3 Ways to Misread Lists

Lists should condense thought, not replace it.

I used to think that I hated listicles. The numbers always seemed contrived, the uniformity felt forced, and the content vapid and unoriginal. In my mind, they were the easy posts where a blogger could write a few sentences on a handful of related ideas and call it a cohesive thought. But the more of them I read (and write), the more I realize that what I really hate is how they're read.

The purpose of many list posts is to break down a complex idea into its component parts. As such, they're not meant to capture the idea as much as introduce it--like the cliff notes to a good book or the Best Of album of a great artist. But what often happens is that folks will read the tip of the iceberg and think that the list is all you need to know to understand. There's no reason to think deeply because all the answers are on the surface and can easily be translated into action and opinion. I know people read lists like this because that's how they read them in the Bible.

Some biblical lists aren't intended to convey a bigger idea, they're just instructional like the directions to build the tabernacle in Exodus (which are given twice almost identically). But some are trying to paint a picture of a forest while the trees are getting all of the attention. We miss out on significant truths when we read a series of things in the Bible as a checklist, not a literary device. And the key to knowing when a series is more than just a list is to study contradictory lists.

Prescriptive, not descriptive

One of the most common misreadings of lists (and Scripture, in general) is to take them as prescriptive. And perhaps the list taken this way most often is the list of spiritual gifts found in 1 Corinthians 12:
  • Wisdom
  • Knowledge
  • Faith
  • Healing
  • Miracles
  • Prophecy
  • Discernment
  • Speaking in tongues
  • Interpretation of tongues
It appears straight-forward enough which is why many developed spiritual gift tests to help Christians figure out which ones they have. The only problem is that this isn't the only list. And adding Romans 12 makes it more than a little complicated:
  • Prophecy
  • Service
  • Teaching
  • Encouragement
  • Giving
  • Leadership
  • Mercy
Only one gift here matches the previous list, and most of them look more like characteristics than gifts. And that's not including Ephesians 4 which treats the gifts more like offices adding apostleship, evangelism, and pastorship. Multiple lists like this with varying degrees of congruence should make it evident that they're not meant to be read as prescriptions. They're meant to be read as examples or descriptions.

The context of every single passage mentioned here is unity leaning heavily on the metaphor of a body. Paul, who wrote all three lists, was addressing something we all experience today: very different people attending the same church. Sometimes our differences grate against each other making it difficult to value what another person has to offer. Especially when we think that what we have is better than what others have. That's why Paul wrote to the Romans not to think of themselves more highly than they ought, and why he emphasized to the Corinthians that all of the gifts came from the same Spirit. Both of those letters also followed the gift lists with an extended treatment on love.

But when we read the spiritual gift lifts prescriptively, we miss this description of unity bound by love in the same Spirit. We focus on personal achievement instead of communal engagement. In short, we focus on ourselves instead of others. Not to mention we rely more on spiritual gifts we might not have than the actual Spirit who endows them.

Exhaustive, not representative 

Another misreading of lists is to take them as completely exhaustive of a given idea. For example, consider the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:
  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • Self-control
Many Christians look to these virtues as the key identifiers of true faith as well as key indicators of growing faith. So again, you'll find plenty of spiritual fruit assessments that you can use like a 20-point inspection on your spiritual life. But the problem here comes when you consider the list of fleshly fruits just a few verses earlier:
  • Immorality
  • Impurity
  • Sensuality
  • Idolatry
  • Witchcraft
  • Hatred
  • Discord
  • Jealousy
  • Rage
  • Selfish ambition
  • Dissensions
  • Division
  • Envy
  • Drunkenness
  • Carousing
If the list of spiritual fruit is complete, then it follows that this list of fleshly fruit contains all there is. So where are the slanderers, swindlers and greedy persons of 1 Corinthians 6? Or the proud, treacherous and conceited of 2 Timothy 3? There are plenty of sinful manifestations not included on this list leaving us only two possible conclusions: either the list is complete and anything absent is not sin, or the list is incomplete and meant to be taken as representative.

Representative lists merely outline an idea. Like how a stick figure can elicit the idea of a person--no one would argue that people are nothing more than six, drawn lines. And in the case of Galatians, we need only say that the lists are representative of two, divergent spiritual conditions.

But when we read the spiritual fruit lists as exhaustive, we end up quantifying our spiritual lives in a way that reduces us into representative caricatures. Ironically, we become the stick figures. We won't get any more godly, but we'll get a lot less human. And we'll be tempted to kick people out of the kingdom because their personality might not fit into our interpretation of the mold.

Definitive, not illustrative

The third misreading of lists is to take them as definitive in their application of an idea. We usually find this done with the armor of God found in Ephesians 6:
  • Belt of truth
  • Breastplate of righteousness
  • Sandals of peace
  • Shield of faith
  • Helmet of salvation
  • Sword of the Spirit
This is one of the most important lists in the whole Bible because it's imperative to our spiritual survival. Unless we wear the entire armor, we're vulnerable to attack. So we develop spiritual armor inventories: truth holds our spiritual lives together like a belt, righteousness protects our moral center like a breastplate, peace directs our steps, faith deflects temptation, salvation reminds us of our standing before God, and the Word of God is our one, offensive weapon.

The problem with this comes from thinking that Paul was inspired to define the Christian's complete coat of arms. In reality, he was simply borrowing imagery from Isaiah:
  • Breastplate of righteousness
  • Helmet of salvation
  • Garments of vengeance
  • Cloak of zeal
The last two are missing from Ephesians for good reason because the context indicates that this particular set of armor belongs to God himself. So we should already be skeptical of how closely each attribute is meant to be tied to each piece of armor. Adding 1 Thessalonians 5 and noting that the breastplate is there composed of faith and love, not righteousness, should make it clear that this list does not define Christian combat. It merely illustrates it.

Everyone agrees that the purpose of this passage is to address the significance that the spiritual realm plays in our daily lives. In that time, the government was persecuting the church which made them an obvious, tangible enemy. But Paul intentionally redirects their focus to the power behind the pawns by illustrating this conflict with the same tools many wished to use against Rome. His point was that Christians needed to understand that the real battle was beyond their conscious reality.

But when we read the spiritual armor list as definitive, we attempt to suit up and fight another world's war with weapons that were given as an illustration. The Christian is not God's soldier--at least not as it relates to spiritual warfare. Rather, the spiritual armor we were given is not unlike that of herded animals. Their strength comes from being unified, not by charging the enemy.

Those that begin to wander are the ones that get picked off by predators. Only those that follow the shepherd (through virtues like truth, righteousness and peace) will be victorious. That's why we're reminded that the battle belongs to God. Because if he had meant for the church to be on the offensive, he would've included an instructional list on how to perform exorcisms.

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*photo credit: Checklist Chalkboard via photopin (license)