Entries in scripture (12)
From the very first day I started following Jesus, well-meaning Christians gave me this advice: Read your Bible. I tried to act on this advice right away. I read my Bible. I prayed. And within a week I had a shameful secret: I was confused and lost. The Bible was nearly incomprehensible to me. How could such good advice go wrong so quickly? And why was I afraid to tell anyone my dark secret?
Worse still: pastors realize most people in their congregation—Christians new and old—are in the same state. Christians who attend church faithfully know they should read their Bibles, but so few of us do it, and fewer still find life between its pages. Some of us may manage to fill our brains with Bible knowledge, but this much is sure: knowing what to do is not enough. In fact, knowing what to do might be part of the problem. This common bit of advice can be true and deadly at the same time. Deadly, you say? I do, because knowledge without love leads to pride, and pride always leads to death.
Beyond knowing lie greater things: only desire and love can sustain our life with Jesus. Knowing him begins with loving him. Our faith is not a body of knowledge; it’s love that leads us to learn the Belovéd. Learning driven by love conforms us to his image. Jesus understood the human bias toward the knowledge of things, and tried to point the religious experts toward the source of knowing, and the wellspring of life. “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life,” he said. “These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Let me never mistake the book for the reality. And yet: what a gift is the Bible when it leads us to Jesus! “Scripture is the manger in which the Christ lies,” said Martin Luther. “As a mother goes to a cradle to find her baby so the Christian goes to the Bible to find Jesus.”
God himself breathed out this inspired book of scripture, and since his every breath is precious, I will attend. His words are the house of revelation, of beauty, and of wisdom.
If I love God properly I will love his book correctly. If I do not love him his book becomes a weapon in my fleshly hands. The Bible can cut me in the most healing way, but apart from the love of God I can use it to wound others through condemnation or pride. The Bible can speak healing to my soul, but apart from the love of God I can demand that others come to me for the medicine. The Bible can whisper grace and peace, but apart from the love of God I will end up shouting judgment and strife.
And it is the whole of the Bible that shapes our soul. The Old Testament is the Bible Jesus read: it shaped Jesus’ spiritual formation, his understanding of Heaven and earth. The Bible lifts up people over principle: in its pages we meet Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David; Mary and Martha, John and James, Paul and Timothy, Jesus and everyone. The Bible exalts beauty and song: creation, psalms, parables, and celebration. It can confound and frighten; it can mystify and induce awe; its mystery is better than our deepest reasoning. But all these wonders will fall upon the deaf ears when we search only for knowledge.
Let’s not tell babes in Christ, “Read your Bible” as a command. Let’s invite them into the mystery that has both fed our souls and yet still stirs our hunger, year after year. Let’s tell them their Loving Father has prepared a feast, a banquet filled with tastes we have never before experienced, wine we never imagined, and bread come down fresh from Heaven. His love he bids us come and eat, and that is how I want to read his book.
For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. ~ Hebrews 4: 12
Since my earliest days as a follower of Jesus I’ve heard this passage quoted. The same night I came Christ someone put the Bible in my hands and told me God would speak through the book. Yet my experiences with the scripture were decidedly uneven. Sometimes the secrets of the universe were unfolding before me; other times I was clueless as Republican at Burning Man.
Why is this book so special and such a mystery at the same time? What makes the word of God living and active? How can we enter into the life of the word?
It’s not enough to read the scripture with our mind, because we are body, soul, and spirit. Coming to the scripture is more than reading literature. If we want to hear the word of God it requires all of our being. In previous posts I’ve explored the power of imagination in reading the scripture and suggested some avenues to stimulate the imagination. What makes God’s word “living and active?” I’d like to suggest it’s something more than our intellect.
In fact, the intellectual approach comes with a powerful temptation. This is where so many theologians live: defining words, developing systematic theology, and generally being the smartest guys in the class. I have a basic distrust of systematic theology. I don’t like either word, and if you put both of them together, I find myself in full rebellion. Count me in the camp with Thomas a Kempis: “I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it.”
I want to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind and strength—without allowing my intellect to dominate the other three. I joyfully receive the charge of subjectivism because the Creator of the universe is never impressed by our intellect, but he is moved by our heart and our faith, which are both pretty subjective.
Let’s consider for an example a passage from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. ~ Colossians 3: 12-14
I’d like to suggest a few ways to engage the scripture whole-heartedly.
1). There’s a ghost in the book. In fact, the Ghost wrote the book. The first step in scripture reading is to ask for the Holy Spirit’s help. The Apostle John wrote these amazing words to his disciples: As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. (1 John 2: 27) Amazingly, John was dealing with the issue of false teachers in the church, and his solution was remarkably subjective! The same Spirit that hovered over the waters of creation is available to hover over us as we come to God’s word. Does this mean we are infallible interpreters of the word? No. But it does mean we have a loving guide. Together, let’s pray: “Holy Ghost, please breathe on this passage, on my mind, and on my heart.”
2). Feel the love: the Colossian passage above opens with the description, “God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved.” Stop right there! You may not need to go beyond these seven words. If we are dearly loved, shouldn’t we feel it? Is that expectation too mystical? Too subjective? Perhaps we’ve been trained to avoid the experience of his presence: but if the text directs us to the love of God, why wouldn’t he respond lovingly? Together, let’s pray: “Holy Ghost, help me to experience the things I read.”
3). Extend the metaphor: Colossians presents us with the image of someone preparing to move from private to public. No one leaves home naked! How do you get dressed in the morning? What decisions do you make? No one puts on every article of clothing they own, but rather they select the clothing appropriate to the day’s tasks. It really doesn’t take much imagination to extend the metaphor into a practical vision for the day. There, in my prayer closet, I ask in advance: Where do I need to show compassion for the day? What kind of compassion will I need? Compassionate tears or compassionate sweat? How should I dress my heart? How can I prepare to meet the needs of others? Together, let’s pray: “Holy Ghost, please help me to look deeply into the metaphors you present.”
4). Imagine what the text does not say. I know this is dangerous: every Bible scholar tells us not to make “the argument from silence.” Except I am not coming to the scripture to argue: I’m coming to hear the heart of God. Paul provides a representative list of what we need for life together: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience—but not necessarily intelligence, wit, or smarts. By imagining what is not on the list I understand that character trumps intelligence. That God desires mercy, not education. Together, let’s pray: “Holy Ghost, please help me to listen to what you do not say, as well as what you do.”
5). Finally, I’m invited to consider the mysteries of Incarnation. One of my friends told me, “The life in each Bible passage is from the same source: Jesus, who is the Word, who is love, who is life.” After reading this passage we could answer the question “What will I wear?” by remembering, “I am putting on Christ.” What does it mean to put on Christ each day? This passage started me wondering how Christ put on his humanity, and whether we can put on divinity in return. In short, it started me thinking of how I can be like him. Together, let’s pray: “Holy Ghost, please draw me deep into the mystery of the Incarnation.”
Some will think I am against using reason and intellect with the scripture. But I’m truly not. I only want to ensure that what comes into my mind will also travel the 18 inches to my heart. How about you?
Why not receive Students of Jesus in your inbox? Subscribe to our email newsletter and never miss a post.
Let’s embark today in an exercise on reading the scripture. It’s also an exercise in the love of God. It’s a pretty good two-fer.
When we come to the Bible part of our task includes inviting God’s word into our heart as well as our mind. The mind is concerned with understanding. The heart is concerned with our whole being (the mind included). Thomas à Kempis demonstrates this in his simple saying, “I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it.” The mind is satisfied with definitions. The mind too easily confuses knowing with being. The mind forgets that knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
Love is its own way of knowing. Simone Weil instructed us, “Love is not consolation. It is light.” We need this light. I need it. So do you.
But how can we move from knowledge to being? Today, let’s explore one path.
Perhaps you’ve encountered this famous passage?
“Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails . . . “ (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
We have heard this passage at so many weddings and funerals, and in so many sermons, we could be excused if we think we “know” it. If you have five minutes more, and a quiet place, let me invite you into this exercise:
First: did you read the words, or skip over them as soon as you realized it was the famous love passage?
Second: Did you read the words silently in your head, or did you speak them out loud? The path from knowledge to being begins with the engagement of our voice and ears, as well as our eyes: did you know that faith comes by hearing, and not by seeing?
Third: without doing any injustice to the sacred text, let’s personalize it. This time read the passage aloud, substituting “God’s love for me” instead of “love.” Let your ears hear your voice speaking of God’s love for you:
God’s love for me is patient, God’s love for me is kind and God’s love for me is not jealous; God’s love for me does not brag and God’s love for me is not arrogant, God’s love for me does not act unbecomingly; God’s love for me does not seek its own, God’s love for me is not provoked, God’s love for me does not take into account a wrong suffered, God’s love for me does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; God’s love for me bears all things, God’s love for me believes all things, God’s love for me hopes all things, God’s love for me endures all things. God’s love for me never fails.
And fourth, let’s invite our enemies into God’s love. Think of someone you dislike (perhaps you even hate him or her). Do not let your mind hijack this fourth and final step—think of an actual person. Bill, the guy at work who tries to subvert your work and get you fired. Susan, the girl at school who is so mean to you every day. If you are particularly daring, think of that loved one who has hurt you so deeply, betrayed you and wounded you so deeply you feel you might never recover. Speak his or her name. Bring to mind the face of this person.
Have you selected someone? Good. As our fourth step let’s speak God’s love over them. Out loud. Like this:
God’s love for _____ is patient, God’s love for _____ is kind and God’s love for _____ is not jealous; God’s love for _____ does not brag and God’s love for ______ is not arrogant, God’s love for ______ does not act unbecomingly; God’s love for ______ does not seek its own, God’s love for ______ is not provoked, God’s love for ______ does not take into account a wrong suffered, God’s love for ______ does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; God’s love for ______ bears all things, God’s love for ______ believes all things, God’s love for ______ hopes all things, God’s love for ______ endures all things. God’s love for ______ never fails.
Did you do it? I hope so, because the love of God is never complete in us until we realize it is for our enemies as well as ourselves.
My grand hope for you today is that you will begin a journey into the word of God and the love of God, and discover its four dimensions: how wide, and long, and high, and deep is the love of God—for you, and indeed for all he has made.
Why not receive Students of Jesus in your inbox? Subscribe to our email newsletter and never miss a post.
In 1984 a young woman, expecting her first child, couldn’t find information on what a normal pregnancy looked and felt like, so she began to write her own handbook on pregnancy--while she was pregnant. Just hours before delivering her daughter, Emma, she sent off the book proposal for What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Nearly thirty years (and seventeen million books) later it's the standard for what is normal during pregnancy. Publisher’s weekly reports that 97% of women who buy a book on pregnancy buy this book.
But what it things had turned out differently? But what if this book had become a history book instead: as in, “how did pregnant women act thirty years ago?” What if we turned to the book not for information about how to order our lives while expecting, but only to study what people did back then? Four editions, seventeen million copies, thirteen spin-off books, and one romantic comedy movie, all dealing with how people used to treat pregnancy? That would be crazy, right? Expectant parents buy this book because they are entering new territory, and they want to know, well, what to expect. They want to know what is normal, and they want to be normal.
This week’s mediation asks the same question about the New Testament. Do we read this book as history, or are we looking for what to expect in our new life in Christ?
This is the choice facing every student of Jesus: we all must decide whether we will read the New Testament as a history book or a description normative life in Christ. The events reported in the New Testament, the coming of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the life of the newly-formed church happened a long time ago. The record of those events has been preserved for us today--some people might add, “miraculously preserved.” Many Christians are willing to argue (even die) over whether the we can trust the accounts we have received from those early days.
After we settle the question of whether this book is trustworthy, we must also settle the question of the kind of life we will live today. Our answer determines the possibilities of our walk with Jesus. If the book is merely history then the sacrificial love birthed in his followers is not required of us today. If the book only reports the facts of healings, exorcisms, and resurrections accomplished by Jesus and his followers, then we need not measure our life by their example. If the book is rooted in the past, our only responsibility is to believe--and applaud.
But if the New Testament is our “What to Expect . . .” then we have a long way to go.
You make your way down the dusty street. It’s late afternoon and the heat of the day is at its height--it will feel so good to finally sit and rest. Your soul is tired and worn out. You are thirsty as well. The home you enter smells of fresh bread, perspiration and dye--this last smell because Chloe, the woman who lives there, deals in cloth and fabric--she makes robes of purple and sells them in the market. She greets you at the door and leads you in. Some of your family has already arrived, so you take your place quickly. You don’t have to wait long. The leader of the small group carefully unrolls a papyrus sheet and begins to read out loud.
“Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes. To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ . . .”
The sound of the pastor’s voice gently works it’s way through the room and the words find deep passage into your ears. The sound of the words engage your mind, vibrate your spirit. You are hearing the very words of God.
Since the very beginnings of the church most believers have received the scriptures by listening. Letters were difficult and expensive to reproduce and distribute. In the centuries we call the “Dark Ages” God’s word was read out loud every Sunday: Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospels.
The way we sit down down and read a Bible, alone, holding in our hands or staring at a screen is something new. For centuries church services included reading from both the Old and New testaments because books were expensive and consequently rare. Believers trained themselves to attend to the word of God as it was spoken. They captured the words with their minds and digested them with their heart. They did so together, in community. What was true then is still true today: God designed us so that we benefit by hearing the words of life.
Does that seem strange to you? Imagine husbands and wives reading out loud together; friends gathered in a room with but one copy of the Bible--all of them receiving the spoken word. Imagine an assembly of people hungry to hear the voice of God.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with reading the Bible: I recommend it! In our society we are surrounded with audio opportunities: ear buds, audio files, and car radios. Yet how many of us listen to the word of God today? Let me share a recent story of how God spoke to me through the Bible. I heard his voice in my ears.
I recently drove 80 miles to visit a family member. Knowing I had an hour-and-a-half drive ahead of me, I downloaded the audio file for 1 Corinthians--the whole letter--into my iPhone. Me and my ear-buds were ready to go. As I drove, I listened to a steady human voice reading the words I thought I knew so well. Suddenly, I was over whelmed with two sentences I had never heard before! They were so startling I pulled my car to the side of the road, grabbed my iPhone and looked up the passage I had just heard. There--before my eyes--the words I had read dozens (hundreds?) of times before, but there on the roadside to Lexington KY, I heard them for the very first time. They were a revelation!
I know: you are wondering, “which two verses?” It doesn’t matter. They were for me--for my ears. But what about you? What verses are waiting to crash into your head--not through the eye-gate, but through hearing God’s word for the very first time?