Over a refreshing glass of artificially sweetened tea Alma and I talked about her recovery from foot surgery and about faith. She expressed a bit of amazement that my faith seemed so robust even though I was well into my stint in seminary. As a lifelong member of the church she said that she had seen fervent Christians become quite tepid ministers after going to seminary. Just last fall during the dinner break of a class at Pfeiffer University that I was taking for continuing education credit, a middle aged woman, who was seeking ordination as a deacon also expressed a similar surprise that I had been through seminary and yet still seemed to have a very fervent faith. Hum? In spite of the strident protests of seminary deans and professors, there in fact may be something to that old joke of calling seminary “cemetery” after all, although I don’t think that has to be the case.
Not long after I began seminary though, during one of the Old Testament classes a young man stood up and invited anyone who was interested to join him and others in a group he called “The Bible Problems” group or something to that effect. He and the others were going through a crisis of sorts because the view of the Bible with which they had entered seminary had been stiffly challenged leaving their faith tittering a bit. Things weren’t quite as simple as they had thought they were and they needed to regroup and rethink things a bit. In conversations with some fellow seminarians I got the impression that the newly discovered Bible complexity in many cases led to a new found sense of freedom, the freedom to ignore or dismiss some of the Bible’s moral demands. They always seemed to point to the “problems” with the Bible or to the gray areas of moral decision making in general to dismiss certain moral demands particularly with regard to sex, as you might guess. This is basically what the widely popular United Methodist preacher, Rev. Adam Hamilton, who attained national prominence by being invited to preach at the inaugural national prayer service last year at the National Cathedral, does in his book entitled, “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White.” The basic idea is that because certain issues are supposedly so confusing and uncertain then we have to rethink what we have long considered to be right and wrong.
Several years ago I was in a conversation with a couple of friends about various things when the two of them found themselves engaged in a conversation about abortion. He had stated that he believed it, abortion, was wrong. She insisted that it wasn’t quite that clear. As these conversations often go, it became quite tense. When pressed, the one who believed that abortion may be justified even simply in matters of personal convenience, retreated further into the ambiguity and stated, “Well, we really don’t know that a fetus is fully human.” That was all she said. The ambiguity, the uncertainty was supposed to end the conversation and leave open the possibility of abortion for matters of personal convenience as a means of birth control I guess. Then presidential candidate, Barack Obama, did the same thing during a debate in 2008 when he was asked whether he believed human life began at conception or at birth. His initial response was that the answer to such a question was “above his pay grade.” In other words, he was declaring uncertainty due to ambiguity, which was used as a reason for justifying abortion. Since the answer to some of the big moral questions is unclear, or because the Bible is deemed to be so muddled and confusing itself then the default for those who resort to this line of reasoning almost always seems to be on the side of permissiveness rather than constraint. But why should this be?
I’ll grant the fact that moral decision making can be quite difficult and there is much gray. Of course there is! So what? Is this really some big news flash. Do we really live in a world of black and white, where everyone seems to think that things are so clear cut? I don’t think so. I think the world we live in is indeed a world of gray, 50 shades and then some. The question is why is there so much gray. Is it because there is no clarity, that such a thing doesn’t actually exist? Is gray all there is? What if there is gray not because there is no black and white, but because the black and white are blurred because we are spiritually and morally blind?
The Bible that so many so easily malign, dismiss, and ignore actually tells us that things aren’t all that clear for us, not because clarity is not possible, but because we can’t see. What if the “problem” really isn’t with the Bible itself, but with our perceptions and preconceptions of it? Maybe the problem isn’t really the Bible but our wicked and deceitful hearts that are constantly seeking after excuses for rebellion, self-will, and self-satisfaction (Jer 17:9). Perhaps we see so much gray because in our darkened minds we are really seeing red when it comes to the surrender and self-denial that gospel requires of us. Romans 8:7-8 tells us that our minds in their natural state are hostile toward God and cannot submit to the law of God. We cannot because we will not.
Of course we don’t know everything with absolute certainty, but we all believe many things with strong convictions. That’s why the Bible tells us we will have to walk by faith rather than by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). Blurred vision is no excuse to ignore and dismiss the commands of God. Through the fog and pettifogged clouds of gray by God’s grace we can make out the glimmer of God’s glorious light. By faith we can make our way into the light and walk in it (see 1 John 1). This doesn’t require absolute knowledge, but trust. God bids us to come out of the darkness and, yes, even out of the shadows of gray to enter into his glorious light. As Jesus knew, perhaps the reason we cling to the gray is because we really love darkness more than light (John 3:19). Perhaps gray just becomes an excuse for unbelief and hanging onto the life that Jesus calls us to lose
Yes things are a bit confusing, and there is plenty of gray, but belief and its corresponding unbelief – to believe some things means that other things can’t be believed – can’t be suspended. Faith in someone and something is inevitable. Nonetheless, I believe their may be much more clarity than some are making out. Quite interestingly in an interview on Piers Morgan during the Duck Dynasty controversy, Piers quoted from a Phil Robertson sermon that Robertson had delivered a couple of years before to show how egregious his bigotry toward gays was. After the quote, liberal commentator, Marc Lamont Hill, exclaimed that it was an “absolutely clear” indication of Robertson’s disdain for homosexuality. Although he and Piers throughout the discussion argued that the Bible in general just wasn’t clear with regards to homosexuality, eventually Dr. Michael Brown pointed out that the words that Morgan quoted from Robertson’s sermon weren’t the words of Robertson at all, but the words of the apostle Paul that Robertson was quoting from Romans 1:26-32 (see interview here). Perhaps the Bible is clearer than some what like us to think. The question may simply be whether we are going to believe it or not.
2 Corinthians 4:1-18 1Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,“ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.
13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.