Reading Between the Lines

“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
― Lewis CarrollThrough the Looking Glass

If you attend church regularly like I do (that’s not a pat on the back just a fact) and find yourself in a Bible Study group, one of the essential requirements for understanding what’s being said around you is the ability to read between the lines. To hear what people mean with the words they chose.

Often times, because most of us don’t enjoy candid conversation, people seldom say what they mean, they hope the inference in their comments will be enough to get the message across. It seldom is.

Here’s an example of something I heard the other day; “Because we believe in the truth of God’s word, if one spends time in it they will understand what the Apostle Paul is saying about that topic.”   What I understood to be the between-the-line-message:   If you believe in the truth of God’s word (plenary verbal inspiration) like I do and read it correctly like I do then you will understand what the Apostle Paul is saying like I do—which of course is correct.

A bit extreme I know, but you get the point. It happens all the time if you listen to what people say. I remember a couple conversations with senior leaders in different churches while in a more relaxed atmosphere then a class. After making an observation or two in the context of our “theological” discussion they emphatically asked ‎”You don’t believe in xyz do you?!” The between the line meaning; you can’t believe that and be a real Christian (Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist or whatever). We just don’t believe in that.

My experience has been, if you ask for clarification on those types of questions you’ll receive a summary of some sermon they heard, a Bible text plucked out of context, or a review of some Bible study lesson they were taught. Seldom will you hear a well thought out answer based on their personal study of the topic. (Read between the lines—(smirk) like I would give.)

All of this necessity for reading between the lines is unfortunate. It prevents growth and understanding both of God’s word and one another.

People often don’t like what I call intense conversation about things. They seldom enjoy being pressed or pressing another for clarification. It’s important for us to learn there’s no harm in disagreeing. It’s been going on for centuries. However, it seems essential for us to know with some level of certainty why we agree or disagree with a certain position.  And I might add, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with receiving new information and perhaps making a new decision about a long held doctrine. I’ve made new decisions on several occasions.

Perhaps the next time you find yourself in a small group or Bible study session, keep your ears open for those read between the line comments. I’ll guarantee they’re there. (You may even offer a few yourself.) When it happens ask yourself, “What exactly is that person really saying?”  You might be surprised. Even more surprised if you ask them, “What exactly are you saying?”


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