Although my three children are now (dear God, please) well-adjusted 20-somethings, mine was the generation of parents who hovered over their children to insulate them from failure and ensure their “success” in life (good grades, sports, avoiding drugs, learning violin, whatever).
But, as any decent child psychologist (not to mention previous generations of parents) will tell us, good parenting isn’t about plugging in the right coordinates to ensure children arrive at the right spot, or protecting them from failure and pain that come with growth, or arranging their environment so that it all works out for them.
Good parenting is preparing children to figure things out for themselves as they go along in life, i.e., hovering early on but then looking for ways to stop hovering as soon as possible.
The more I look at the Bible as a whole, the more I see that God is not a helicopter parent.
Now, you can focus in on some portions of the Bible in isolation—say the exodus period with all its strict laws—and it sure looks like God is hovering and micromanaging Israel’s every move to make sure they “turn out O.K.”: Don’t worship idols, sacrifice this and that at certain days and times, be sure to eat foods only from column A, not from column B, etc.
But when I look at the Bible as a whole—not individual stages on the journey—I see a very different picture.
The Bible gives diverse information on even some of the most basic questions of faith. This diverse information really can’t be—and I feel shouldn’t be—harmonized to yield “one lesson” or any such thing. Rather, I feel the presence of this diversity brings us to a different conclusion.
Take God, for instance.
If you look to the Bible to find out what God is like, you won’t find a handy information packet. You see varying portraits of God. Depending on where you read,
- God either knows everything or and is surprised and reacts accordingly (like in the story of Noah and the Flood in Genesis 6);
- God is either set in his ways as a sovereign ruler or he changes his mind when pressed (as with Moses in Exodus 33);
- God gives one law in one place and later adjusts it or lays down another law someplace else (compare the slave laws in exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15);
- sometimes God is overflowing with compassion (Book of Jonah) and at others times he is quick to pull the trigger (Sodom and Gomorrah).
I think the reason the Bible exhibits such diversity of information concerning God’s behaviors (just one example) is that the Bible reflects different moments in Israel’s spiritual journey. Israel’s understanding of God grows, shifts, changes, etc., over time, thus reflecting “where they are” at the moment.
The Bible records a journey.
A great place to see in a nutshell how the Bible isn’t set up to micromanage our process of growth is Proverbs, Israel’s book of wisdom. Proverbs 26:4 and 5 summarize the entire issue, as I see it;
- Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.
- Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.
“OK, God, which is it? Which one do I do now? Tell me! The first or the second?” Deafening silence.
God doesn’t hand it to you. God doesn’t micromanage. We aren’t on a leash to keep us from making mistakes.
Wisdom is the goal of the maturation process, and it can’t be scripted with assured success. It’s about learning how to negotiate life’s moments when they come up.
Personally, I think that is a great way of summarizing the process of parenting and of spiritual growth.
A Bible that exhibits such diversity does not do well as a script to ensure success. I think the Bible functions very differently, on what I feel is a deeper and more profound level.
If I may rephrase all of this: the Bible’s theological diversity (which is unmistakable) alerts me that treating it as a hovering index of “what to do” sells the Bible short.
If we reflect on it for a moment, common experience demonstrates that the answers to what confronts our day-to-day lives of faith are most often not found in “Bible verses.” Rather, the Bible models for us a spiritual journey of failure, success, adaptation, growth, change—which is far more immediately relevant for God’s people, then and now.
I think the point of the life of faith is to become wise over time, and not to be trained to know which page to flip to to find a one-size-fits-all answer.
***The original version of this post appeared in July 2013. I write more about how the Bible works in the life of faith in The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016) and The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014).***