Last week, sitting in a field at the 2011 Alive Christian Music Festival, I heard a speaker say something quite unexpected:
“God loves you, no matter what the Bible says.”
It seemed like an odd thing to say, and it certainly left me thinking.
I remember when I first read Deuteronomy 23:2 in the Good News Bible:
“No one born out of wedlock or any descendant of such a person, even in the tenth generation, may be included among the Lord’s people.”
Well, I was born out of wedlock. I was an “illegitimate” child, as we were called in those days, “legitimized” by my adoption into a traditional family, but God knew the secret truth of my birth, and it affected, apparently, not only me, but my future children, and their children, and so on.
I was very young.
I didn’t know about temple purity, or about the concerns of a small-in-numbers culture to protect their identity from foreign marriages and assimilation. I didn’t understand the cultic context of Deuteronomy, so I spiritualized and personalized the words that I saw and concluded that someone thought me unworthy of belonging to and with God, now or at any time in the forseeable future.
Strangely, I wasn’t too worried for too long. After all, my own cultic context, the liturgy of the Church in Wales, at once affirmed my unworthiness and trusted God’s ability to tolerate, deal with and even heal it. As we approached the altar each Sunday, we would recite the prayer of humble access:
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. …
And beyond that, the prayer which comforted my heart: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed.”
So, no harm done, right?
As I sat in a very muddy field last week, listening to the speaker, I remembered that first frisson of anxiety, though. I remembered the momentary doubt. I remembered what it was like to work through the fear to reclaim the trust in God’s love which healed my own feelings of unworthiness. And I remembered in the weeks that followed, the way that I wondered, looking at my friends, at my neighbours, at my priests and so on, whether they too were secretly unworthy, secretly condemned, secretly excluded from God’s people; who among them were forced to fight demons of doubt to come to the conclusion, or still struggled to conclude, that God loved them, “no matter what the Bible says.”
No one is to blame for my error in a youthful reading of Deuteronomy, and my church community never excluded me from any of its assemblies because of my own shortcomings, my birth, or parentage.
But I still hear others being informed that the Bible says this or that about them, that the Bible makes God’s love for them conditional on changing who they are, how they were born, who God created them to be.
It’s damaging stuff. And it’s wrong.
As the speaker continued last week, I realized that he had actually meant to say, “God loves you, no matter what. The Bible says…”
His misplaced emphasis had given me a very different message for a moment, though. And when we use the Bible, not as an instrument of love to spread the good news of God’s love, but as a check on that expansive love and steadfast care, then we, too, misplace the emphasis. We are very much mistaken.