I have long observed a fascinating but concerning tendency when I read one of the Bible’s clear commands. I have observed it in myself and I have observed it in others. It’s the tendency to turn quickly from what the Bible does command to what it does not, from the plainest sense of one of God’s directions to a list of exceptions or exclusions. It’s the tendency to hear what God says and immediately reply, “Yeah, but…”
“If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also,” Jesus says. Yeah, but you don’t really mean that in any sense but the metaphorical, right? Surely I shouldn’t actually allow myself to be harmed without mounting a strong defense. Surely I shouldn’t actually suffer unjustly without some kind of recourse or retaliation?
“Love your enemies.” Yeah, but they are your enemies too and they are doing harm to your people and your church. I’m sure you don’t mean for me to actually love them. What if I just pray for them and leave it at that? Isn’t righteous anger and imprecatory prayer a better response in this case?
“Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” Yeah, but I know that beggar is going to use the money to buy booze and I’m pretty sure that borrower is going to fritter it away on something ridiculous. Surely wisdom should trump generosity in this circumstance, shouldn’t it?
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” Yeah, but I’m sure you don’t mean for me to be subject to this ruler, this governor, this institution. Don’t you see how he stole the election? Don’t you see how he hates and defies you? I’m certain you don’t expect me to submit to someone who is so radically unsubmitted to you.
“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed…” Yeah, but don’t you see what they are going to do with that tax revenue? Don’t you see how high our taxes have gotten? And don’t you think I can do better things with that money than fund their projects and programs?
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.” Yeah, but look at my income, look at my bank account, look at my credit card balance, and look at the cost of living. I’m sure you don’t mean I should be free from anxiety even in circumstances like these, right?
“Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” Yeah, but I’m sure you don’t mean everything. There must be some limits on that kind of submission. I mean, you should see my husband and you should see how radically disqualified he is to offer any legitimate spiritual leadership. How could I submit to him in anything, much less everything?
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” Yeah, but there must be times when I don’t need to obey them, right? Can we talk about those? I want to discuss the circumstances in which obedience gives way to honor. I want to consider the times it is right and good for me to disobey my parents.
For these commands and so many others, my tendency—and perhaps your tendency as well—is to quickly turn the focus from what it says to what it does not say, from the plainest application to the many exceptions. And especially the exceptions that keep me from having to do what makes me uncomfortable.
That’s not to say, of course, that these are all blanket commands. There are times when it would be unwise to give to those who beg or to give a loan to those who ask. There are limits on a citizen’s obedience to government, a wife’s submission to her husband, a child’s compliance to his parents. I don’t know too many people who have actually gouged out an eye or cut off a hand in the battle against lust (though I know some who probably wished they did before they destroyed their life and testimony). Faithful interpretation of the Bible requires thinking seriously about limitations on any of God’s commands and faithful living sometimes requires doing the opposite of some of the clearest commands.
My concern, though, is how often I use the exceptions to delay or withhold obedience. Rather than doing my utmost to fully obey even very difficult commands, I turn quickly to the exclusions. I become an expert on what God does not mean rather than a demonstration of what he does. I live safely and comfortably rather than radically. And, I fear, I end up living in self-satisfied rebellion rather than free and joyful obedience.