What should I do if I find something in the Bible that is hard to understand or seems to disagree with something else I read there?
In a book the size of the Bible, there are bound to be parts that challenge us. This is to be expected, first of all, if it is a book about God whose divine Spirit inspired the writers. Why should we expect anything that originates with an all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal Spirit-being to be limited to simple human terms? More than this, the sheer size of the book and subjects it covers should give us pause before expecting everything to line up perfectly. What is perhaps amazing, then, is how much of the Old and New Testament actually do fit together! The more I study, the more I see parallels of thought, consistent messages, lines of history converging on Christ and God’s mighty acts in the world, and His role in my own life as I trust Him day by day. But what happens when we come to passages that seem to be at odds, theological discussions from different points of view, or even proverbs back-to-back that seem to say the opposite thing? What if a description doesn’t harmonize with current scientific understanding? Are there steps to make studying these things easier? Should we be looking to protect our faith at all costs? Does any single supposed contradiction mean the Bible isn’t God’s Word and I should renounce my faith? This lesson is quite helpful, insofar as it goes.
What Makes a Passage Difficult?
There are numerous ways we can be challenged by a text, and perhaps each requires a different way of addressing the difficulty. But with each, asking God’s Spirit to help, to lead, and to give me a teachable heart seems the correct first step.
- I don’t understand the wording or phrase.
- Places or people are unfamiliar, or unknown historical background seems implied (what does the name “Maher Halal Shash Baz” mean?)
- Metaphors or symbolism doesn’t make sense (“4 corners of the earth”?)
- I cannot follow the author’s argument well (Paul’s metaphor of Hagar and Sarah in Galatians)
- Parallel passages say different things (one demoniac or two in Gadera?)
Here, Bible dictionaries can be of great help, as can reading a Bible in a different version. Look up the passage in Study Bible, or even a Bible Commentary. There are many sources available online that can answer some of these questions. Of course, learning the original languages can be a huge benefit in Bible study, but this is unreasonable for many people.
- One’s theology doesn’t have room for certain texts. For instance, if I believe that the Bible teaches there is not an ever-burning hell, how do I manage texts that suggest that the punishment of the wicked is torture in a lake of fire forever?
- Modern Science seems to be at odds with a specific Bible teaching. It seems that Geology, Archaeology, Biology and Physics seem to be the most significant areas of agreement/disagreement with the Bible where arguments are made for or against the following Biblical statements or beliefs: creation by God in 7 days, life created ex nihilo (out of nothing) or through evolutionary process, a world-wide flood, miracles like the virgin birth or resurrection.
- Theological concepts seem beyond my ability to internalize or grasp.
The first piece of advice may be to accept a bit of tension in your theology. There may be passages that never fit our tight package of theological “truth.” Being OK with that and admitting where the challenges to our beliefs lie is mature. However, these should also prompt us to revisit our theology, asking God’s guidance. The difficult passages may be pointing out something we’re missing.
When it comes to science, remember that even scientists can make un-scientific statements at times. Differentiate between them clearly. Second, science has been known in history to be over-simplistic, incomplete, or just plain wrong. Be careful when posturing current scientific arguments against the Bible.
Theological growth happens over our entire lives. I know, understand and believe much more than I did as a new Christian at age 21. Spend time in theological literature or in books on topics of interest and challenge. This will broaden your understanding of God and the Bible. And maybe most importantly, don’t just read books you think you’ll agree with, put out by your own church or pet-authors!
- Not knowing when to apply certain advice or laws, or when the letter of one law violates the spirit of another practice
- A passage calls out a certain action of mine (or culture) as sin
- A practice/tradition of my church seems to go against other texts of scripture
For most Christians, this is the challenging part. We don’t know where to go or how to act always, in light of certain passages. But if it requires repentance and contrition, ask God for this gift. Don’t wait to admit where you’ve been wrong.
More often, living by faith simply requires courage to make a change personally. Ask God for this courage, and step out in faith. If you can make one change—for instance, becoming generous with the poor or resting on the Sabbath day—do it once, and ask God to help you make it a habit. Within the larger church, this can be a problem because we’d like change today, but our vote only counts as one. As God for guidance and patience.
In any of these challenges, we should be like the Bereans in Acts 17. We should continue to study and not give up.
Finally, we should study prayerfully, as the lesson emphasizes. We should pray for understanding and wisdom to read Scripture spiritually. I must ask God for a humble attitude, a willingness for Him to reveal what He wants me to know in His time, and then faith to His timing.
What other ways has the Bible been a source of challenge to you?
Difficult passages, once accepted, can be some of the greatest impetuses to deeper study. They can bring clarification and depth to long-held beliefs, offer a change to erroneous understanding and practices, or even alter our entire world-view. Maybe you’ve never thought about praising God for the texts you don’t understand, but this might just be the best place to start!