When new to Christ and Christianity, we latched on to whatever we could to grow straight and tall. Well-meaning friends and relatives pulled out their old saws and presented shortcuts that seemed to guarantee growth. It wasn’t until years later we looked back in wonder at where we had arrived.
A shortcut is an alternate route that promises quicker transit to a destination. We all know and take them every day. But with one’s spiritual life, it matters where your shortcut lands you. In retrospect, some of our favorite shortcuts may need to retire, because they don’t lead where we hoped. Six shortcuts, in particular, need to be re-examined and tweaked before we recommend them to succeeding generations seeking to mature in their faith.
1. Try to Interpret Scripture Alone
When we first became Christians, many of us were told to have an intentional, recurrent appointment with God.
In our “quiet time” we would sit and “hear” from Scripture, typically reading a chapter or passage, and then meditating on it. Turning it over. Praying it. Asking God to reveal.
All of that makes great sense, of course, and is an ideal activity for gathering thoughts and inviting God into the day and into the lives of the people with whom you will spend time.
But one problem with the daily quiet time is what, in formal theological terminology, is called eisegesis versus exegesis. We aim to interpret the Bible for what God says (exigesis). But time and again we fail at this and settle for reading our own thoughts into a text (eisegesis). Multiply that 365 by 30 some years and one day you wake to find yourself sourly spouting cultural talking points, miles from the grace-filled, reborn adult you imagined.
Interpreting scripture is difficult work that requires—at the very least—a clear sense that the ancients who first heard the texts (that’s right, our personal texts were once verbal recitations announced to a group, who thought through them together, aloud) likely had very different perspectives than us. Hundreds or thousands of years of separation from the original context should make us reluctant to grab and mix and match verses like a child at a candy store.
Choose exegesis over eisegesis by beginning with a prayer for wisdom. Then constantly remember cultures are very different, even in very small details. Become skeptical of the immediate simple conclusions you gather from a quick reading of the text. Extra reading is vital to begin to see just how different that culture may have been. Then try explaining your conclusions to someone else—start with someone in your tribe. If brave, tell what you learned to someone not in your tribe—which can be a giant leap forward in understanding. Plus: stop trying to attempt the preacher’s trick of forcing three points out of any text. Repeat daily for 30+ years and be shaped like iron sharpening iron.
2. Ignore All the Religious Aspects of Christianity
“It’s a relationship, not a religion.”
When we say this, we take aim at some imagined scheme for earning favor, as if religion were a system dedicated to winning merit. It isn’t: religion is simply a set of organized beliefs, worldviews and the like that related to the human/God connection. Some are right, some are wrong, and so we argue endlessly.
But “relationship not religion” sets up an expectation that is not paid out in practice. Christianity, while first and foremost a relationship with Jesus the Christ, it is also an organized set of beliefs as well as a cultural system (maybe more a set of cultural systems), that is, a religion.
The problem with poo-pooing “religion” is that it makes us think what we personally hear from Jesus is all there is to it, while the truth is we unknowingly adopt beliefs (as if by osmosis) as we grow in Christ. They might be beliefs from parents, our church, our denomination, our favorite authors. Denouncing “religion” sets in motion two grave misdirects:
1. Sooner or later we come in contact with the man-made elements that infiltrate and infect our “relationship.” One action we may take is to toss the whole hypocritical mess. Better: call it a religion built on a relationship from the beginning so we can employ our minds to separate fact from fiction over time and keep steering toward relationship.
2. We make ourselves nearly unintelligible to the people around us. Christianity is firmly fitted into the category earthlings know as “religion.” Start there, on familiar ground, and then begin explain the differences.
3. Tell People About God’s ‘Wonderful Plan’ for Their Life
This one is true, but “wonderful” doesn’t mean what most Americans think: it doesn’t mean money or fame or respect. It means wonderful as God says wonderful, which doesn’t always look like a full bank account or adoring admirers, no matter what our health-wealth preachers model.
In fact, God’s wonderful plan is typically miles removed from the American dream. It’s no less wonderful, but we may do better to acquaint folks from the beginning that God’s “wonderful” looks at first like absence of the trinkets and baubles our culture adores. Even so, God has a wonderful plan for your life—spectacularly wonderful.
Kirk Livingston is a copywriter and writer based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is author of forthcoming ListenTalk: When is Conversation an Act of God? (iUniverse: 2015) and has also been published in a number of newspapers, magazines and online. He blogs about the intersection of work, faith and communication at conversation is an engine (livingstoncontet.com). He has degrees in philosophy and theology from the University of WisconsinÑMadison and Bethel University.