Expect the Bible to Unsettle You
“The word prune in John 15:2 doesn’t mean what many of us think.”
The pastor was preaching from John 15:1–11, the passage about the vine and the branches. Our English translations may include the word prune, the pastor said, but the historical context and the original language yield a different interpretation. Two hundred souls listened.
“Prune actually has the idea of lift up, like a gardener who gets his hands in the dirt to raise a drooping vine. And abide has less to do with our obedience and more to do with how God is already holding us up; we abide when we realize that we are already embraced, already upheld by the divine.”
The pastor descended the platform, and the congregation rose to sing of a God who never prunes his people, nor lays on them any strong command, but rather embraces them always, no matter what.
The problem, of course, is that this god does not exist.
Prone to Wander
I intend no mockery with the above story. This pastor’s exegesis, though fanciful by any objective standards of interpretation, finds its origin in a temptation common to man — a temptation common to me. I too have felt the impulse to dull the two-edged sword of truth until it no longer cuts so deeply.
“All throughout Scripture, God’s word not only comforts and uplifts his people; it also unsettles them.”
I can’t pretend to know all the reasons why this pastor (or anyone else) wandered from biblical authority. Every story contains its own significant moments: small doubts that stuck to the soul, conversations that shook confidence, relationships that challenged the truth. Whatever the reasons for the drift, I don’t have a hard time imagining how it could happen.
I have left many a quiet time more disturbed than comforted by God’s word. I have laid my head on my desk, battling to embrace the truth. I have felt the phantom of doubt following at my elbow, asking, “Will you really believe that?”
But I also have learned, from the Bible itself, to expect this experience. All throughout Scripture, God’s word not only comforts and uplifts his people; it also unsettles them.
Abraham sat with his promised Isaac, perhaps imagining that his trials were over, his waiting rewarded. Then he heard a command he never expected: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2).
Moses led his sheep to Mount Horeb, a contented shepherd with a wife and children. Then he heard words from the fire he could not escape: “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10).
Hosea lived among the northern kingdom of Israel, fearing God and keeping his commandments. Then he received a command unlike all the others: “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom” (Hosea 1:2).
The mother of our Lord took her child to the temple, in awe of all the prophecies. Then she heard a prophecy that felt like a blade: “This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel . . . (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also)” (Luke 2:34–35).
Need we mention the ministry of Jesus? His words bound up many a bruised reed, to be sure. But they also rebuked his disciples (Matthew 16:23), offended his neighbors (Mark 6:2–3), embarrassed the scribes (Matthew 22:46), and sent his foes searching for stones (John 10:31).
Were we to excise every unsettling word from the Bible, we would be left with less than cliff notes.
Why all the trouble? Why such scandal and offense? Not because God delights merely in ruffling feathers. God’s word unsettles us because reality always unsettles the delusional. And sin has made all of us, to one degree or another, delusional.
“Reality always unsettles the delusional. And sin has made all of us, to one degree or another, delusional.”
We have, all of us, tried to scrub the living God out of existence and paint a different god in his place (Romans 1:18–21). If God leaves us to ourselves, therefore, we do not welcome the truth. We cry, “Foolishness!” We shout, “Offense!” And if given the opportunity, we lead the Truth to a hill outside Jerusalem and hang him on a tree (1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:8). Comfortable words cannot break this spell. We need to be unsettled.
“Yes,” someone might say, “God’s word always unsettles his enemies. But Abraham, Moses, Hosea, and Mary were his friends. Why must his word unsettle his own people?”
Because even after God saves us, he must snap up back to reality time and again. C.S. Lewis spoke for all Christians when he wrote, “My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could he not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence?” (A Grief Observed, 66). The word of God comforts and confronts; it restores and rebukes; it saves and shatters. And until we see him face to face, we will desperately need it to do all of the above.
To Whom Shall We Go?
What, then, shall we do when we sit before an unsettling passage of Scripture? We find our two options illustrated in John 6, just after Jesus has given that most unsettling of teachings: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
We can murmur, along with the crowd, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60), and begin saying things like, “My God would never . . .” But in such a case, “my God” has become “my god” — a small wooden figure in our imagination. Polite, tolerant, safe.
Or we can take our stand with Peter, and say, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). We need not, in this moment, understand all that Jesus means. We need not feel a settled peace in our heart. We simply need to know, as Peter did, that Jesus Christ has the words of eternal life. And because this same Jesus upheld every jot of his Old Testament (John 10:35) and commissioned every word of his New Testament (John 14:26), we come back to the same question no matter where we are in our Bibles: Will we trust him?
“God never speaks an unsettling word to his people except to give us peace.”
Will we trust the man who not only spoke unsettling words, but also raised paralytics, welcomed children, cheered widows, and sought outcasts? Will we trust him who was crowned between criminals, and conquered the world from a cross? Will we trust him who trampled death, who reigns in glory, and who will one day make all things new? We can run from his unsettling words to find words more comfortable and affirming. Or we can look at Jesus and say, “You alone have the words of eternal life.”
Come to Be Unsettled
David Gibson writes, “You will know that you know God when sometimes he makes you weep as he humbles your pride. Reverses your expectations. Upsets your priorities. Offends your behavior” (Living Life Backward, 159).
Submitting our finite, fallible wisdom to God’s infinite, infallible wisdom is not a painless process. Sometimes it may hurt as much as setting a bone. But God never speaks a wounding word to his people except to heal us (Hosea 6:1); he never speaks an unsettling word except to give us peace.
As you come to your Bible, then, expect God to do just what he says he will: teach you, reprove you, correct you, train you (2 Timothy 3:16). Might we even be so bold as to pray for him to do so? “Whatever idols need to be shattered, shatter them. Whatever lies need to be broken, break them. Discomfort me, rework me, unsettle me — whatever it takes to bring me to you.”
Such a prayer is worth the pain. For after God has stripped us of our pride, self-sufficiency, and comfortable illusions, what will be left? Joy. Freedom. The hope of glory. Christ himself.