I’ve recently started another journey through the Bible. I always love starting back at the beginning of the story; I can slip it on like an old shoe. It’s also flecked with newness as God points out little bits of undiscovered truth.
But one thing has been uncomfortably familiar as I’ve made this trek through the story of God’s people and that has been a kind of embarrassing disquiet as Moses recounts the story of Jacob, his wives, and their sons. Up until this point, things are good. Yes, Abraham has made his mistakes but he turns it around. He shows boldness in interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah and great faith in bringing his promised son Isaac to the altar as God instructed him. Isaac and Rebekah may have been guilty of playing favorites but overall, the history of God’s people seems to be on an upward trajectory. Even Jacob the schemer seems to get his act together after his vision of God in Genesis 28.
But then things start to unravel at the end of chapter 29. Laban tricks Jacob into marrying the unloved Leah, Jacob then marries his first choice Rachel, and pretty soon the whole thing starts resembling an episode of Sister Wives instead of the pristine kind of Bible story we’d prefer. Leah is hated but has the most children, Rachel is envious so she gives her servant to Jacob as a wife. Leah then stops bearing children and so she plays her sister’s game and gives her servant to Jacob. Wait? What’s going on here? Why does Jacob so readily assent to this plan? And what about God? Shouldn’t he step in here and declare how wrong this is? If I’m being honest as a Bible reader, I’m confused and a little embarrassed. I thought these were God’s people. Shouldn’t they be behaving better?
The discomfort I feel goes beyond noticing a friend’s tag sticking out the back of their sweater or the stray crumb they’ve failed to wipe away from their mouth. My discomfort actually leads to a desire to change the story, or to at least apply a filter to it. I am pretty inept at Instagram, but I do know about filters. I so want to put lipstick on this pig of a story.
But I’m not just uncomfortable witnessing the behavior of God’s people. I’m just as uncomfortable that God seems to stand by without commenting. I want God to almost cancel these characters. But he doesn’t. We may be cringing but God isn’t. The Bible tells a true story, the true history of the people of God. And that history is very messy, it’s embarrassingly messy at times. But God isn’t surprised. He keeps showing up, staying faithful, showing mercy and committing himself to his messy people. And so we shouldn’t turn our gaze away. Because in being honest about the sins of his people, and the steadfast commitment of his covenant love, the story of Scripture makes God shine all the brighter. He is not a God who is ready to cancel his people at the slightest mistake. To be sure, God hates evil and will punish the wicked – “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7) But allow yourself to be stunned by the language throughout the Old Testament that speaks of God abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness to his own.
What if the stories of the Bible were filtered? What if every character portrayed was a paragon of faith and holiness? Then I’m afraid we’d be in an even deeper ditch, facing a greater problem. And that problem stares back at us in the mirror every morning. It’s us.
Our problem in Bible reading is that we still think way too highly of ourselves. We think we should be the hero of the story and so we expect our spiritual ancestors to be the same. But they’re not. And we’re not. The story of the Bible is actually slowly unveiling the real truth – Christ is the hero and we are the criminals.
If we’re willing to humble ourselves while reading the Bible, this is what will amaze us – that God loves sinners and pursues sinners and redeems sinners. He didn’t cancel us and he didn’t wait for us to do better. He provided the only solution to our ruined state – the Cross.
“While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die- but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:6-8