I find some of the stories in the Bible so disturbing. Is it bad for my faith to question them?

There’s something about the Bible. It is capable of evoking joy in those that choose to believe it or it evokes anger in those that choose to discredit it. Oftentimes, it can evoke anger and joy in those who believe it too. Most of us modern day thinkers find many chapters (or the entire thing) in the Old Testament too terrible to comprehend. Much of the old testament speaks of brutal war, murder, rape, plagues, sin and sorrow. The Israelites were themselves brutal in their conquering of their enemies as they took hold promised land. In Deuteronomy 3:6-7 Moses, the author of the book, puts it bluntly: ‘We destroyed all the people in every town we conquered – men, women and children alike. But we kept all the livestocks for ourselves and took plunder from all the towns’.  In my opinion that is horrific, barbaric, and wrong! I am forced to ask ‘what kind of God could do that?’ And, if I take this further, I must consider if a God like that is really God at all because shouldn’t God be all about loving thy neighbor?

Somewhere along my journey of faith, perhaps when I heard Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in the United States say that it is ok to have doubts, I came to realize that it is good to have questions too. In fact, more than that, it is essential to have questions, to mediate and think about God and what all of this means. Questions and doubt are not something to fear or to feel guilty about. It is part of who we are and how God made us. The intelligence he gave us is to, first and foremost, think.  And in our thinking and questioning we should not feel the need to hide from our christian friends, pastors, leader and churches. They too should not shy away from the deep questions we ask for there is opportunity for everyone to grow in faith and knowledge. Questioning God isn’t an act of doubt, it is an act of belief! If there was no belief, or no desire to believe, why bother questioning? There would simply be no reason to. It would be a waste of our precious time. To question then, is to desire understanding and meaning. Nothing wrong with that! 

So how then do you and I read the Bible? How do we continue in relationship with God when there is so much we don’t get and empathize with in the book? I suppose we need a little bit of faith, even just a tiny bit, to begin. Faith is that thing we can’t see but might be able to feel in our hearts but is also something we choose to have. It’s like saying ‘I don’t know about that but I’m going to trust that one day I will and that it will be good for me’. ‘But how do I even get to have faith, I don’t even know where to begin?’ 

Faith is found, seeded, and grown in hope. Hope comes from trusting a God who promises life and blessings to those who believe in him. We hope that the good stuff in the bible is true, we trust that it is. Trust is made manifest in the questions, trials, tribulations, joy and goodness that can be found in relationship with God (all those times we can see that God worked the good into our lives). Trust grows over time and relationship with God comes from time spent together with him. That’s time spent in thought, prayer and reading his word (and other writings that encourage you). Time given to thinking though God’s purposes and meanings. Wrestling over the purpose, meaning, and character of a God who stood by as the Israelites slaughtered thousands, means that you haven’t given up, you haven’t lost faith in God, it means that you desire peace in your heart over something that doesn’t sit right. And it doesn’t. I admit it. The slaughter of children never sits right. But then I wonder, why doesn’t it sit right? It seems like many ancient cultures killed children in war. In fact, many ancient cultures sacrificed their own children to gods (Deuteronomy 12:31b). Is there a difference in how we see children, or how we value life now in comparison to then? Yes. There is. Obviously.  

The reaction of many of governments around the world to bring their nation’s economy to a standstill in favor of protecting it’s citizens during this Covid-19 pandemic reveals something striking: life is valued. It is valued more than the billions of dollars lost. It is valued more than winning the next election. A world at standstill, in lockdown, in isolation to save the lives of people indicates more than strongly that we are valued. I am valued. You are valued. It seems that governments are acting in good faith that there is no financial loss that could be considered worse than losing one life in this pandemic. In Australia, where I live, to date, 97 people have died. The dollars spent to protect them – it’s not countable. So what happened? How is it that we read the Old Testament with such disdain, disgust and interrogation when ancient cultures and it’s celebrities, including King David (the most celebrated Israelite (human) king), read it with acceptance and understanding? They even agreed with it! So, what changed us? The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ did. It was he who offered a profoundly different way of thinking and living. In doing this, he also brought about a different way of relating to God. 

When Jesus was ministering in Israel, the nation was under the command of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire, famous to many of us now for it’s architecture and Gladiators, waged war for centuries with millions of people across land and sea. It was also a people who, if a baby was not wanted, it was put into the street to be ‘exposed’ to the elements so that it would die. Children were not valued anywhere. Was it shocking for people to witness Jesus reprimanding his disciples for attempting to stop children approaching him? And when Jesus placed his hands on the children’s heads and blessed them saying ‘Let the Children come…For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children’ (Matthew 19:14), doesn’t this infer that Jesus placed value and equality of the lives of children, on all of us? Similarly, when Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman (Samaritans were despised by the Jewish people), and at such length, he broke all social custom and treated her as equal. Most distinctly, when he commanded that we should love our neighbor (Mark 12:31) he said something that no one before him had done. The act of loving our neighbor as ourselves makes us equal in ways that the Old Testament did not do. It is this, this idea, that our western civilization, our world has profited from. For now, in our hearts, we abhor murder, rape, war, and all evil treatment to our neighbors and children alike. We are a changed civilization. Our perspective has been altered and it is for this reason that we have difficulty reading, understanding, and empathizing with parts of the Old Testament. But that’s a good thing! We are not meant to empathize, how could we, we view things in the light of Christ. We’re the lucky ones. We have an enormous benefit of seeing the story played out in God’s word. The ancient Israelites did not, they only knew the beginning of the story. For that’s what the Bible is, it is a story, it is history, as in HIS story, describing how God plans to bless all nations through the birth, death, and resurrection of his Son.

Depending on where we fit in story, in that timeline, we will all view things differently and have many different and similar questions. The more I read the Bible, the more I can see one thing in particular common to all peoples at all times: God is there and waiting to be found by those who seek him. So ask, think, ponder, doubt, talk to others, and even celebrate about what you think it all means. Thinking, meditating, questioning and seeking is a privilege – a God given one. What question is on your mind? 

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.

Matthew 6:33 NLT

The Israelites in their wilderness saw God, they saw his incredible miracles and they still doubted. I don’t see God, is he talking to me at all?

Three weeks ago I began reading the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. Aside from skimming over the details for the building and presentation of the Arc of the Covenant and the Tabernacle, I read it as closely as I could. I underlined, I made notes, I asked questions, and I discussed it with a person who knows the scriptures better than most (my mother). I wasn’t surprised by the violence; ancient cultures are known to have been barbaric. The strangeness of the plagues God used to expel his people from Egypt didn’t astonish me for I have known this story since childhood however, I found myself in awe of the constant complaints and failure of the Israelites. I came to understand that Exodus and Deuteronomy are not only about how God rescued his people from slavery, it is a record of how the Israelites kept getting it wrong. And in their failure, this record stands as example of God’s perfect and loving grace. 

I was dumbstruck to learn that within days of fleeing Egypt many Israelites (or Hebrews as they were known as at the time) doubt God’s deliverance and wish to return to slavery for ‘its better to be a slave in Egypt than a corpse in the wilderness’ (Ex 14:12). I could not believe that even after they witness the extraordinary parting of the red sea, experience God providing care, food and water for them in the wilderness, and seeing God’s daily guidance and protection manifest in a pillar of cloud in the day and a pillar of fire at night, they still doubt! Can you believe that before the first year is out they even take their jewelry and form a carved idol, which they then celebrate with a big party declaring that idol to be the god who brought them out of Egypt? (Ex 32:1-8) How did these people forget him so quickly? Did they have amnesia? 

In 2020, thousands of years after these events, it’s easy to judge the Israelites. They had physical proof that God was with them! They witnessed miracle after miracle! They were guided daily by God who even went ahead of them and chose the best campsites for them to dwell in (Duet 1: 32-33), but they still didn’t trust the Lord God! And here we are in May 2020 never having seen, or likely to ever see, anything remotely like this, yet we are still asked to put our trust in him? They had it so easy! So much easier than us. God appeared to them, time and time again, but there are probably millions of Christians today who don’t even believe that God has ever, or will ever, communicate with him. To him, he’s a distant God, not an interventional God, but one still worth believing him. When comparing us to the Israelites at the time of the Exodus with a God that so obviously showed up, it is difficult to comprehend their mistrust of him. Worse, when God after a short time takes them to the Promised Land and tells them to enter it, they refuse in fear. They still do not trust him. Their failure in this resulted in another forty years in the wilderness!

I wonder, what would my belief have looked like if I was among the Israelites? Would I have given my jewelry to be melted down and made into an idol? Would I have failed at the tests God gave them? Tests that God had already provided the answer for? What about you? Do you think you would have trusted him? When overlooking for the first time the land that God had promised to give them, all they had to do was enter and take it, instead they let their own fear and worry consume them. By not trusting and obeying God, they missed the blessings he had prepared for them and they were ordered back into the desert to learn again what God had already taught them – ‘Trust me and I will provide for you’.

Covid-19 and the enforced isolation that comes with it, feels (and looks) like a wilderness. It is unknown, it is mundane, it is a place a fear and loneliness, it is something all of us wish to turn away from. But I must wonder are God’s blessings, his provision and his very presence in this Coronavirus desert too? This may be a time of unprecedented change, worry, sickness and grief (don’t forget boredom too) but it can also be a time of trust, peace, faith and understanding. We may not have pillars of clouds or fire to guide us but God has already provided guidance for us in his word. 

The bible isn’t a book about God’s commands, punishment and law, it’s a book expressing God’s grace and unfailing love to a people who continually failed him. It’s a book that can be a light upon our path as we walk through these days. It is a book with a personal message of hope for you and I, if we decide to take the time to read it. The more I read it, the more I can see that God’s plan was, and will always be, good for those who put their trust in him. What will you discover?

 The wilderness the Israelites experienced destroyed many of them. My prayer for you and I is that this wilderness called Covid-19 and all the stress and discomfort it brings will not be a time of failure to trust, or a failure to hope or a lack of wanting to seek God, but rather a time of growth and blessing as we search for and rest in his comfort and guidance…as we seek him – the God who wants us to remember the miracles he did to rescue his people, knowing that one day when our time to be on this earth would come about that we would be blessed by what he did then.  I wonder, was King David thinking of the Exodus when he wrote Psalm 25:6 ‘Remember O Lord, your compassion and unfailing love, which you have shown from ages past.’ His love, the same love that dragged a stubborn people out of slavery so that he could honor his promise and bless them, is the love that God still has for his people, all people today.  Just now to trust him. 

“Remember how the Lord your God led you through the wilderness for these forty years humbling you and testing you to prove your character, and to find out whether or not you would obey his commands…He did it to teach you that people do not live by bread alone; rather, we live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” 

Deuteronomy 8:2-7 NLT