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Why I’ve Stopped Using the Phrase “The Bible Says”

I’m through with Biblical commands—they’re not the boss of me. But then, when’s the last time a library of books ever commanded anyone to do anything? In my spiritual life I’ve grown weary of the phrase, “The Bible says …” followed by some authoritative pronouncement of whatever hot topic is trending that day. We’ve all experienced this: that moment when people quote the Bible as if the sacred word of God is somehow separate from that God.

Are you getting nervous? Do you think this article will somehow destroy the authority of God’s word, the Bible? Rest easy: If I do my job well, you will come to love the Bible even more, because it is a gift from our loving Father. The Bible reveals God’s heart and mind; the Bible is Holy Spirit email; the Bible testifies of Jesus, who is God the Son. My worship—and obedience—is directed toward God, the Son-Spirit-Father. And this last word is the key: to receive God as Father is to enter into a new relationship with the gift of his word.

In the far-away world of the 1970s someone put a Bible in my hand and explained: “You wouldn’t try to drive a new car without reading the owner’s manual, would you? Well, the Bible is your owner’s manual.” Other folks from the age of Evangelicalism explained that the Bible was “God’s rulebook,” or “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” (or, B.I.B.L.E.—get it?). When we receive the Bible as a rulebook or an owner’s manual, we are separating ourselves from the Father in Heaven, and us from our humanity. The result is a ministry of the “word” that brings death instead of life.

The Bible commands me to “be angry, and sin not”—which is like commanding me fly. The Bible commands me to “love your neighbor”—but how does love flow from a command? The Bible commands me to “be perfect as God is perfect”—and, well, what do you do with that? (If you feel the urge to explain any of these commands to me, it may be a symptom of a biblical neurosis.)

Who can save me from a Bible-boss that issues one command after another? Only a father.

Once we discover that God is a loving Father, his book takes on a new tone. When we see the Father as a perfect parent, we are able to trust his judgment and direction. Instead of thinking, “The Bible commands me,” we can hear, “The father assures me.” The difference is life giving: The commands of scripture move from a burden laid upon us to an encouraging word from the Father. Of course, there’s no getting around it: The Bible contains commands. Ten of them are rather famous. What makes all the difference is the source of each command. What a government commands, it enforces. The rulers of this age care nothing for me, only my compliance. What God commands is something else altogether: His commands open my mind and heart to what is possible in my life.

With every command comes a promise: that we can do what is commanded. John Milton, the majestic 17th–century saint, asked, “Doth God exact day-labor, light deny’d?” by which he meant, would God command of us something impossible to give? What kind of God would command me to love without showing me how to become the kind of person capable of love?

Life with God is a living room, not a courtroom. Have a seat and watch: Mothers and fathers alike encourage their babies, “Come on! You can do it—take a step!” After celebrating a single shaky step, parents urge their child, “That’s it! Walk to Mommy!” Can you imagine the absurdity a loving parent who would command a baby to walk? “Junior! You are 13 months old, the manual says you should be walking by now! I command you to walk!” No: Walking starts with a promise from Mom: “You can do it!”

Every command from God is a promise. The book that used to fill me with guilt and anxiety has become a treasure of possibilities. What he commands, he empowers. I need only trust the one who speaks the word.  

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Ray Hollenbach, a Chicagoan, writes about faith and culture. He currently lives in central Kentucky, which is filled with faith and culture. His book "Deeper Change" (and others) is available at Amazon.com