Have you ever felt depressed and had someone remind you of Philippians 4:4 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”? Or perhaps you’ve been in the thick of conflict and had someone read Ephesians 4 to you: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (v.32). You hear what the verse is saying, but the hurt of being wronged, and the other person’s lack of apology makes the verse bounce off you. I remember lying in a hospital bed after surgery, with my brain all foggy on morphine, and a well-meaning friend bringing a bunch of sermons for me to listen to; It wasn’t the right time. Christians can trot out glorious verses, like Romans 8:28, like they’re handing out sticking plasters to someone who’s lost their leg in a car accident.
There are times when it feels like the Bible isn’t helping. Christians can experience a huge gap between “life” and what the text says. What should we make of that? Can that be right?
i) The Bible itself recognises that experience. There is such a thing as poor application of Scripture. That’s what Job’s comforters show. Job had experienced unthinkable tragedy, and his comforters are all basically quoting the Bible to him. They preach biblical sermons to him. Some of their sermons are excellent – I wish I could preach like Zophar; he has big God theology (Job 11:7-11) and his imagery is fantastic (Job 20). Paul clearly considered Eliphaz’s doctrine to be orthodox, and has no problem quoting it (see 1 Cor 1:19; Job 5:12). But Job’s friends miss the point. Their timing is all wrong. Their application of truth to Job’s circumstances is mistaken. So, Job says: “Miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2). That’s also God’s verdict on their counsel at the end of the book (Job 42:7). The Book of Job demonstrates to us the real possibility of misusing, and mishandling biblical truth, in ways that are unhelpful. Job could honestly and fairly say to his friends: “The Bible isn’t helping!”.
ii) But the moment in which it feels like the Bible isn’t helping me is also a point in which I need to be very careful. Pastorally, those moments are critical.
It’s worth drilling down into the idea of “help”. How do you know what’s helping you? What’s your measure for “helpfulness”? Do you mean that particular verse hasn’t made you feel better? Do you mean that specific truth hasn’t connected to you? Do you mean that teaching hasn’t registered in your experience in a way that’s altering your outlook? Those things can all be true in your experience, but it doesn’t follow that the Bible isn’t helping you. What feels helpful in any given moment isn’t necessarily what’s really helpful. After all, God says: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov 3:5).
The thing to be alert to when it feels like the Bible isn’t helping is the location of the problem. Am I saying the problem is with the Bible? Is the problem with the inadequacy or the irrelevance of Scripture to my situation? Are we saying there’s an insufficiency to what God has said? I’m struck by how frequently we can convince ourselves that our particular distress is so unique and special that Scripture somehow doesn’t apply to me in this moment. But think what we’re saying: here’s a situation where God’s holy, life-giving, word that called the universe into existence, and raised Lazarus from the dead, can’t help me?! Here’s a situation where God’s promise to equip us through his Scripture doesn’t apply (2 Tim 3:16-17)? Really?!
To be clear: it’s not a problem for Christians to have confused feelings. It’s not unusual or sinful that our feelings are out of kilter. The Bible gives permission for our feelings to be in a mess and confused (e.g. Psalm 42:11; Psalm 88; Psalm 130:1). To say: “The Bible isn’t helping!” can just be us being honest. But the question then is: where do we go with that?
Because that statement can also be used as a barrier that prevents Christians speaking the word of God to me. It can start to mean: I will refuse to let my feelings be interpreted by God’s word. I won’t permit my experiences to be subjected to and analysed by Scripture. As a result, my emotions become a Scripture-free zone. I’ll let them be addressed by the professional counsellors and the medical practitioners. I’ll give permission to “experts” to explore them, but not God’s word. “The Bible isn’t helping” can create an impenetrable barrier, which shields you from letting others speak the Bible into your life. It can become a way of evading the call of Jesus
So, when it feels like the Bible isn’t helping, the critical question is: am I withdrawing from Scripture, or opening up to Scripture?
In those moments when the Bible falls flatly on us, yes, it could be because it’s poorly applied, yes it might be because it was mis-timed, but God wants us to cultivate an attitude that unquestioningly assumes the correct-ness and relevance of his word to our situation. It might well take some time for God’s word to “get through”. We can go days, weeks, months, and even years feeling in the dark spiritually, and it’s not simply our fault. But we must remind ourselves that, whatever it feels like, whatever it looks like, God’s word is always, always going to help.
“Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God” (Isa 50:10).