Thursday, October 1, 2009

There's No "I" in "Bible"

Note: some of what I post here are the articles I write for each Sunday's church bulletin.  I had to write two articles this week since our secretary will be out of town next week, but rather than write two separate articles I wrote part one and part two of one long article.  Rather than posting it in two separate posts, I'm just going to give it to you in one large bite.

As I read the Bible I am more and more struck by how egocentric we have become in our reading of Scripture and our understanding of Jesus and his saving work.
By egocentric I don’t mean conceited, arrogant, narcissistic, or selfish.  I mean it in the purest sense of the word, that we regard the I and the me as central to the story of Scripture and the aims of redemption.  The individual has become paramount in our thinking and our understanding, and the only individual that any of us are responsible for is, of course, me
For instance, look at Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  In the opening chapter Paul starts off using “us” and “we” language:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.  He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.  In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.  In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.  (Eph. 1:3-12)
I read that and, really without thinking, include myself in Paul’s we.  This is what has happened to me and to all Christians: predestined (even though I don’t hold to the Calvinist notions of election and predestination, so I’m going to have to figure out a way around or through these verses), adopted as God’s child, redeemed, forgiven, holy and blameless through Christ, etc.  Right?  I’m not the only one reading these verses like this, am I?
But then watch what happens: in the very next verse, Paul switches from “us” and “we” language to “you” language.
In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.
With this verse I tend to think that he is addressing the Ephesians, but in a very subtle way, largely subconscious, I insert myself into Paul’s you as well—he’s talking to me, too.  This is what has also happened to me; when I heard the Gospel and believed in Jesus, I, too, was marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit.
So I’m in Paul’s we, and I’m in Paul’s you.  In other words, even though Paul is clearly talking about two different groups of people, I’ve included myself in both groups.  That, my friends, is egocentric.
What other way is there to read the we and you of this passage (which isn’t limited to the first chapter but continues throughout the letter)?  Well, in Ephesians Paul, as he does in Romans, Galatians, and other places, is asserting the equal status in Christ of the Gentiles with the Jews.  And when Paul speaks of the Jews he uses we language—Paul being a Jew—and when he speaks of Gentiles he uses you language, the Ephesians being Gentiles.
Look again at 1:11-12: In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 
The first Christians were Jews, as were the first people to have a covenant with God.  The Jews were chosen, elected according to God’s purpose of redeeming and renewing all creation.  So let’s go on and read verse 13 again and add the next verse as well: In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people, to the praise of his glory.
Hear what he’s saying?  “We Jews got into this first, according to God’s choice of us as the instrument of bringing his plan to earth.  You Gentiles also, when you heard and believed what God had done in Jesus, a Jew, have been included in God’s promised to us Jews that we would receive as our inheritance the stamp of “God’s Own People.”
See how the passage opens up when the ego is removed and put in its proper place?
An egocentric reading of Scripture thus gets in the way of understanding the text, and if we don’t understand the text, we won’t see where each of us in fact do in fact fit in it.  Now, I’m going to say something that may be disturbing to some, and the degree to which you are disturbed will probably be indicative of how egocentric you in fact do read Scripture.  (That’s a nice way of saying, “Don’t get mad at me; if you get mad, it’s your own fault.”  Which is a pretty sophisticated way of covering my own hind end.)
OK, so here goes: Scripture wasn’t written to you.  In a large sense you can say that Scripture was written for you, but no one can say that Scripture was written to them.  Unless you’re an Ephesian.  Anyone reading this from Ephesus?
Even if you are, you’d have to be a 1st century Ephesian to claim that Scripture was written to you, and even then you can only claim Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was written to you.
So to read all Scripture, or any Scripture, as being written to you is to get off on the wrong foot from the start.  No part of Scripture was written to 21st century Americans.  That is so self-evident that I really shouldn’t have to say it, but I do.  In fact, you can really only say that Scripture is for you and about you inasmuch as you are part of the much bigger plan that is revealed in Scripture.
When I make Scripture and God’s plan of redemption and renewal about me, I truncate God’s plan and make it about something much smaller than what it’s about.
God’s plan is not any less than about your and my salvation, but it is about so much more than your and my salvation.  So much more.
An egocentric view of God’s salvation plan is too small.  And because it is so small, it leaves us wanting.  It leaves us wondering.  Wondering about God’s plan for our lives.  Wondering about our purpose and meaning.  Wondering about how much of our lives we’ve wasted, and is it too late to discover God’s plan for our lives and how we can live lives of significance when just getting by consumes so much of our time and energy.
I’m not sure it’s even proper for each of us to ask, “What is God’s plan for my life?”  Such a question envisions God saying, “You, Larry Eubanks, are so central to what I am doing that I have taken the time to draw up a plan for how you can be happy and fulfilled and live with meaning, purpose, and significance.”
I mean, how egocentric is that?  OK, so here it is: God hasn’t devised a plan for my life, he has devised a plan for the renewal all of Creation, and inasmuch as I am a part of his Creation, then it is a plan for my life.  But my life finds meaning and purpose not as I search for and fulfill some special, unique plan for my life but as I cooperate with God in pursuing and fulfilling his plan for all Creation.
I mean, no football coach draws up a play for the fulfillment of one player.  “OK, this play is designed to make life easy for the right guard, Stupenski.  This play, Stupenski, is for you, to help your experience of blocking the left defensive tackle as easy and successful as possible.  And when it’s over, if you didn’t enjoy that block, let me know.”  No, a football play is designed to gain yardage, with the further goal of scoring a touchdown, with the further goal of winning the game, with the further goal of winning the championship.  Whether or not Stupenski gets any enjoyment out of a well-executed block or not is irrelevant; Stupenski better find his purpose and his enjoyment out of winning the championship, or else he’s better suited doing something else.
It’s not that a well-executed block isn’t important—it is.  But as the central goal of the coach as well as the player, it’s too small.  For what does it profit a man to be a good blocker if he loses every game, indeed loses the Game?
God didn’t come to Moses and say, “Moses, I have a plan for your life that will bring meaning, purpose and happiness to your existence.”  He said, “Moses, I have a plan to deliver the people of Israel, and I want your help.  You in?”
He said the same thing to Abram: “Abram, I have a plan to bless through you all the families of the earth.  To do this I am going to give you a lot of descendents who will know me and follow me, and when they follow me they—and you—will be blessed, and then I’ll tell everyone else, “See what happens when you listen to me?” and because of what I’ve done through you they’ll listen to me and follow me, and then finally the humans will stop killing each other and raping the earth and things will be as I created them to be in the first place.  That’s my plan, Abram.  You in?”
Abram found his purpose when he pursued God’s purpose.  In other words, when he took his eyes of himself and saving his life and finding his purpose and started putting his eyes on God and pursuing God’s purpose of renewing all creation, Abram found a purpose for his life.
I challenge you to find one person in Scripture who asked, “What is God’s plan for my life?” and then, having figured it out, started pursuing it.  Rather, they asked, “What is God’s plan for the world” and then pursued it. 
The reason you should read Scripture is to discover God’s Plan.  It’s not hard to see, really.  Why would he make it hard to see?  It’s right there, and if any of us have a hard time seeing it, it’s probably because we’re too busy looking for God’s plan for my life that we can’t see anything else—including God’s plan for my life.


  1. Agreed. Can we now get rid of 90% of the worship songs we sing at the 11:15 service?

  2. Well, I wouldn't say 90%, but I get your point. But let's not confuse songs that are intimate and personal with egocentricity. A song can be highly intimate and personal and still be very theocentric. And check out some the hymns in the hymn-book and you'll see that egocentricity isn't limited to praise music.

    Actually, what i've written might argue for a change in 90% of post-reformation theology as well. That theology is reflected in almost all of our church music of whatever style.

  3. Yeah, 90% is harsh. I guess it only seems like that much :) I guess I'd only be happy if they played Andy Landers every weekend.