Don’t look at a map. Which way do you have to drive from Reno, Nevada to get to San Diego, California? Do you need to go north or south? Do you need to go east or west? Think about it. Got your answer? Keep reading to find out the truth.
What did you say? If you are like most, you said southwest. After all California is west of Nevada, right? However, San Diego is actually SouthEAST of Reno. Don’t believe me? Scroll down to the map at the bottom of this post.
Why does this matter at all?
I recently read what I think is actually going to be one of the best books on studying the Bible. Yet, it actually has nothing to do with studying the Bible. The name of the book is Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average by Joseph T. Hallinan. He presents the San Diego/Reno question on p.118.
As I read this book, I realized that several of the mistakes he mentions find their way into my study of the Bible. The name of the chapter that shared this wonderful bit of trivia in answer to the question of why we make mistakes is “We Like Things Tidy.” That is, we don’t really like things complex.
We all know California is west of Nevada. However, even though we all know California bends, when we think about directions from any point in Nevada to any point in California, most of us naturally envision traveling west. We straighten California out in our minds and don’t even realize we are doing that. Then we miss the question.
I even took up Hallinan’s challenge to ask some friends (though I didn’t do it as a bar bet like he suggested, but explaining that is at least two more posts). I was with a group of Christians at McDonald’s the other night (yes, I eat at McDonald’s; and yes, I’m sure that means you’re better than me). I asked seven people this question. They all said west. When I explained the truth about California bending underneath Nevada, one of them, a guy who takes an annual trip to Nevada, even said something like, “No, California doesn’t go that far east.” I had to call up the map on my phone.
He immediately asked this question. Which American League baseball team plays the farthest north? That answer is obvious: the Toronto Blue Jays. After all, they are in Canada and Canada is north of the USA. But then again, Seattle, Washington is actually north of Toronto, Ontario. Who would have thought? Once again, we like things neat and tidy.
We Like Our Bibles Tidy
This principle impacts our Bible study. The problem is we like our Bibles tidy. We like simple. We like to boil things down to soundbites, pithy points, and power statements. Certainly there is a place for those. But we have to realize their danger.
We like simplified lists. Do you remember those picture timelines of the kings of Israel and Judah in your childhood Bible classroom? The “good” ones had smiles and the “bad” ones had frowns. Manasseh who repented late in life still had a frown. And Joash who because he repaired the temple had a smile even though at the end of his reign he rebelled against God and had Zechariah assassinated. Maybe being a good or bad king wasn’t so tidy.
We all know that 10 tribes went with Jeroboam forming the northern kingdom of Israel. Only 2 tribes stayed with Rehoboam–Judah and Benjamin. Oh, but wait, the Levites also went with Rehoboam. And then as you read through the history, you find that people from the 10 tribes repatriated to Judah. You also learn that land went back and forth between the kingdoms. And, of course, we all know that those 10 tribes are lost. And yet in Luke 2:36, Anna the daughter of Phanuel is of the tribe of Asher. Hmm, perhaps not so lost after all.
Further, we don’t think of a divided kingdom until Rehoboam. David was the second king of the United Kingdom period. And this may be a great way to remember time periods. But the kingdom was divided when David came to power. For seven years and six months, David only reigned over Judah (cf. 2 Samuel 5:5). Then there is the time when the kingdom was divided into three parts because half of Israel followed after Omri as king and the other half followed after Tibni (1 Kings 16:21).
We, of course, know that the tabernacle was housed in Jerusalem until the Temple was built. That is simple, straightforward, and tidy. But do you remember that when Samuel was ministering before the Lord as a child, he did so at the tabernacle in Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:3). That is not too hard to swallow. After all, things can move. But then comes the untidy bit. David brought the Ark to Jerusalem and put it in the tent he had prepared for it in 1 Chronicles 15-16. But in I Chronicles 16:37-40, there is the tent for the Ark in Jerusalem and the tabernacle for sacrifices in Gibeon. Further, when Solomon wanted to seek the Lord at the beginning of his reign, he took the assembly of God’s people to the tent of meeting in Gibeon, even though the Ark of the Covenant was in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 1:2-6). That was where he prayed for wisdom and received it.
On and on I could go with these kinds of examples.
I’ve especially learned that we like the Bible to be tidy on Facebook. Facebook (and Twitter for that matter) is a hotbed of decontextualized pithy, power statements that sometimes sound good, even are good, but must rarely be seen as all-encompassing outlooks on the Word of God and glorifying Him.I have fallen prey to this. A few weeks ago, I was reading Galatians 2 and was reminded of vs. 20 again.
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
The verse particularly moved me that day and so I decided to comment on Facebook about it. Here’s what I said:
I was feeling really good about myself until a good brother sent me a private message reminding me of 2 Corinthians 5:15, which says:
“And he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”
If we are just reading Galatians 2:20, my statement sounds great. If we are reading 2 Corinthians 5:15, not so much. Now, I don’t really think my statement was wrong, and I don’t think my corrector really thought it was wrong either. It simply had a context. But this gets to the point; the Bible, Christianity, serving and glorifying God are all far more complex than we usually want to think about. We like things to be tidy. So we simplify and straighten them out in our own minds.
What about this? Galatians 4:7 says: “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” But… Romans 6:18says: “…having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” Which is it, in Christ am I a slave or not? No doubt, we can explain how these passages coincide. I just want to point out that Bible study isn’t always tidy. We can’t put everything in a nice, neat, little package, wrap a bow on it, and tweet it in 140 characters or less.
But this can hit us at important principles of theology and salvation as well. Consider two sets of contrasting passages in Psalm 119.
“I am yours; save me, for I have sought your precepts.”–Psalm 119:94
“I call to you; save me, that I may observe your testimonies.”–Psalm 119:146
Now which is it? Should we be saved because we have sought God’s precepts, or do we need to be saved so we can observe His testimonies?
“Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain.”–Psalm 119:36
“I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end.”–Psalm 119:112
Which is it? Must I incline my heart or must I ask God to incline my heart for me?
No doubt, you are already formulating answers to these questions. And that is good. I’ve done the same. But for a moment let’s just recognize that this is not exactly tidy. It is difficult. It takes work.
After reading Hallinan’s book, I attended a Bible class on Job. It hit me that Job and his three friends were having this exact same problem. They liked things tidy. It’s the same problem a whole lot of people (especially atheists) have. The tidy idea is that bad things happen to bad people. Good things happen to good people. When bad things happen to good people and good things to bad people, it isn’t tidy. It isn’t neat. It isn’t simple. So we rebel against it. After all, San Diego must be west of Reno. It just has to be. Perhaps the thing we need to realize is that God and life are infinitely more complex than a map of the United States. If He wasn’t, would we really want to serve Him?
We could go on and on, but let’s get to the long and short of it.
The Long and Short of It
So, you ask, why does this matter? Too many people walk away from God because He is complex. He doesn’t do things the way they want or expect. Since He doesn’t do what they expect Him to, they assume He must not be real. And yet, if there really is an infinite God, should we really expect Him to behave in ways that finite people can trap in a box and wrap in a bow? No wonder God Himself tries to explain in Isaiah 55:8-9 that His ways and thoughts are not ours.
Further, even among those who accept God, too many people throw their hands in the air and walk away from the Bible because it is complex. They want bullet points. They want to be spoon fed. It just doesn’t work like that. Bible study isn’t tidy. It’s messy. It’s tough. It’s work. It’s complex. God wants us to work at it, not give up on it just because it doesn’t always progress in a straight line. No wonder Peter explains in 2 Peter 3:16 that there really are some difficult things in the Scriptures. We have to work to understand them.
Don’t ever forget, San Diego is actually east of Reno. And God and His Word aren’t simple either. But God did it that way for our good.
Face the challenge. Spend time with God and in His Word today.
Oh yeah, and if you still don’t believe me about Reno and San Diego, here’s a map.
P.S. Today’s post does contain an affiliate link. After all, I’ve still got four kids to feed (plus an extra one with our exchange student from Germany). If you’d like to find out more about Why We Make Mistakes, click the link below.