When Christians read the Bible, what is it they want or hope to gain? There are some peripheral things we obviously want. We want to gain a cursory (at least) knowledge of the history, language, culture, the people therein, and the over-arching story the Bible tells. These are basic desires most of us bring to our Bible reading.
However, I don’t think this gets to what we really desire. I think what most of us genuinely want is to hear from God. We want God to speak to us through the Bible. Whether it is a word personally to us regarding something in our lives known only to us, or whether it is to address issues outside our personal lives, we desire to hear God speak through the Bible, in the here-and-now.
Most of us (God, I hope), know I am not talking about a literal, audible voice, but something deep in our spirits and souls, something that comes to us beyond our own thoughts or psychology. If you are someone who doesn’t believe this can happen, then read no further. Most Christians, however, do believe this is possible and is, I think, what they truly desire when reading the Bible. How is this possible then?
Before addressing that question, there are two misunderstandings many Christians bring to Bible reading, which prevents the very thing they desire. This is especially true if one comes out of the fundamentalist/evangelical world. The first misunderstanding is that the amount of Bible reading one does, memorization, knowing chapter and verse, and actual time spent reading the Bible, will automatically lead to understanding the Bible better and hearing from God. I don’t believe that is true.
The reasons are this: First, the figure we know as the “devil,” probably knows more of the Bible word-for-word, than any of us or any biblical scholar, past or present. Second, as far as the “Bible” of Jesus’s time, the Hebrew Scriptures, the pharisees, scribes, and priests knew those scriptures extremely well. And yet, many of them missed Jesus! With all that, “Bible” knowledge, Jesus still called some of them, “sons of hell.” Jesus’s harshest words were reserved for the “biblical” scholars and teachers of his day, not tax collectors or prostitutes.
Folks: There has to be a lesson in there somewhere.
The second misunderstanding is that understanding the Bible correctly and hearing from God starts with the simple act of reading the Bible. I don’t believe this is true either. As modern Christians we often forget that for the first several centuries of the church, Christians, including those who were priests/pastors and leaders, did not have an individual Bible (as we know it today) to read. The educated and literate leaders (very few), at the most, had a single copy of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and maybe a copy of a letter circulating from some of the apostles. And yet, these people still heard from God.
Those early Christians were steeped in prayer, spiritual disciplines, community, and loving action. They had an oral tradition of the words of Jesus and the memories of the lived lives of the saints and martyrs before them. They had stories from the Hebrew Scriptures passed on orally. What they did not have, was their own personal Bible under their arm they could read each day—or whenever they wanted. The great majority were not even literate. It was an oral culture, not a reading culture. This went on for centuries. And yet, these people still heard from God.
Putting those two misunderstandings aside, how do we read the Bible? How do we hear from God in his word? How do we interpret and understand the Bible? My own answers to those questions are somewhat paradoxical. I would address those questions, first, by saying we don’t start with the Bible. Something has to happen before we even open the Bible. First, we need a community. A caveat: Clearly there are examples of people, whether in a hotel room by themselves, or in a prison cell, who simply opened a Bible and started reading and experienced something spiritually significant. There is no method or approach that covers everyone’s experience or that could possibly include every possible situation where the Spirit of God could not speak.
Putting that caveat aside, before we open our Bibles we need to be catechized or taught. We need to read the Bible in community. And by community, I mean both presently and with the community from ages past. We need to hear the voices of those outside our own time and echo chamber. Why? Because our reading isn’t a matter of our personal, individualistic, take on, “what it means to me,” without any understanding or awareness of what the community of readers have thought it meant (whatever passage we are reading) over time. This isn’t to say we cannot read the Bible by ourselves, whether in private devotion or study. However, whatever comes of such times should always be brought back into our community of Christian learning and balanced against the greater whole.
Finally, here, I believe, is the key (the one thing needed…) to understanding the Bible, interpreting it correctly, and being able to “hear” God speak: Love. I submit that without love, toward God and neighbor, we cannot truly understand the Bible nor hear from God through the written word, no matter our technical mastery of the literature.
We may have a very scholarly and educated grasp of the Bible, and have read the Bible many times over, but without love, I don’t honestly believe those other things (although important) ultimately matter. Here is the connection to my first point: Our community should be forming us through the spiritual disciplines, through the liturgy, prayer, and service to become people who love—especially their enemies.
God is love (early Christians were taught this before the Bible existed as we know it). Love is the interpretive key. With it, all scriptural doors are open to us. God speaks to those who love, not to those who “understand all mysteries and all knowledge…”-1 Cor 13:2
I take nothing away from an educated and scholarly reading of the Bible. There are wonderful hermeneutical tools out there to help us. We should avail ourselves of all those tools. Read well and often. Spend time in conversation with theologians and philosophers. Think. Reflect. Do the hard-intellectual work required on your part.
However, ultimately, without love, all those efforts and knowledge become simple excavating tools, good only for the digging up of dead bodies and ancient ruins. Love is what allows the Bible to become a living, breathing, present-moment-voice to us. Love is also what allows us to correctly interpret and apply the Bible in our lives. Otherwise, it can be used to justify all manner of evil.
My two cents: Read in community—meaning communities both past and present. Read from a life of love toward God and neighbor. This is, I believe, how to read, understand, and interpret the Bible, so that we put ourselves in a place where we can, “hear” from God.
After all, isn’t that what we truly desire?
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