Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Bible Will Not Make a Better You

When I lived in Asia, upon finding out I was a Christian one of the most common questions nationals would ask was, "How has this belief lead to improvement in your life?"

Time and time again, I disappointed folks with the first half of my answer, "If anything, the longer I've been a Christian and the more I learn about myself, the more I realize how selfish I am . . . "

This is the fourth in a six part series, Your Bible is Wrong, where I'm examining the ways so many of us misread and distort the message of the Bible. Whether it be by reading ourselves in as the main character, believing the Bible is magically lucky, or that it's primarily about rules and morality, each of us, in some way miss the message of the Scriptures.

Both historic and modern examples of "the Bible making me better" abound.

They take a diversity of forms. The most blatant are the "prosperity gospel" (God wants to make me better by blessing me financially!) and the "god within" ("It's less that God wants you to be rich and more that God is there to make you feel happy about yourself . . . This ends up putting a kind of Christian stamp on narcissism, where the things we already want to do, we tell ourselves, are things that God wants us to do, too." Quote from NPR interview with Ross Douthat).

Even a cursory reading of Scripture however should reveal both those beliefs to be blatantly false, man-centered, and inevitable to create "worse" people.

But, believing the "Bible will make me better" also comes in more subtle forms.

God helps those who help themselves.

Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

If I could just stop ______ God would be pleased with me.

Each of these holds within them, often disguised, a belief in a self-help "gospel". In each case, and many others, it will lead the reader to take the Bible and essentially ask the question, "What do I need to do to get better?"

As I said, it's subtle. So subtle in fact, that we (myself included!) don't even notice ourselves doing it and would deny it if accused of it. But it's there.

And it's all wrong.

It's all wrong because of what Pastor Tullian Tchividjian calls "the irony of Gospel growth." The irony is this:
  • There is no better way to get "worse" than to focus on myself and my need to get better (morbid introspection).
  • Those who want to change, but know God won't love them less if they don't are the people that actually will change.
If I open the Bible as a means of self-help to make a better me, I will surely become more self-absorbed and more distraught when I realize I am failing to get better. And if I somehow find myself "improving", my life will be marked by pride and self-righteousness.

But, if I open the Bible and say, "Christian growth comes not by behaving better but by believing better in what God has already secured for us, change will actually come."

But, not change for the sake of change. Not change because I just really want to stop sinning, but change that flows out of a heart that admits, "I'm weak and frail and pretty messed up, but it's not my feats for Jesus, it's Jesus' feats for us that count."

So, when asked in subpar coffee shops and incredible 65 cent noodle joints if religion had made me better, I could answer "If anything, the longer I've been a Christian and the more I learn, the more I realize how selfish of a person I am . . .

. . . but that gives me hope. Because it's not about me, my actions, my achievements, my victories, or my significance. The more I realize how selfish I am, the more I know how great the God is who stepped in and redeemed a wretch like me."

The Bible won't make a better you.

The "better you" already came, lived a perfect life, died on a cross, and rose again so that "broken you" could be redeemed, restored, and rescued to live under a banner that reads "It is finished!"