Listening To Scripture
An excerpt from Shadowing God.
Reading the Bible should not be reduced to some kind of requirement for good standing with God or the church. On the contrary, our relationship with scripture is more romance than rote – it actually makes a difference in our lives, teaching, correcting, and training us how God wants us to live (see 2 Timothy 3.16-17). The Bible is pure, true, flawless, perfect, effective, precious, and powerful (Psalm 119.2). Nothing is to be taken from or added to it (see Deuteronomy 4.2), except (apparently) some maps.
For everyone who claims to know and love Jesus, the Bible must be the standard against which we measure every impulse, decision, and desire. All efforts to shadow God must begin with a sound understanding of scripture. The Bible presents to us God’s will, purposes, and designs for this world and anything that contradicts the clear teaching of scripture can be immediately identified as spiritually erroneous.
Don’t read the Bible for information, read it for transformation.
That is, don’t pick up the Bible and flip through it looking for an answer to life’s particulars – should I marry this person, should I accept this new position at work, should I go on this adventure, etc. – because in all likelihood one of three bad things will happen:
You will likely not find an answer to your particular problem in that moment and so you will despair of there being any answers, wisdom, or worth to be found in the scripture.
You may find an answer, but it might not be a good answer. For example, you might find a scripture that seems to indicate you should marry this person instead of that person, only to discover later on that you don’t really love them and weren’t really ready for marriage. In that moment, the natural human tendency would be to blame the Bible and blame God instead of acknowledging that there was something misguided about how you came to that answer in the first place.
Finally, you may find an answer and it might be a good one, leading you to believe that any time you need such answers you should just open the scriptures and see what’s there which will – eventually, if not immediately – lead you back into either of the first two problems.
I might remind us all at this point that the Bible is complex, written several thousand years ago by several dozen contributors under the inspiration of the Spirit; and, in order for us to find answers, we must take a more well-reasoned approach to looking for those answers–weighing in all the appropriate texts, reading commentary and studying context, etc.
How, then, should we read the Bible?
My favorite image for reading and studying the Bible comes from Columbia professor Walter Brueggemann, who suggests we treat the Bible as compost. In Brueggemann’s analogy we are asked to remember that the Bible is not the place of new spiritual insights. The Bible is thousands of years old and the canon of
scripture has been “closed” for some time.
Like a compost, the Bible is the repository of old growth, nutrients, and life. The best way for us to read the Bible is to mix it in to daily living by
talking about it,
telling the stories from within the scriptures to our children
or our neighbors,
so that the life of the scriptures fertilizes our everyday lives in an ongoing manner.
There are, incidentally, two kinds of composting: active and passive. Active composting, in which the conditions are more highly controlled, rapidly produces basic fertilizer. To continue our metaphor of the Bible-as-compost, when we memorize scripture (or spend time regularly reading scripture) we quickly gain a working knowledge of the Bible and a good understanding of who God is and what he’s like.
Passive composting lets nature take its course in a more leisurely manner, but often produces richer fertilizer. In spiritual terms, the more we let scripture pop up in our everyday lives, especially in storied ways – like rehearsing episodes of Daniel off the top of our heads, or paraphrasing the parables of Jesus to friends over coffee, discussing what he really meant – the more saturated we become with the grand Story of God and the World.
For my part, I like to tease out complex theological problems with people who aren’t Christians. I think of it as a good way to whet their appetite for the Story of God, and to get fresh perspective on whatever the issue happens to be.
I also like to tell my kids Bible stories, connecting the dots for them between the prophets and Jesus, or between different Old Testament episodes that occur around the same time. It fires their imaginations, and it helps anchor our home in the reality that we are part of this same story. One night, my daughter kept waking up with these horrible nightmares and so, finally, I climbed into bed with her and began to tell her a story. I felt nudged to tell her the story of one famous dreamer in the Bible, Daniel, and about his dreams in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar. I asked her if she had ever heard of Daniel and she had – knowing the story of the lion’s den by heart – and so we prayed and sang and talked about the fact that the same God who controlled Daniel’s dreams was the same God who rescued Daniel from the lion’s den, and is also the same God to whom we now pray and believe that he is Lord over Anna’s dreams and will protect her like he protected Daniel. She laughed, snuggled, and fell fast asleep with no further interruptions from any monsters under the bed, glowing eyes in the woods, or creatures from the deep places of the earth.
That’s what I mean by using the scripture as compost. Let it fertilize life. That, too, is how we shadow God. In that moment with my daughter, I knew, based on my understanding of the scripture, and my longevity as a Christ-follower, that what God wanted in that moment was to reintroduce himself to Anna in such a way so she would be affirmed and grow, that she would have confidence that he is watching over her, and that her daddy is there bathing her with prayers, blessings, thanksgiving, and faith. God wanted to be there for Anna, and so I was there for Anna, reminding her of God – like a shadow. She can’t see Christ, but she can see Christ-in-me.
Don’t treat the Bible like a recipe book, a manual, or a self-help guide. Don’t read it like homework, or a contract, or legislation. Do read the Bible like a Grand Story, like an epic, an adventure, a romance. Do treat it reverently, but play with it, sing it, perform it, and keep bringing it up in all those magical moments throughout each day when a little fertilizer is needed.
Let the scriptures marinate you. Let them penetrate you. Let them weave in and out of your thoughts and conversations. Once the Bible becomes a constant source of nutrition in your life, you will find that shadowing God comes more naturally. You’ll know the kinds of things God wants, just as you’ll know the kinds of things God does. You will be able to recognize godliness when you see it, just as you will be more willing to participate in godliness when you’re needed.