That sparked a conversation between Julie and me, which is resulting in this guest post on Here’s the Joy. When Julie offered me several options for a guest post from her own website, I was drawn to the one called “Better Bible Stories.” When I clicked on it, I found that it had been written in response to something I had posted. (Like so much of my writing, I remember this incident, but I had forgotten that I had written about it.)
I would love for more people to know about Julie’s website, for her compelling insights and heart for God. You can follow her at Be Outside the Camp.
Children’s Sunday school curricula have typically emphasized learning character qualities from the Bible stories.
“Miriam (with baby Moses) was brave.”
“Samuel (as a child) was attentive.”
“David (in all his many conflicts) showed quick thinking.”
Years ago when I was editing a Sunday-school-type curriculum, I came to a story that taught when Jesus did His miracles, the character lesson for the children was “kindness.”
I wish I had my edit notes, but I lit into that lesson. I railed in my comments that though Jesus was kind, the primary reason for His miracles was to show that HE was GOD and to bring GLORY to GOD.
It was the last lesson I edited for that company.
She went on to say that character quality lessons still come up from time to time in her Bible study and in her work.
Here is my response to her post, expressing that all Bible stories taught in these Sunday School lessons point to God Himself and not to our need to work on improving our own character.
I think the lesson I pick up (from the Bible story about Miriam looking after her baby brother Moses in the Nile River) is that, from Miriam’s point of view, she just did the best she could as circumstances unfolded.
But from God’s point of view, He had pre-ordained all the circumstances. He steered the Nile’s flow that day to carry the Moses basket to that Egyptian princess’s exact “swimmin’ hole.”
Long before that though, He had placed Miriam in that family as the big sister. He had arranged that birth order. He had given her a heart for her baby brother, and a desire to protect him. (That is not always a given in families. Believe me!)
He had given her a quick mind so that she could think on her feet and tell the Pharoah’s daughter that she knew a woman who could nurse the baby.
He stirred the big-sister protectiveness in her heart so that it over-rode her fear and instinct for her own self-preservation.
So again, God deserves the credit and glory in this situation. Not Miriam or her character trait.
The only reason I’m saying this is because the weight of Sunday School lessons like this added to the burdens that my evangelical church laid on.
“Here’s a Bible character. He/she was [insert character trait]. You need to be more like *character*. Work on that this week. Work harder. Do better!” A little quote my family has used to describe these lessons is, “You should…, you ought…, shame on you for not…”
But as I’ve moved out from under the evangelical burden, I see these old lessons differently. The new lessons that I’m learning are:
1) God’s got it figured out. He’s using good and bad to steer circumstances. As the Nile of our lives flows, floods its banks, or drops in drought, we, as redeemed children of God and new creatures, can do the best we can. God is steering the Nile. God is steering the circumstances. God is steering our hearts.
The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He pleases. Proverbs 21:1 NASB
2) God gave us our minds. He always planned on us using them — using them even in the context of our character that He also already knows we have. However, we are taught that we are sinful and that we mess things up and that there’s no good in us. We should wait for some sign or skywriting from Heaven or (more likely) for the pastor to tell us what to do. Anything less will probably be a sin. And this lesson hamstrings us. We become afraid to move without instructions from our (earthly religious) authority.
But as we use our redeemed minds to negotiate the changing flow of our Niles, or the fallout from what the Nile or Pharaoh or whatever brings, we can rest in the fact that we are still loved, and that we are still God’s child.
He already knew us, knew our minds and temperaments, knew what we would do, and He has already planned accordingly.
3) If I think I’m screwing up God’s plan because… I’m not better, not good enough, not [character trait] enough, I am learning that I am not that powerful.
4) Constant introspection is crippling! It is the death of a thousand cuts! Only, I was told to inflict the thousand cuts on myself — to dig for some errant cell, some sinful atom. I was required to constantly self-vivisect. I was required to search for any sin cell. I was required to fix myself… by myself. I was required to do better. These character trait lessons said (like our family’s quote):
I should… be a better person.
I ought… to apply this character trait to make myself more acceptable to God.
Shame on me for not… being more like this paragon of virtue who is clearly loved by God. If I want God to like me, I will have to work on ____ this week.
5) When there is sin in me, and there is, I have learned that God the Holy Spirit knows me well enough that He knows how to get my attention. He will point the sin or failure out. A lot. He can steer my heart into new channels, using His Word, circumstances, other people, or any other resources at His fingertips (which would be all the resources!)
As I live this Nile with its storms, its disasters, and its pleasant days, God will change my heart’s direction. He will move me to whatever event or “swimmin’ hole” I need to be at to move my story along.
In this lesson, as Miriam waded along the riverbank, she did not think of her Torah lessons and self-analyze. She did not stand on the banks of the river while she watched the basket and think, “I really need to work on my bravery skills. I need to improve in this area. I fail in this. This is something I need to work on. Maybe I should buy the latest Torah scroll on bravery in my local Torah scrollshop. Maybe I need to join a girl’s Torah study group on this trait.”
(Yes, I’m aware that the Torah wasn’t written down until Moses did it years later, but I’m making an analogy to today’s Christian thoughts and the Christian culture’s penchant to “throw a [Christian-ese self-help] book at it.”)
Miriam was presented with the situation that God had steered her to. And with the heart of a loving big sister that God had planted in her, she thought more of her baby brother than herself, and she did her best.
6) Only God changes hearts. If I’m working to change my own heart (even if I’m sprinkling verses over my effort) I am either trying to take God’s place, or I am trying to shoulder a God-sized burden. Neither one is good.
A changed heart and life brings God glory. If we are self-helping our way through, trying to change our own hearts, we will then take credit for any small changes we manage to make.
But if we confess our sins and failings to Him (sins and failings that He points out), if we move forward in the light of the forgiveness and grace He’s provided through Christ, then… everything will point back to Him.
He points out the failing or sin. He convicts. He moves in our spirits. He provides the atoning, substitute sacrifice for our sin. He does the dying for us. He provides the plan and the way of our forgiveness. He provides the grace. He provides the cleansing. He will steer us slowly into new channels, into new hearts.
And He will get the credit and the glory for changing hearts.
If we are trying to shoulder a God-sized burden of trying to change ourselves because of guilt or bad teaching, then we will be crushed under the weight of “you should… you ought… shame on you for not…”
We are not meant to carry all that shame for failing to remake ourselves into perfect beings. We are meant to confess our sins. We, as new creatures, are meant to live freely in the new, clean life He has given us, all to His credit and glory.
These are some of the lessons I’ve learned. After leaving my old churches, I finally really understand the verse,
Mark 2:22 (NASB) And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”
The old “you should… you ought… shame on you for not…” lessons just don’t fit anymore in a new life of freedom in Christ.