Beyond the Formulas, Part 2 – Where’s the Handbook?

When I was growing up I often heard pastors and people at church say, “the Bible is like your handbook for life.” It was meant to be an encouragement to people to read the Bible, which is great. Unfortunately it was, and still is, a terrible paradigm to approach reading the scriptures. Websters describes a handbook this way:

handbook |ˈhan(d)ˌbo͝ok|
a book giving information such as facts on a particular subject or instructions for operating a machine.

I don’t know who first thought it was a good idea to start thinking about the Bible this way, but I’m guessing it’s probably a post-industrial revolution idea. In a world where we are surrounded by machines and their associated handbooks, it is tempting to think about life in a very process-oriented sort of way – to see it as a very big, very complicated machine – and to see the Bible as the operating manual for life. The problem is, the Bible just doesn’t cooperate with that paradigm. The Bible is a very complex book. In fact, it’s not a book at all. It’s a collection of books – sixty-six in all – written by over forty authors across thousands of years of time. It is narrative. It is poetry. It is correspondence. Even when it is proverbial and seems to be giving “how-to” directions about life it isn’t that straightforward. Here’s an example.

We’ve all had someone say something foolish to you before. Maybe it was that drunk guy sitting in front of you at a football game. Maybe it was someone being rude in line at the grocery store. So how do you respond? Well, let’s go to the handbook:

“Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” Proverbs 26:4

Okay, so I just shouldn’t say anything to that person who spouts off at me, right? Well, maybe – maybe not. Look at the next verse:

“Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Proverbs 26:5

So wait. I thought I wasn’t supposed to answer. So according to this verse I am supposed to let him know he said something foolish or he will simply continue thinking how he acts is okay. So which is it? Do I answer or not?

In my previous post I mentioned that my counselor/spiritual-director Denise pointed out to me not long ago that I was trying to live by the precepts and principles of Scripture – to understand the formulas to solve the problems of life, but that paradigm of life was breaking down for me. She said something interesting, “You can’t pre-decide how you’re going to act in a particular situation. To do so is not to be fully present in that moment. More importantly it means not being present with God in that moment.”

Knowing and understanding the truth of Scripture is important. It is vital. It is necessary for following God. But it is not enough. Knowing Scripture is not the same thing as knowing God. The Bible is not a handbook; it is God’s revelation to man – the story of his relationship with man throughout history. Knowing the Bible helps us to know God, but it is not the same as knowing God himself.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at a story from Jesus’ life that provides some insight into the difference between following God and just following the rules.

Follow up thought:
If you’re interested in reading more about how we think about the Bible, a book that was very influential for me was The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight.


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