In this, my fourth reflection on Affective Theology, we turn to the Bible. To call it a “love letter” may seem odd, given its broad content. Yet it fits God’s ambition. God is a lover, determined to share his heart with the world by two means—with his Spirit at work in each. First, by written words. And second, in his historic self-disclosure as the Son who came to live among us. In the former, his Spirit moved dozens of human writers to form what eventually became the Bible. And in the latter, Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, born in Bethlehem to find a people for himself: the collective “Bride of Christ.” In time it becomes clear the two aims are actually one. The Bible is ultimately all about Jesus.
That said, the Bible is a profound puzzle in its form, and diverse in its content. It will mystify and alienate many. And choke small appetites. People, in fact, need to hear God’s quiet calling—his heart—to make Bible reading work. It can be a challenge since the Bible as a whole is uneven, with elements of prayer, poetry, complaints, confessions, historical narratives, and more. So, it takes time to catch the bigger picture. Yet the rewards are lifechanging as God shows up in the pages. Readers, of course, must be open to the possibility that God is big enough and creative enough to speak clearly and effectively. Part of reading is to learn the meaning of “God.”
A pathway into faith is available through bold Bible reading. Try it. Read the whole, from front to back, in six or seven weeks. Don’t study it. That comes later. In repetitive parts feel free to scan the content quickly. Let it wash over you. And ask, throughout, “Who are you, God?” Make it a personal quest rather than a curious meander. A dawning comes once the Spirit gets involved. So a hungry heart is important, and life challenges may help stir a felt need.
About Jesus. Christianity rises or falls on the claim that he overcame death. His resurrection has historical weight, even beyond the witness the Bible provides. As much, for instance, as events recorded about Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar. It is open to historical tests. Yet the real aim must be to pursue Jesus himself. As, for instance, in John 17:3 where Jesus said “knowing” the Father and the Son is the basis for eternal life. Bible reading is ultimately a personal pursuit of God for God’s sake. Doctrinal searches are, at best, secondary goals. In John 5 Jesus told the religious leaders of his day, “You search the Scriptures” for salvation, yet “it is they that bear witness about me.” The problem? “… you do not have the love of God in you.” Key advice!
In John 17:24, Jesus also said, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” So, his inherent communion as God sets up communion for his spiritual offspring. Readers are invited into the greatest of all love relationships—the Trinity. But we must come to it on his terms, not ours. For the sake of embracing his love, not his resources.
Jesus was promised at the beginning of the Bible, yet he only appeared as a man in the New Testament. His purpose was to offer freedom from death. Not just physical death, but spiritual death. The latter is more important because new spiritual life—by the coming of the Spirit into a soul—lasts forever. This is what “salvation” is about. In Eden the first couple, Adam and Eve, were enslaved by spiritual death as they dismissed God’s word and his presence. Salvation reverses both of these when God recaptures deadened hearts.
Along with this theme we also discover God’s providence, achieved by the quiet presence of the Spirit who is always at work in the world. God-resisting realms are ultimately managed by one figure known as the Devil or Satan. So, the ultimate Bible plot also includes God’s ability to match wits with his demonic opponent after the latter seduced and captured humanity with a promise that self-love satisfies. God, in turn, offers his own selfless love, supremely exhibited in Jesus, as a true and satisfying counterpoint. And God wins in the end by capturing the hearts of a people for himself.
And that back-and-forth tension informs a huge tension in Bible reading. Despite an informal title “Holy Bible,” the collection is mostly about sin. It has just two pristine chapters at the start, in Genesis, and ends with two sinless chapters in Revelation. Almost everything in between is less than lovely. The problem is our alienation from God, with a resulting disorientation in life.
By analogy, it’s as if a cruise ship was launched, only to capsize and sink outside the harbor on its first cruise. And the survivors inside the ship seek to exist in an upside-down world of a cold, leaking wreck, losing breathable air, emergency lights, with limited food. Yet survivors oddly assume the catastrophe must actually be a wild “reality show.” So, they compete for starring roles in front of imagined cameras and treat the capsized ship as a new normal. They even drive off divers who arrive in dripping wetsuits with a promise of coming rescue. Sadly, this silly story is oddly accurate. So, readers must be braced for spiritual and moral chaos throughout the Bible, while also understanding the key to the whole is a coming rescue.
One Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, spoke of this in his own day in challenging the nation of Judea and its leadership in Jerusalem. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight!” (Is. 5:20-21).
Jesus resolves sin—with sin treated as misguided human self-love. He came as God’s beloved Son, but also as a normal man in modest circumstances. And after three years of ministry, he died by a Roman torture-killing. The pivot came when he came back to life. The point of the Bible is to display death as a transition, not an end. So, Jesus’ power over death is pivotal to the Bible story. The rest of it features an equally humble group of followers left behind to invite others to eternal life in heaven with God and all his faithful followers.
The key to this new life is to escape the mythology offered by God’s opponent, “the Liar”—whose captivating mantra is, “you can be like god.” The solution comes in returning to the truth, that there is only one God. He exists eternally as “the Father, Son, and Spirit” and Jesus is the one who reveals this narrative to us as “the Truth” —“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32).
In the same context—in John 8:42—Jesus continued by explaining how the secret of this new freedom comes in joining God’s family. “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me.” The point is, that God alone is able to set us free from our former self-devotions. And he does this by means of his captivating love. In another place the same writer, John, explained this. “We love [God and others] because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).
This, then, makes the Bible a love-letter. We get to meet God. We learn of his love. And the Spirit of God is able to connect it in us as a truth to live by—to convince us of God’s love. A love that revises every priority and value in life by replacing our efforts to be like God with a new delight in meeting the true God, and then to live with him and all his children forever.
Next time we will consider this new community of love—the “church” as a body of God’s beloved ones.