bible has its origins in the heart of God and was “god-breathed” according to 2 Timothy 3:16. With that kind of pedigree, how could the leaders of Israel not pick up something of God’s voice in their reading?
Jesus continues on and explains exactly why they missed the boat.
You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40)
The problem is not with the Scriptures. They are inspired and infallible. The problem is not with their interpretation skills. The problem is not with their theology per se. The problem is succinct.
They had the wrong attitude about the Scriptures.
They assumed that the Bible could give them a type of spiritual life that cannot come from any other source than God. As we will observe later, Eternal Life is not just living forever. Eternal life is a type of life that flows into a person from God thereby birthing that person into a condition we call a New Creation. Bible Study does not birth anything inside of us other than knowledge and attitudes. Jesus is clear that the purpose of the Scriptures was to point people to a relationship with him, but they refused to come to Jesus and have life. Therefore, the Scriptures became a blockade against Eternal Life. As a result, the Bible itself became the occasion for their continuation of spiritual death.
All legalistic spirituality is based upon this false syllogism:
- The Bible comes from God
- God gives new life
- Therefore, life from God comes from the Bible.
So, instead of allowing the Bible to paint an accurate picture of God and his working with humanity, pharisaical people approach the Scriptures as a comprehensive collection of prescriptions, formulas, creeds and solutions. But how can that possibly be the case? For the six billion people on this earth, with their myriad decisions and dilemmas, how can any book prescribe the details of the individualized solutions? It can’t. For instance, if God desires that I sell everything and move to Great Falls, how is the Bible going to direct me? It has the word “great” in it and some translations have “falls” in it. Am I supposed to play scissors and glue and cut up all the words in the book and let them fall out like some kind of Magic 8 Ball? If the Bible is “all that” then this is my only answer.