When I was a young believer, I always admired people who were literalists when it came their understanding of scripture. I felt this way because I thought these people carried a higher level of faith than the rest of us that enabled them to literally believe some of the things written in the Bible. When I began to read the Word my thinking changed.
I read the words of Jesus where He said if your eye offends you, pluck it out. He also said if your hand does something offensive, cut it off. I always found it interesting that the same literalists who spoke to me about their literal interpretation of God and His Word always had both eyes and both hands fully intact and functioning as we talked. I began to wonder if they would also turn the other cheek if someone kicked down their front door and started to harm their family. Maybe Jesus was saying something different that is not discovered on the surface of a slavish literalism. At that point my own literalism about the non-essentials of my faith began to lose some of the intrigue they once held for me.
I have come to realize an uncomfortable fact – to some degree we are all selective literalists. We see so much of the Word through the lens of our personal bias and background. When Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus he said, “God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in all its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in heavenly places”. This rich variety makes a literalist nervous because it doesn’t allow them to force the variety of the church into their narrow box of interpretation.
When the selective literalist inside me gets uppity and prideful about my understanding of what I think the Word means, I am reminded of what the prophet Isaiah said, “’My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts’, says the Lord. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts’”. These words of Isaiah invite each of us to walk gently and humbly with other people when we are representing the Almighty God from within our narrow version of selective literalism.