I remember when I was given a “proper” Bible. I was about thirteen and the Gideons had come round to my school, handing out pocket New Testaments in the NIV translation. I don’t think I really read it at that time, aside from when we were covering Mark’s Gospel in RE class, but I have always remembered a quote they had in the front. I don’t know who originally wrote it, but it certainly has a power to it. I’ll print it in full:
“THE BIBLE contains the mind of God, the state of man, the way of salvation, the doom of sinners, and the happiness of believers. Its doctrines are holy, its precepts are binding, its histories are true, and its decisions are immutable. Read it to be wise, believe it to be safe, and practice it to be holy. It contains light to direct you, food to support you, and comfort to cheer you.
It is the traveller’s map, the pilgrim’s staff, the pilot’s compass, the soldier’s sword, and the Christian’s charter. Here Paradise is restored, Heaven opened, and the gates of hell disclosed.
CHRIST is its grand subject, our good the design, and the glory of God its end.
It should fill the memory, rule the heart, and guide the feet. Read it slowly, frequently, and prayerfully. It is a mine of wealth, a paradise of glory, and river of pleasure. It is given you in life, will be opened at the judgement, and be remembered forever. It involves the highest responsibility, will reward the greatest labour, and will condemn all who trifle with its sacred contents.”
As a fairly orthodox Christian I do hold the Bible in high esteem. I have found in it words of great comfort, beauty and peace. However I have also seen a negative side. Sometimes I think that “low church” or Reformed believers place too much stress on sola scriptura to the detriment of life in the Spirit now, whereas the charismatic contingent place too much stress on personal revelation and not enough on the historic and continually affirmed revelation of the Bible. I tend to think the answer lies somewhere in the middle, although I will admit to leaning to the Reformed/evangelical/low side of things, as a result of my background. In particular I have noticed some Christians – of the very conservative or fundamentalist persuasions – seem to me to view the Bible too highly. Now that sounds, even to my ears, a little shocking, but what I mean is that they take it so literally, and brook no opposition, so that they are led to reject all others with an alternative point of view. Not that I am saying that a more liberal believer will accept all, there are intolerant people of every stripe, but I have more experience with the fundamentalist type.
I think that for some people the Bible becomes a constraint, not on right-belief (orthodoxy) but on right-action (orthopraxy). By that I mean that we may have the most “correct” beliefs about Christ in the world, we may study the Bible intently and understand it well, but if we do not translate that into action we are failing. Jesus said: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” (Mat 7:26) What I am thinking of particularly is when we, or I, read about God’s hatred for injustice, about how we should aid the poor and help the widow, and do very little about that. For example I think that we as Christians should do something about the injustice being meted out to the poor (the sick, the disabled and the unemployed) and the coming injustice toward the old. The trouble is that I have little idea of what to do beyond raising awareness and signing various petitions. I give,but not enough, not enough to make a difference, and that is something I am very aware of.
My other concern, in putting faith into practise, is how we understand situations which are not directly addressed by the Bible. I have read so many books where the words of the Bible are bent and twisted to make them apply to some modern situation and frankly, sometimes they just don’t. We cannot always find specific guidance – general principles yes, but not always something specific. The Bible does not cover every eventuality – it would be far longer if it did. In my own situation for example, the Bible does not speak a great deal about mental ill-health and where it does, it is not particularly positive. I have mentioned before about the harm I believe comes when certain groups say that healing from mental illness has to happen, that the only outcome is sin/illness or faith/healing. The Bible does mention people being healed but we are never all of us promised healing. So when I look into the Bible sometimes it makes me quite sad when I see the tales of people being healed of this, that and the other, of the people whose healings from demons seem to be describing instead healing from mental illness, and that that has not happened to me. I think that is another problem for people with mental illness in that there are things – like the Gerasene demoniac, where he seems to be suffering some mental illness, but both Jesus and the biblical author describe this as demon possession. I don’t understand that and I don’t know where I stand on the demon thing. I have met many people with illnesses and I have yet to meet anyone where I could say “they have a demon” rather than “they aren’t very well and need medication/therapy”. That makes those passages hard for me to read – and I can imagine that the demon stories are hard for other people with mental problems to read. The Bible is a wonderful book but it does not specifically speak to my situation.
There are of course wonderful statements that more generally speak to my mental health. Like Jesus offering rest, being our Comforter, the gospel itself, and the wonderful range of human emotion in the Psalms. It is easy for a person not like myself to say that the Bible speaks to every eventuality, every problem in human life, but I have not found it does.
Of course, there are many many different views among Christians about the Bible, ranging from the liberal to the conservative. I do not think that God dictated the Bible, it is inspired but I do not hold a “high” view there. It is sufficient for salvation, as I think it says in 1 Tim 3:16 but I do not think it holds the answer to everything. Nor do I think it claims to. I also think that not everything in the Bible is applicable to today – in the same way that Christians are now free to eat any animal I also think that we are free to ordain women in the church. I also cannot believe that love between two consenting adults can be condemned because of their gender. I would say that Paul – and the other authors – wrote of their time, that God speaks to us gradually rather than imposing a totally different viewpoint on us, and that God also speaks through the church – through Christians throughout the ages.
This helps me when I read some of the things in the Old Testament, particularly the massacres, the killing of infants, and the treatment of women who were raped, among other things. I understand them – when placed in the context of their time they were not seen as wrong. I was taught in history not to judge the people of the past on the morality of today – but claiming that the Bible is a book out of time does just that. I don’t think we should try to read the Bible shorn of the prejudices of the time and the authors. God works with humans – he only once put things down himself. So I tend to think that the words of Christ are in a different category to the rest of the Bible. This may mark me out as unacceptable to more conservative Christians, but it is the way I can understand God.
This is a bit of a ramble, but I do love the Bible, I get a huge amount out of it and I find it wonderful whether I am well or I am ill. But I have to acknowledge that there are difficulties in it, in some of the morality of the OT in particular, and in some of the church organisation of the New. But the message itself, that of being rescued from evil, from our own evil, and brought into the light of Christ by virtue of his sacrifice for us, is wonderful. In many ways I am indeed orthodox, but I do not subscribe to the almost deified view of the Bible that some people have. I was taught to take a more critical look at scripture – an excellent book I would recommend on that, by the way, is Phyllis Trible’s “Texts of Terror” – and I can see the problems that atheists have with it. We do them no favours by pretending there isn’t a difficulty with some of the smiting stuff in the OT, I think we should engage with problematic texts and discuss them.
I have heard people describe the Bible as Jesus in paper. I am not really keen on that! The Bible is the record of God’s dealings with man – it doesn’t quite follow that God approves of everything man did in his name.
To try to get back on track – as a mentally ill person, the Bible can be great. But it also doesn’t speak directly of my situation, and it can and has been used to attack me. Sometimes I think we should follow Paul and say that we follow the “spirit not the letter” of the Bible, that certainly seems to be a workable solution to me. And of course, most of all, Bible or no Bible we need to talk to God, if we just read and follow the Bible we may be good people but we have no connection to the Almighty, and that shows we have missed the point.
So, read the Bible, love it and cherish it, but don’t prioritise it over God, God who is merciful and compassionate and loves you to bits. Don’t let anyone – including yourself – condemn you for your illness, your anguish, your suffering. And remember that Jesus has been there, been there with all of us and in all situations:
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. (Isa 53:4-5)