Sunday, November 28, 2021

Intended Meanings and Frivolous Applications

Disclaimer time: our loving Father is not indifferent to the details of his children’s lives. He cares about our strained relationships, our problems at work, our finances and our trips to the doctor’s office. It matters to him when we grieve over a lost pet. If you are not grateful for that level of divine attention today, you certainly will be at some point down the road.

The bone of contention in what follows, then, is not whether God cares, but how his care is normally expressed to us. After all, we can’t appreciate the Lord’s love if we can’t recognize it. If we are expecting it to manifest one way and it manifests in a different way, we may feel God doesn’t love us at all.

More importantly, we really don’t want to lead other Christians to expect from the Lord things they are most unlikely to receive.

Looking for Reasons

Danielle Bernock at asks, “What Is the Significance of Jesus Calming the Storm?” Aaron Brake at Stand to Reason replies, “Jesus Isn’t Going to Calm the Storms in Your Life”. That may sound like a tempest in a teapot, but the difference of opinion provides an opportunity to consider the distinction between the intended meaning of a Bible story and whatever application we might make from it to our own lives.

Bernock’s article leaves us with the unmistakable impression that the primary reason Jesus calmed the storm in Mark 4:35-41 was to teach his disciples to exercise faith and not be fearful. She is looking for something biblical with which to comfort Christians panicked about the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. So she summarizes with this: “A good question for us to ask ourselves as COVID-19 rages is, where is our faith?” As Brake distills it, the lesson Bernock is trying to teach goes something like this: Just as Jesus calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, so he wants to calm the storms in your own life.

Brake responds that the text of scripture is not primarily about the reader’s feelings. Mark did not write his account of these events so we so we could all wax eloquent about the disciples’ fraught emotions and how similar they are to our own. When we skip past discerning the meaning of a passage to making personal applications, we invariably miss the author’s main point. That’s no way to read the Bible.

He’s not wrong. From my perspective, there are two issues with Bernock’s piece, which are best addressed separately.

1/ Significance vs. Application

When the title of your post promises to address the significance of a passage of scripture, it had better do just that. “Significance” means importance. When we inquire what a portion of scripture signifies, we are not asking what secondary or tertiary applications modern readers might make to our own lives from the passage; rather, we are asking what the author primarily intended to communicate to his original audience.

As Brake points out, the primary point Mark wants to make with this story is that by calming the sea, Jesus was proving to his disciples that he was Israel’s Messiah. Only one with the Father’s authority could do what God himself does. And in fact this is exactly the lesson the disciples took from what they observed:

“They were filled with great fear and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ ”

So, in fact, the disciples started the story by fearing nature and ending the story by fearing nature’s Creator, which is vastly more appropriate. But let’s just say their emotional journey didn’t end with a great big sigh of relief and a cup of hot cocoa.

Nevertheless, that is the biblical significance of Jesus calming the storm. And if Danielle Bernock had entitled her piece “What Can We Take Away From Jesus Calming the Storm for Our Comfort?”, Aaron Brake and I would not be complaining that it doesn’t deliver what it promises. In fact, knowing how editors like to change titles at the last minute, it’s not impossible she did.

But that still leaves the major problem unaddressed.

2/ Get the Application Right

The application Bernock wants to get to cannot be legitimately derived from the storm saga. That’s the big non sequitur that deals the fatal blow to her cheery thesis. Here it is in her own words:

“Do we have more faith in the pandemic than in the mercy and grace of God? There is not a disease that Jesus was unable to heal.”

Aaron Brake refers to this sort of approach to the Bible as “me-centered” and “narcissistic”. I will just settle for “frivolous”. Bernock has taken an extremely rare situation in which Jesus elected to change an undesirable set of circumstances and has made it normative for everybody: Since God is merciful and gracious, then he will heal/protect us from COVID. Normalizing the miraculous leads to impossible expectations, frustration and even loss of faith.

We know Jesus is able to heal every possible disease. No Christian doubts that. The Gospels make it abundantly clear. “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean,” said the man full of leprosy. He was confident Christ was the answer to his problem. The only issue was whether his request would be received favorably. There was no doubt in his mind about the Lord’s ability. And he had asked at exactly the right time. The previous chapter tells us the Lord was in heal-everybody mode during that particular visit: “All those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them.”

But this was a unique time in history, and the healings, like the calming of the storm, were primarily testimonial. They stood as evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, and were offered to the end of producing both personal and national repentance and faith in Christ. We know that by and large they did not do this. The Lord Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, and after the testimony of both he and his apostles was rejected by the official representatives of all the people he miraculously healed, those wonderful healings petered out entirely.

No shortage of Jews and Gentiles have drowned in the Sea of Galilee since. This tells us nothing about God’s mercy and grace.

Love Expressing Itself Differently

Does God not care about sick and drowning people? Of course he does. Or, to take Bernock’s modern example, is God indifferent to the suffering of Christian families who have lost a member to COVID-19? Again, of course not.

But the comforting application Bernock wants cannot be derived from the storm saga for the simple reason that the Lord Jesus is not in the business of either mass healing or perpetual weather management in our present era. God does not generally solve our problems by flipping a switch and miraculously changing the circumstances in which we find ourselves. That doesn’t mean our Father has become uncaring toward his children. It simply means his love expresses itself differently than in the first century: rather than simply taking away suffering or fearful circumstances, he brings us through them for his glory and for the development of our spiritual maturity.

Or, to put it as Brake does, “This is why it is important for Christians to develop a biblical theology of suffering.” Well, yes.

Now, Aaron doesn’t say this heartlessly or casually. He has just recounted the story of his 16‑year old godson David, who recently died of cancer. Jesus simply didn’t “calm the storm” in his life — at least not the way Bernock wants to apply it — despite a multitude of family requests for a miraculous intervention.

Peace! Be Still!

Again, we can’t appreciate the Lord’s love if we don’t recognize it when we experience it. The Lord expressed his love to Aaron’s family by graciously taking a genetically compromised Christian boy into his presence and by strengthening his family to cope with the terrible trial of losing a beloved son. God is working differently in our present age in accordance with his good and perfect will.

For Aaron’s family, there was no “Peace! Be still!” In most cases today, we will be sadly disappointed if we allow ourselves to be taught to expect one.

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