I have often heard it said that ‘the Bible is full of contradictions’. It is certainly true that there are many apparent contradictions.
When faced with challenging contradictions:
Seek to harmonise the apparent contradictions within the message of the Bible as a whole
Avoid artificial means of harmonisation
Be patient – be prepared to wait and live with unresolved questions
To answer or not to answer?Proverbs 26:3-12
The words ‘fool’, ‘foolish’, ‘folly’ occur ninety-six times in the book of Proverbs. The fool is the opposite of the wise person commended by the writer of Proverbs.
‘Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be like them yourself’ (v.4).
‘Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes’ (v.5).
This couldn’t be a clearer apparent contradiction. If the two verses appeared in different sections of the Bible, it would be hailed as an obvious contradiction. However, the fact that they appear right after each other suggests that in the author’s eyes there is no actual contradiction.
Criticism can often be extremely helpful and we can learn from it. However, sometimes criticism comes from ignorance (from ‘fools’). How do we respond? There is a tension: on the one hand, we do not want to reply because, in a sense, it is descending to the level of the critic (the fool, v.4).
On the other hand, we want to reply because otherwise the critic may feel they are right and they ‘will be wise in their own eyes’ (v.5).
It may well be that the writer of the Proverbs is using the dilemma to make a humorous point, that when it comes to talking with fools – whether you respond or stay silent – you can’t win.
It is very tempting to think that the fool is someone else and not me. If we think this, then we are ‘wise in our own eyes’: ‘Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for fools than for them’ (v.12)! This is the sting in the tail. After making us smile by showing how silly fools can be, we are reminded that when we think we are wise we are even worse off than a fool!
Lord, preserve me from being wise in my own eyes. Give me wisdom in all my decisions and how I answer my critics.
‘Boring’ or ‘attractive’?Titus 2:1-15
If Christianity is to be credible and attractive to the world, Christians must live authentic and attractive lives.
Paul writes to Titus that in every way we should ‘make the teaching about God our Saviour attractive’ (v.10). The instructions he gives about teaching women to be reverent, self-controlled, pure, kind and so on, are so that ‘no one will malign the word of God’ (v.5).
Similarly, the instructions he gives to Titus about self-control, integrity and so on, are so that ‘they have nothing bad to say about us’ (v.8).
However, as we read his instructions, they are the very opposite of what our twenty-first century culture would think is attractive. He speaks of ‘sound doctrine’ (v.1), being temperate (v.2), self-controlled (v.2), sound in faith (v.2), reverent (v.3), not addicted to too much wine (v.3), virtuous and pure (v.5, MSG), living disciplined lives (v.5, MSG), showing integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech (vv.7–8), saying ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and living self-controlled, upright and godly lives (v.12).
All this sounds very unattractive to modern ears. Yet when we actually see someone living like this – Mother Teresa or Pope Francis, to name but two – it is very attractive. Our culture dislikes the idea of holiness, but when people see a holy life they are captivated by it. True ‘holiness’ is when you leave every person more alive than when you found them.
As Simone Weil put it: ‘Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.’
There is something beautiful about lives of ‘dignity and wisdom’, ‘healthy faith’ and ‘love’ (v.2, MSG); people who are ‘models of goodness’ and ‘virtuous and pure’ (vv.3,5, MSG); lives of good character shining through action; ‘God-filled, God-honouring lives’ (v.12, MSG).
Jesus died for you and me ‘to free us from a dark, rebellious life into this good, pure life, making us a people he can be proud of, energetic in goodness’ (v.14, MSG).
Lord, help me by my life and by my love to make the teaching about you attractive.
Faith and doubt?Habakkuk 1:1-3:19
Are doubts, questioning and fears compatible with faith? Are you facing problems with your relationships, your marriage (or lack of marriage), your family, your job, your health, your finances or a combination of all of these? Does this make you doubt the existence of God? Should you stop believing?
Many people regard faith as unquestioning. They think faith and doubt are opposites. In fact, faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin. There is no doubt that 2 + 2 = 4. However, it does not take any faith to believe it. On the other hand, to believe that someone loves you is open to an element of doubt. To put your faith in God is similar to loving a person. There is always the possibility of doubt. Without doubt, faith would not be faith.
Likewise, it is not wrong to question God within the context of faith. The book of Habakkuk starts with a man who believes, yet questions. It ends with a towering expression of faith, scarcely equalled anywhere else in the Old Testament.
Habakkuk looked at the world and was perplexed and fearful. He saw ‘violence’ (1:2), ‘injustice’ (v.3a), ‘destruction’ (v.3c), ‘strife’ and ‘conflict’ (v.3d). Yet the Lord did not seem, to him, to be doing anything about it (vv.2–4). He saw pain and suffering and asked, ‘How long, O Lord…? Why…?’ (vv.2–3).
He took the problem to God and asked genuinely heartfelt questions. God replied that he was going to do something amazing, but not what Habakkuk expected (v.5). He was raising up the Babylonians (v.6). Consequently, Israel was to be overwhelmed and would go into exile.
Habakkuk was perplexed. Surely God was in control of history and all-powerful (v.12)? How could a pure God use the cruel and idolatrous Babylonians to punish a godly nation? ‘God, you chose Babylonians for your judgment work? … You can’t be serious. You can’t condone evil!’ (vv.12–13, MSG). Habakkuk didn’t seem to get a direct answer. However, he took his puzzled complaints and problems to God and left them with him as he waited (2:1).
God told him first to write down the vision (v.2). When you sense God speaking to you and giving you a vision, it is good to write it down so that you can refer back to it and hold on to it. Second, God told him that he may have to wait for the answer: ‘Wait for it; it will certainly come and not delay’ (v.3).
God wants you to bring your doubts, problems and questions to him. You may not always get immediate answers to all your questions. While you wait for answers you are called to trust in God, even when you don’t fully understand what he is doing.
Faith involves believing what God has said in spite of the difficulties you face: ‘The righteous will live by their faith’ (v.4). Habakkuk foresaw that judgment was coming on the ungodly Babylonians. He also foresaw that, one day, the outlaws would be destroyed and ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’ (v.14). He foresaw the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
Until that time, he resolved to stay close to God whatever happened.
Like Habakkuk, commit yourself to praise and not complaint. Resolve to take the long-term view and be patient. Resolve to rejoice whatever the circumstances. Commit yourself to faith, even when there is no fruit (3:17–19).
God is concerned, not so much about the harvest as about your heart. Even if you can find nothing else, you can rejoice over your relationship with the Lord. Habakkuk says, ‘I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour’ (v.18). God made him sure-footed and light-hearted: ‘The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights’ (v.19).
As Joyce Meyer writes, ‘We need to allow our difficulties to help us develop “hinds’ feet”. When we have hinds’ feet… we will walk and make progress through our trouble, suffering, responsibility, or whatever is trying to hold us back.’
Lord, help me trust completely in you as I honestly express my doubts and questions to you, and to rejoice in you even when I do not immediately see an answer.
‘Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.’
I remember Andrew White (the Vicar of Baghdad) speaking on this passage after the city and his church was bombed. His faith and work in Iraq is inspirational. I feel deeply challenged by the Christians living in places like Iraq and Syria who persevere despite the terrifying threat of Isis, surrounded by persecution and suffering. It is easy for me to rejoice, but deeply humbling that they can.
Verse of the Day
‘The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights’ (Habakkuk 3:19).
Joyce Meyer, The Everyday Life Bible, (Faithwords, 2013) p.1434
Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, (Routledge, 2002) p.70.
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture quotations taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version Anglicised, Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 Biblica, formerly International Bible Society. Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved. ‘NIV’ is a registered trademark of Biblica. UK trademark number 1448790.
Scripture marked (MSG) taken from The Message. Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.