When I was a child, I read the Bible like a child. The only thing that distinguished the heroes and heroines in scripture from the superheroes I saw in Marvel or DC Comics was their costumes. And the comic book heroes were way better dressed than how I imagined their biblical counterparts might have been.
Even Joseph’s coat of many colors couldn’t compete with Spiderman’s spandex or Iron Man’s armor. Other than that, though, there wasn’t much difference between, say, Samson and Captain America or Deborah and Wonder Woman.
But when I became a man, I had to put away the innocent way I had imagined the men and women I read about in the Bible. For one thing, it wasn’t technology, alien genetics, irradiated spider bites or accidental exposure to gamma rays that made them super. Their powers were supernaturally given to them by God. For another, they may have been heroes, but they were tarnished heroes. David, notably called a man after God’s own heart, committed adultery, conspiracy and murder. Samson was more hound dog than hero. Gideon was a great judge (Judges 6 – 7). Until he wasn’t (Judges 8).
It’s true that my comic book heroes all had their weaknesses, too. Superman was allergic to Kryptonite. Green Lantern’s batteries could sometimes run low. And Batman had that whole childhood trauma thing to deal with. But their vulnerabilities diminished only their powers, not their character. The weaknesses in my Bible heroes were of a more sinister nature.
Let me try that last sentence again. The weaknesses in my Bible heroes were a part of their sin nature. They were moral flaws. Failures of integrity. Insults to their status as leaders and to the holiness of God.
And yet, scripture commends many of them for their faith.
As our church has been reading through the Bible this year, a sentiment I’ve heard in one form or another has been this: “I can’t believe how awful some of my favorite Bible characters were! I always thought they did it right. Now that I’ve gone back and really read these stories, I don’t know whether to feel disappointed or relieved.”
So does the imperfection of these not-so-super heroes and heroines undermine the message of the Bible?
Not at all.
For one thing, it is refreshing that scripture does not try to spin the truth about who our heroes were. In one chapter, it tells us of their death-defying faithfulness and in the next, it describes their inexplicable cowardice. One moment, Peter is swinging a sword for Jesus like a Christian Conan the Barbarian. An hour later, he is swearing on a Bible that he has no idea who this Jesus character is. David won’t lift a finger to knock off God’s anointed, King Saul, but he will put a hit out on a man whose wife he covets.
There are plenty of voices these days (as there have always been) who claim that the Bible is simply a human product. It was written, they say, by people with an interest in preserving their power, promoting an agenda, or defending their actions. I could believe that if the Bible draped its heroes in capes and glory.
It doesn’t. It presents them in all their complicated, compromised and sometimes corrupted humanness.
One especially tempting alternative is to conclude that, since these characters were so flawed, we are doing better than we thought. If David, given his tainted track record, could be called a man after God’s own heart and repeatedly held up as an example of a king who did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, then anyone who doesn’t violate numbers 6, 7 & 10 of the Ten Commandments must be a shoe-in for a crown of righteousness. There are two problems with that line of reasoning.
First, it makes a false assumption. It assumes that we can secure our own salvation by living well – or at least by living more righteously than others. That’s called self-righteousness: Righteousness that is defined by and achieved by human effort. In Ephesians 2:8 – 9, Paul made it crystal clear that we are not saved by human effort.
Second, it aims at the wrong standard. David is not the standard. Neither is Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Deborah, Gideon, Dorcas, Lois, Eunice, Peter, Priscilla or Paul. Jesus is the standard. Yes, Paul told the Corinthians, “Follow my example.” He was quick to add, however, “. . . as I follow the example of Christ.” We can learn valuable lessons from the flawed characters in scripture. Sometimes, they teach us exactly what to do. Other times, their lives serve as tragic warnings of what happens when faith falters. But nowhere in scripture are they lifted up as the standard for a life fully committed to God. That role is reserved for Jesus alone.
I Need A Hero
Ultimately, what we learn from these tarnished champions is that they are not the heroes or heroines of the story at all. God is. Whether he is bailing Abraham out of his attempts to force the promise on his own terms, or backing a reluctant Moses with amazing miracles, or stubbornly pursuing a runaway prophet like Jonah, God is the one who wears the cape.
So why did God use these morally challenged men and women? Because that’s all he had to work with. But they were enough to accomplish his will. And so are we. As Tim Keller writes in his commentary on Judges, “God can draw a straight line with a crooked pencil.” That’s good news – for them and for us. It does not mean, under any circumstances, that it’s okay to go on sinning that grace may abound. As Paul told the Romans, “God forbid!” But it does mean that God can accomplish his will through us. Even if we are not-so-super, either.