Is the Bible Oppressive? Sure, it can be.

But there’s good news.

You shall have no…. You shall not…. You shall not…for I the LORD your God am a jealous God…. You shall not…for the LORD will not hold him guiltless…. Remember the Sabbath day…. On it you shall not do any work…. Honor your father and your mother…. You shall not…. You shall not…. You shall not…. You shall not…. You shall not….
~ Exodus 20:3-17 ESV

This is from the ten commandments. The Bible says not to do a lot of things, and it says to do a lot of things. The ten commandments are probably the most famous example, but there are more.

The Bible says that you have to study the Bible (2nd Timothy 2:15). It says, even if you’re having harmless fun with friends, don’t get drunk (Ephesians 5:18). It says, even if you love someone, don’t express that by having sex unless you’re married (cf 1st Corinthians 6:9). It says, if you’re married, don’t get divorced, even if you want to (Matthew 19:4-6). It says you have to give your money away (cf Matthew 23:23). It says don’t enjoy looking at a beautiful girl (cf Matthew 5:27-30). It says you have to love people who are out to get you (Matthew 5:44-45). It says you can’t exercise your rights and do what you’re entitled to (1st Corinthians 8:8-13). It says, if someone asks for something, give it to them and if someone steals something, don’t try to get it back (Luke 6:30). It says don’t get angry with people (Matthew 5:21-26). It says, don’t complain (Philippians 2:14). And it says a whole lot more than that.[1]

Reading like an atheist

The Bible says to do a lot of things that are hard to do. And it says to not do a lot of things that are hard to avoid doing. It says things that are against our culture and against our traditions. The Bible is oppressive. If that’s all of it you read.

If you read the Bible and mainly come out with a list of do’s and don’ts, then the Bible is oppressive. But if you’ve read that, then there’s no God in your Bible. You’re reading like an atheist. And if you’re living like that, then you’re living like an atheist.

Reading like a theist

But God actually is in the Bible and the Bible is about God. The Bible isn’t mainly about following rules, it’s mainly about coming to God.

In Matthew 23 Jesus talks about the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day. When he talks about them, he’s talking about religious people who have forgotten God in their religion. He talks about people who want to be worshiped, rather than people who want God to be worshiped.

They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others.
~ Matthew 23:4-7 ESV

Their Bible is oppressive, and it doesn’t have God in it[2]. But here’s what Jesus says to anyone who will listen.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
~ Matthew 11:28-30 ESV

Christianity is not about coming to an institution or a set of rules. Christianity is about coming to a person, Jesus; and a family, the Church. It’s about coming to Jesus and finding rest for your weary soul.

So if you’re skeptical of institutions, then come to Jesus. If you’re no good with rules, then come to Jesus. If you’re burdened and tired, then come to Jesus. And find rest for your soul.

Reading like a lover

With Jesus there is rest from the burden of rule following and approval seeking, among other things. But Jesus gave commands too, and we can’t ignore that. He said to do certain things and to not do other things and he wasn’t speaking metaphorically and he wasn’t giving suggestions. But when Jesus gives commands, he’s not aiming at burdening you, he’s aiming at joy.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever
~ John 14:15-16 ESV

The first sentence in John 14:15 isn’t an ultimatum, it’s a description. That’s what love looks like, that’s what love does.

When the one that you love asks you to turn off the TV to talk to them, or to come home early to be with them, or to go out and spend time with them, or to help them fix something, or if they’re crying at 1am because they need food or to be held, or if they want to play with you, or if they need help carrying something, or if they need to be picked up at the airport, or if they need you to stay up late or wake up early. If the one that you love asks for something or needs something, it’s not a burden. It’s love. That’s what love does. Love is not merely satisfying requests to delight the one you love, but love does do that.

But when Jesus commands, he’s commands are different than these. The rules that God makes for us to follow are for our protection and sanctification. They’re for us to know God more (cf Matthew 5:8, Hebrews 12:10). And there’s so much beauty (cf Psalm 27:4) and so much joy (cf Psalm 16:11) in that. God’s rules are for our joy. Furthermore, we are not without help; when Jesus left the earth, the Father sent a Helper for us, who is the Holy Spirit of God.

So when God gives rules, there’s love and joy and beauty involved. And God Himself is here for us forever.

So when you look at the Bible and read it, read it like a lover reads. Read it like someone who’s helped by God. That makes it the easiest, most delightful hard book in the world.

Notes

[1] I should mention here that these statements aren’t particularly precise or elaborative. See the context of the references or feel free to ask me for more information.

[2] The scribes and Pharisees’ Bible was the Christian Old Testament so God was obviously in it. The point here is that they were following rules so that other people could see them and they were telling people what to do to control them; they left God out of the picture even though he was in their book.