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The Bible is a vital tool for learning about Jesus and building a relationship with God. Yet, many people have a difficult relationship with the Bible. A variety of hurdles keep them from experiencing the Bible in a life-giving way. This summer, to help with this problem, I’m teaching a series called, “How to read the Bible when you’ve got really good reasons not to.” Each week we will tackle a different obstacle or issue, and offer practical suggestions for moving forward.
The first hurdle that all of us bring is our own experience and pre-conceptions. Some people have very little experience with the Bible. They find it intimidating. Others were raised on the Bible and know it like the back of their hand. They find themselves a bit jaded. All of us bring some preconceptions with us. What are they? How can we move past them to a fresh perspective on the Bible?
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Moved by the Bible?
I don’t remember the first time I heard about Jesus dying for me. Growing up in church world, it’s just always been a part of my mental landscape. I do, however, remember the first time I experienced the story as something more than just words.
I was seventeen and a freshman at a university large enough to have its own zip code. It was a wild change from my small home community and church. I only knew one other person there. He was also the only Christian I knew at school. He knew a few other guys, so we started a little Bible study group just to keep connected.
One night, one of the guys brought his girlfriend to the group. We were studying Jesus’ crucifixion. With no church background, she was completely unfamiliar with the Bible. She had never heard this story before.
She listened. She was intrigued. She asked questions. As we got to the end of the evening, she started to weep. I was stunned. Everyone I grew up around knew this story by heart. I had never seen someone emotionally moved by Jesus’ sacrifice. Never.
Her experience took me out of myself. It was like seeing Jesus and what He had done for me for the first time.
In that room, she and I were opposites. I had been steeped in the Bible from a young age. My parents read me Bible stories. At school, I memorized Bible verses. Every summer I went to Vacation Bible School.
I’d been in the church building at least once every week my entire life, and along with that came youth groups, Bible studies, Bible quiz teams, and sermons — Oh, the sermons! By that time, I’d probably sat through close to a thousand of them.
When it came to the Bible, I was experienced. But that also meant I was a bit jaded. I’d heard all the stories. I thought I knew the meaning of the stories. I thought that I knew what I was talking about.
She didn’t have any of that. She didn’t know her way around the Bible. She didn’t know the Old Testament from the New. She was inexperienced. That also meant she was able to see the story of Jesus’ crucifixion fresh, and be moved by it.
Obstacle: Our Experience
One of the first and most common obstacles with the Bible is our own level of experience.
Some of us are like that girl. Very little experience of the Bible. This big, leather-bound book intimidates. You don’t know where to start. You tried reading it through but got bogged down in the middle of the Old Testament somewhere. Pastors refer to stories and Bible characters you don’t now, assuming you do. You’ve heard that the Bible is important, but it’s intimidating, and you don’t know how to navigate it.
Others of us are like me. You grew up with the Bible. You’ve heard the stories, the sermons, and the arguments over and over. You feel like you already know where the preacher’s going. Reading the same verses again and again doesn’t motivate you.
In both cases, you are left with little motivation to open this book. Your level of experience is getting in your way. So, how can you get past this — whether you know too much, or you know too little?
Admit the Truth
The starting point regardless of your experience is the same. To move forward, we have to tell the truth.
In my church growing up, it would have been completely off limits to say that the Bible was boring or irrelevant to me. We could recite our memorized verses and recount our theological bullet points, but we could never say that we “didn’t get it,” or that it didn’t seem to make a difference. If this is where you are, the first thing you need to do is just acknowledge it.
The Bible isn’t God.
God won’t be offended. Each of us has a history with the Bible. For some of us that history is good and helpful; for some of us it isn’t. Don’t pretend that the Bible is something that it’s not for you. Don’t pretend that the Bible shapes your thinking on a subject, if you aren’t really spending time regularly in the Bible. Don’t pretend the Bible is more interesting than you really find it to be.
Just acknowledge the truth of where you’re at. Around here—at Bridge City—we don’t use your familiarity with the Bible as a measurement of your spiritual maturity. There’s no connection between who can look up Bible verses the fastest, and who God loves most. OK? Just acknowledge what’s true.
If you are one of those people who isn’t very familiar with the Bible, hear me say this: God doesn’t love you any less. You don’t need to feel insecure. God is still at work in your life.
If you’re on the other side, you know the Bible like the back of your hand, hear me say this: Your deep familiarity with the Bible has no merit on its own. It doesn’t represent your level of spirituality or relationship with God. Mostly, it represents your family and school background. That’s all.
One you admit the truth of where you’re at, you can begin to take steps to move to where you want to be. Where are you? All of us in this room are somewhere on this spectrum. Some of us have very little experience with the Bible. Some of us have piles and piles of experience. We all fall somewhere between.
What we do next to have a more positive and life-giving experience with the Bible will depend on where we fall on this scale. I’m going to give eight practical steps, actual things you can do to change your experience of the Bible.
Four of them are for people with less experience. Four of them are for people who know too much. Not all of them will apply to everybody. Just take a few brief notes, and see which of these might be helpful for you.
Are you a newbie?
First, if you’re inexperienced with the Bible, that’s not a big deal—unless your inexperience keeps you from reading it. God can’t use scripture to shape your mind and heart if you’re not reading scripture regularly. If inexperience is your roadblock, what can you do to move past it?
1. Get intentional.
First, get intentional. Learning the Bible is just like any body of knowledge. The more time you spend with it, the more comfortable and familiar you’ll become. Then you won’t feel as insecure.
Make the choice to set aside regular time, whether daily or weekly, to read the Bible. When you do, don’t read randomly. Don’t play “Bible roulette.” Read with an intentional plan. Read through the Gospels. Then read through the whole New Testament.
If you only take 15 minutes a day, you’ll read through the New Testament in about six weeks. Maybe that’s what you want to do for your summer challenge? Remember – 15 minutes in Circle 1 every day? Read the New Testament this summer.
You don’t need to read for hours at time. You just need to spend time reading regularly. If you do this, just 15 or 20 minutes a day, in about eight months to a year you can have a basic working knowledge of the Bible. That will get you over the hurdle of insecurity. All you need to do is give it regular attention.
2. Get the Big Picture.
Second, get the big picture. If you feel lost reading the Bible, it’s because you don’t know the big, overarching picture. A great way to do this is to start by reading a children’s Bible. I know this sounds crazy if you’re a grown-up, but I’m not kidding.
This is kind of like when you plug in an address into your GPS app on your phone. You know it’s going to give you turn-by-turn directions. But if you’re like me, before you start taking those turns, you want to look at the whole route. You want to see, where are we headed. That way you can know how the individual turns fit into the whole trip.
If you feel lost reading the Bible, I want you to go and read the Jesus Storybook Bible, by Sally Lloyd-Jones. It’s beautifully written. It goes through the Bible in chronological order. It highlights the key moments that everyone should know. You’ll be introduced to some of the central themes, and how Jesus fits in. Most importantly, it will give you a clear mental picture of the overall trajectory of the Bible.
This will give you that mental map that will allow you to make sense of the verses and stories you hear. It would be easy to think that you don’t need to do this. But be honest. There’s no shame in not knowing the Bible well; it’s just a lack of experience.
If you honestly don’t have a clear mental picture of the overall narrative of the Bible, please do this. This summer.
3. Go Deeper.
Third, once you’ve got the overview, go deeper. The Bible isn’t like a novel, or even like an encyclopedia. It’s a little library—we’re going to talk more about this in a future week.
One of the biggest problems people have is they read the Bible like it’s all the same—and it is not. Once you’ve got a sense of the overall story, learn a bit about the different kinds of writing in the Bible.
I’ve got another book recommendations for you. This book dramatically changed my experience of the Bible: It’s called “How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth” by Gordon Fee. It’s easy to read and accessible, and it will give you a clear understanding of the nature of the Bible, how to read the different kinds of writing in the Bible, and an introduction to some of the culture and background that’s so important.
4. Don’t lose your freshness.
Fourth, don’t lose your freshness. The big advantage of not having much experience with the Bible is that you aren’t weighed down with baggage. You can see the story much more clearly. You aren’t constantly assuming you already know what the story means.
Don’t lose this attitude. The longer you can keep your “beginner’s mind,” the more the Bible will stay fresh for you.
One of the gifts of being a beginner is that you know you don’t know. That’s the source of humility and teachability. When you know you don’t know, you’re open to learning. This is exactly the state of heart that God needs to work in You. So don’t see your inexperience as a limitation. See it as a great opportunity to let God work.
Ok, that’s four steps for the newbies. Now, on to the rest of us.
Are you Over Exposed?
If you know the Bible like the back of your hand and find yourself jaded to it, you need to begin seeing it in a new way. Hebrews 4:12 says that the Word of God is alive and active. For some of us it feels more like a collection of dusty, long-dead butterflies pinned to a display board. How can you get back to an experience of the living, active Word?
1. Decide to look through the Bible, rather than At the Bible.
First, you need to look THROUGH the Bible rather than AT the Bible. I grew up in a church community where Bible knowledge was really important. We invested a lot of time and effort to learn. There are some real advantages to my background. But there’s one huge disadvantage. Seeing the Bible as a source of information changes your focus.
Think of it like this: I wear glasses. Meant to help me see. With my glasses, I can do two things. I can focus on my glasses, or I can look through my glasses. I can’t do both at the same time.
When I’m focused on my glasses, I can see them in detail. I see their imperfections, scratches, dirt. I can see how they are put together. But I can’t see you. The only way I can see you is to look through my glasses. When I do this, the frames become fuzzy and indistinct to me, but you become clear.
Some of us have learned to look AT the Bible, focusing on the Bible itself, but the Bible isn’t God. God is separate from the Bible. God is separate from our interpretations of the Bible. The Bible is a collection of writings God has used to shape people over time. God speaks through the words of Scripture, but the Bible is just a tool in God’s hands.
When you come to the Bible, every time you open it, start with a prayer asking God to help you see through the Bible to what matters. God’s goal is not for you to become a Bible knowledge expert. God’s goal is for you to become relationally connected to the vine. Those are different.
If you see the Bible exclusively as a source of doctrine or authority or security, you’re looking AT the Bible. The Bible’s only purpose is to lead you into a relationship with God. When you read, keep that in mind.
2. Get a fresh perspective.
Second, you need to get a fresh perspective. You’ve heard and read the verses countless times. Often your mind can complete the verse as you’re reading it. Along with that mental “auto-complete” come years of hearing sermons explaining the meaning or moral of the text. All of that can make it difficult to hear the text in a fresh way.
The best way I’ve found to get a fresh perspective is to put your familiar version of the Bible away for a while. Read the Bible again in a different version. Pick a version that’s much different from the one you’re used to. Don’t worry for even a moment if your new version is the best translation. That’s not the issue. Your problem is not having an accurate translation; your problem is being so familiar that you can’t even hear the words anymore.
(You can find some thoughts on picking a version of the Bible here.)
When the Message Bible came out it was a revolution for my spiritual journey. The Message is a paraphrase. It’s not the best study Bible. It doesn’t get every Greek word right. But reading the Message forced me to re-hear scripture. Sometimes it broke open meaning that had been obscured for me. Sometimes it sent me back to other versions, to verify if the guy who paraphrased it was really was on track. In every case, this helped me hear the text in a fresh way. Maybe this is how you want to spend your Circle 1 commitment this summer.
3. Experience the Bible with Different Senses.
Third, experience the Bible with different senses. If you’re used to reading the Bible like an encyclopedia of religious knowledge, then your brain has a certain expectation and habit when you come to the Bible. You need to unhook that expectation by experiencing it in a different way.
Watch the Bible as a movie. Movies are about story telling. When we watch a movie, our minds get out of information gathering mode, and we switch over to experience. The Visual Bible is one great tool. This is a video project that has produced three films using only the exact text from the NIV version of the Bible. So far they’ve produced the books of Matthew, John, and Acts. Every single word is scripture, but seeing the words acted out in a historical context helps you hear them differently.
There are also quite a few excellent audio versions of the Bible. (Here’s one.) We often forget that the Bible was originally heard. It was an oral collection before it was written. Paul’s letters were read out loud in church. Pick up an audio version of the Bible, and listen to it. Maybe this is how you want to spend your 15 minutes a day in Circle 1.
When you hear the words, without the distraction of verse numbers and chapter headings, you’ll get a more global perspective. Also, audio versions are excellent for people with reading struggles.
4. Read Differently.
Fourth, you need to read for experience. I was trained to read the Bible looking for points. Which passages support our theology? Which passages prove the other people wrong? Which passages reveal God’s will for us about this behavior or that issue?
This is the way you read an encyclopedia or a policy manual. That is not what the Bible is. If you grew up with this kind of mindset, you’ll need to practice reading the Bible in a different way.
Here’s one suggestion: Read with the goal of identifying with the experience. When you read, pay attention to who is in the passage. Who is speaking? Who are they speaking too? Were there bystanders? Then think about who you relate to most in that scene?
Once you’ve picked a character, read the passage and think about it from their perspective. How would they have heard these words? How would it have felt to them to hear this? How might this experience or teaching have impacted their thinking or actions? Putting yourself in the text in this way can help you get past the tendency to intellectualize scripture, and help you start to listen for God’s voice in it.
OK… I know that’s a lot. But today is just a launching point. In the coming weeks, we’re going to tackle some bigger issues.
Is the Bible human or divine? Why can so many people make it seem to say so many different things? Do all the rules in the Old Testament still apply? But we have to start by getting honest about where we’re at, and then deciding how we are going to move forward.
You’re a follower of Jesus. The first tool we’ve been given for helping us learn how to follow Jesus is scripture. It’s God’s expressed desire to shape our minds and hearts. That isn’t going to happen if our Bible is sitting closed on a shelf somewhere.
If you have a lot of experience with the Bible, thank God for that advantage, but don’t let a good thing get in your way. If you’re new to the Bible and intimidated, don’t let that be an obstacle.
That passage we read in 2nd Timothy at the beginning tells us God’s purpose for Scripture: “that we may be complete, equipped for every good work.” God wants to help us grow and mature. God wants to prepare us to make a good and beautiful difference in the world. This—the Bible—is our starting point.
Make a decision about how you will move forward in spending regular time with these words so that God can “equip you for every good work.”
4 thoughts on “Weekend Wisdom / How to read the Bible when you know too much.”
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I loved the video. I loved the written version. But, I must confess I had a difficult time reading the written version along with the video – the words didn’t quite align. Am i missing something? LOL – both very helpful – thanks. — Art
They are not the same – -that’s why. 🙂 The written version is an edited version of my written manuscript. When I preach, I use the manuscript, but I’m not reading it verbatim. Sometimes I’ll miss things in the manuscript. More often I’ll add things — consider that bonus content!
There is great insight here that seems just right for where I’m at now, esp that analogy about looking AT the glasses or THROUGH the glasses — ingenious! I’ve been looking at the glasses and haven’t experienced Jesus through the writings, although it’s been great for building knowledge of what’s written in the Bible.
Thank you for offering great pointers for those who are more familiar with the Bible to approach the Bible in a fresh way. You writings have blessed me today.
I’m so glad to hear it! Looking *through* the glasses of scripture changes everything.