TMI – How Bible Reading can be Bad for your Spiritual Health

Reading about mountains is different than climbing them

Some of the most important truths in the Bible are found in obscure passages that never made the highlight reel of miracles, crosses, virgin births, and empty tombs.  Tucked away, for example, between Jesus healing of a sick man by a fountain, and his feeding multiple thousands with a few loaves of bread, I found one the most powerful, and least talked about statements Jesus ever made.  His miracles created quite a stir among people who had a stake in the religious status quo, and as a result, things are heating up between Jesus and these religious elites.  It’s in that context that Jesus says these few little words to them:

“You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have a eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to me so that you may have life.”

In this information age, is it possible to confuse knowing facts and verses and stories and doctrines about Jesus, for actually knowing and following Jesus in our daily lives?  Perhaps.

We give children awards for memorizing Bible verses, and run the risk of teaching them that the point of the Christian life is to learn the text.

We teach people to memorize creeds, which are declarative statements about Jesus, implying that mental assent to these creeds is tantamount to belief.

We preach the Bible, study the Bible, defend the Bible, learn the Bible in colleges and seminaries, and tell people to read their Bibles every day.  We even go so far, sometimes, as to imply that this is the fundamental ingredient for living well.

This is understandable in a culture where intellect is highly valued.  People who read blogs like this one are usually well educated, and it’s no surprise that such people cherish education, study, information gathering.  It may come as a surprise, though, to hear Jesus tell us that winning Bible Jeopardy isn’t the point of the Christian life – not even remotely.  Our collection of facts may actually work against us over time, as we begin to take pride in what we know, and equate making Bible knowledge deposits in our fact bank our criteria for maturity.

When this kind of knowledge becomes our paradigm and preoccupation, we’re cooked.  O, we might perpetuate an air of wisdom and maturity for a season, perhaps even years.  Someday though, the game will be up and we’ll be exposed, hopefully to ourselves, but at the very least to those who watch us and see so very clearly the vast disconnect between our religion and Jesus.

They’ll wonder how a religion who’s founder said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” became obsessed with gun ownership, or worse, slave ownership.  They’ll wonder how a religion whose found said “freely you have received, freely give” would have African natives saying to missionaries, “you told us to close our eyes and pray, and when we opened them you took our land”; or how it’s possible for an entire movement to obsess so much about virginity and have so many of its main leaders indicted for sexual abuse and scandals.

How can we change all this? 

We need to rethink the purpose of the Bible.  As a slight mountaineer, I have dozens of mountaineering books, maps, and guidebooks.  I can talk you through some of the most challenging routes on the North face of the Eiger, and tell you about the challenges of climbing the Hillary Step near the summit of Mt. Everest.  Just don’t ask me to go there, because if I did, you’d know, as I fell to my death, that I’d read way more about climbing than I’d actually climbed.  I have friends, on the other hand, who don’t have “mountaineering libraries”.  They have real stories, from actual time spent in the mountains.  They’ve learned the theory by getting out of their chairs and living.

They’re the mountaineering version of the Bible’s soldiers, prostitutes, tax-collectors, and other outliers who, in spite of their appalling failure to know their Bibles, sought Jesus and then followed him with such passion that they began to look like him, as they loved deeply, gave their stuff away, and demonstrated great faith.  All the while, the folks who knew their Bibles best were busy marginalizing these people and resisting Jesus.  It’s as if the people with all the gear and guide books not only refused to get of their cars – they actually tried to hinder everyone else from climbing as well.  The map readers and defenders, became enemies of real climbing.

We need to get our heads out of our books and start living.  Jesus criteria for a well lived life has little do with how much we read about it him.  It has everything do with how well we made his character visible in our daily living.  Did we serve other people?  Live generously?  Cross social divides?  Embody joy and hope in our interactions with others?  Use our spiritual gifts?  Lay down our lives?

“No, but we read about those things.   Blogged.  Studied.  Debated.  Defended.  We know maps!”

Here’s Jesus response:  “I don’t care.  Put your books and maps down and follow me.  Throw a party.  Bless a neighbor.  Give some money away – lots of it.  Plant 30 trees in Jesus name.  Visit someone on stuck on the margins.  For God’s sake, DO IT!”   These are the ones who have read their maps and responded by getting out and taking the trip and in the end, it’s the journey, not knowing the map, that constitutes maturity.

How can we help people value the Bible properly so that it encourages a living faith, rather than simply mental stimulation? 


About Richard Dahlstrom

As Pastor of Bethany Community Church in Seattle, Richard teaches with vision of "making the invisible God visible" by calling people to acts of service and blessing. It's working, as a wilderness ministry, homeless shelter, and community meals that serve those living on the margins are all pieces of Bethany's life. "We're being the presence of Christ" he says, "and inviting everyone to join the adventure." Many have, making Bethany one of the fastest growing churches in America in 2009 according to Outreach Magazine.

  • Y

    Well worded! To follow up on your mountaineering example, earthly terrain changes over time, as do physical manifestations of The Sacred Spirit. “Christians” must stop looking backward from Easter and start looking forward toward Pentecost to be truly “Catholic” (as in universal) in Christianity.

  • Peter Jackson

    Thanks for the reminder Richard. A few years ago I made a significant shift while reading my Bible on a daily basis….
    To Know and hear from Jesus…. instead of gathering info and knowing what is between the covers….
    The next step is having my heart changed and DOing what I hear…. From Him!
    Radical and certainly not intellectual…. but life changing.

  • stefan

    I like your thoughts.

    You posed a question… “How can we help people value the bible properly so that it encourages a living faith, rather than simply mental stimulation?” I think one way is to refer to the biblical writings with more accurate language. Often, I hear a reader say, from the pulpit, “the word of the lord” following a reading. I don’t think this is the best language to use and may even lead to a harmful view of the biblical writings. I think Jesus was concerned that we would trust the bible instead of God himself and I think this language may contribute to this problem. I’d like to suggest a different approach. A different way of talking.

    Consider the different genres of writing in the bible. Some are eyewitness testimonies(john), some are research projects(luke), some some contain “thus says the lord”(parts of isaiah), some are laws given by men(Jesus says this about Moses’ teaching on divorce mat 19:8), some are erotic love poetry(song of songs), some are practical pastoral writings to a specific people with no intention of being considered God’s word(paul framed his writing this way in 1 cor 7:12). All of these point to a far more varied compilation than “the word of the lord” title can summarize.

    I think that what I am saying may make provoke some uneasiness in some churches. While this may be for a number of reasons there is one that I am most concerned about. I suspect this often comes from a formulaic view of relationship with God where the bible is the key to saving faith/trust. Jesus, as you said, is very against this understanding. Jesus says that the biblical writings testify about him but they do not hold salvation. He repeatedly is recorded to have said “your faith has saved you”. Salvation comes more from continued trust in God’s character than head knowledge. It comes from being reconciled in relationship. But, how do we have that kind of relationship?

    When Jesus talks about what it looks like to have this relationship with him, it often is discussed in pictures and metaphors: Welcoming a child is like welcoming him, giving a thirsty person water is like giving it to him, saying “lord lord” is not enough when Jesus says “I never knew you”. This leaves the old formula of “confess and believe” a bit wanting. Fortunately, it also makes the relationship accessible for anyone, regardless of access to or understanding of biblical writings. This gives me a lot of peace when I can trust that EVERYONE has access to saving relationship.

    In conclusion, it’s good to contextualize a reading but perhaps saying “the word of the lord” is a misleading contextualization. Instead why not say something like “the testimony of John about god’s happy greeting through Jesus”.

    If anything should be referenced as the word of the lord, it is Jesus. At least, that’s what John seems to think. He says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”(John 1:14)

    While the bible will never save us, it might just help us trust the one who can.

  • Graham

    You answer your own question in that very same question at the close of your article!

  • Rodney OSBORNE

    I was saddened to see someone write such a soft and dangerous article. You are in great danger of promoting a negative attitude towards Bible doctrine, and all around us is the result of that message – mental illness. If you are wondering why there are so many mentally ill (possibly in your church) or in your community – it is this kind of anti-biblical approach that will do it. We should bury ourselves in the Word of God so that we can live it. If we don’t know our Bibles, we don’t know our God and thus we will have no hope of living like Him!

    • Richard Dahlstrom

      Thanks for the comment. My purpose in writing the article wasn’t to get people to read their Bibles less; rather, to encourage people to see that reading the Bible isn’t the summit of the faith experience, and that when we view it as such we confused knowledge about the text, Christ, and doctrines, for the reality of knowing and displaying the resurrected Christ. it’s the latter, not the former, that’s the goal: “Christ formed in you” “Christ revealed in you” as Paul says. I continue to believe that it’s a tragedy when people are proud of their knowledge about the text while continuing to display arrogance and pride. In such moments that text can become an adversary rather than an ally. Just ask the Pharisees! (see Acts 13:27)

    • Graham

      That’s bit harsh. Charity brother, charity!

      • Graham

        That’s bit harsh. Charity brother, charity! – is in response to Rodney. ( I thought it would appear as an adjunct to his comment ).

  • jakki

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I know folks as you described and am often so frustrated with the lack of love, compassion and care they show for those who are not Christians or live life styles they don’t agree with BUT ca quote scripture right and left, teach Sunday School, be an elder, etc…..basically be “religious” but not loving. You have written what I have thought grieved and cried over for many years. Thank you, thank you again.

  • Jana Layman

    A man who knows the way is better than a map that shows the way. But a man who goes the way is even better than a man who knows the way. <3

  • dori anne abbott

    I have passionately pursued the Christ for 40 years. I find myself in my 5th decade with a PhD in pastoral ministry and nowhere to serve. What you say in this article resonates with what I know to be true. Is there a place for Bible-believing Jesus-following women to serve in the pastoral capacity? Everywhere I turn Christian men want to help me “find my place.” I believe my place is washing the feet of Jesus with my unbound hair. What say you?