Mis-using the Bible

This is an excerpt from the book I am working on, The Prodigal Prophet: Jonah and the Mystery of God’s Mercy. It convicted me and I thought it might be helpful to others.

When Jonah begins to berate God, he quotes God’s own words back to him. They are from Exodus 34:6-7, where God reveals himself to Moses and says he is “compassionate and gracious” and that he “forgives wickedness.” As Jacque Ellul points out “Jonah sets God against God ... all to justify himself.”[1] He reads the Bible selectively, ignoring the latter part of Exodus 34:7 that speaks of God not “clearing the guilty.” He does so in order to create a simplistic picture of God who simply forgives and loves everyone without judgment on evil. Then, quoting the Bible, he uses the sacred text to justify his inordinate indignation, anger, and bitterness.

What Jonah is doing is a great danger for religious people, even the most devout Christians. “It is not enough to adduce biblical arguments ... All this may denote opposition to God. It may even be a way of disobeying him.”[2] Ellul goes on to give examples. One is the historian who “dissects Scripture to set it against Scripture” in a way that undermines the Bible’s authority so we don’t have to obey it. Another is “the simple Christian who opens his Bible to find himself justified ... against non-Christians or Christians who do not hold the same views, arguments which show how far superior my position is to that of others.”

Whenever we read the Bible in order to say, “Aha! I’m right!;” whenever we read it to feel righteous and wise in our own eyes, we are using the Bible to make ourselves into fools or worse, since the Bible says that the mark of evil fools is to be “wise in one’s own eyes” (e.g. Proverbs 12:15).

In other words, if we feel more righteous as we read the Bible, we are misreading it, we are missing its central message. We are only reading and using the Bible rightly when it humbles us, critiques us, and encourages us with God’s love and grace despite our flaws.

“For what [the Bible] teaches us about ourselves is all to the effect that we are not righteous, that we have no means of justifying ourselves, that we have ... no right to condemn others and be in the right against them, and that ... only a gracious act of God ... can save us. That is what Scripture teaches us, and if we stick to this, reading the Bible is useful and healthy and brings forth fruit in us.”[3]

But, Ellul concludes, if we use the Bible to puff up our own egos with our correctness and righteousness, and to denounce all others, then studying the Scripture “becomes a source of death and Satan’s work.”[4] The one other example we have of anyone quoting and twisting the Bible to resist God is when Satan does it against Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). And indeed, Jonah’s use of the Bible does not bringing him joy, but rather takes him to the brink of despair. He asks God to take away his life.

[1] Jacque Ellul,
The Judgment of Jonah, p. 74.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, p.75.

[4] Ibid.

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