Communication problems in marriage can give us remarkable theological insight. Here is a great example.
I married a gourmet cook. My wife is the type of person who would rather cook something rather than go out to a restaurant where the chef’s skills are inferior to hers. As for me? I am good with a can of Chef Boyardee.
So imagine what it was like when my wife was out of town unexpectedly for a family crisis and she had promised to fix a dish for a previously scheduled dinner party. Guess who had to step in and cook?
Now that, my friends, is a recipe for disaster.
My wife left me instructions. The recipe called for dry mustard. Unfortunately, I could not find it in the pantry. Where could the mustard be?
Would a culinary defeat be averted?
Was all hope lost?
Read on and find out what happened… and what it might tell us about the challenge of doing biblical interpretation when Christians do not always agree with one another.
Looking For Mustard Among the Chocolate
I was frantic. The dry mustard had to be there. My wife always had that on hand.
But I had searched everywhere.
I got on the cell phone, troubled inside, swallowed my pride, and called my bride. She walked me through where the dry mustard was supposed to be in the pantry. I found garlic, salt, and other spices together, but no mustard. Curiously, along with the spices was a brown, oval can of chocolate.
My wife insisted that the mustard was in a brown, oval can.
All I could see was this can of Ghirardelli chocolate.
Frustration began to mount. I kept insisting that I had followed directions. She, on the other side of the phone, began to wonder why she had married such an aloof engineer who could not seem to understand some rather basic instructions. She might have easily assumed that I was not trusting her to tell the truth! Was this man utterly dense, or was it just a guy thing?
I knew that my wife was not deceiving me, but I simply was not finding the silly mustard. The can of mustard had been given to her by someone else, and she knew it was there in our cupboard. Somehow I knew the mustard must somehow be there, too, but I simply was not getting the message that my wife was intending to communicate.
Then it dawned on me.
What if the can of chocolate had a different label on the side not facing me? I mean, why would the chocolate be sitting among the spices? Sure enough, I turned the can around and there was a label taped over the word “chocolate”. Alas, the word “mustard” appeared. I pulled out the bag inside the can and confirmed that the Ghirardelli, brown oval can was being reused to store the mustard.
The Inerrancy of Chocolate
Over the years, I have struggled with some popular approaches to the Biblical doctrine of inerrancy. Every now and then, I have had sincere believers insist to me that the way that they are reading a particular difficult passage of the Bible is true, and that all other readings are false. Why? I am told: “Because the Bible is inerrant and God does not lie. So, Clarke, when you say that you disagree, in reality… you are disagreeing with God not me.”
This type of thinking has always perplexed me, because while I surely believe the first part that God is being true in Scripture, the full logic of the whole argument is terribly confused. God is indeed trustworthy in the Scriptures, but the difficulty is that different Christians do not always agree on how best to interpret some passages of the Bible. When it comes to the big issues, we do need to stand in agreement, so let us be clear on that. But still there are some things where honest, sincere Bible-believing followers of Jesus simply do not agree with one another on exactly every minute detail of what the text is saying. Pick your controversial topic: Creation, the charismatic movement, women’s issues, the EndTimes, God’s sovereignty vs. free will… the list goes on.
But is our problem with the Bible…. or is it with us?
Let me explain: I know my wife well enough to know that she is to be trusted. She is a human, so unlike God, she can be wrong. But when it comes to the culinary field, she is very competent about that. Things are properly labeled in the pantry. Furthermore, I know that she would not lie to me.
So, when I was listening to her on the cell phone and I simply was not following what she was saying about where the mustard was, I was befuddled. If it was me, I would put a label on both sides of the chocolate can just as a reminder that this is “mustard” and not “chocolate.” But not everyone thinks exactly the way I do. My wife simply did not recall that detail about the can, nor did she think it was all that important that I had that information. What she was saying did not make complete sense to me at first, but once I started to figure out what she was intending to say, it made all of the difference.
When it comes to reading the Bible, knowing the intended purpose of the author can make every the difference in the world. Sometimes, what the Biblical author (and ultimately God) intends to say is not always very straight-forward to us. “If it was me, I would not say it like that!”
But we are dealing with God here, and so who are we to judge the intended purposes of what God is presenting to us in His Word? Why would we presume to think that God thinks just like us? The key is to always trust Him, having the confidence that the Bible is trustworthy and that God does not lie. Then, and only then, can we humbly come before the text, trusting that the Holy Spirt will break through our thick heads with the message that God wants us to know. This is an understanding of Biblical inerrancy that I can completely affirm.
Confusing Chocolate and Mustard? Check the Label!
Sadly, I find that there are some Christians who have a very limited and different scope as to what Biblical inerrancy means. For them, inerrancy implies that God thinks exactly like they do. So, if it is straight-forward to them to read the Bible in a particular way, then God must intend it to be understood that way.
Really? In a healthy marriage, good communication is necessary to make sure we properly understand one another. The same applies when we deal with a controversial issue in Biblical interpretation. Playing the “Junior Holy Spirit” card may stop the conversation, but it does not resolve the issue. Just because we have a particular thought in our head does not necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit put it there. We need to be willing to rethink how we view what the other person is trying to say, working to understand what the true intention of the other really is. What was behind what my wife was trying to tell me?
If I had simply tried to insist that my wife think exactly like me, I would probably be still standing there looking at the can of “chocolate” and ultimately misjudging the competency of my wife, as our cell phone bill continued to mount. If I were to take my wife’s words only at face value, I might wrongly conclude that my wife really did not know what she was talking about. I would never put dry mustard in with the Ghirardelli chocolate! My wonderful bride might have easily thought that my failure to understand things was from some lack of confidence in her. But thankfully on this occasion, it was not the case. I had to figure out that she intended to say, “Look, Clarke, that brown oval can is not what you think it is. Trust me on this one!” Thankfully, I did, but it took a little creative work on my part to get it. The thought that the mustard might be operating under a different label was the key breakthrough.
It is one thing to misunderstand a label and misinterpret another person, but it is completely another thing to let a communication issue destroy trust in the other.
Likewise, we may not always get God’s intended meaning in different parts of the Bible at first glance. Sometimes we attach a particular label in our mind to parts of the text that continue to puzzle us. It takes a little bit of work in doing history and Bible interpretation, but often what we need to do is to consider that perhaps in our minds we have put the wrong label on what we are reading. Have we misread something with the label of “literal” when really the passage we are reading “literally” fits under a different label that we did not see at first?
Is it “chocolate” or is it really “mustard”? We better go check and verify the label!
We must resist throwing up our hands in angst and accuse God of being so unclear in His revelation, when in reality, the lack of clarity is on our side, not God’s. From the other angle, we fail to honor our brothers or sisters in Christ when we call them a “compromisers” of truth or fall short of our personal understanding of Biblical inerrancy simply because the other persons’ views do not completely conform to our label of what we think inerrancy implies.
This does not and should not mean that “anything goes” when it comes to reading the Bible. I can see why some might raise suspicion with my argument. No analogy is perfect, and so my mustard and chocolate illustration could be easily abused. Sometimes our problem really is with the Bible because we have an unsubmissive attitude towards the Word of God. If and when that happens, we need to be honest about our spiritual rebellion to God’s authority in Scripture and repent, for the sake of our own souls. Assuming there is no compelling reason to think differently, if it really says “chocolate” we can not twist it to mean “mustard.” As 2 Peter 3:15-16 teaches, even if something in the Bible is difficult to understand, we do not have the right to distort what the text is saying. My wife told me it was a “brown, oval can,” but if she had instead told me that it was a “blue, square cardboard box,” the situation would be vastly different. Sometimes we do need to challenge others within the Body of Christ to reconsider a viewpoint that is being held in error. Sometimes we need to challenge ourselves, too. Jude 1:3 requires us to contend for the Truth of the Gospel. But we are to do it in a way where we respectfully and humbly listen to our fellow Christian brother or sister who might have some new perspective for us to consider as we read Scripture together, even if we ultimately remain unpersuaded. In some cases, we might just need to swallow our pride and learn that we are the ones who have the error!
Pass the Mustard!
Guess what? The recipe worked out wonderfully. The mustard was just right. The dish was a hit at the dinner party, and I even had leftovers for my wife so that she could enjoy her creation when she got home from her trip. I am glad that I counted on my wife for being trustworthy.
Being generous with the God who is more than generous with us, as well as being generous with our fellow believers who may see things a little differently is a lesson that many of us in the church today would do well to heed.
And with that, I think I will try to find out where all of the Ghirardelli chocolate went. Mmmm???