When Black and White Answers Fail: The Lost Art of Nuance

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The greatest commandment, according to Jesus himself, is that we love God with all our hearts, minds and souls; the second is that we love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s difficult to reconcile that clear call to love one another with the vitriol we so often hear Christians directing at people who disagree with them—including fellow Christians who hold to different views. When it comes to moral, political and social issues, it’s easy to resort to hardline opinions that leave no room for nuance or healthy discussion. We are tempted to answer difficult, multi-faceted questions with one-liners that supposedly tie everything up with a bow and bear God’s stamp of approval. Unfortunately, that kind of all-or-nothing rhetoric doesn’t seem to be doing much to advance the kingdom of God. Instead of uniting, it divides. People with our views are right; people with their views are wrong. End of story.

I have to wonder: is this what Christians are really called to do? Can we really say that we know God’s opinion on every single issue, and that it obviously aligns with our worldview and, ahem, the stance of our political party? Or our church denomination? Does the Bible offer consistent answers to every question we have, that apply to every situation and person in the world?

If you’re thinking whoa there, crazy lady—slow down, let me get off this train before you steer it off a cliff, I understand. But listen, I’m not trying to lead you down a heretical path here, so take a deep breath. I absolutely believe there are moral truths that are undeniably black and white. But I also believe we live in a world of varying shades of gray—fallen and imperfect, our world is a shadow of the beautiful garden it once was. And oftentimes that requires us to take a step off of our soap boxes, put on our reading glasses, and take a long, hard look at what our ancient text really has to say about living life here on Earth.

The Loving Pursuit

I think the fear of being accused of moral relativism has had a sort of “freezing” effect on many Christians: we don’t want to be condemned for denying God’s absolute truths, so we forego any discussions of nuance in favor of the black and white answers we’ve always believed. But nuance isn’t an enemy to be feared. In fact, “properly conceived, nuance is the loving pursuit of accurate understanding, accompanied by an awareness that ‘we know in part and we prophesy in part’ (I Cor. 13:9) and that ‘we see only a reflection as in a mirror’ (1 Cor. 13:12). Such a pursuit demands levels of patience, humility, discernment, and self-control that black-and-white approaches to people and issues do not” (Judy Wu Dominick, Christianity Today).

Here’s the kicker that solidifies the importance of nuance for me: the Bible isn’t an encyclopedia of answers to hard questions. As much as we might want it to be, that’s not what it is.

“When God gave us the Bible, God did not give us an internally consistent book of answers. God gave us an inspired library of diverse writings, rooted in a variety of contexts, that have stood the test of time, precisely because, together, they avoid simplistic solutions to complex problems. It’s almost as though God trusts us to approach them with wisdom, to use discernment as we read and interpret, and to remain open to other points of view.” Rachel Held Evans, Inspired

Seeking Discernment is Our Responsibility

Just as God didn’t give us the blueprint to our lives before we could live them, He hasn’t given us a book of black-and-white answers by which to live our lives. That might seem scary at first, but it is actually incredible to know that God doesn’t see us as feeble and small-minded creatures incapable of discernment. Rather, He has gifted us with the ability to think, to debate, to interpret, to seek wisdom. To discuss our doubts and questions with the wise people in our lives. He didn’t create us to fear new knowledge and discoveries, because His word is not inconsistent with science or history. It is timeless and impenetrable because it is complex and full of nuance, not in spite of that.  

Moreover, the Bible is an inspired book written by a litany of authors. Those authors came from different time periods, different political and cultural circumstances, and had a host of different perspectives. Again, this isn’t something to be feared. God’s word can still stand on its own feet. The seeming inconsistencies of the Bible don’t need to be justified away by Christians who want to end the debate with a triumphant “God can’t contradict himself, so therefore there is nothing contradictory in the Bible, the end.” We don’t need to play that game, and really I think that makes us seem fearful of an actual debate. The Bible is inspired by God, written by human people in a variety of genres, and that is more than okay—it is beautiful. It offers hope to us as modern Christians, in a world that is full of diverse people and complex issues. Dr. Pete Enns reminds us, “If we believe by faith that God inspired the Bible, we need also to believe that God is OK with how the Bible actually works and therefore, by faith, so should we.” I couldn’t agree more.

God Can Handle Your Hard Questions

Yes, we should come to the Bible with our hard questions, with our doubts and our insecurities. But we should come prayerfully, with open minds and hearts willing to receive whatever God has for us—even if the answers we get aren’t black and white. Especially if the answers we get are inconsistent with what we once thought. Because God is in the business of turning our worlds upside down and encouraging us to see things from new perspectives. He doesn’t want our minds and hearts to become stagnant, or for us to grow indifferent to the challenges and injustices of the world. He wants us to humbly knock at the door of wisdom, that we may receive it abundantly.

And I believe we have to come back to knock at this door constantly, never growing comfortable with what we’ve learned before. God is always on the other side, ready to teach us new lessons as we become mature enough to receive them. It’s not a one-time delivery of wisdom and discernment. It’s a subscription service that we must continually renew if we want to experience the benefits of continuous growth and understanding. The One who made us isn’t afraid of our questions or wary of our doubts. He is so good, friends, and He is ready to offer up His boundless wisdom to us if we would just muster the courage to knock.

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