It was one of the best funeral sermons I had ever heard, and afterward I asked the preacher how he put it together.
He explained, “I take the Bible that belonged to the deceased and I look through it, noting the things that were underlined and the comments written in the margins, then I build the sermon around those.”
Back home, I said to my wife, “Under no circumstances are you to give my Bible to this preacher when I die.”
I love the Scriptures, but I have a tendency to interact with what I read. It’s how I learn best, and my best sermons and articles come from confrontation with Scripture. If the preacher were to read my marginal notes out loud, people would likely throw large rocks at my casket!
For example, I was reading the passage in Romans where Paul describes us humans as clay pots. “Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor?” (Romans 9:21)*.
In the margin of my Bible I wrote, “I AM NOT A POT, I AM A HUMAN BEING!” So, as you can see, I have a kind of lover’s quarrel with the Bible, but we always make up.
Why do I argue with Scripture?
QUIET—The Scriptures are very lean, tightly written, and that’s good, because no one would read it if it were 9,000 pages long. But it’s also frustrating. Grand and complex truths are reduced to just a few lines, leaving many unanswered questions.
The Proverbs average about 12 words each, a good “tweet.” Psalm 23 has about half as many words as you will find on the back of an aspirin bottle, but it has relieved far more headaches. The Great Commission, which inspired most of Western civilization, uses up about 50 words.
When I read something this succinct, it makes me want to know more. I feel the way my wife feels when I come home from work and announce, “Oh, by the way, John and Jennifer are getting married.”
“What? John and Jennifer? Getting married? When? Where? Who is performing it?”
I shrug. “I have no idea.”
She glares at me. “I need details!”
When I read the Bible, I want details. Why did God say this? What does it mean for us today? Sometimes I am as obnoxious as an adolescent, but it pays off, I learn a lot.
One summer I was writing some VBS lessons about the miracles for the junior age group. Knowing how argumentative juniors can be, I devoured every commentary in my library, hoping to preempt their questions. At the end of the week, when I was putting the final touches on my lessons, I found my eyes were wet and my heart strangely warmed by these miracles. These were not just Spiderman stunts to impress readers with power. Each one was a touching and personalized gift to a wounded person. Had I not prodded and poked at these miracles, I would have missed that.
DEMANDING—I also struggle with the Scriptures because they are so demanding. If I am being asked to change my whole lifestyle, I want to know why.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you” (Matthew 5:44).
What? Is he serious? I wrote in the margin: “God wants me to be nice to my enemies? Why? If I do that, they will think they got away with their villainy, that I approve of what they did. They will think I am a patsy. What possible good could come from loving my enemies?”
So, I scour the Scriptures, looking for some explanation for this odd command. When I get to Matthew 23, I see how Jesus treated his enemies, and he actually worked them over pretty hard. Eight times in just 39 verses he “woes” them for their deeds. “Woe to you, blind guides . . . Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites . . . ”
But a few chapters later he is dying on the cross for them. Luke 23:34 records his prayer, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” Now I get it. It’s OK to talk straight to my enemies, but then I need to let go of it and forgive them.
INTIMATE—Most of all I wrangle with the Word because it’s alive, it’s personal. Napoleon Bonaparte said, “The Bible is no mere book, but a Living Creature,” and he was right. The Bible is the Holy Spirit, clothed in paper and ink, and when I read it, God himself is talking to me. It would be rude of me not to respond.
What kind of marriage would it be where the husband is permitted to talk, but the wife may not respond? A short marriage, I’m guessing. My wife, Sharon, and I talk a lot, and, yes, sometimes we argue, but we try to save arguing for really important issues, such as “what goes better on a pepperoni pizza, black olives or green olives?” We argue because we want to know what the other person thinks. Hearing Sharon’s opinion helps me to make up my own mind, and ultimately it draws us closer.
Sure, confronting God is serious business, but many great men of the Bible dared to question God. My favorite is Abraham. He bargains with God over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, hoping to save his nephew from destruction. He sounds just like a customer, wheeling and dealing with a used car salesman.
“Then he said, ‘Let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak but once more: Suppose ten [righteous people] should be found there?” (Genesis 18:32).
No wonder Abraham was called “the friend of God.” He dared to be honest with God, believing that God is approachable and interested in us.
AND THE WINNER IS—OK, maybe I am just a clay pot that needs to be smashed and remade. Maybe someday you will read that a professor was struck by lightning while reading his Bible on the front porch. But before you scold me, you should know I adore the Bible. It is my inerrant guide, my most trusted friend, my greatest treasure. I begin each day by reading it, and it’s the last thing I read at night before I fall asleep.
In my squabbles with Scripture, Scripture always wins.
*All Scripture verses are from the New King James Version.
Daniel Schantz is professor emeritus at Central Christian College of the Bible in Moberly, Missouri. He sold Bibles door-to-door to pay for college.