Good people don’t suffer. Having a lot of money is wrong. Poor people are only ever poor because of their bad choices. Consuming anything with alcohol in it is a sin. If you don’t go to Church when the doors are open, you’re forsaking the assembly. If you don’t have enough faith to leave your job and preach the Gospel when you become a Christian, you aren’t really a Christian.
I’ve heard each of these statements before. If you’ve been in a community of Christians for any length of time, you’ve probably heard at least a few of them, too, or at least statements like them. They’re what I like to call wrong. No, I don’t have a fancy term for them. I’m sure there is one, and I just haven’t encountered it, or it isn’t springing to mind, but these beliefs are wrong. Not only that, they are dangerous.
Lets think about just one of these statements for a moment.
“Good People Don’t Suffer” most likely stems from a poor reading of the book of Proverbs. Chapter 11 is just full of pithy sayings like:
The integrity of the upright will guide them, but the crookedness of the treacherous will destroy them.
The righteous is delivered from trouble, but the wicked takes his place.
He who is steadfast in righteousness will attain to life, and he who pursues evil will bring about his own death.
Clearly, the message of this passage is that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, right! Taken on their own, it’s easy to see how someone might think these verses are saying that all suffering, trouble, and pain are the direct result of one’s own personal unrighteousness or “badness”. Anyone who thinks this clearly hasn’t read the book of Job which begins by saying:
There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job; and that man was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.
The book goes on to describe how Job loses his wealth, his children, and his own health. Not because he did something unrighteous, but because Satan is allowed to do this to him. Good, upright, God fearing people can suffer.
Many arguments about what the Bible does or does not say are predicated on an idea that may be found in the Bible that is then stated as an absolute truth. Like the one above, a reasonable assessment of the eleventh chapter of Proverbs is that “bad” people suffer, and that “good” people don’t. Trouble and pain comes to those who are foolish, lazy, and unrighteous. These are all ideas that are supported in scripture. They’re all found in many places. Paul says that “If a man will not work, he will not eat.” That’s the New Testament, even! But the problem is, no individual verse can stand on it’s own.
Genesis tells us that people who drink wine are abused or make bad choices. Leviticus says that certain people shouldn’t drink wine or strong drink at certain times. Same with the book of Numbers. Romans 14:21 says not only that we shouldn’t drink wine, but we also shouldn’t eat meat!!! Again, taken alone, these verses paint a picture of alcohol that isn’t at all pretty. People who drink wine are incestuous nudists who can’t worship God and detractors from the faith. Drinking is bad, and clearly a sin.
Of course, we read other passages that tell us otherwise. The Old Testament prescribes wine as a part of rituals and feasts that the Israelites were to observe. Numbers 6 actually talks about a very specific circumstance under which someone is not allowed to drink wine, but when that person might be allowed to once more.
Again the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When a man or woman makes a special vow, the vow of a Nazirite, to dedicate himself to theLord, he shall abstain from wine and strong drink; he shall drink no vinegar, whether made from wine or strong drink, nor shall he drink any grape juice nor eat fresh or dried grapes. All the days of his separation he shall not eat anything that is produced by the grape vine, from the seeds even to the skin.
Of course, the prescribed abstinence of a Nazirite came to an end when their vow came to an end. They would offer a special sacrifice, and then they would be released from abstaining from grape products, and specifically from wine.
Paul tells Timothy that he should use some wine medicinally for stomach problems. And Jesus made wine for a wedding feast as his first miracle. Communion, which Jesus instituted and most every Christian agrees is something we should participate in, came from the passover feast. The Cup which we were commanded to take contained wine.
Clearly a balanced reading of scripture would suggest that appropriate use of wine is just fine. The verses discussing not partaking are in specific circumstances and in excess.
See, here’s the thing: the Bible is a really big book. There’s a lot of discussion throughout scripture about a lot of topics. Taking any one passage on it’s own is dangerous because it assumes that all statements in the Bible are comprehensive and universal. They aren’t. Now, some statements are. Those statement are made clear by language that says they are absolutes. “No one comes to the Father but through me” is a pretty good example of this kind of absolute statement. Who can come to the father by any way besides Jesus? Nobody.
Why does any of this matter? Why am I almost a thousand words into a post on poor arguments people make from the Bible? Because it’s important. As I said before, statements like this are dangerous. And while I was kind enough to say that we’ve all heard them, I think a slightly less kind but just as true statement is that we’ve all made them.
When we misrepresent the teachings of the Bible and sweep the bits we don’t like under the rug while trotting out the bits we do like, we undermine any truth we may teach. As a youth minister, I tell my teens to read their Bible all the time. Constantly. Probably to the point where it’s a bit annoying. If they do (and I really hope they do), I want what I’ve taught to be found there. All of it.
I told my elders when I interviewed for my current position that there were certain things I would never teach. I won’t teach that dancing is a sin. I won’t teach that consuming alcohol is a sin. I won’t teach that you need to be in a church building every time the doors are open. I won’t teach that doing the right thing always lands you on top. Because when my teens encounter the truth in life, either through reading it in the word, or experiencing it first hand (especially that last one), it will call into question any truth I’ve ever taught them.
Teach modesty. Teach moderation. Teach the importance of being involved in the fellowship of believers. Teach that the righteous prevail in eternity. Don’t teach half truths, and don’t teach lies. Abusing the Bible to champion pet topics hurts your credibility and undermines the message of scripture.