“I don’t even know what that means!”
Such was the tongue-in-cheek comment that often crossed our former pastor’s lips. Usually he said this in reference to a Christian cliche or a biblical word that tends to be widely misused or generalized. Often this signature phrase was a lead-in to him explaining the biblical definition of a term in the passage of Scripture at hand. He’d quote one or more misuses of the term – or one or more ways the term is used so generally it can fit a wide range of worldviews – and then point out the confusion in our trying to use that term without first clarifying what we mean by it. It’s been my observation that Christians tend to throw Bible words around like this a lot.
I’m sure we’re not alone in this. I’m sure plenty of other groups and subcultures probably commit this intellectual sin. But hasn’t God has called us to a higher standard? Hasn’t He told us plainly to think biblically (Phil 2:5, Col 3:2), to pursue wisdom (see the whole book of Proverbs, and James 1), to avoid deception by the world’s philosophies (Col 2:8), and to be transformed by renewing our minds with the Truth (Rom 12:1-2, Eph 4:23)? Shouldn’t we, then, take more care to know and explain what these terms mean when we use them?
And yet, even the most diligent of us still tend to drift down the river of ease and speak with generalities. I can see many reasons why. It requires less study and less explanation. It is far less likely to encourage uncomfortable or time-consuming discussion, since it happily includes so many worldviews at once. It doesn’t rock the boat. It doesn’t require much action in response. It lets most or all people in the group feel like they’re right. It sounds kind and inclusive. Like floating gently in an inner tube down a lazy river on a warm, mild summer day.
So we float along, some of us very confident that God’s Word is sufficient, while basking under sunny skies.
The DJ on the “uplifting and encouraging” Christian pop radio station declares a quick puff about “loving others” or “having faith,” and we nod our heads in agreement even though each listener probably has a different idea of what “loving others” or “having faith” look like.
My generation carries our participation trophies into our post-self-esteem-movement, follow-your-heart, fill-your-love-tank-first adult world, and we Christians riding that wave comfort ourselves with wall plaques that tell us “love never fails” and God has a wonderful plan for our life…even though most of us can’t explain what “love” is, biblically, what it would look like if that love “failed,” or what God explained His wonderful plan for our life is.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve wept on my face in repentance and clarity after realizing that what God actually said was very different from what I believed…and from what I’d been taught (or from the gaps in what I’d been taught).
I distinctly remember the times desperation hit after that blissful, lazy river became wild rapids in a thunderstorm, and the vague platitudes proved to be worthless in my time of need.
When hard times come, how do those vague, loosely-defined terms work for you? Do the lone Bible verses that decorate your walls offer any hope, or wisdom, or stability, if you don’t understand what they really mean? When you’re desperate to know what to do, and you realize that you don’t even know what “love” or “truth” or “mercy” mean, God’s Word feels pretty insufficient, and faith feels like wishful thinking. Filling in the blank with the correct term doesn’t mean much if we don’t understand how we’re supposed to apply it. Even watered-down-but-sound overviews of biblical concepts fail to deliver in the trials, confusion, and stress of living life in a fallen world full of sinful people like ourselves battling our own sinful tendencies, the world, and the devil.
The thing is, God’s Word is sufficient. We just tend to treat it as if it’s not, and then use our own mistreatment of the Word as validation for our doubt and for our seeking help in other things when the Word doesn’t seem to give us what we need.
But God’s Word is sufficient. If we avail ourselves of it, it teaches us what we need to know, shows and convicts us when we act, speak, or believe wrongly, sets us back on the right path, and trains us how to live righteously (2 Timothy 3:16-17). In detail. Cutting deeply by the power of the Spirit into our hearts. Through knowing God – in part by His Word – along with the gospel and and its benefits, we have all things we need for life and godliness, because God supplied them to us (2 Peter 1:3).
The Word is rich with wisdom for the taking. There is enough treasure in it for every believer who ever exists to unearth and cherish fortunes. The Word is full of knowledge about God Himself, His plan, us, our nature, and all we need to know and believe in order to be saved. The Word is packed with instructions for believers about all our responsibilities to God and others. It’s detailed. It addresses everything from discipleship and evangelism, to work and finances, to marriage and parenting and sex, to how to treat Christians, enemies, and everyone in between. It exposes the lies we hear, warns us not to believe those lies, and it explains the truth we should believe.
But we have to hear and understand God’s instructions in order to obey them. We can’t love unless we understand what God means when He tells us to “love.” And it’s no mystery. He explains it well, right there in His Word. Reading it, searching it, studying it, listening to it preached, and meditating on it are all our responsibility. The Holy Spirit doesn’t magically implant biblical knowledge and wisdom in our brain apart from Scripture. He just helps us understand and apply it as we humbly, prayerfully, and diligently seek it.
God has spoken.
The question we must ask, then, the next time we hear a vague term used, or the next time we’re reading our Bible and come across a word whose meaning we assume, is this – what has God said?
Not, “what has my favorite author said God said?”
Not, “what has my friend said God said?”
Not, “what has my pastor said God said?”
Not, “what does this commentary say God said?”
Not, “what do I feel like God says?”
Those might be helpful confirmation as you study – if, as you study, you also seek to verify those interpretations. But our primary question should always be “what has God Himself actually said?”
Ask, “as best as I can possibly tell from studying the topic and passage(s) at hand to the best of my abilities, what does the text’s context, and background, and meaning in the original language(s) show me that God has said about this?”
Learn to study the Bible well, and study it like your life depends on it. Then learn to study it even better, and repeat. Learn to turn to it whether the river is smooth or full of rocks and rapids. God’s Word really is enough.
We mustn’t just nod and agree that we need to “make disciples,” “encourage one another,” “edify the body,” “give grace,” “speak the truth in love,” “show mercy,” “build up,” “be humble,” and “have faith.” We must ask what those things mean. Ask what they mean biblically. Ask how we can obey them, biblically and practically. We can’t do them if we don’t understand them – and if we misunderstand them we will think we’re obeying while walking in disobedience.
We mustn’t just assume that those we talk to mean the same thing we mean when discussing vague terms. Sometimes if the conversation goes on long enough, or if the circumstances are rough enough, it becomes very clear that we’re talking about different concepts entirely. It may be that one party is right – it may be that both parties are wrong – but the question and the desire should remain the same: to understand as clearly as possible what God actually said.