The other day I read a statement that made me stop and take notice. It was regarding the Bible and how we often read the text the way we’ve been “conditioned to think.” In other words, we bring baggage when we open the pages of scripture. Not all the baggage is bad, some of it may indeed be very good. Nevertheless, we come with preconceived ideas: beliefs we’ve lived with for years, church doctrine that has been drummed into our heads, and understandings of the biblical text adopted from a variety of sources – parents, friends, teachers, spouses, etc. They have all contributed to our coming to the text “conditioned to think” certain things about what we read.
I suggest that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous, if for no other reason, because it fails to allow us the joy and excitement of letting the text of scripture continue to speak with its own power and authority. If I know what I believe even before the text is allowed to shape my beliefs then what value is the text? Or, if what I already believe shapes how I approach the text, what value is the text?
There are times when I pull out old Bibles and look at the notes I’ve scribbled in the margin. I’m amazed at how often I say, “Wait, that’s not what the text says.” Perhaps that is what I believed it said twenty years ago or they were notes based on some commentary summary, but that’s not what the text is saying to me today. Does that mean the text has changed? Certainly not. It simply means my skill in reading and deciphering the text has changed. Consequently, my understanding of what the text says has changed. Does that bother me? Not at all. If my belief system from twenty years ago is still my belief system today I can be assured of one thing – I’ve not grown a stitch in those twenty years. How disappointing would that be?
Currently, I’m taking a course at our church called “The Teacher I Want to Be – Learning and Sharing the Word of God.” Now I’ve been teaching Bible Studies off and on for almost forty years. Heck, I even went and finished my seminary degree so I could be a better Bible Study leader. Yet, when this course was offered, I was open to learning something new and I have. I’ve not only learned something new about how to teach the Bible, but I’ve learned something new about ways to read the Bible and harvest the amazing truth within its pages and that’s exciting.
I hope I will never get to a point where I think or believe I understand all there is to understand about the Bible and the message God has communicated to us through its pages. I know it was not written to me but it was certainly written for me, just as it was written for generations prior to mine and generations that will come after mine. I cannot expect the biblical text to speak the language of my culture, but I can attempt to understand the message for the culture in which it was written and once I understand that, I can apply it to my culture. As a result, I may not always like what the Bible has to say but then that’s not my responsibility. My responsibility to is to take the truth of what it says and affix it to my heart in order to make me more like a follower of Christ.
We can all wish truth came in a nice tidy little package that we can take home, unwrap, and say, “Now I know the truth the Bible is teaching.” But it doesn’t work like that. It takes work. Hard work. Just like learning to play golf, woodworking, or planting a garden that yields abundant produce – they all take work. Our skill in reading, dissecting, and unpacking the truth of the Bible takes work.
Did I mention the word “work?”
There are many reasons for making the effort to understand the biblical text. The most important is so that I might own it – that it becomes a part of me. Sure, I can get my understanding of scripture from someone else. I can simply parrot what my preacher says, or my life group leader, or my favorite mainstream author, or my college professor, but I will never own it. If I don’t own it, I’ll he handicapped in my ability to genuinely share it with anyone else. Reason enough!