What Was He Thinking?
Yesterday my adult Sunday School class had a rousing discussion on the first chapter of the book of Jonah. We began discussing why Jonah fled to Tarshish; how he could have thought, as a prophet, that he could actually escape the will of the God he acknowledged had “made the sea and the dry land;” and what was in his mind as he told the crew of the ship to throw him overboard. These were just a few of the questions we wrestled with.
At one point, although I was just as gleefully tossing out ideas as to what was in Jonah’s head, I mentioned that we were trying to analyze what was in the head of a man who died thousands of years ago. The class was silent for a split second before concluding that was an unhelpful aside and returned to debating Jonah’s motives and mindset. The debate was reasonable, cordial, and fun.
There was nothing in the class that was in any way outside the norm of an evangelical Bible study. It is what we all do. We analyze Bible texts, compare them with others, and draw conclusions. Indeed, we are quite certain it is exactly what we are supposed to do. But is it?
I am all in favor of studying the Bible trying to draw from it our conclusions on how to best live this Christian life. Debates are often vital components of this process. The problem comes when we make the assumption that all such theological debates come down to a right/wrong choice; that on every issue the Bible speaks to, or we think it speaks to, there is only one right answer. Take the issue of poverty in America. Here are two quotes I’ve lifted from recent political debates, both espoused by people who consider themselves Christians.
“While Jesus encouraged personal acts of compassion for the poor, it doesn’t follow that he wants us to use other people’s money [i.e., tax revenues] to put an economic safety net under the poor.”
“I am amazed that anyone could believe that a country choosing to band together to feed the poor and hungry is something that Jesus would not approve of.”
These two men managed to put Jesus’ stamp of approval on the diametrically opposed positions they already held. How do we deal with this? For the most part the evangelical answer is to go to the Bible, study it, and find the “right” answer. OK, fine, go ahead, but here is a good rule of thumb for both those men to follow:
“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God agrees with your tax policy.”
Or, for that matter, what was in Jonah’s head during the whole fleeing/storm/eaten by a fish issue. Perhaps we always need to ask ourselves a few questions.
– Is this an issue where being right is essential to the faith? An issue where, if someone disagrees, we can doubt their standing in Christ?
– Are we really sure we are reading conclusions in the text or is it possible that we are reading our conclusions into the text?
– Am I capable, willing, even happy, to use the Bible as a cheerleader for my own way of thinking?
So what do we do in the Sunday School classes and other debating forums? Rather than assuming that someone who differs is wrong, let’s admit that it is probable that both positions are logical and that the holders thereof are seeking to be faithful to Scripture. It is OK if I consider my view to be preferable; to be supported by a preponderance of the evidence. But we need to admit that this doesn’t make the other view wrong, only less probable. Above all, never say that someone holding an alternate view is unfaithful to the Word, or un-Christian.
Next week our class will look at Jonah chapter 2. I’ve already thought of three possible ways to understand the meaning of Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the great fish. Now all I need to do it pick one and explain it without telling anyone who differs that they are obviously wrong.