Like many young evangelicals, I developed a binary, black-and-white perspective on the world and Christianity early on. I utterly failed to live up to my expectations, and the world around me was no different. Eventually, I relaxed, but mostly out of exhaustion. Failing to be perfect is brutal, even if things like the idea of perfection fail to make sense.
Then, prison happened. And I had copious amounts of time. And I read. And things shifted.
Some of this shift happened as a result of reading books of philosophy or the stuff you’d find in the Christian Living section of your local Christian bookstore.
Most of the shift, though, happened as a result of reading one book in particular: the Bible.
Rightly Dividing the Word
I did intensive studies on individual passages (e.g. 1 Corinthians 6), entire books (e.g. Song of Songs), and individual topics (e.g. women in the Bible or modesty). You might assume correctly that much of my writing on this site was originally inspired by the studies I did at the time.
This biblical research produced a number of fruits.
I developed better hermeneutical practices (a fancy way of saying I interpreted Scripture better). I abandoned atomistic interpretations and more consistently considered things like the author, audience, and the literary genre of passages I read. Context is key.
I came to appreciate the wise words the biblical scholar Dr. Donald Carson heard from his father:
A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.
I also uncovered a number of questions that I found hiding under a rock alongside these answers. In researching something topical like body piercings, I uncovered a symbolic passage in Ezekiel 16 which made me question some of my preconceptions about nudity, parenting, and sin. TheUMB’s regular readers might recognize this passage from my posts on piercings and raising children without body shame, both of which were inspired in part by the insights I gained from this chapter of one of the weirdest books in the Bible (Ezekiel gives Revelation a run for its money).
Often the answers I found didn’t cleanly align with what I’d been taught by Western Evangelical culture. Nowhere more did I find this within the life of Jesus. This primary Character of the Bible demonstrated His character by serving, loving, and generally spending time with questionable characters while being characterized by the holy characters as a man without character.
In other words, Jesus loved sinners, spent time with sinners, and served sinners. He, on rare occasion, is recorded addressing their sin, but most of those time it seems more concerned with the consequences of their sin (the man in John 5:14 and the woman in John 8:11). For the most part, He seemed content to live and love in the midst of this fallen world and let His life and love serve as a witness (with one notable exception, which we’ll get to in a moment).
Jesus did get repeatedly aggressive about the sin of one group of people: the religious.
The evangelical church, for all its greatness in some areas, really seemed to be missing the mark in something as pivotal as how we should live our lives. This is only a testament to how God can use flawed vessels to further His work. Note Abraham the adulterer, Moses the murderer, David the adulterer and murderer. Note Peter the foot-in-mouth man, Paul the rebel, and Thomas the doubtful hole-poker. Yet when I stepped back to see how these are the rule rather than the exception, I began a wholesale reevaluation of what I’d been taught.
Which should have happened sooner. Jesus did get repeatedly aggressive about the sin of one group of people: the religious. I was aware of this notable exception early in my walk, but I considered it to be applicable to Christians of denominations that condemned my own beliefs. I, you see, was above reproach. Right…
This should have clicked for me long ago, but it didn’t. I don’t think I was mature enough in my early Christian walk to dig in, and I don’t think I was listening enough later.
Better late than never, though. And as I began to embrace this general uneasiness about mainstream Christianity, as the malaise enveloped me, I kept reading and learning and questing and questioning.
A Finite Mind
The most important fruit of my studies was simple enough: it brought me into a closer relationship with God. What began as an intellectual exercise quickly shifted into me pursuing God Himself as revealed by the intellectual understanding I developed.
And this is when the endless nature of my questions quickly came into focus…
If I wanted to define an exhaustive list of personal commandments to comprehensively define sin for myself and others, I could eventually reach a conclusion. I wouldn’t be the first, after all. The Pharisees did just that (and were condemned by Jesus for it).
But I was in pursuit of Him, the Ancient of Days, the Alpha and Omega. More than the beginning and the end — rather, the Before the Beginning and the Without End. I was a finite mind trying to capture the Infinite.
Of course, each rock overturned would unearth more questions. What could I expect when engaging with the Eternal One? And how could I expect any less from a church (much less a planet) of finite minds?
I began to embrace the questions as much as I embraced the answers. I began to see each as multifaceted depictions of the infinitude of God.
I began to embrace truth, including the truth that I could only grasp so much truth. There was an elegant integrity to this new mindset. It was honest, authentic, and vulnerable. I’ve probably never been more Christlike.
Elegant integrity is nice and all, but it comes at a price. And that price, as you’ll see next week, was pretty much my entire worldview.