If you want to avoid becoming self-righteous, you need to read the Bible through two lenses.
It’s a sobering thought to consider that Jesus was crucified by people who were immersed in the Scriptures. But Jesus repeatedly told them that there was a problem with how they read the Bible. Their approach to the Bible actually contributed to their self-righteousness.
On one occasion, Jesus told His detractors, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40). Many Christians realize that the Bible points to Jesus but forget this when they read and in so doing miss out on the life that Jesus wants to communicate through His Word. An example will help.
There’s a heart-warming story of kindness and generosity in 2 Samuel 9. If you’re not familiar with it, take a moment to read it. After many years of struggle, David has finally been made king over a united Israel. His long struggle with King Saul, who hunted him down and repeatedly sought to kill him, was finally at an end. Culturally, the expectation was that David would do what other kings of his day would do, kill off the remaining family line of his enemy so there could be no rivals to the throne. Instead, David demands a search for Saul’s descendants in order that he might show them kindness. He does this, in part, “for Jonathan’s sake.” Jonathan was the son of Saul who had showed him loyalty and faithfulness at the risk of his own life.
Only one descendant of Saul can be found, a young man named Mephibosheth, whose legs had become disabled through a childhood accident. He is living outside of the Promised Land, partly in fear and partly in shame. He likely feels he has no right and no standing in Israel anymore. And with his physical disability, he is doubly powerless to change his circumstances. As Mephibosheth approaches the king, David calms his fears, offers him the full inheritance of his father Saul and gives him a seat of honour at the royal table. It is an unparalleled act of generosity.
Having read this story, many people turn to the lens of moralism and ask, “How can I apply this to my own life?” This is a good question to ask. David’s treatment of his enemies becomes an example of how we can treat our enemies. David’s generosity to the undeserving becomes a model for our generosity. His initiative in reaching out to make peace challenges us to do the same. But this is just one lens through which to read the Scriptures and it has some limitations.
The lens of application tells us what to do but leaves us with little more than our own strength to do it. It treats the Bible like a book of commands. There’s no awareness of God. There’s no help to respond. In the words of John 5:40, there’s no coming to Jesus that we “may have life.” For that, we need the lens of grace in addition to the lens of moralism. The lens of grace looks for how the passage points to Jesus. The lens of grace looks for what God has done to make obedience possible. Without it, we either become either self-righteous or defeated before the commands of God.
When we read 2 Samuel 9 with the lens of grace, we don’t primarily see ourselves in King David’s shoes, but instead realize that David’s actions are a pattern of an ideal messiah king who makes peace with his enemies and honours those who are undeserving. We read the story recognizing that we are all Mephibosheth before God, powerless enemies of the king. And so, before we rush off looking for ways to be more generous and forgiving of others, we stop to pray. We pause in wonder at the grace of a God who treats us with love and generosity for Jesus’ sake. We stand back in awe of the fact that we are offered a seat at the royal table with an inheritance that we don’t deserve, all because of what Jesus has done for us. It’s this grace that fills us and shapes us and gives us the power to extend kindness and generosity to those who, like us, are not deserving of it. If we just read the Bible through the lens of moralism, we’ll seek to apply the commands of Scripture as if we’re King David and everyone else is Mephibosheth. But when we read through the lens of grace, we see Jesus as the greater Son of David, and we offer grace that we have received, as Mephibosheth to Mephibosheth. The lens of grace makes all the difference.
May God protect us from self-righteousness and give all of us help to come to Jesus for life and see the grace of God in the Scriptures!
In awe of Him,