Week 8, Day 1: Handle with Care
READ: 2 TIMOTHY 3:16-17
I’ll be honest: I have a complicated relationship with the Bible. As long as I can remember, the Bible has been a part of my life: stories of Abraham’s faith, of Hagar’s courage, of Joseph’s tortuous journey, of Deborah’s bold leadership and Gideon’s uncertain obedience, of Ruth’s faithfulness, of David’s stumbling pursuit of God, of Daniel’s wisdom, and many more; songs and poems by the psalmists and the prophets. And, of course, the Bible is where I first came to know the person of Jesus Christ. The four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — introduce us to the Son of God and the Savior of the World, and the rest of the New Testament unpacks what Christ means for life now.
Many today see the Bible as outdated and irrelevant, with little to say to the situations we find ourselves in or to everyday life. Related to this (and compounding it) is the fact that our culture is becoming increasingly unchurched and biblically illiterate; less and less people know what is actually in the Bible.
And yet, as Peter once said to Jesus, “You have the words of real life, eternal life” (John 6:68, The Message), words we find in the gospels. I believe that. I believe Paul’s words, which we read earlier, that “Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). I believe that a vibrant life of faith and followership of Jesus is one that is immersed in Scripture, the written Word of God that points to the living Word of God, Jesus.
Where it gets complicated is in how the Bible has, because of this divine inspiration, been abused by fallen human beings to defend or even baptize their oppression of others. We can too easily skip from the Bible being divinely inspired (“God-breathed”) to my interpretation of the Bible being divinely inspired without taking stock of how what lenses we’re looking through.
In the Museum of the Bible here in DC, there is an exhibit around what has become known as “the Slave Bible,” which is a version of the Bible used by slaveholders to justify their ownership of other human beings and to discourage protest, dissension, or challenge. Notably, in order to do this, large chunks of Scripture had to be omitted — nearly 90 percent of the Old Testament and half of the New Testament was missing. Dr. Brad Braxton, Director of the Center for the Study of African American Religious Life at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, highlights the important lesson we must learn from the example of the Slave Bible:
The Slave Bible from the nineteenth century speaks a provocative word to the twenty-first century. This religious relic compels us to grapple with a timeless question: In our interpretations of the Bible, is the end result domination or liberation?
In addition to slavery in the United States, the Bible has been abused by Christians throughout history to justify widespread support for Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, the brutal racist apartheid regime in South Africa, and the denigration of women, people of color, and sexual minorities. This alone should give us pause — and, at the very least, lead us to approach Scripture with a great deal of humility.
The nineteenth century evangelist D.L. Moody said, “The Bible was not given for our information, but for our transformation.” The purpose of Scripture is so that we might be transformed into the likeness of Christ, which, as we’ve been learning in the last few weeks, is also the likeness of God, which is also what we were created to be as divine image-bearers. In other words, the Bible was given to us so that we might become more like Jesus: more loving, more just, more gracious, more holy, more inclusive, more kind, more confronting of injustice, more bold in defending the marginalized, more aware of God’s Spirit in every person and in our world. If we aren’t moving in that direction, we might be missing the point of Scripture.
The first step, then, is to be informed, to know what is in the Bible. Not simply to be the most knowledgeable about the Bible but so that we might become fluent in the divine vernacular, the language of God. As we grow in this, we will be able to better communicate the truth and love of God to those around us and better hear the voice of God when he speaks.
But no less important is the need to be transformed. It is no special thing to read a book for information — this is, indeed, how most books are read. In a world full of articles and blogs and news reports and tweets, all of which serve to simply overwhelm us with information, what might it look like to tap into the transformation that is available to us? Romans 12:2 says, “Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is — what is good and pleasing and mature.”
Transformation begins with an attitude shift. Instead of bringing our agenda to the Bible and reading in light of that, we bring ourselves to the text and allow it to speak to us. Instead of skimming the words in order to finish the book quickly, we allow ourselves to stop and reflect on what the words mean for us. This shift will be vital in any transformation that takes place, not least because of what it requires in our own openness and receptivity to God, and in the way we relate to time. Transformational reading cannot be rushed, just as transformation as a whole cannot be rushed. Thomas Merton said, “Any serious reading of the Bible means personal involvement in it, not simply mental agreement with abstract propositions. And involvement is dangerous, because it lays one open to unforeseen conclusions.”
This may seem like a big shift for you, a difficult transition to make, but think about it like this: what kind of relationship would it be where you only listened for the information that the other person was communicating and nothing else? It would probably be impatient, superficial, transactional, and entirely functional. But what takes place in impactful, transformative relationships? Deep conversations; being in each other’s presence, without need for rushing; listening for the tone, the tenor, the teasing in the other person’s words; and then responding accordingly.
The same applies with the Bible. God desires to speak to us and, even as we learned how to communicate through prayer, we must also learn to listen to what he is saying to us through the Bible. We have a treasure in front of us — the words of life, the words of God, the words of Jesus, in the Bible. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to respond accordingly.
REFLECT & RESPOND
Head: How do you tend to read the Bible? And how often do you tend to read the Bible? On this basis, how might you evaluate your ability to relate to and listen to God?
Heart: What are some of the ways you have seen the Bible used to dominate instead of to liberate? How has this affected how you approach the Bible?
Hands: Schedule time this week (yes, put it in your calendar) to make time to read — and listen to — the Bible. Start where you are: if you hardly read at all, start with a five minute session one day; if you read for only a few minutes a day, bump it up to 15-30 minutes. Make sure you have a notepad or journal with you, in order to note down what speaks to you. You could try reflecting on one of the verses or passages that has particularly resonated with you thus far; or you could read through one of the psalms we looked at or one of the shorter New Testament letters (1 John or James or Jude).
Open my eyes to see the wonderful truths in your instructions.
(Psalm 119:18, NLT)
We can too easily skip from the Bible being divinely inspired to my interpretation of the Bible being divinely inspired.