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Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth



Three and a half years ago, I wrote an article (Learning To Study) based on the passage of scripture from which I have taken the title for this article.  (2 Timothy 2:15)  At that time I was emphasising that the word “study” had more to do with analysing any given situation, and our need to separate truth from deception in those situations.  I pointed out that the Bible as such did not yet exist at that time, and that “books” (scrolls?) of any sort were rare and largely inaccessible; so it wasn’t really the Bible that Paul was encouraging Timothy to “study".

However, in this article I would like to return to the more traditional interpretation, which is that the passage is talking about studying the Bible.  I will attempt to relate it particularly to a more recent article (“The Most Dangerous Verse in the Bible”) which was written almost two years ago.  In that article I talked about a promise that Jesus made, that we can ask anything we like in his name, and we will get it.  (Mark 11:24  “What things soever you desire when you pray, believe that you receive them and you shall have them.”)

What I have been thinking about with regard to studying the Bible is that there is a risk in taking everything and anything in the Bible literally… at the same time, that we hardly give ourselves a chance to discover any of the great mysteries of our faith if we are NOT prepared to at least take certain parts of the Bible literally.  How can we reconcile these two positions?

I will try to explain, using the passage above (Mark 11:24) as an example.  

The verse simply says that what you want, you get... as long as you believe exactly that, i.e. that you will get it.  I feel it is a “dangerous” promise because, as it appears there, it simply is not true (not in my experience nor in the experience of just about anyone I know).  I have talked to many people who asked for something from God as a child, and did not receive it, and who thus became disillusioned with God.  And I know many adults who have lost their faith in God when they asked for someone to be healed, and they died instead, or when they asked for some other favour and it did not come to pass.

I still believe that Mark 11:24 is not literally true as it is written.  But this is where we need to match up similar passages in the Bible, in order to get a fuller picture.  Most of the other passages include a condition, which is that our request needs to be according to God’s will, or that it must be asked of God on behalf of his Son (i.e. “in Jesus' name”).  James, the brother of Jesus, was even more clear, when he said, “You ask for things and you do not get them, because you ask amiss…” (James 4:3)  There are right things to ask for, and wrong things to ask for.

A strict fundamentalist may argue that the presence of such conditions in other promises should not be automatically applied in this passage, since each passage can be interpreted literally as it is written, WITHOUT recourse to some other verse. This is the basis of the widespread practice of “prooftexting”, where one verse is used to cancel out another one.  But the truth is that almost everything that is written in the Bible comes with certain valid assumptions (even though the assumptions may not be spelled out.)  For example, rarely ever does a passage in the Bible define exactly who “we” or “you” are when giving an instruction.  Jesus told his disciples, at one time, to go into the city and they would find a donkey.  No one I have ever known seriously thinks that this is an instruction to all Christians.  Common sense assumes that from the context.

But on another occasion Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world and preach the gospel.  (Mark 16:15)  We just naturally assume that such an instruction at least applies corporately to followers of Christ today, if not to every single individual follower of Christ.  He does not say, “This is an instruction for you and for everyone who will come after you", yet we know that what is left out is still implied.  Thus we are drawing out the full truth of that passage, without letting a literal distortion get in the way of that truth.

Similarly, when the apostles use the words “we” or “you" in the various epistles, the assumption is that they are writing to people who are already committed to following Christ, and not to unbelievers.  Example:  “These things are written that you may know that you have eternal life.”  Is he saying that to people who have rejected Christ?  I don’t think so.  So once again, we make assumptions regarding stuff that does NOT appear in the passage, and those assumptions are necessary to make sense of what is written.

It follows that the same must be true of the promises about God answering prayers: certain assumptions need to be made.  Clumping them together (including James 4:3) tells us that we probably need to give a lot more thought as to how we pray, and what we  pray for.  We need to stay open to the possibility that what we are asking for is not part of God's plan for our lives, in which case, we should not WANT him to grant such a request.  That even includes a lot of bad things that happen in the world.  God has things that he wants to teach us and others, and he can use trials and tribulations to achieve that.

We should pray for deliverance from evil (as stated in the Lord’s Prayer), but we should also ask for “his will to be done”.  Both prayers must temper the other.  That is the fuller picture, and we must look at the fuller picture in order to discover the full implications of any passage of scripture.

Another good verse to express this concept of rightly dividing the word of truth is 1 Peter 2:2… “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that you may grow thereby.”

Drawing out this “sincere milk” is not a case of twisting verses to fit our theology; but rather, it is a humble and sincere attempt to get the fullest possible picture, with help from the Holy Spirit in doing so… even when the results do not conform with our previous understanding nor with what is easiest for us personally.

I have hesitated to share this revelation, because I know how frequently I have seen people cancelling out one verse with another, in an obvious attempt to win an argument for a particular doctrine, rather than trying to understand the “whole counsel of God”.  But that should not stop us from using this principle in a humble and sincere way ourselves.

I’ll give another example of how this drawing out of the fuller truth works.  

In Matthew 5, where Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount, he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…”  In Luke 6, however, slabs of that same sermon are also recorded, but this time, Jesus is recorded as having said, “Blessed are the poor…”

By far, the most popular of the two is the one that says “poor in spirit”, which has been distorted by some Bible commentators, to mean, “Blessed are the humble…”  or “Blessed are those who are spiritually poor…”.  This latter interpretation is really a most horrid distortion, given that God definitely does NOT want us to be spiritually poor.  SPIRITUALLY he wants us to be rich… and it just may be that becoming MATERIALLY poor is a significant step toward becoming spiritually rich… something most believers do not want to hear.  The distortion in modern translations is an obvious attempt to escape the uncomfortable truth of what the passage is saying.

This most popular application of Matthew 5 never wants you to see Luke 6, lest you give serious consideration to the possibility that Jesus literally wants us to learn what it is like to be poor, by BECOMING poor.  

While my own emphasis has leaned more toward the Luke 6 version, which says that God wants us to be materially poor (and there are a lot of other passages in the New Testament, e.g. James 2:5-7, to support that), we should not eliminate Matthew 5 either, where it’s the attitude which is most important.  So when I put the two of them together, I discover that there are some people who are materially poor, who are still far from being poor in SPIRIT.  They still want to be rich, and have not learned how to be content with their poverty.  In fact, such poor people are some of the most miserable people in the world.  They are not satisfied with their lot, and they are always wanting to be rich.  Unlike those who eventually become rich, these people are not prepared to make the personal sacrifices that others have made to become rich, and so they have the worst of both worlds.

If a person is really developing an attitude of living simply (i.e. being poor in spirit, as taught in Matthew 5) it is likely to make them quite literally poor at times (as taught in Luke 6); but it’s also possible for a person to be literally poor, but still not have a poor spirit.  And so both passages help us to get two halves of the same truth into touch with the other.  The fuller picture is more accurate than either on their own.

I have found so many other “problem texts” in the Bible much easier to understand when I have not tried to cancel them out in some fundamentalist way.  (Another good example might be Luke 14:33 as contrasted with 1 Corinthians 13:3.)  It means there are an awful lot of passages in the Bible that I must admit I do not understand.  But little by little more and more of them are making sense in a less literal way, as I line them up with other passages that seem at first to be literally pointing in a somewhat different direction.

I do believe that sincerity has for many years played a part in helping us to understand and accept the teachings of Jesus in a way that so many of our “religious” friends cannot even comprehend.  But I also feel that we must guard against falling back on our literal understanding of what Jesus taught, to the point of missing other bits and pieces of truth in the Bible as well.

There is much more that could be said on this topic, but hopefully I have said enough that it will inspire some of you to apply this approach in your own Bible studies, where you find parts of the Bible which do not seem to conform with your understanding of other parts of the Bible.
All of us have experienced disagreements which have threatened to turn friends into enemies.  The bad relations arising from these disagreements can often become permanent.  Surely, it would be good to reverse or heal some of this.  What if we could do something that would cause even our worst enemies to turn around and come a step or two in our direction?  This article is an attempt to help us achieve such a goal.

In disagreements, what usually happens is that both sides exaggerate (often only slightly) what the other person did or said.  For example, someone may say they don’t believe something you have said; you reply that they have accused you of lying; and they fight back by saying that you have falsely claimed that they have called you a liar, when they said nothing of the sort.  Each person is trying to express what they felt was being said.  However, after a dozen exchanges like this accusations can be quite extreme, and each side becomes entrenched in their beliefs about the other.

Think about how many times, in an argument, someone shouts, “I did NOT say that!  What I actually said was…”  That happens because we have our own spin on what the other person has said (based on the fact that they hurt our feelings), and it’s precisely that spin which keeps the argument going.

When a country goes to war, it becomes necessary to do everything in each country's power to demonise the enemy, in order to justify killing people (soldiers mostly) who support that country’s government.  Is this what we want to do with our personal "enemies”?  Do we really want to demonise them, and drag others into doing the same?  Or would it be better to work at resolving the differences?  (Remember, some of these enemies were once our friends!)

What follows can be an important step toward solving the impasse:

In a disagreement (largely because of the type of exaggerations mentioned above) both sides will argue that the other side is not listening, whereas we each believe that we ourselves have listened.  This article is offering a way to prove that we have been listening.  It’s not easy, but it can produce almost miraculous results.  

You just re-state your opponent’s case, in terms with which your opponent would actually agree.  

You don’t necessarily need to agree with what your opponent has said, because all you’re trying to prove is that you have listened well enough to see it as they see it… before you suggest any changes to their perspective.

For example, someone insults you, and so you react in anger.  But the person says that they did not intend to be insulting, that they were only trying to emphasise some weakness that they felt you were ignoring.  So that is what you write or say back to them.  For example, “As I understand it, you are saying that you believe I have a weakness, that I have not been doing anything about changing it, and that you were only trying to get me to look at it.  Is that right?”  If they still think you have missed something, let them state their case again, and have another try.

Now one of the first things you are going to discover when you do this, is that your own position becomes less aggressive.  You start to think, “Maybe it’s worth agreeing with at least part of what they have said".  You might say, in the illustration above, “Well, I do have that weakness; I know.  But I feel that I’ve been making some effort to change, and you don’t seem to realise that.”

You may also be surprised that sometimes (when they have heard their own argument expressed fairly) they will offer a correction which softens their position, e.g. “I’m not really saying that you don’t do anything about changing; but I don’t think you do enough.”

All of this flows rather naturally from an effort to demonstrate that you really heard what they said.  And even if nothing gets resolved, the tension can be eased just by that little bit of effort.  You may finish up just agreeing to disagree.  But at least you stopped the slide toward becoming bitter enemies.

If you will try this the next time you have a disagreement (or maybe even try it on someone with whom you have already had a long-standing disagreement), you may be surprised at just how quickly it can start breaking down barriers and giving room for both of you to move forward in your relationship.


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