I Began Preaching on Problematic Bible Passages to Help People Grow Deeper in Their Convictions and Biblical Understanding
By Ryan Rasmussen
Do you ever put off hard things? You know they’re important and often necessary . . . but they’re hard.
Some time ago, I realized I was doing this with my preaching. It’s not that I was shortchanging the process. I wasn’t “borrowing” sermons from famous preachers or recycling old manuscripts. Honestly, I didn’t notice my tendency until reading something in Mark 4.
After Jesus preached the parable of the sower, his followers asked why he often taught in parables. Jesus’ response struck me:
He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” (Mark 4:11, 12).
Did you catch that?
Jesus’ followers asked why he taught in parables, which were often confusing and over people’s heads, and he quoted a passage from Isaiah, essentially saying, “If everyone understood, I’d have to forgive them all.”
Wait . . . that can’t be right.
Did Jesus say he speaks in code because he doesn’t want everyone to receive forgiveness?
I started digging through commentaries and looking at what people much smarter than me had to say about the passage. To my surprise, I didn’t find many great explanations.
And that’s when I did a mental shoulder shrug and thought, Well, I guess I won’t be preaching that.
That was my response. The passage was too hard, so I would keep it from my people.
And this was the moment I realized I was selling my congregation short.
Getting to the Real ‘Problem’
For so long I feared that placing problematic passages in front of my church would result in an epidemic of faith crises and overwhelming doubt. But now I was beginning to see it differently. I wondered, What if putting difficult passages in front of the congregation would actually prompt deeper study? What if I were hindering spiritual growth by “protecting” the church from hard-to-explain Scripture?
At about the same time, I began recognizing another truth: Most of the people I knew who held deep convictions really weren’t sure why they held those convictions. For example, when I’d ask, “Why do you believe what you believe?” the responses usually were something like one of these:
- “I was raised this way.”
- “All of my friends believe this.”
- “My subculture tells me to believe this.”
I couldn’t help but think these were horrible reasons to commit one’s life to something. I wanted my congregation to know why they believed what they did, not just because mama said so or because the preacher seemed informed, but because they had embarked on their own spiritual journey.
Challenging the Church to Wrestle
So I did something I’d never done before: I challenged my people to wrestle with God.
I knew God would welcome it. He seemed happy to go a few rounds with Jacob in Genesis 32. And without being too presumptuous, I was fairly confident this sparring with the Almighty would be the first time in some time that many in the congregation had engaged God on a personal level.
Sunday morning came and I began by reading 2 Kings 2:23-25, the story of Elisha being told to “Get out of here, baldy!” by a group of boys while he made his way to Bethel. Elisha didn’t take the teasing well and called down a curse on the boys, prompting two bears to come out of the woods and attack them. Many of us grew up thinking this story was hilarious. Our youth sponsors would tell it like a silly, passive threat so we’d go to bed at night in church camp dormitories. But I used to hate this story.
I mean, you’re telling me this great messenger of God was so short-fused and insecure that a few kids teased him on his way out of town and he called down a curse on them, causing a bear to maul them?
Uh, God sounds like a bit of a jerk in that story.
After reading the text and walking through the story for a bit, I could sense tension in the room. The congregation wanted me to explain why it was OK that Elisha called down that curse. They wanted me to explain why it was OK that God sent those bears to attack the boys.
But I didn’t resolve it.
I then shared another passage:
If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives (Deuteronomy 22:28, 29).
The congregation sat quietly as I let the room breathe for a moment.
Did God really command young women in the Old Testament to marry their rapists?
Why would a loving God do that?
Again I could feel the tension.
C’mon, Ryan, you gotta walk us through this one, people were thinking, You can’t just leave that one hanging there.
But I didn’t resolve it.
I shared another passage. Then another. Each one open-ended, no resolution. I simply mentioned that these aren’t newly discovered passages and that the Christian faith has thrived over the past 2,000 years, which means there are answers out there and we don’t have to be afraid.
Moving Beyond the Surface to the ‘Why’
I wanted our people to dig into Scripture themselves. I wanted them to wrestle with God and his Word. But more than anything, I wanted them to know why they believed what they believed because I was convinced that when they knew the why, their passion would deepen.
In the weeks following, I received message after message from individuals who took up my challenge. They were encouraged by a deeper understanding of the Bible and were stepping forward into convictions held no longer simply because “that’s how I was raised.”
Sometimes Scripture is hard. Sometimes it’s downright scary. But it’s God’s Word, wrapped up in truth, purpose, and meaning beyond what we often find on the surface. Sometimes we have to wrestle with it.
I used to run from hard passages; now I thank God for them.
Ryan Rasmussen serves as lead pastor at First Christian Church in Canton, Ohio. He blogs at JesusForAllPeople.com and hosts the monthly Jesus for All People podcast. He also knew Alan Ahlgrim before he had the goatee.