It was a good question.

I was sitting in a friend’s living room with a dozen or so others, and we’d been talking about faith. One friend, Michael, isn’t religious, but in his vocation as a sign-language interpreter, he spends many Sundays in a variety of different churches. He listens more carefully than anyone I’ve ever known, and works hard to (literally) embody the words he translates, and all those sermons in all those churches had left him with a question.

“If God gave his people the Bible –inspired by him in some special way, and the Holy Spirit who dwells in every Christian gives you the ability to understand it, why do Christians understand it so differently? Why do you disagree about so much?”

As I said, it was a good question. One I’ve wrestled with for years.

I grew up in a staunchly fundamentalist family and in proudly fundamentalist churches and schools, but the deeper my relationship with God grew and the more I studied the Bible, the further I’d been drawn from that context. Where God was taking me gradually went from just different to contradicting many of the conclusions and beliefs of the faith that had nurtured me.

That was hard, emotionally as well as intellectually, and I wrestled with it.

Whether they are differences in denominations or theology, we who are Christians have very different understandings of the Bible. You can parse those out by philosophical commitments or cultural biases, by tradition or personal inclination or translation, but Michael’s question holds.

Why, with one Bible and one Spirit, do we believe and live so differently?

I don’t deny that some are reading wrongly, with unexamined commitments shaping their understanding of both what Scripture is and what it says. And some may well be defiantly disregarding the Spirit to do what they want with it.

But those explanations aren’t adequate. Not when people who love and are devoted to Jesus, whose lives show the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work, understand the Bible in such different – even opposing – ways.

I’ve seen that fruit in the lives of fundamentalists and in the lives of progressives. In the lives of Roman Catholics and in the lives of Baptists. In the lives of all kinds of people with contradictory theologies and convictions.

And I believe the witness of that fruit.

I do believe the same Spirit is at work in all of our lives. We all come from different places and are walking different journeys, and none of us are following perfectly. But following perfectly was never the point. We follow faithfully, doing our best, and God works.

I answered Michael’s question that night in the best way I knew how. I talked about my family and my own struggles with the same tensions and contradictions.

I do believe God’s Spirit is at work in both them and me, as well as in millions of other people who disagree with each other. I believe God has an end game bigger and better and more overflowing with goodness and justice and love than we can come anywhere near imagining.

We can barely catch glimpses of it from where we are. And we each come to those glimpses from such different places. But I believe Love is pulling it all together in the end, weaving what we see as contradictions into a tapestry that leaves no one out and nothing undone.

And here? Now? There are people, like my family, who are introducing people to the Love that is God that I could never reach. And, hopefully, there are people I’m helping to meet that Love who they could never make that connection with.

It’s not an easy hope, and it doesn’t resolve anything now. But I trust that there will ultimately be a resolution beyond all the ways we think about such things. That while contradictions are no illusion, there is Something bigger than the contradictions, and it’s going to make them irrelevant one day.

And I’m doing my best to trust Love and live into that future I can’t see yet.

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7 thoughts on “The Biggest Picture

  1. Thank you for this!! what I hear in my spirit is that I am only me because of the opposing energies of those around me which create a balance of equanimity in myself I could otherwise not enjoy!! In the body of Christ we are reliant upon the organs and flesh of others to complete us in ways we will never understand.

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  2. Hi. I’m the Michael in the story…. the interpreter in question. As I told Jennifer that night, this is truly the best response I have ever heard to the point of my question. I do have to point out, however, that it isn’t wholly satisfying. And Jennifer doesn’t hide from that at all. The idea that one spirit (which I don’t believe in, anyway, but am willing to presume for the sake of discussion) must meet different people on different paths with different approaches has a visceral kind of universalist appeal. The same sun that shines on me in Chicago, and turns my pasty skin fluorescent red and painful and peeling, also feeds the crops of a Chinese farmer. So, too, I could imagine, does the same spirit which (allegedly) put me in Jennifer’s path, would also lead others on a path that goes through some noxious church that espouses some hateful rhetoric while still doing some good things in the world. Jennifer’s argument, of course, relies on a time honored article of faith which simultaneously opens discussion and ironically closes it at the same time – – someone or something above us and unknowable is in control of the whole process, and everything will “work out” in the end. Well, ok. I mean, how can one argue with that? But I give the woman credit, she can spin the eternal question mark in a way that makes even the faithless man smile.

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      1. Well, you aren’t closing it down. It’s just that when one posits something so untestable and unverifiable, there really aren’t many places to go from there. But if it turns out to be the truth, then it turns out to be the truth. Maybe one day we’ll know. But if not, let’s pretend we will. More pleasant that way…..

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        1. That makes sense, and I think I see what you’re saying about “not many places to go from there.”

          For me, it has seemed this understanding has allowed different discussions not to be shut down – discussions about reading Scripture well, and hearing the Spirit of Love well, and what it means to live faithfully and well in this world, even and especially when we don’t agree. Those are really hard discussions (you know that), and for me, this understanding has helped me hold space open for them (or at least try!).

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