Dealing With Difficult Passages
When discussing the apostle Paul’s letters, Peter writes that in them, and in some other places in Scripture, there are “some things hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16, NKJV). These words are twisted or distorted by “ignorant and unstable people” (2 Pet. 3:16, NIV) to their own destruction. Peter does not say that all things are difficult to understand—but only that some are.
And we know that, don’t we? What honest reader of the Bible hasn’t come across texts that seem strange and difficult to understand? Certainly, at some point or another, we’ve all had this experience.
That’s why we will take a look this week, not so much at difficult texts per se, but at what might be the reasons for these challenges and how, as faithful seekers of truth from the Word of God, we can work through them. In the end, some of these challenging statements might never be solved this side of heaven. At the same time, the vast majority of texts in the Bible present no difficulty whatsoever, and there’s no need to allow the small number of difficult ones to weaken our trust in the reliability and authority of God’s Word as a whole.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, June 20.
No thoughtful and honest student of Scripture will deny the fact that there are things in the Bible that are difficult to understand. This situation should not disturb us. In fact, in a sense those difficulties are to be expected. After all, we are imperfect and finite beings, and no person has a comprehensive knowledge of every area of learning, let alone of divine things. Hence, when ignorant and finite human beings try to understand the wisdom of the infinite God of Scripture, there is bound to be some difficulty. Such difficulty in understanding biblical teachings, however, does not in any way prove that what the Bible affirms is untrue.
Those who dismiss the biblical teaching of divine revelation and inspiration often declare those difficulties to be contradictions and errors. Because for them the Bible is more or less just a human book, they believe that the Bible must contain imperfections and errors. With such a mind-set, there is often no serious attempt to look for an explanation that takes into consideration the unity and trustworthiness of Scripture that results from its divine inspiration. People who start to question the first pages of Scripture, the Creation account (for instance), may soon be led to cast into doubt and uncertainty much of the rest of Scripture, as well.
Some discrepancies in Scripture might be due to minor errors of copyists or translators. Ellen G. White has stated: “Some look to us gravely and say, ‘Don’t you think there might have been some mistake in the copyist or in the translators?’ This is all probable, and the mind that is so narrow that it will hesitate and stumble over this possibility or probability would be just as ready to stumble over the mysteries of the Inspired Word, because their feeble minds cannot see through the purposes of God. Yes, they would just as easily stumble over plain facts that the common mind will accept, and discern the Divine, and to which God’s utterance is plain and beautiful, full of marrow and fatness. All the mistakes will not cause trouble to one soul, or cause any feet to stumble, that would not manufacture difficulties from the plainest revealed truth.”—Selected Messages, book 1, p. 16.
Have you ever had the experience of coming across a text or set of texts that you didn’t understand, or found difficult to harmonize with other texts or reality in general? It’s hard to imagine that at some time or another you haven’t faced this problem. The question is, How did you respond? Or, even more important, How should you respond?
Only when we are honest can we face difficulties adequately. Honesty safeguards us so that we do not evade any difficulties or try to obscure them. Honesty also will restrain us from giving superficial answers that do not really bear the test of scrutiny. God is pleased with honesty and integrity. Therefore, we should emulate His character in all we do, even in our study of the Bible.
Honest people will deal with Bible difficulties in such a way that they are careful not to present information out of context, distort the truth with loaded language, or mislead others by means of manipulating evidence. It is far better to wait for a sustainable answer for a difficulty than to attempt to provide an evasive or unsatisfactory solution. A positive side effect of being honest in our Bible study is that it builds trust, and trust is at the core of all healthy personal relationships. It convinces people much more than flimsy answers. It is better to say that you just don’t know how to answer the question or accurately explain the text, than to try to make it say what you want it to say when, perhaps, it really doesn’t.
Careful people earnestly want to know the truth of God’s Word and, therefore, consistently make sure that they do not rush to hasty conclusions that are based on limited knowledge or flimsy evidence. Careful people are determined not to overlook any aspect or detail that could be important. They are not hurried in their thinking, but thorough and diligent in their study of the Word of God and all related information.
Many people have come to the amazing realization and humbling insight that they are dependent upon something and someone outside of themselves. They have realized that they are not the measure of all things. These people value truth over their ego’s need to be right, and they are aware that truth is not of their own making but, rather, what they confront. Perhaps the greatest truth that these people understand is just how little they really know of truth. They know, as Paul wrote, that they “see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12).
The benefits of this humility in thinking are manifold: the habit of humble inquiry is the foundation of all growth in knowledge, for it generates a freedom that naturally produces a teachable spirit. This does not mean that humble people are often necessarily wrong, or that they will always change their minds and will never have a firm conviction. It means only that they are submissive to biblical truth. They are aware of the limitations of their knowledge and, therefore, are capable of expanding their knowledge and understanding of God’s Word in a way that the intellectual person, arrogant and proud, won’t do.
“All who will come to the Word of God for guidance, with humble, inquiring minds, determined to know the terms of salvation, will understand what saith the Scripture. But those who bring to the investigation of the Word a spirit, which it does not approve, will take away from the search a spirit which it has not imparted. The Lord will not speak to a mind that is unconcerned. He wastes not his instruction on one who is willingly irreverent or polluted. But the tempter educates every mind that yields itself to his suggestions and is willing to make of none effect God’s holy law.
“We need to humble our hearts, and with sincerity and reverence search the Word of life; for that mind alone that is humble and contrite can see light.”—Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, August 22, 1907.
Real achievement always requires tenacity. What we obtain too easily we often esteem too lightly. The difficulties in the Bible give us an opportunity to set our brains to work, and the determination and persistence with which we pursue a solution reveals how important the issue is for us. Any time that we spend studying the Bible to try to find out more about its meaning and message is time well spent. Perhaps the experience of diligently searching the Scriptures for an answer, even for a long time, will be a greater blessing than the solution to the problem if we eventually do find it. After all, when we find a solution to a vexing problem, it becomes very precious to us.
The fact that you cannot solve a difficulty quickly does not prove that it cannot be solved. It is remarkable how often we overlook this evident fact. There are many who, when they meet a difficulty in the Bible, and give it a little thought and can see no possible solution, at once jump to the conclusion that the problem cannot be solved. Some start questioning the trustworthiness of the Bible altogether. But we should not forget that there may be a very easy solution even if we in our limited human wisdom—or ignorance—don’t see it. What would we think of a beginner in algebra who, having tried in vain for half an hour to solve a difficult problem, declares that there is no possible solution to the problem because he could find none? The same is true for us in our study of the Bible.
When some difficulties defy even your strongest efforts to solve them, lay them aside for a while, and in the meantime, practice what God has clearly shown to you. Some spiritual insights are gained only after we have been willing to follow what God has already told us to do. So, be persistent and patient in your study of the Bible. After all, patience is a virtue of the believers at the end of time (see Rev. 14:12).
The best solution to Bible difficulties is still found in the Bible itself. Bible problems are best dealt with when they are studied in the light of all Scripture instead of just dealing with a single text in isolation from others or from the whole of Scripture. We must, indeed, use the Bible to help us understand the Bible. Learning to mine the great truths found in Scripture is one of the most important things we can do.
If you do not understand a passage of Scripture, try to gather some light from other biblical passages that deal with the same subject. Always try to find clear statements of Scripture to shed light on those passages that are less clear. It also is very important never to darken and cloud clear statements of Scripture by bringing to them difficultto- understand passages. Rather than having extra-biblical sources or philosophy or science explain the meaning of the Bible, we should allow the text of Scripture itself to unfold its meaning to us.
It has been said that on our knees we literally look at difficulties from a new perspective. For in prayer, we signal that we are in need of divine help in interpreting and understanding Scripture. In prayer, we seek the illumination of our minds through the same Holy Spirit who inspired the biblical writers to write what they wrote.
In prayer, our motives are laid open, and we can tell God why we want to understand what we read. In prayer, we ask God to open our eyes to His Word and to give us a willing spirit to follow and practice His truth. (This is crucial!) When God guides us through His Holy Spirit in response to our prayers, He does not contradict what He has revealed in the Bible. God will always be in harmony with the Bible, and confirm and build upon what He has inspired the biblical writers to communicate to us.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “What to Do With Doubt?” pp. 105–113, in Steps to Christ. Read section 8 in the document “Methods of Bible Study,” which can be found at http://www.adventist biblicalresearch.org/materials/bible-interpretation-hermeneutics/methods-bible-study.
In the Bible are many mysteries that finite human beings find difficult to comprehend and that are too deep for us to explain fully. This is why we need a humble mind, and should be willing to learn prayerfully from Scripture. Faithfulness to Scripture allows the biblical text—even though its meaning goes against our grain—to say what it actually says. Faithfulness to Scripture will respect the text rather than alter the text (yes, some actually change the texts themselves) or evade its true meaning.
“When the word of God is opened without reverence and without prayer; when the thoughts and affections are not fixed upon God, or in harmony with His will, the mind is clouded with doubts; and in the very study of the Bible, skepticism strengthens. The enemy takes control of the thoughts, and he suggests interpretations that are not correct. Whenever men are not in word and deed seeking to be in harmony with God, then, however learned they may be, they are liable to err in their understanding of Scripture, and it is not safe to trust to their explanations. Those who look to the Scriptures to find discrepancies, have not spiritual insight. With distorted vision they will see many causes for doubt and unbelief in things that are really plain and simple.”—Ellen G. White, Steps to Christ, pp. 110, 111.