This column is about the Old Testament, that two-thirds of the Bible with all the embarrassing bits—genocide, incest, rape, an angry and vengeful God, and lots of names we can’t pronounce from places we’ve never seen. It’s also that part of the Bible that saved my faith, and in a visceral way, it also saved my life. Its poetry gave me the words to process years of emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of my stepfather, a deacon in a local church. It gave me the stories I needed to finally process the death of my grandmother, who largely raised me after my alcoholic and serial-adultering father left my mom. It helped me know that God really does love me, even after—and in the midst of—years of my own drug and alcohol abuse. It’s helped me to forgive, to express anger and rage, and to see Jesus not as the authoritarian waiting to crush me but as the savior ready to embrace me.
All of that is why I decided to study the Old Testament, first getting a master’s degree in biblical languages and then a PhD in Old Testament, and it’s why I set out to be an Old Testament professor. The ancient stories shaped my story, and along the way I became convinced that there were a lot of people like me out there who also might need the help that the Old Testament sinners offer. And now here I am, far from that drug-addled kid and alcoholic twenty-something, but I’m still just trying to make sense of this upside-down world—still convinced that the Old Testament helps us set things right, or at least helps us see it right.
The Old Testament saved my faith, and in a visceral way, it also saved my life.
The first time I remember using drugs I was around eleven or twelve years old. My grandmother had just died, and my sister was trying to help me see my way through the grief that had strapped me into a recliner in front of re-runs of Saved by the Bell for the past several months. She held the joint out to me, said it would help me feel better. It did. The next few decades, even long after I met Jesus, I used drugs and alcohol to numb any sort of pain I felt. I didn’t have the courage—or language, really—to process any emotion, and depressants proved much more effective anyway. I went sometimes years without abusing substances, and for long stretches I needed them just to get through the day.
I’ve written at Fathom before about how the Psalms gave me the language I needed to process the emotional abuse I suffered growing up, and that’ll come up again. But the Psalms have also given me hope for living what the Apostle Peter called a “sober-minded” life, because, like Jeff Lacine said on Western Seminary’s Food Trucks in Babylon, these ancient songwriters walked through the darkest valleys without the benefit of hydrocodone. If they did it, then maybe I can too. What’s more, they recorded their darkest, most vulnerable thoughts for all the world to see.
Jesus, centuries later, modeled the same sort of vulnerability by quoting the first line of Psalm 22 as he hung on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The psalm continues, “Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” That’s the sort of language I cling to now when I want to tip back a bottle a vodka to dull my senses.
I’m clean now, have been for about thirteen years, but given the right set of circumstances, I don’t doubt that I’d swallow a handful of pills. That part is important, because as you learn about how the Old Testament has shaped my story, you have to know that I’m still being shaped—even now. So, I’d like to invite you on a journey with me through the pages of what Matthew Schlimm calls “this strange and sacred Scripture,” and let’s together see if we can figure out what Paul meant when he said that the Old Testament was written for us, “so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures.”