JumpIntoTheWord

Bible Engagement Blog


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How Not To Read The Bible

“Reading the Bible, if we do not do it rightly, can get us into a lot of trouble” Eugene Peterson.

We’ve all been taught how to read (though my daughter insists that she taught herself!) and we all read with similar preconditioned dynamics that are deeply ingrained in the way we read. Here’s how it plays out:

“We come to a text with our own agenda firmly in place, perhaps not always consciously but usually unconsciously. If what we start to read does not fairly quickly begin to adapt itself to our agenda, we usually lay it aside and look for something that does. When what we are reading does adapt itself to our agenda, we then exercise control over it by grasping it with our mind. The rational, cognitive, intellectual dynamics of our being go into full operation to analyze, critique, dissect, reorganize, synthesize, and digest the material we find appropriate to our agenda. Thus our general mode of reading is to perceive the text as an object ‘out there’ over which we have control. We control our approach to the text; we control our interaction with the text; we control the impact of the text upon our lives.” M. Robert Mulholland Jr.

To summarize, the way we read is based on three ingrained assumptions:

  • we are the masters of what we read
  • texts/content are subordinated to our intellect
  • we have the right to choose what to do or not do with what we read

When it comes to Bible reading, these assumptions create tremendous obstacles. Here’s why:

The author of the Bible, God, is all knowing, all wise, and all powerful. “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” Isaiah 55:8-9. That places God in control, not us.

Because God is in control, we must therefore come under the authority of His Word. In other words, when we read the Word we cannot be the masters of what we read. Nor can we stand to one side exercising our cognition and intellect to evaluate the text in the light of our own best interests. Rather, the Bible must read us!

So how does that happen? How do we read the Bible without controlling the text, our interaction with the text, and the impact of the text on our lives? Here are four suggestions:

1. Humble yourself. Because God is omniscient, because His Word is holy, and because He’s God (and we’re not), being humble is the only acceptable way for us to read His Word. Humility is a bankruptcy of spirit (cf. Matthew 5:3). It’s depending solely on God’s righteousness (cf. Luke 18:9-14). It’s receiving something from God like a little child (cf. Luke 18:15-17). And it’s tied-up with fearing the Lord (cf. Psalm 25:9-12; Proverbs 15:33). Now here’s the kicker. We need humility to read the Bible because without it we lack wisdom (cf. Proverbs 11:2). When we don’t have wisdom the Bible is confusing, i.e. we don’t know how to hear or understand God’s Word (cf. Matthew 13:13).

2. Learn to listen. There’s listening, the every-day kind of listening, and there’s the listening that happens (when we are patient and still – cf. Psalm 37:7) in the depths of our being. We need to learn to listen from the inner reaches of who we are – to pay attention not just with our minds, but with our hearts and spirits. For this kind of listening to take place, we must focus all our faculties on God. We must hear/see beyond the words on the page to find and know the God who “speaks” the words. And when we find Him, we must open our ears to receive instruction, comfort, renewal, grace, rebuke, correction, or whatever He wants to share with us.

3. Incline your heart. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” Proverbs 3:5. Biblically speaking, the heart is the center of our emotional, intellectual and moral activity. It’s the inner sanctum where the experiences of joy, sorrow, love, fear and the whole range of emotions occur. The emotional state of the heart impacts our whole being (cf. Proverbs 15:13; 17:22). It’s also the wellspring of our hopes and desires. Most importantly, when we look for God with all our heart, that’s when we find Him (cf. Deuteronomy 4:28-29).

4. Be soul-aware. When we read the Scriptures rationally and critically there’s a tendency (and danger) to manipulate the text to validate the pervasive make-up of our self-referenced being. To counteract this tendency we need to be soul-aware. The road to being soul-aware begins with dying to self and not gratifying “the desires of the sinful nature” Galatians 5:16. It’s also letting our response to God’s Word percolate into the core of our volitional nature. This is done, in part, through asking questions like, “What am I feeling?” or “What is God stirring up in me?” or “How is the Spirit moving my spirit?”

Thomas à Kempis said, “A humble knowledge of ourselves is a surer way to God than is the search for depth of learning.” So let’s not read the Bible the way we’ve been taught to read. We cannot and should not take control of the text as if it’s powerless without our intervention. That’s a sure-fire way to filter out God’s voice! Let’s read it in a new way. Let’s read it without “reading” it. And let’s read it with vulnerability – with a desire to hear and be transformed by it!

Recommended:

Eat this Book, Eugene H. Peterson

Shaped By The Word, M. Robert Mulholland Jr.

© Scripture Union Canada 2016

2 Corinthians 4:5


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Heart Language

For Bible engagement to be effective, people need to connect with the Bible in their heart language. The Apostle Paul alludes to this when he says, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe” Ephesians 1:18-19 (NIV).

So what is heart language? In essence, it’s something more than language. It’s what unites us at the deepest level and includes our integrated value systems, beliefs, experiences, and the reality of who we are. But that’s not all. Heart language is transactional. It’s something that transcends who we are; it’s about God revealing and communicating His love for us, so that we hear and believe. “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified …” Romans 10:10 (NIV).

In the Christian context, heart language is therefore about the human heart and God’s heart coming together. It’s us interacting with the triune God; an intimate relationship between One heart and another.

Which raises a question: What does heart language look like for different people, i.e. for every tribe and tongue and nation? Obviously, very different. In fact, while there may be a similar heart language within a specific culture, it may also be true to say that every individual has a unique heart language. That’s why God joins Himself with groups/communities of faith as well as allying Himself intimately with the thoughts and feelings He’s created in every individual.

But getting back to the opening sentence, and the association between heart language and Bible engagement …

God’s Word changes hearts. It is in and through the transference of God’s Word that our hearts are touched and transformed. When we rely on the power of the Spirit to help us interact with the Word (personally and communally), God speaks into our hearts in ways that nurture us to live only all for Him.

Thus to engage with the Bible we need to enter into the Word – to become part of the grand drama of salvation. This requires humbling and inclining our hearts. We must develop new postures of authenticity and vulnerability. For it is only when we open our hearts fully, that God will fully apply His Word and make us new creations with the capacity to worship Him and do good works.

All told, it is through the deeper work God does in our hearts, as His Word courses through us, that we are eventually redeemed, restored and reconciled to Him.

© Scripture Union Canada 2016

2 Corinthians 4:5


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The Goal

Bible reading isn’t an end in itself!

Really? Shouldn’t we be studying the Bible for all it’s worth? Isn’t the discipline of Bible reading profitable? Well, yes and no! According to the Scriptures we should be aiming for something more than just reading the Bible as a source of knowledge or inspiration.

Consider John 5:39-40: Jesus acknowledged that the Pharisees diligently studied the Scriptures, yet rebuked them for not coming to Him to find life. In other words, there is no value in Bible reading if the purpose of Bible reading, “to have life”, is neglected.

This is why Jesus rebuked the Pharisees: On the surface it looked like they were doing something good. But with all their reading, memorizing and studying the text, they didn’t know God. While they scrupulously obeyed the letter of the law, they didn’t get the spirit of the law. While they emphasized the importance of the Word, they failed to embrace the living Word. Yes, the Pharisees respected and venerated the Scriptures over everything else – but in so doing they were guilty of bibliolatry.

If Bible reading isn’t an end in itself, then what is? Philip Hughes, in his paper, Putting Life Together: Findings From Australian Youth Spirituality Research, suggests the goal is “transformational Bible engagement”. He uses this term to describe the goal as the change that happens to a person as a result of Bible reading. That is, the goal is to read the Bible to “shape each area of our lives” in order to conform to the life of Christ.Bible text on paper hole

When Hughes suggests the goal is to “shape each area of our lives” he’s drawing attention to the fact that true Bible engagement happens as God speaks to us, we listen, and He enables us to live out the Kingdom values Jesus spoke about and modelled.

So read the Bible, but not as an end in itself. Read it as a means to an end. Read it to find life and fullness of life in Christ (cf. John 10:10). Read it to see and know the Person behind the text. And read it to be like-minded, have the same love, to be one in spirit and of one mind with Christ (cf. Philippians 2:1-4).

 © Scripture Union Canada 2014


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Get in the Game

If I read about football, listen to what people say about it, watch it on TV, remember the plays, learn the rules, spend hours on end thinking about the tactics, and share my views on football with others, I’m nothing more than a spectator. But if I’m sprinting downfield to receive a pass, I’m in the game.

Similarly, I can read the Word, hear the Word, study the Word, remember the Word, meditate on the Word, talk about it with others, and do it all as a spectator! Bible intake, in and of itself, is not the objective. I should read, hear, study, remember, meditate, and discuss the Scriptures for one end – to be in the game!

God wants us to be doers of the Word. The ultimate goal of Bible reading and reflection isn’t to learn the history of the Bible, to understand doctrine, to enjoy the stories, get our theology straight, or know everything there is to know. Bible engagement must include application. God gave us His Word to give us life and to change lives! “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” James 1:22 (NIV).

God’s Word has been and always will be a call to action. To profit from it we must apply it. This requires faith. We have to trust God to give us the insight and means to practically relate it to our daily lives. Thankfully the Holy Spirit is not limited. He can and will show us what our practical response should be when we read/hear the Word with expectancy.

Some say it’s hard to apply the Word because it’s difficult to understand. But most of the time understanding isn’t the problem. The majority of the Scriptures are clear and straightforward. The problem’s internal – the sinful nature. As the Apostle Paul says, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” Romans 7:19 (NIV).

When evil is right there with us how do we stop doing the sinful things we don’t want to do and start doing what God wants us to do? By learning to think right. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” Romans 12:2 (NIV).

Get in the game. Right thinking leads to right actions. To think and act right we must do the following:

  • Ask God for help. We can’t engage with the Word in our own strength. We need the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts – to enable us to understand, digest and apply truth.  “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” Matthew 7:7-8 (NIV).
  • Think deeply about the Word (cf. Psalm 119:15). There are no short-cuts. To be in the game we must be in strict training (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25). Meditating on the Word is the key to putting it into practice. When God told Joshua to “meditate on it day and night” it was “so that you may be careful to do everything written in it”. The promise, “then you will be prosperous and successful” would then be fulfilled (cf. Joshua 1:8).

© Scripture Union Canada 2014


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Assimilate the Word

assimilate vb. to learn and understand thoroughly, to absorb, to incorporate, to be changed into another.

Starfleet Captain Jean-Luc Picard was assimilated by the Borg in late 2366. His assimilation allowed the Borg to acquire all of his knowledge and experience. Now I’m not a Star Trek fan like my wife, but I’m big on assimilation. Not what the Borg do. I’m into assimilating God’s Word.

Is God’s Word part of you? Are you consumed with longing for it? Is it embedded in your soul – undividable from who you are? We set our hearts on many things. Have you set your heart on being a man/woman of the Word?

To make God’s Word a part of who you are, you must read and reflect on it. There are no short cuts.  Reading and reflection require discipline – a regular routine of listening to the Scriptures, meditating on them and memorizing them. On a daily basis God’s Word must enter through your eyes or ears before it can be fixed in your mind.

Reading and reflection are the preliminary stages of assimilation. To go deeper you must be shaped and changed in the depths of your being. God’s Word must be absorbed into your DNA. Your mental knowledge of the Scriptures must be actualized. A metamorphosis has to take place. Information must transmute. What you know, you must become.

Becoming . . . God’s Word must lodge inside us and burst out through us! It should whisper in our spirit and trumpet through everything we say and do. It should be in our hearts, but also in our hands. In our minds, but also on our lips. In the privacy of our homes, but also in the public square. And, like the Borg Collective, it should continue multiplying through further assimilation!

© SU Canada 2013


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Reading the Whole Story

How do you read the Bible? A little bit of this, a little bit of that? A verse here a verse there? Some folk slice and dice it – treat it like a piecemeal diet. What about you? Is your Bible reading just the bare necessities – a text with a blessed thought that’s easily digested in two-minutes?

Scripture should be read holistically. The Bible shouldn’t be reduced to a depository of spiritual truisms or selected nuggets we occasionally mine. When we read the Bible we must read texts in their contexts and stories within the framework of the grand Story. Why? Because the meaning of the texts and stories are accurately gleaned only when we read with a clear understanding of the larger context and themes of the books and Bible as a whole.

God speaks to us through His Word. When texts or stories are read in isolation they can be interpreted with meaning they were never meant to convey. God wants us to know truth. When we de-contextualize Scripture or read passages divorced from the overarching narrative we may miss out on what God is really saying. So let’s make sure we don’t short circuit the process of God speaking to us – let’s read the whole Story.

© Scripture Union Canada 2013


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Through Jesus and For Jesus

Why do you read the Bible? People mainly read it for their personal needs. A 2009 Canadian case study on Bible reading revealed that people read “for guidance, knowledge and direction” (28.2%), “for help, reassurance and comfort” (26.4%), “for understanding, answers and perspective on life” (21.5%), or to know/learn about God/Jesus (20.2%).

Check out a church bulletin or website and it’s obvious that many Bible study, life or small group meetings are “me” focused. Studies harness the Scriptures to address felt needs. Marriage groups spotlight husband and wife relationships, youth groups tackle adolescent issues, parenting groups deal with child rearing, recovery groups target substance abuse, and so on. In many small groups the Bible is mainly a manual of divine instruction.

Is it possible to read, reflect on and even revere the Bible yet completely miss the point of what it’s all about? Some people can quote sections of the Bible, sometimes in its original languages, yet they don’t know faith in Jesus Christ. There are ministers who recite Scriptures from a lectionary, something they’ve done for decades, but they don’t know the One who is the Word. And some theologians reduce the Bible to nothing more than a reference book to uphold their theological perspectives.

I used to think we needed a Bible reading revival. My thinking has been amended. Bible reading per se is not what transforms our lives. Jesus transforms lives. What we need is a Jesus revival! That’s not to say that transformation can happen independently from God’s Word – far from it! But it is to say that we can be “Bible-believing” or “Word-centered” yet miss the point if we’re not “Christ-centred”.

While it’s true that God’s Word is our source of guidance, comfort and understanding, let’s make sure we don’t limit it to these ends. Ultimately God’s given us His Word to lead us to Christ. So let’s read the Bible to know Jesus and make Him known!

© Scripture Union Canada 2012


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Information, Formation, Transformation and Revelation

Information is defined as acquiring knowledge through experience or study.

People who read the Bible for information are focused on facts. Awareness, familiarity and developing biblical comprehension and understanding are the primary objectives. Reading for information concentrates on collecting data, learning about Christianity, understanding the stories and teachings, investigating Christ, reading Judeo Christian history, or becoming acquainted with God.

Take away the prefix ‘in’ from information and the stem word is formation. Formation is defined as the act of giving or taking form, constructing or developing, coming or bringing into existence. Reading the Bible for formation opens a person to an interaction and exchange with God. Formation reading is creative in nature; involving growth and shaping that potentially leads to change. When people read the Bible for formation they’re interested in learning right from wrong, seeking direction and purpose for their lives, wanting to be ‘fed’ and grow in faith, looking for help or hope, in search of inspiration, or trying to build a relationship with God.

Adding the prefix ‘trans’ to the stem word formation introduces yet another level of connecting with the Bible – reading for transformation. Transformation is defined as a radical change or alteration – a conversion to another form. In biblical parlance it’s when a person stops conforming to the pattern of the world and is inwardly altered by the renewing of their mind (cf. Romans 12:2). Transformational reading involves a deep rooted modification of the heart so that a person’s intentions, inclinations and spiritual instincts are directed to Christ and His glory.

Revelation is the act or process of disclosing something that was previously hidden or obscure. In the Parable of the Sower the climax of the story comes when people “hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop” (Mark 4:20). When reading the Bible results in people becoming living epistles, i.e., being public life words, then reading for revelation has occurred.  Producing a crop is the ultimate goal. It’s not enough to hear the Word and accept it; the inward must become outward – the concealed must be revealed.

© Copyright Scripture Union Canada, 2012


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Defining Bible Engagement

Building on biblical, theological, historical, and cultural insights, and utilising relational and interactional language, here’s a working definition of Bible engagement: The process whereby people are connected with the Bible such that they have meaningful encounters with Jesus Christ and their lives are progressively transformed in Him.                                                   

To elaborate; Bible engagement is the process (that which occurs in and through the stages and courses that mark the journey of our lives) whereby people are connected with the Bible (reciprocating with the Story) such that they have meaningful encounters (significant meetings that involve coming together with and developing a vital relationship) with Jesus Christ (the One who by grace and through faith saves us from sin and sanctifies us by the Spirit) and their lives are progressively transformed in Him (marked by evident ongoing obedience and life-change that takes place individually and in community).

One word in the above definition of Bible engagement requires illumination – the word ‘transformed’. It refers to the process of change whereby a person becomes progressively more Christ like (cf. Galatians 6:15). That is not to say that transformation is something that people can do to themselves. Transformation does not happen naturally and it does not come easily. The prophet asks, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23). There is no outside force that can change people to become more like Christ. Something internal is required. Transformation begins when a person realizes that “the whole head is sick and the whole heart faint” (Isaiah 1:5) and proceeds when forgiveness for sin is sought and received (the heart is changed, Psalm 13:5), and by faith in Christ being “the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2), a right relationship with Christ is formed (the heart believes and is justified, cf. Romans 10:10) and love for Christ ensues (cf. Mark 12:30). This is not of a person’s own doing but comes from the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:8-9), that is, transformation cannot happen apart from Christ. Thus transformation is being shaped by Christ and living out lives that imitate His life. It is refusing to “be conformed to this world” and is the change that comes “by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

© SU Canada 2011