Different people have different problems with the Bible, but what has troubled me the most over a few decades of reading the Bible and preaching regularly is that a lot of the Bible is not practical. Make it relevant, they taught me when I was a seminary student. But most of the Bible is hard to make relevant. Much does not meet my needs, at least not the things I feel I need: encouragement, guidance, relief, help or something.
I read the Bible, but what it says doesn’t help. Put another way, a lot of the Bible does not answer our questions. We have questions that we would like God to answer, and most of the Bible doesn’t answer them. If the Bible is God’s Word—God speaking to his people—why does so much of it not seem practical or relevant?
I am reading through Numbers, where Moses tells the different clans of Levites what they will carry when they move the Tabernacle and its furniture. How on earth will I make that practical or relevant?
Part of the problem is just me. I am better at figuring out what a part of the Bible meant to the first readers than I am at figuring out what it might mean for us. But I know how few sermons get preached on texts like that, so the problem is not just me.
I take a “practical” sermon to be one that warns us about a prevalent sin, helps us manage our inner life, tells us what to do differently this week, or at least encourages us. These are all valid topics, but if this definition governs what God’s people hear, a lot of Scripture never sees the light of day. If we are right about what we need, then God is out of touch, or at least a lot of his book is. And that troubles me enough to question the premise. Maybe we are not right about what we need.
There are certainly parts of the Bible that do meet our felt needs, that are easily made practical and relevant, and that answer our important questions. If the goal is to find verses that are relevant, one can usually succeed. But if we intend to preach and teach the whole Bible, we lose relevance. At least that’s what we assume. This is why preachers who are always practical and relevant preach topical sermons. But most of Scripture does not bend easily to our definition of practical and relevant. And that’s the trouble with the Bible.
The solution is hinted at in the Old Testament. Job wished for an audience with God, because he had big questions to put to God directly. Finally God appeared to Job, but then God asked all the questions and answered none. Job agreed it was better that he just listen.
Jesus had his own solution. In the gospels, he at least responded to people’s questions, but often did not answer them. He changed the topic and answered what people should have asked, instead of what they did ask:
- In Luke 12, Peter asked, “Lord, are you telling this parable to us, or to everyone?” Jesus responded, but did not answer.
- In Luke 13, someone asked Jesus if only a few would be saved. Jesus responded, but did not answer.
- In John 3, Nicodemus wanted to talk about whether or not Jesus was from God, but Jesus answered something else.
- The Samaritan woman in John 4 wanted to know why a Jewish man would ask a Samaritan woman for water. Jesus spoke kindly about a more important question.
- The disciples asked, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Wrong question.
While Jesus often did answer directly, he freely spoke of other things if he thought the question was misguided. Might this be the way of the whole Bible? Is it possible that all of Scripture might be answering the questions we should be asking? Consider the people who spoke with Jesus in the gospels. Should they have assumed that if Jesus did not answer the question they asked, his words were not practical or relevant?
“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful,” begins a famous verse in II Timothy 3. By whose definition, though: God’s or ours? And that is the right question. If the trouble turns out to be not with the Bible after all—if all Scripture is, in fact, useful—then the trouble is with us when we won’t let God change the topic.
Let us assume that the whole Bible is practical and relevant, and meets our needs better than any other book possibly could. Then, based on that premise, let us consider what we need to hear. It turns out that God is actually God and our trouble with the Bible is that God thinks he knows best.
Ed Neufeld is a professor of biblical studies at Providence College, Otterburne, Man.