There is a meme that has been making its way around social media for the last few years that has always troubled me. It depicts a number painted on the ground, appearing either as a six or a nine, depending on the perspective from which you come to it. The caption reads, “Just because you are right does not mean I am wrong. You just haven’t seen life from my side.”
In some ways, it may seem comforting to know that, yes, there are different sides to every story and every situation.
But what it fails to communicate is an important truth: What was the original intent of the person who painted that number on the ground? Was it intended to be a 6 or a 9? Unless it was painted maliciously – to get people to fight about it – the only way one can know whether it is a 6 or a 9 is to know what the painter intended it to be.
There are, of course, small matters on which this meme depicts reality. Let’s say, for example, that instead of a number it was a pitcher of milk that was sitting there. One person may come at it with great joy, because she loves milk and has it on her cereal every morning. Another person may approach it with great revulsion, because he hates milk, having been forced to drink it warm from the cow’s udder by his mother.
That, though, is a matter of taste, not objective truth. Trouble is, some people apply the same principles to truth as they do to taste, and that’s where we get into difficulty.
We live in a strange time. Western society used to treat objective truth as just that. Then we moved into a phase where truth was believed to be relative (what’s true for you might not be true for me, etc.). Now, in some ways, society has moved back to a place where truth is absolute, but only when it suits our own agendas.
For example, as a friend posted on social media yesterday, it’s astounding how some people will believe that the Bible can speak clearly and objectively about the importance of caring for refugees, but those same people may not believe the Bible speaks clearly and objectively about matters of sexuality – or vice-versa.
We can’t pretend to control what the world thinks or believes, though we can seek to influence it. As followers of Jesus, we need to be on the same page – literally and figuratively. We need to be willing to submit to God’s Word as objective truth. Yes, we read it with sensitivity to its cultural context, but we also must read it with full knowledge of our cultural context. That is, at the same time as we take the culture of Bible times into account when we read it, we must also be fully aware of our own culture, being careful not to read our cultural norms into the Bible’s context.
This is why it is so important for us to read prayerfully, with an eye to how students of Scripture have read and interpreted it over the course of the two millennia of Christian history that preceded us.
In short, read Scripture the way it wants to be read, not the way you want it to read. And yes, be sensitive to the perspectives others bring, but look primarily for the original intent as you read.
“For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires” (Hebrews 4.12, NLT).