For a long, long, time I read the Bible every night before bed—maybe from age 14 to 22. Growing up, this was the sign that you were a true Christian, and it made sense. If Christianity was having a relationship with Jesus, and Jesus spoke mainly through the Bible, this had to be a priority in your life.
It didn’t matter if most of your Quiet Times came with no great revelation, or if nothing you read really sank in at all. The point was to be saturated in scripture, to have one foot in another world, to let the revelation sneak up on you. And I am still captivated by that vision. This habit, among other things, taught me the power of faithfulness. Showing up to the things you care about, just for the sake of doing it, somehow gets a bad rap among us who are addicted to the new; but there is nothing so powerful as faithfulness. In many ways, you are what you do when you don’t feel like it; or what you care enough to do every day; or what you do without thinking. Faithfulness is all these things.
Still, faithfulness may be an important part of love, but it is not all of love. And a time came when I found that faithfulness to the Bible was getting in the way of loving Jesus. I’d gotten so wrapped up in these words and their many interpretations that this God-Man had become just another voice in the crowd of religious teachers.
I will stop to note that someone is already irritated or worried about me. The Bible could never get in the way of loving Jesus, they will admonish. It is how we know Jesus. But if you have only known a Jesus of words, maybe you are not like the twelve followers, leaning close and living life with the Teacher. Maybe you are like a crowd member, hanging back, leaving some distance because this man is intriguing but, after all, rather dangerous. I hope for you that you have known Jesus in the ways he tells us to find him in John: by obeying him, for instance. By doing just one of those ludicrous commandments he gives, by forgiving an enemy or serving the lowest, we know Jesus in us in a way we’ll rarely find through scripture. He tells us, too, to find him by loving one another: in daily fellowship we discover the face of Christ returning our love as we could never love ourselves on our own. And he tells us to ask for what we need, to abide in him, to wait upon the Spirit—to pray. Nowhere in his farewell speech to his disciples does he tell them to diligently read the Bible.
How many of them do you think were literate, anyway?
Anyway, you should not fear: it is three years later and I once again read the Bible most days. But I do so with a strong appreciation for the fact that, as my friend Katie says, the Bible is not the fourth member of the Trinity. It is a remarkable work of literature where we often meet God. But we do so through the intermediaries of its authors; through the emotion of story and poetry; penetrating layers of language and culture before we can understand very much at all about law, government, gender, war, family, friendship, or work in those days. That is not to say only Biblical scholars can read the Bible well. It is only to say that reading the Bible is a dangerous activity. People who use scripture to contain, tame, and instrumentalize God are doing it wrong.
You see, if you start to read the Bible every day like the preacher tells you to, going through all the books and not just your favorites, you rather quickly end up with a different religion than you had when you were just a Sunday-school goer and sermon-listener. Sure, you can go for a while, carefully fitting each passage into the framework of your pastor’s or your church’s theology. But eventually, you know you’re straining it. You read the violence in Judges, the political intrigue in Samuel, and good heavens, all the thundering words of the prophets, you start to see why you haven’t heard much preaching on these. You really soak up the Gospels and you begin to realize you weren’t really aware of Who you were dealing with when you picked up this book.
A lot of us put it back down at that point; or find some devotional that makes it all feel more comforting; or jam our theological paradigm ever more firmly onto the Bible, refusing to see all the bits squishing out at the edges where this mystery refuses to be systematized.
We do have some other options. The thing is, most of them involve being—and remaining—uncomfortable. But if you’re looking to the Bible to be more than comforting, here are a few.
Let go of the chapter and verse. A “medium is the message” realization that’s been frustrating me lately is that sermons, devotionals, and our actual Bibles all split up every book into 100-500 word chunks. Sure, this is a nice amount of Bible to read out loud or dig into for twenty minutes, but it’s not, like, the Right amount of Bible. Feel free to read the Bible like any other literature. Be carried along by the prophets’ poetry for several chapters at a time. Read the drama of 1 and 2 Samuel over the course of a week or two (and you’ll stand a chance of keeping all the characters straight). Get your Bible study group to spend a session reading an entire epistle out loud, the way the early church would have heard it.
Ask a Jewish person. OK, so I don’t know many Jewish people who are seriously into faith (or maybe I don’t know that I know them; holler at me!).But the Jews have thousands of years more practice reading the Bible than we Christians do, and (unlike Christian fundamentalists) even hyper-Orthodox Jews are likely to approach scripture as a rich, varied, mysterious landscape. This is one I’m still starting out in, but for now I recommend Abraham Heschel and anything you can find about midrash.
Let the questions be. I think sometimes we talk about “bringing our questions to God” but don’t actually…do it. Do you shy away from your questions? Or do you write them down, let them niggle, say them out loud? Look, sometimes the answers will come; often, they won’t. But none of this is about being certain, and it’s definitely not about being right. It is good and humbling and exciting to have unanswered questions. Find contentment there.
Take a break. I wrote about this last week, but someone is still waiting for permission. A lot of the Shoulds in your life are lies. The Bible will be there when you get back. You can walk with God without the Bible. You can walk with God without most things you Should do. God is gracious and God is not at the end of a checklist and God is not a genie trapped in the Bible. Take a walk. Phone a friend. Rediscover painting. Someday scripture will call you back; but for now, loose your white-knuckle grip on it. Let it be free.