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Ditch the Scolding Bias?

March 29, 2022
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An identity grounded in God would mean that when we think of who we are, the first thing that would come to mind is our status as someone who is deeply loved by God. (David Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself)

Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. (1 John 4:18, NLT)

Imagine that your phone is on the table beside you and it rings. You look before you answer to make sure it doesn’t read Scam Likely. Instead, it simply reads, God. God is calling you. What does your heart immediately do? Take a moment to picture this.

Does your heart leap because you can’t wait to hear the voice of One who loves you more than any person ever has or could?

Or does your heart sink, or stop, because of … what?

One statistic quoted to me claimed that when groups of Christians were asked how they believed God felt about them, one answer surfaced more than any other: disappointed. Most of us take stock of ourselves and inwardly compute that while God must somehow be grimly determined to accept us, we could not actually please him. Even the oft-repeated assurance of unconditional love feels transactional. God accepts me without conditions because that’s the deal, right? Jesus died in my place. But he couldn’t genuinely like me, let alone seem to be, as one author puts it, “irrationally fond” of me.

I’ve recently completed a year of going through the exercises of St Ignatius, a founder of the Jesuits in the 1500s. One of his particular passions was to encourage his followers to step into the Scriptures and use their imagination to bring all their senses to the scene being described. What was the scene physically? What did the faces look like? How did the voice of the various speakers sound? Seek to identify with each of the people mentioned. It’s a practice that’s frequently eye-opening.

One observation in these reflections has startled me. Whether due to my nature or nurture, I find I often imagine a scolding tone or look from Jesus. We think we read the Bible as objective observers, but in reality we come with all sorts of assumptions and characteristic ways of seeing. It’s worth asking Jesus to bring those things to light. 

Here are a couple of examples of my ‘scolding’ bias:

In John 20 the disciple Thomas is a latecomer to the resurrection party, and he’s not convinced by the reports of his friends. He needs to see for himself. When Jesus shows up miraculously and invites Thomas to touch him, I used to imagine that Thomas was in the doghouse. In that mindset I heard Jesus as disgruntled when he says, “You believe because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me” (John 20:29, NLT). I imagined Jesus was saying, in effect, “Thomas, it’s too bad you need this evidence, but, okay, here you go.”

Now I see that it could all be quite different. Jesus shows up in resurrection glory, appearing suddenly inside a locked room, and there’s delight on his face … like he’s saying, ‘Surprise!’ And there was not one soul in that room who had believed in the resurrection without seeing Jesus for themselves, so Thomas wasn’t an outlier he was just late to the party. And when Jesus says, “Blessed are those who believe without seeing me” I imagine him looking through those walls, and down through history, at me … at us … at all the company of post-Ascension saints … and saying, in effect, “Good for you, Beloved! It’s harder for you than for these ones who could touch and see me.”

I really recommend reading Luke 24:13, the road to Emmaus appearance, all the way to the end of the gospel. It has in it all the same elements. Having always assumed the same scolding, long-suffering attitude in Jesus here, I now hear the possibility that there was mirth and delight and eagerness on Jesus’ part for them to fully understand the huge, profound history in which they had just been privileged to play a part.

This scolding bias in our reading can make us emotionally skittish about getting more face to face with God, like Moses did as God’s friend (Ex. 33:11). As we’ve seen, Jesus likewise expects our friendship with him to be marked by intimate conversation (John 15:15), so consider this exhortation:

… let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water. (Hebrews 10:22, NLT)

And consider this astonishing assertion from the Psalms about how God defeated Israel’s enemies:

… for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them, but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face, for you delighted in them. (Psalm 44:3, ESV)

Don’t miss this! The love in God’s face defeated their enemies! Let’s seek God’s face this Lent. It’s where he wants us to be, and his face is loving.