Overwhelmed: Is the Bible an Instruction Manual?

overwhelmed4forworshipAnyone besides me watch a little football recently? Watching live tv felt a little new to me – I realized how little of it I do anymore, but waiting an hour or a day to watch a game isn’t the same, so I watched several “live.” Which meant watching commercials. Or, at least, not being able to FF through them.

One of the ads I saw particularly made me chuckle. It was an Allstate ad. And, since I was watching the game streaming through an app, I saw the same ad over and over again.

It was mayhem. You know the guy? It’s actor Ryan O’Reily, but that’s no

mayhem flare

t really important.  Seeing the guy lying in the road, as though he’s a flare was cute – amusingly cute.

Then there was the text overlay. “Demonstration only. 


Do not attempt.”


And I was just about to go lay in the road and light up the top of my head in pinkish flame.

I know this is nothing new: we’ve had this kind of warning for years.

You know, the warning on your hair dryer not to use it in the shower? (Yes, there was a time when I had enough hair to use a hair dryer, so I knew this)

Some of the warnings, like on McDonald’s Coffee, come as a result of litigation and as liability protection. Some are just common sense information.

Some, I suppose, are because I am not about to sit down and read a manual. Before using a hair dryer?  Before drinking coffee? Maybe you are. Maybe you seek the instruction manual. Maybe you read the entire list of instructions before starting.

Do you read the terms and conditions on all the those things we sign for banks and software.

Then there are all those things there isn’t a manual for. Like being a parent? Is there a manual?  Would you really read it?

I didn’t even think about such a thing until my first VERY long night with a baby that couldn’t or wouldn’t sleep. And by that time, I didn’t have time to read the manual, I had to actually care for the baby!

“Excuse me, baby, could you stop for a few minutes so I can read this chapter on cholic?” Thought every new parent when first confronted with a cholicky baby.

But raising a child is far too complex for it to be containable, explainable in a single book.

So there are lots of books and articles and videos. And people who want to be good parents read and watch a variety of them and also talk with their support staff – their own parents, other people at the same stage of parenting as they are, etc. Crowdsourcing didn’t start with internet 2.0, but it sure has broadened the concept!

Because we all want to do our best, and you only have to be a parent for maybe a minute before you realize you really don’t have any idea how to do it all!

We even make up new words about these things. “Parenting” wasn’t a word a generation ago. Sure, we had parents, but no one turned it into a verb until relatively recently.

Even more recently, “adult” has been turned into a verb. People are “adulting” now. Of course, becoming an adult is nothing new; people have been doing it for years.

To be fair, I want to point out that while people have been becoming adults for years, others have resisted becoming adults all their lives, but that’s a different sermon (maybe)

I had this realization about “adulting” this past fall. As I pulled into the NE Tarrant County Courthouse a few months ago, I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing. I wanted to gift a car to my adult child, but I had no idea how to do so. Websites were not particularly clear, concise, or complete, in their descriptions, so I did what I knew I could: go to a courthouse and physically throw myself at the mercy of the automobile registration branch of the county tax assessor/collector.

The clerk who drew my number was really, really helpful.

It turns out, I think, that being an adult, or “adulting” is NOT knowing how to do or where to go for every possible thing or challenge or question or issue you might face. It is, rather, taking one step at a time in the direction you think you probably need to go. And taking each of those steps with an awareness that while the second step might be in another direction.

How, some of you might be wondering, is this an introduction to the book of Job? Because this: we too easily think of the Bible as an owner’s manual, an instruction book, as cliche as this mnemonic is, as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

Several years ago now, I was part of a Divorce Care group that met at Western Heights Baptist Church in Waco. I credit that group, and it’s leader, Nancy Smith, with a lot of good and a lot of help for a time in my life when I needed it.

But I always felt well, conflicted, when we get to the week of the curriculum titled, “What does the Owner’s Manual say? Here is the description of the segment:

This video seminar explores real-world answers from the Bible on issues related to separation, divorce and remarriage, presented in an easily understandable format.

The video really did a good job of “presenting in an easily understandable format.”

But can the same really, honestly be said about the Bible?


There. I’ve said it. The bible is not simple, straightforward, or easy to understand.

But we should have expected this: After all, the first 5 books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, the “books of Moses,” are called the “torah” collectively by the Jewish faith.

“Torah” means “instruction.”

We understand instructions. We crave instructions!  Tell me how to change the oil in my car!  Tell me how to change a diaper on my baby! Teach me how to set up netflix on my phone and my TV! Give me step-by-step instructions on how to gift my car to someone!

Churches understand instructions: every church I’ve ever known had published at least one cookbook, and cookbooks are full of instructions!  Of course, nowadays we all just type in something like “turducken recipe” and search it up.

And we get step by step instructions – sometimes even step-by-step video – for literally almost anything we can think of.

That’s not the kind of instruction we find in the Torah, the book of instruction. Or, really, throughout the Bible.

Maybe this will help. The Torah IS the book of instruction, but not so much the book of instructions. It operates a lot like Jesus does: When Jesus was asked “and who is my neighbor?” in Luke 10, Jesus answers with “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho…” and tells the story we know as the Good Samaritan. A few chapters later, when Jesus stands accused of “welcoming sinners and eating with them,” he tells three stories: about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.

Jesus senses the crowds following him are hungry, so he orders his disciples to feed them. “Where are we going to get food?” they answer. “How much bread do you have?” Jesus replies. And proceeds to feed everyone.

The instruction we receive from the Bible we receive in story form because we live in story form!

I mean, I suppose you might say the 10 commandments, and most of Leviticus are straightforward instructions, but the way we get tangled up over even the 10 commandments makes me think otherwise.

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it as holy” seems pretty straightforward, but have you ever argued with a 7th Day Adventist about it? They’re right, btw; the sabbath is Saturday. And we’re right; early on in Christianity many Christians began to meet for worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, to remember the resurrection.

But that’s just the beginning!  What does it mean to “remember the Sabbath”? Are you doing it right? Is your neighbor?

If remembering the sabbath means not working, do you honor the sabbath by not working – and by not shopping or going out to eat, either, since shopping and going out to eat both require others to work?

The book of Job invites us to the next level, actually, and in doing so, the Bible invites us to set aside some of the overwhelming pressure we exert on ourselves to obey, to follow, to keep up.

Or, as many of us do, throw up our spiritual hands in desperation, declare we can’t actually do this “be a disciple” thing, and pray for forgiveness every time we think to pray.

What kind of God is it who would want the people created in God’s image to grovel all the time, to think they were nothing but horrible, miserable sinners and could never do anything about it no matter what?

I know Paul wrote in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but WAy before that we are introduced to Job, a man who “was honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil.” He even got up early every morning to offer sacrifices in case his children had sinned!

Of course, you and I know he couldn’t possibly have been that good. Because Paul writes in Romans that “all have sinned….” and the Psalmist wrote (in Psalm 53)

God looks down from heaven on humans
   to see if anyone is wise,
   to see if anyone seeks God.
But all have turned away.
   Everyone is corrupt.
   No one does good—
   not even one person!

But in Genesis 6, God “approved of Noah.” and we all know that David was “a man after God’s own heart.”  Speaking of “heart,” Jeremiah 17:9 says the heart is “devious,” or “deceitful,” or even “beyond help.”

Do we believe our hearts are beyond help? No; I would guess we pull out Jeremiah 17:9 when it conveniently helps us understand what is wrong with other people, or even when we, ourselves, fail for the nth time.

But if we really believed our hearts were beyond help, we wouldn’t gather for worship. We would all throw up our hands a walk away.

Reading the rest of Job ch 1, you’d have to say if anyone had reason to throw up his hands and walk away, it would be Job.

EVERYTHING was taken away from him. Everything.

Some of us; many of us have been at a point that we felt like everything had been taken away. As though a cosmic “kick me” sign was hung on our backs and everyone was standing in line for their turn.

I know a guy who lives near here who is working hard to make ends meet. But even a full time job at minimum wage doesn’t really get you there. $15K is what you make working full time at our minimum wage. And you can’t rent a dump of an apartment around here for less than $600 a month – which is more than half that total.

This guy got training to operate a forklift – better pay, right? Pulling himself up by his bootstraps, right? (He actually doesn’t own any boots, btw, or a car, so he walks 3 miles to and from work) Then he gets pneumonia. No family to take care of him. No health insurance.

And no savings to pay the bills that keep coming even when he can’t work. None of the minimum wage jobs I ever had got paid sick time, either.

You may never have been that down and out. Your down and out may not have been financial. Maybe it was familial. Maybe you burned bridges with family and friends, or maybe they’ve burned them with you.

My guess is we’ve all felt like we were the one wearing the cosmic “kick-me.”

So, what do you do with it?

If the Bible were an owner’s manual like we think of owner’s manuals; if the Bible were a list of instructions, we would know how to take the cosmic “kick-me” sign.

We would know that we have done something to deserve it. That, in addition to everyone else in the world, God is standing in line, waiting for a turn to kick.

But the book of Job sets this story on its head! The book of Job is in the Bible precisely because the bible isn’t such a simple set of instructions because living life as people God loves, and people created in God’s image, is never so simple and straightforward.

Of course, for many of us, it is, or seems like it is. Live right, the best you can, and you’ll be ok. Keep your head down, work hard, and you’ll make it.

Until you don’t. Until you catch pneumonia. Until you say that thing you shouldn’t have said. Until someone steps in front of you in the “blessings equal material possessions” line. Until the Satan challenges God that you’re only good because God has blessed you.

We’re going to spend the next 6 weeks wrestling with the Book of Job and the rest of scriptures about how God is with us in the midst of this overwhelming thing called life.

For now, I want you to know this much from the Book of Job. Life is not so simple as if you are good God will take care of you and if you are bad God won’t. Rather, like in Job, God is with us, all the time, through it all. Even when, at the end of the story God says to Job’s 3 friends, “I’m angry at you… because you haven’t spoken about me correctly….” God doesn’t punish them or send them away.

The kind of “instruction” that the Bible is is not always enough instruction to get everything in your life settled. Sometimes even with instructions we are left without all the answers.

The overarching message throughout the Book of Job, and, indeed, the entire Bible, is that God loves us and wants us closer, not farther away. Any way of reading any parts of the Bible that are at odds with this are not being read faithfully to the overall message of the Bible.

So, for now, however overwhelmed you are, take things one step at a time in the direction you think is best from where you are. Read the bible, consult with friends, family, people you trust, and keep taking one step at a time. And adjust your direction accordingly, one step at a time.

We are a church of people trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday. What is one step you need to take to follow Jesus better today than yesterday? Just one step. You might not be certain about it, and, even if you are, it might not work. But will you commit today to taking that one step?

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