Americans read the Bible a great deal.
Atheist and Christian fear mongers notwithstanding, Bible app use shows it is true: the Bible matters to us, and we read it quite a bit. That is the good news.
Yet the top ten verses for 2013 reveal something about American Bible reading, and there we find some bad news. We find that Americans really, really like the cheerful bits of the Bible, but are not so interested in the rest of it, meaning most of it.
Are we self-editing the Bible to make the Word of God a self-help book?
Because let's face it: we are obsessed with being cheerful. At the turn of the last century, Americans liked the fire and brimstone parts of the Bible. Much Christian preaching focused on it. In response came Pollyanna, the super-cheerful literary character. Pollyanna ended up giving her name to a new attitude of Christian cheer: sugary, unremitting, invincible, annoying cheer in the face of adversity. In the book, precious Pollyanna takes a small town obsessed with fire and brimstone preaching and turns their focus to the happier parts of everything. And, despite all evidence to the contrary, somebody must have needed to hear that message again a century later, because Disney put it to film. And if ever a message was heard by America, for better or for worse, it must have been this one.
Americans at the turn of the last century liked the fire and brimstone parts of the Bible, but we like the cheerful bits only, the loaves and fishes bits. Now, the Bible does contain the Gospel, the good news, but that good news is delivered in the context of our need for it. The Word makes the true, bad news obvious too.
This is the true, bad news: humans are all sinners, and if we do what seems right in our own eyes, culture will end up decadent and violent. Damnation awaits us if we are not changed.
Now, there must be some preacher somewhere with a congregation of holdovers who needs to balance these hard truths with the rest of the love of God (remember: God's wrath is a part of his love) but I have not been to that congregation.
On the other hand, I have been to many Pollyanna churches. We say that we are discouraged and heavy-laden, but do not suggest it is because of our awareness of our sin. We lack that awareness, as Bible app trends reveal.
Here are the five most-shared Bible verses, all the Word of God and true, followed by some corresponding but relatively unshared Bible truths:
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Psalm 118:24
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you... I Peter 5:6
. . . fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Isaiah 41:10
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. Matthew 7:7
. . . but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:31
These are good words and I need to hear them often. I bet you do as well. But surely sometimes we need to hear other, harder words? Weighing myself in the balance should be discouraging if I am honest. If I knew myself fully, as God knows me, I would be much less sanguine about my state. I would see the depth of my sin.
That is the hard truth of the Bible.
So, here are five other verses to read in parallel with the “top five:”
1. The Day of the Lord is glorious, but also a tough day:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. II Corinthians 5:10
2. The proper time for exalting may come only after martyrdom:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. Revelation 6:9-11
3. We have no “right” to be considered his people, and God’s patience has limits:
And the Lord said, “Call his name Not My People, for you are not my people, and I am not your God.” Hosea 1:9
4. Not everyone gets what they want:
And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Matthew 25: 10-12
5. However hard I pray, diet, or workout, I will get old and die:
Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. Ecclesiastes 12:1-8
This is important. Remember your Creator when you are young, because when you are old you may not be able to remember goodness at all. This life wears us down. Taken by itself (go read Ecclesiastes), the human story is a tragedy with some comedy to keep us going.
When my heart speaks truly, my heart condemns me: I fail my highest aspirations. And my highest is not very high! Yet when I do know all of the bad news that I can stand (there is more bad news even than that, but God is merciful) and when I feel like despairing, then God speaks:
. . . for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. I John 3:20
God, and only God, by His mercy, and only his undeserved, unmerited mercy, makes our lives end in a wedding, a comedy. We can live in God’s divine Comedy, but even He knew pain for our sake.
The Bible begins in God’s goodness, shows human brokenness and evil (and not just in a Hitler or Stalin, but also in me), and then, only then, ends with God’s goodness again. I cannot believe the Good News, the utterly joyous news, if I do not know the bad news first. Joy to the world can only come from angels who know we have every reason to fear the announcement.
We must know we deserve doom to gain the joy of deliverance. I pray daily: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Thank God. Thank God! Thank God! He answers, He always answers, this prayer.
This year let’s read and share the whole Bible and be sobered by its truth so that we can be given joy in His grace.