12 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Posting Something Online

Before you post that blog, Facebook status, or tweet, what would be some indicators you might want to consider first? In such an instance, I want to offer 12 brief questions to ask yourself. You might think of them as indicator lights, the kind a pilot checks before taking off.

1) Will it edify? Or significantly inform a useful conversation? (Mk 12:29–31; 1 Cor 14:26)

Try to think of what will edify others. All we do is in obedience to the command to love God and others. How will it increase their knowledge, or faith, or love? Are you accurately representing any positions you disagree with? How sure am I of my facts? Trivialities hopefully fill up our lives less than they do so much of the Internet. John Piper has said that “One of the great uses of Twitter and Facebook will be to prove on the last day that our prayerlessness was not from lack of time!” He’s right.

2) Will it easily be misunderstood? (Jn 13:7; 16:12)

The privacy of a personal conversation limits misunderstanding. In public posts, some things will sound one way to those who know us, and another to those who don’t. Negative assessments are often best shared privately, or not at all. How many of us have learned at our workplace that email is a terrible way to share any kind of negative comments? And, thinking of more public postings, ask yourself: are there reasons why I may not be a good person to speak on certain matters?

3) Will it reach the right audience? (Mark 4:9 et al.)

If you’re correcting someone, should the audience for that correction be wider—or more narrow? Is that audience correctable? When you use social media, consider who is listening to what you’re saying. What if everyone in this room came over and eavesdropped on your conversations after the service today? Yet we do this all the time online.

4) Will it help my evangelism? (Col. 1:28–29)

Is what you’re about to communicate going to help or hinder those you’re evangelizing? Is it likely to diminish the significance (to them) of your commitment to the gospel, or enhance it?

5) Will it bring about unnecessary and unhelpful controversy? (Titus 3:9)

Think carefully about controversy. The line between vigorous exchange of ideas and a kind of social war is sometimes thinner than we may think. What is this particular controversy that I would be contributing to good for? When is it unhelpful? How much time will it take up? Is this an unavoidable primary issue, or a matter about which disagreement is fairly unimportant? Will this controversy play into any other division that threatens the unity of our local church?

6) Will it embarrass or offend? (1 Cor. 12:21–26)

Will anyone be embarrassed or offended by what you’re saying? I understand that the mere fact that something is offensive doesn’t mean that saying it is wrong, but simply, we must be sure the offense is worth it.

7) Will it convey care? (1 Cor. 12:21–26)

Will those mainly concerned appreciate your motives? Privacy in communication conveys care, an honoring of the person receiving the information. You like the fact that your doctor’s report is private; but you don’t mind that the sale at the store is advertised. If someone would rather be addressed in person, why not do that?

8) Will it make people better appreciate someone else? (1 Cor. 12:21–26)

Point out God’s grace in others’ lives, ministries, arguments, etc. Highlighting something that will build others’ esteem for someone else glorifies God and encourages others to see His work in them.

9) Is it boasting? (Prov. 27:2)

Does what you communicate online draw attention to yourself more than your topic? How could that be spiritually harmful to you or others? Will it leave people with a more accurate understanding of you? Are you simply being tempted to draw attention to yourself, or to what you know? When was the last time you encouraged others by sharing something embarrassing or even sinful about yourself?

10) Is the tone appropriate? (2 John 1, 12; Col. 4:6; Eph. 4:29; 2 Tim 2:24–25)

Will people understand and be encouraged in the truth that you communicate? How important is the tone to your message being rightly received? Is it evidently kind, patient, and gentle? The literal tone of your voice and the look on your face fill out so much of what you mean. In a personal conversation, you can more quickly understand that something needs clarifying and clarify it. The Internet doesn’t sanctify anger or frustration.

11) Is it wrong to say nothing? (Romans 1:14)

Do you have an opportunity or even a responsibility to communicate something? Some of you do this for your job. Have you established a “relationship” with readers, friends, and followers online that would expect you to comment on a particular issue or situation? Our freedom of speech is a wonderful stewardship! We want to use it well and responsibly. I guess there are even some jobs that aren’t worth sacrifices they call for, aren’t there?

12) What do others advise? (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6)

When you are about to communicate something you know others will find provocative, do you have good sounding-boards to try to help you estimate the response? Do you take time to consider before you publish? Speed of response is both an ability of the Internet and a temptation to speak too quickly (contra James 1:19; Prov. 10:19; 14:29; 16:32; 17:27). Remember, you will give an account for every word you type (Mt 12:36). Does saying things at a “safe distance” from people tempt us to say things we wouldn’t say to their face?

Perhaps you could write down these questions and ask a friend to look over your social media with these concerns in mind. Or even, ask someone who you know disagrees with you on some issue you’ve posted on or written about and see what they would say. So many of us might be able to improve our care. Can you imagine how much care the apostles took when writing their letters?

By Mark Dever

Allowing God to lead your emotional healing

I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “keep a stiff upper lip”: an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion, a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for this because it seems so quintessentially British, especially with shows like Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife. This approach originates from Stoicism (not surprisingly), though the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper behaviour.

In the West generally, there is an approach to emotions where they are kept very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. A few years ago, another English phrase was imported around the world: “keep calm and carry on”, from a poster made at the outset of World War II. These days you see it on mugs and t-shirts and phone cases. Stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.

Many people’s approach to emotions is about efficiency. We seek to swiftly move from feeling bad to feeling good again, wanting to process bad events as quickly as possible. This is partially natural. We want to take the pain away. When we are physically hurt we put bandaids on and take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation; healing still has to happen.

It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip, to keep calm and carry on. In fact, it does a lot of damage. We move on from the pain before it heals or, even worse, we suppress wounds and there is no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not at all?

In other cultures and times, processing negative emotions is more communal. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast, and commemoration); mourning was public.

Ancient Jewish culture was more like this. One of the best gifts we have to help us process emotional pain is Psalms. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But the beauty of Psalms is that God did give us words to say. He gave us words for when the pain is so deep it seems unspeakable. He gave us words to cry out to him, even when in anguish and despair, even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question.

What these psalms do is lead us into the pain and allow us to sit there awhile—to acknowledge the feelings and deal with them. We don’t need to solve the problem as quickly as possible. In his mercy and grace, God teaches us a different way.

Nearly half of the psalms are laments, journeys to take to process our emotional pain. They name fears specifically for us: fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and more. They acknowledge feelings: confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing, deep yearning. Only when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while does the poetry move us to a more hopeful future. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.

Let’s look at Psalm 13 together, one by David:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

The psalmist fears that God has left him alone in his pain.

How long must I take counsel in my soul

David despairs of his anxiety and over-thinking, mulling and stewing on the things that plague him.

and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

The seemingly never-ending sadness is palpable. It remains when he pushes himself to go through his daily business, a lead weight in the heart.

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

There is a sense of injustice, that someone has overpowered him materially or emotionally. In this situation there may be loss of land or money, loss of face, loss of family, loss of power and control.

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,

David pleads with God to answer him because otherwise his only rest will come in eternal sleep.

lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

This sense that there will never be vindication brings to light David’s deepest feelings of yearning to be justified.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.

I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.

Having acknowledged the feelings and stayed with them awhile, here God, through David, brings the reader out into the light of hope.

In this model, our pain doesn’t need to be private (many of these psalms are communal psalms) nor processed quickly. This doesn’t mean we should parade and wallow in our pain and end up celebrating it. Psalms gives a shape and tempo to our processing. It acknowledges and gives validation to our feelings, and allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage.

And there are over 60 of these types of psalms, for a whole range of painful emotions and for repeated use—because it’s not as though we read one psalm and then we’re good to go. Just as we have repeated counselling sessions or doctor check-ups, we should stay in Psalms for as long as we need to. This invites God to speak comfort to us and urge us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.

The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament psalms with them. Help them to access the pace of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself. Likewise, the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and bring your pain into the light—but he wants more for us than that alone. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time, for as long as you are here on earth. And he wants to do it with you: he’s given you himself in the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort our hearts; he’s sacrificed himself in the Son to bring you freedom from sin and pain; he’s prepared a heavenly home where you will be whole. Let him lead your healing—he knows the pace to set so that you last until your heavenly prize.

By Ruth Baker

How do you compare?

We like to measure and compare things. We compare the coffee at one café to another. We compare one internet provider or phone plan to another. We compare one school or university to another. But we also like to measure and compare ourselves in relation to other people. At work or in our study we will compare ourselves and our performance to our peers. Trawling through social media, we can’t help but compare our life to others’ (or to what they want us to think their life is like!). Maybe you are someone who consciously compares your appearance to other people. We compare ourselves to other people all the time.

We even compare our Christianity. How often do you find yourself measuring your faith and godliness in relation to that of a fellow brother or sister—or even an unbeliever’s? How often do you compare yourself to another believer by the church that they go to or the amount of ministry activities that they do?
But when we compare ourselves to other people we fall into two big problems: comparing down, and comparing up.

Comparing down
When we compare down we elevate ourselves above someone else; we compare ourselves to them favourably. In the Bible we see this play out in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. This Pharisee is a classic example of someone who compares down, and as he prays we are left in no doubt as to what—or who—he measures himself against: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11).

By elevating yourself above others, you look down on them. You use a person whom you judge to be ‘worse’ as your measure. This stems from our pride and our over-inflated view of ourselves and our superiority. It’s the sentence or the thought that starts “At least I’m not as bad as…”. We do it because it makes us feel better and gives us a greater sense of self-worth, but it is dangerous and wrong. Jesus had some stern words about the Pharisee and taught that this proud attitude was not the path for those who want to be right with God (Luke 18:14). Let us heed this warning.

Comparing up
On the flipside, we also compare up. This is where we compare and see others as being greater than we are, or even the ultimate. A fellow human being becomes the benchmark we must reach. The Bible speaks sharply about how, in our rebellion against God, we humans have idolized and worshipped creation—including fellow humans—rather than God (Rom 1:21-23). When we compare up, we search for the ideal in the creation and not the Creator.
How often have you said or thought something along the lines of “If only I was like….” or “If only I had…”? Comparing up shows our lack of contentment and ungratefulness towards God for how he has made us according to his good design. It also shows us where we find our value: in someone or something other than God. Rather than promoting an attitude of thankfulness to God for how he has made us and the circumstances he has placed us in, we become jaded and dissatisfied with God as we chase what we have idolized.

Measuring and comparing ourselves against others, both favourably and unfavourably, hinders our trust in God.

The right measurement
When it comes to making comparisons with others, the bottom line that the Bible draws is: no-one and nothing can compare to God. When God addresses his people through the prophet Isaiah he says:
To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? … Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. (Isaiah 46:5, 9b)

The true measurement for all things is in relation to God. The humbling truth of the gospel is that in our sinfulness none of us can reach the perfect standard of God. We fall dreadfully short because of our sin; we are not even close. But the liberating truth of the gospel is that Jesus is the ultimate one who doesn’t fall short of God. When we look to Jesus we see that the only standard and measurement that matters is who we are in Christ, not in relation to someone else. Through Christ’s finished work on the cross and his merits—not our own!—we can measure up to God.

Looking to Jesus gives us enormous comfort as we find our true self-worth in him, and leads us to far greater joy and humility than engaging in the fruitless exercise of comparing ourselves to other people.

So how can you fight the urge to compare yourself to other people? Here are three suggestions:

Fight grumbling with gratitude. Give thanks to God for how he has made you in his good design (Ps 139:14). Thank him for the circumstances that he has placed you in. Make gratitude a key part of your prayer life.

Fight jealousy with joy. Celebrate and rejoice in the diversity of gifted people who are members of the body of Christ (Rom 12:3-8). Rather than being jealous of a fellow brother or sister, give thanks for them and praise God for the unique way he has made them. Find a Christian and tell them what you are thankful for about the way God has made them.

Fight discontentment with delight. Find your contentment in your loving Father and all the riches he has given to you in Christ. Have a go at memorizing Ephesians 1:3-14, and marvel at all that God has given us. Or, if you’re looking for something a bit shorter but no less significant, memorize the comforting words of the Psalmist in Psalm 73:25-26.

By Rusdyan Cocks

A word on submission and respect

Submission can be a controversial can of worms. In Australia, secular journalists have recently published concerns about the dangers of submission. They’re right to do so.

When men and women submit to Christ, we give up our selfish rights and preferences, and voluntarily choose to live under his authority. He owns our lives and asks for total allegiance. If Christ were not trustworthy and abounding in compassion, grace, wisdom and goodness, this would be a precarious position indeed. But, thankfully, submission to Christ is the truest freedom, so we need not fear.

But in this sinful world, power is abused. Men and women in all kinds of positions of influence and leadership can use their position selfishly and sinfully, and victims become injured by heinous evil. As such, submission is a risky business.

So when Christ says, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord”, there are risks. Sometimes husbands are foolish and make bad decisions. Sometimes husbands are sinful and abuse their wives. God speaks very clearly about the latter. He hates violence, rage, fits of anger and the abuse of power (Ps 11:5; Prov 3:29; Gal 5:19-21; Mark 10:42-45). Such people will be punished most severely (Gal 5:21).
So what do we do?

Ephesians 5:22-33 is the extended parallel of Colossians 3:18, where the hidden mystery of marriage is unveiled. God designed earthly marriages to give a foretaste of the sublime goodness of the eternal marriage between Christ and the church. As such, wives are to be like the church, modelling submission so that everyone has a better understanding of what it looks like for individuals to submit to Christ. Likewise, husbands are to demonstrate Christ’s headship, modelling sacrificial, selfless leadership so we better understand Christ’s loving rule. We are to learn from each other.

I am very grateful to God for the blessing of a wonderful, Christlike husband. Richard insists on taking out the garbage every week, he cooks when I’m busy, he drives when I’m tired and he comforts me when I’m sad. Submitting to him is a wonderful joy that I don’t take for granted. I received this undeserved blessing through the painful death of another. So I cherish it dearly, thanking God for this tangible expression of Christ and the gospel.

Yet despite this, in my sinfulness, I still fail. Sometimes I get tired and grumpy. Sometimes I’m impatient and irritable. To my shame, sometimes I get angry when I feel my husband hasn’t loved me exactly as I want him to, and in a desire for justice I punish him for it. But Colossians says, “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them”. Should Richard only love me when I’m kind and patient and in a good mood? This would be outrageous! Husbands, even if your wife is angry and emotional, please love her patiently—with compassion, kindness and humility. Assume she knows how undeserving she is.

Likewise, wives, even if your husband is disappointing, slow to initiate, and clumsy in his efforts, please respect him, patiently encourage him, and build him up with your words. Assume he knows his weaknesses and failings. He might feel trapped and unable to change himself. He may feel self-hatred and pity for his own inadequacies and sins, and know just how undeserving he is of your loyalty and grace.

Ephesians 5:33 is very helpful in all this. Insightfully, author Emmerson Eggerichs says that respect is the heart of submission, and the biblical ‘love language’ for men. In general, where women want to be loved and cherished and adored, men want to be respected.

But sometimes in our ungodliness, instead of respecting our husbands, wives can belittle, demean and demand. Sometimes it’s easy for us to have a critical, complaining or controlling spirit, especially when there are differing preferences and opinions. While there’s certainly a right place to disagree and discuss, and while there’s certainly a right place to keep a safe distance from a violent or abusive husband, it honours God to do so with loving respect—not with superiority and stubbornness, not with a spirit of revenge or bitterness, but with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col 3:12).

As you continue reflecting on Colossians 3:18, these questions might be helpful: Do you appreciate your husband’s work and service? Do you admire his strengths (or even his efforts) to love? Do you praise his godly ideas and leadership? Do you honour his preferences and desires?

Respect is most foundational to the goodness of submission: Whatever his failings, how can you treat your husband with respect and build him up with your words? Perhaps do some homework. Ask him, “What makes you feel respected?” You never know—the answer may surprise you.

By Jeanette Chin

Overcoming sin: The risk of having good habits

One of the first places we often turn, having confessed sin and asked for God’s forgiveness, is towards the power of habit. This makes great sense. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and good habits help us to strengthen self-control. Smart secular psychologists recognize that our motivation to do the right thing is limited and that our willpower is weak. Thus they advise us to work on developing good habits.

Good habits in the Bible
The Bible reinforces the idea of building good habits, both through direct instruction and multiple examples. In Genesis the habit of the Sabbath is built into the very structure of creation! That alone tells us something of the significance of habits, for this translated directly into the weekly practise of Israel. Proverbs 22:6 says parents are to instruct children in the way they should go, implying that habits are formed from an early age and that it’s important to get them right. In Psalm 1, the habit of ‘walking’ should be avoided if it is walking in the paths of sinners; contrast the instruction in Galatians where our walk is to be “by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16; see also Rom 8:4).

So then, we should get into the habit of fleeing temptation and pursuing spiritual good. Many times we are commanded not to resist specific temptations but to flee from them: think Joseph fleeing Potiphar’s wife in Gen 39; think Paul telling Timothy “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart” (2 Tim 2:22). Interestingly, though we are commanded to resist the devil, there is no specific biblical command to resist temptation.

One habit that the Old Testament highlights and emphasizes is the habit of prayer and offering sacrifice for sin. This was built into the very fabric of national life through the temple and its associated sacrificial system. So too the five books of the Psalms both demonstrate prayer, and regularly call on the hearers to join in with prayer for anything and everything, most especially praising God and expecting him to act in steadfast love. The use of the Psalms and the offering of sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins were combined in the daily worship of the temple.

So ingrained is the habit of prayer in Daniel’s life that his enemies know they will be able to cause trouble for him if they target it. In response to their trouble-making, we read that Daniel “got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously” (Dan 6:10).

Likewise the New Testament gives this very simple instruction about our prayer habits: “Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess 5:17).

The risk of good habits
There is, however, a significant risk associated with developing good habits.

Over the years, I’ve gathered a fat dossier of excellent ideas in regard to habits. Some of them are ideas for avoiding bad habits. Others are about developing good habits, or (following the best advice from secular psychology) replacing a bad habit with a good one. One conference speaker told us of how he locked the temptation of television in a cupboard and gave his wife the key. A Christian doctor told me, before internet connections from mobile phones were standard, that he hadn’t even connected to the internet from his house, thus cutting out one possibility of online temptation (he lived alone). Other ideas abound. Accountability groups. Computer software. The man who took up cycling and went for long bike rides whenever temptation struck, even if was at two in the morning.

Some of this advice is so good that it can applied to a whole range of sins equally well, be they pornography, gluttony, laziness, or losing your temper. Each of these temptations can be staved off by a solid cycle or a long distance run, after which it is quite possible that the particular sin will be the last thing on your mind!

But can you see the problem?

Consider. Without in any way taking away from the goodness of pursuing certain habits—whether praying three times a day, or exercising, or putting a lock on the fridge, or doing all your computer work where your screen can be seen by others—ask yourself this important question when you hear good advice about building better habits: has the person, article, book, conference or good idea pointed me to Christ? That question is serious and fundamental.

None of what follows is meant to make light of our own desire to find good habits to deal daily with sin, which if pursued is not only fatal but demonic in character—for Satan was a murderer and a liar from the beginning, and anything that keeps us out of Satan’s grasp is all to the good.

But good advice without reference to Christ is like a car missing its engine, a choir its conductor, or a bark its dog. Or—and this is where it matters—a gospel without any sense of salvation or rescue. Worse, it threatens to become a semi-Pelagian heresy in which the Lord Jesus has supplied something to us by way of initial grace, but now it is up to us to make that grace effective by forming good habits. We are not talking here of working out our salvation with fear and trembling, but of compensating for something fundamentally inadequate in Christ, in that his initial grace given at the cross is incapable of carrying us through to final salvation from the judgement of God.

How Christ overcomes sin
So how does Christ overcome sin in us not only through the initial act of forgiveness through the cross, but in the daily struggle with “sin which clings so closely”? The writer of Hebrews 12, who gives us this expression, has a straightforward and powerful answer to those who are tempted back into a reliance on good habits (and it is hard to deny that the Old Testament habits of ritual sacrifice, as discussed in Hebrews, were indeed good habits).

The answer that the letter to the Hebrews supplies (and therefore the whole of Scripture), is to look again to Christ who was in every way tempted as we are, yet without sin (Heb 4:15). Here are just some ways that Jesus Christ, through his cross and resurrection, and by the power of his Spirit, overcomes our daily sin:

He graciously shows us and speaks to us of the true God. (Heb 1:1-4)
He saves us and makes propitiation. (Heb 2:3, 17)
He destroys the devil and his power. (Heb 2:14)
He sympathizes with our temptation. (Heb 2:18)
He warns us of the consequences of continued sin, so causing us to fear. (Heb 3:12-13, compare Heb 6:4-6)
He prays for us continually. (Heb 7:25)
He leads the way and encourages us in our race. (Heb 4:14, compare Heb 12:1-2)
He brings us into God’s presence. (Heb 10:19-22)
He disciplines us as a Father with his sons. (Heb 12:5-6)
He brings us to heaven. (Heb 12:22-24)
We could say a great deal more here, whether from Hebrews or from the rest of the Bible. But if your Christian life is held together by good habits, you can do better. It is Christ, not our good habits, who will lift us out of sin and into salvation.

Jesus saves
One friend, who’d struggled for many years with addiction to both alcohol and pornography, shared that he was quite literally delivered overnight from this dual addiction after praying and putting his trust in God for salvation. To this day, decades later, he remains untroubled by those particular temptations.

I hasten to add that he is not now sin-free. Nor does the Bible promise to anyone that our deliverance from the power of sin will be complete before the day we depart to be with Christ. But his story starkly illustrates how the power of sin in our lives will be broken, be it overnight or by a process that lasts a lifetime. It will come, as with my friend, through the power of Jesus Christ, who by his Holy Spirit raises us to the same new life that first raised our Lord. Fittingly, this is the closing idea of the writer of Hebrews, and I’ll do likewise:

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Heb 13:20-21)

By Gordon Cheng

Am I reading this right?

The stakes are high when we’re reading the Bible. We’re not just reading any old book—we’re dealing with God’s word, and what God says really matters. So what happens when I’m not sure I’ve read the Bible correctly? What happens when the person next to me is sure that I haven’t read it correctly? How can I know I’m right?

Firstly, it’s helpful to frame the question. Interpreting the Bible is a human activity within God’s economy. It’s something we do that fits within the broader context of what God is doing: the Father glorifying the Son in the Spirit by creating, upholding and perfecting the church.

Like all human activities, our biblical interpretation is affected by sin. As our faith is mixed with doubt, our works of service with selfishness, our knowledge with ignorance and error, so our interpretative zeal is mixed with sloth, our interpretative openness with prejudice, our interpretative insight with blindness. We cannot be justified on the basis of this activity. Our interpretation of the Bible is a human work: we cannot hold it up to God in the expectation that he will declare us ‘right’.

But there is good news! Through faith in Jesus Christ, there is blessing for “the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works” (Rom 4:6). As with faith, works of service, and Christian knowledge, we depend on God’s merciful kindness in our interpretation of the Bible. We call on God to graciously forgive and accept us and our efforts—in the face of all their obvious inadequacy, in the name of Jesus Christ—and he is “a God ready to forgive” (Neh 9:17).

So God’s grace goes before and after all our efforts. Of course this is no reason not to strive to do as well as humanly possible—just the opposite! Grace puts us to work (Eph 2:8-10; Titus 2:11-14). What does it look like to pursue good biblical interpretation by the grace of God, especially where there are multiple interpretative possibilities?

First, we recall that reading the Bible fits into what God is doing: saving a people for himself. God’s purpose is to create and preserve and perfect the church. This happens as people encounter Jesus, and in God’s wisdom the place we encounter Jesus is in the Scriptures. The Father and the Son have poured out the Spirit of witness, by whom the Scriptures were written, preserved, and recognized as God’s word to the church—and by whom the Scriptures are rightly read today (John 16:13-14; 2 Peter 1:21; 2 Cor 4:14-18). In the purpose of the Father, by the power of the Spirit, we can depend on the Scriptures doing their job: bringing us face to face with the Son, God’s Word to us. This is the clarity (or perspicuity) of Scripture.

The Bible’s message is clear: God is with us—in other words, Immanuel, Jesus Christ. We interpret the parts in light of the whole, the ‘unclear’ in light of the clear. Some biblical words, phrases, verses—even whole books (looking at you, Ecclesiastes!)—are tricky to pin down. But we know that the notes they sound, however strange and even dissonant they are to our ears, must ultimately harmonize with the Bible’s great theme: the loving kindness and mercy and faithfulness of God in Jesus Christ. We call this principle ‘Scripture interpreting Scripture’.

Because Scripture is given to the church, and is for the church, interpreting Scripture is a church activity. The ‘communion of saints’ stretches across time and space. To read the Bible is to enter into an ongoing conversation with brothers and sisters throughout history and all over the world. Because the theme of the Bible is so rich and so profound, it is more than any one person or group can grasp and articulate. After all, it takes four Gospels to tell the one gospel of Jesus Christ. Other saints at other times in history or at other places in the world—or just other members of my Bible study group—may interpret the Bible in a way that would never have occurred to me, but in such a way that some new aspect of the grace of God suddenly becomes clear. This is a good gift of God, and to be received with thanksgiving.

But what about specific differences over the meaning of a passage? What about the real possibility of interpreting the Bible wrongly and destructively? “There are some things in them [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16).

In light of what we have already said, our default posture must be charity and optimism. Perhaps the divergence is more apparent than real, and both parties have grasped some different aspect of the fullness of God’s meaning. Making this judgement will require time and expertise.

Perhaps the difference cannot be simply resolved, but is ultimately of little consequence. We can cheerfully await the perfection of our knowledge at the return of Christ.

Perhaps the difference in understanding is significant; we do not regard each other’s interpretation as ‘a different gospel’, but nevertheless as flawed and misleading. We can no less cheerfully part ways, each with prayer for the other, to serve the one God in parallel (the different evangelical denominations represent the endpoint of this kind of process).

It may be that a misreading of the Scriptures is so grave that in it we detect the activity not of the Holy Spirit but of another spirit; we do not recognize the gospel of Jesus Christ but “a different gospel—not that there is another one” (Gal 1:6-7). Here we can only do what we must always do in reading the Scriptures: call on the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, to preserve us from error and lead us and all God’s church into the truth (John 16:13).

When it comes to reading the Bible, ‘getting it right’ is beyond us. But it is not beyond the God of the gospel. ‘Right’ reading of Scripture has less to do with confidence in our technique and more to do with confidence in God’s power and goodness. As we come to our Father’s word in prayer, we can trust him that we will meet his Son, in the power of his Spirit.

By Peter Baker

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