When believers talk about believing the Bible, respecting the Bible, following the Bible, but do exactly the opposite, the resulting damage is enormous. It damages the reputation of the church. It gives skeptics and doubters reasons to disregard the Bible. It defiles the name of Christ. It would be better that we not talk about living the Bible, unless we are serious about it.
Two of the greatest barriers to living the Bible are 1) ignorance; and 2) hypocrisy.
Ignorance about the substance of Scripture is easily correctable. Biblical illiteracy is not a new thing. It is as old as the Scriptures themselves. When the Scriptures were rediscovered as in the time of Josiah, or of Ezra, the people of God experienced dramatic spiritual renewal. But the very next generation could, and typically did, lose it all. In much of the 20 centuries of Christianity, ignorance of Scripture was normal. Of course, the masses who were illiterate cannot be to blame, but their pastors could have shepherded better by feeding the sheep, as Jesus commanded. Today, of course, we have the Bible in many translations around the world and in ample supply. We carry the Bible on our phones, so we are never without it. So biblical illiteracy is decreasing, right? No, it is not. Bible publication is up; Bible reading is down. But why?
The crisis of biblical illiteracy today means that people simply don’t know the Bible. They mix up fairy tales with biblical stories; they attribute commonplace maxims to the Bible, like “God helps those who help themselves,”; they assume the Bible is a long list of rules that “good people” try to obey, and so find favor with God.
Vast numbers of believers do not read the Bible in long form because our technologies break everything up into tiny bits. Today when we have any practical life need, we “google” it. Want to know how to repair a toilet? Google it. Where to vacation? Google it. Want comfort from the Bible? Google “comfort” or “peace” and you’ll be presented with hundreds of verses you can click through. Want to understand baptism? Or salvation? Or love? Do a search, and find the verses you like. The problem is that this is not Bible reading. Any good understanding of Scripture comes from long-form reading. We need to see the ideas we’re curious about in the contexts in which the ideas are embedded.
What we need to do is stop googling, and start reading. To read the Bible smoothly, fully, and at length. To see the whole letter to the Philippians or the gospel of Luke or the book of Revelation. To read Scripture as a daily pattern—and not just one verse a day. You wouldn’t read a letter from your mother one sentence a day, would you?
A second barrier to living the Bible is hypocrisy, which is a scandal. The word hypocrisy is rooted in the idea of acting a part in a theater. The hypocrite is playing a part. Pretending. Performing. Looking righteous on the outside, while filled with contradictions inside.
Jesus loved sinners and lingered with them, coaxing them toward God. But the sin of hypocrisy was the sin Jesus condemned with passion. Whenever we put on an act of righteousness and spiritual superiority—as any of us might—we insult God and cut ourselves off from any real possibility of righteousness.
The Pharisees and teachers of the law must have been shocked the day Jesus said: “You do not know the Scriptures or the power of God” (Matt. 22:29). They did know the content of the Scriptures. They memorized huge blocks of it. But hypocrisy cuts off any true knowledge of God’s word. It is a counterfeit way of living the Bible. In a series of “woes” against the Pharisees in Matthew 23, Jesus said:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matt. 23:23). In other “woes” Jesus refers to these people as “blind guides” (vs. 16), “whitewashed tombs” (vs. 27), “snakes,” and “a brood of vipers” (vs. 33). Very strong language. Stronger than any other condemnation of sin Jesus pronounced.
What this tells us is that pretending to live the Bible is an insult to God and a ruinous misrepresentation of the goodness of the gospel.
The pretense of self-righteousness makes true righteousness impossible. It ruins us. It teaches other people to turn into hypocrites themselves and we get into a pattern where everyone buys into a system of using the “right” lingo, going through the “right” motions, quoting the “right” verses, and then living a contradiction. It may seem easier to live a “pretend” faith, but in the end, the weight of the real issues of life will cause a collapse.
Turn on the television today and you won’t have to change many channels before you’re watching hypocrisy 21st century-style. It may be a church leader, or a politician, or a celebrity who uses Bible verses here and there to act the role of the “devout Christian.” Wait a little while, and you’ll hear a crash.
The good news is that, like ignorance, hypocrisy can be quickly remedied. Saul became Paul. The turning point was a powerful and humbling encounter with Jesus.
What can we do to keep the joy in Christmas? The Christmas season can be your time for personal spiritual renewal. A time of joy and celebration. In this daily devotional for the month of December, Christmas Joy, pastor and author Mel Lawrenz provides insight and inspiration that keeps Christ in Christmas. Each daily reading unpacks the meaning of words like joy, peace, Immanuel, shepherd, Magi, Mary, star, flesh, virgin, counselor, prince, manger, and more. Available HERE.