Run to God, Not the Bible

Run to God, Not the Bible June 2, 2014

For Evangelicals, if you want to know what God has to say on any given topic or in any situation, you turn to the Bible. The Bible is the centerpiece of Protestant spiritual life- it is not only our highest authority, but for many, it is our only sacrament, the only place that Jesus Christ is revealed and communicates his grace to us. The Bible, in short, is the means, method, and message of most Protestant’s faith.

But what happens when the Bible stops working?

I recently experienced a “crisis” moment when I found myself radically disinterested in the Bible. My disinterest wasn’t a result of cynicism or “back-sliding”, but rather the result of finding that the Bible has almost always fallen short of the promises that I have been taught about it. From the earliest days of my Christian faith, I was told to spend time reading the Bible everyday so that I would grow in Christ. I was told that God would speak to me through his word and that whenever I found myself in trying times that I could turn to the words of the Bible and find inspiration, solace, and answers. So for years I made a routine of reading my Bible each day. Every time I found myself in turmoil, I would reach for the Bible. Anytime I had a question about life, I would consult God’s word.

The problem was that I was most often coming back empty handed.

It’s not that God has never spoken to me through the reading of his word. He has. And there have been a few moments in time where I turn to the Scriptures and find the encouragement that I needed. But if I am honest, most of the time, the Bible seems to have absolutely nothing for me. Initially I was convinced that it was something that was wrong with me. I must have just had too much sin in my life or not enough faith- otherwise; God would have spoken through his word. After all, “the word of God cannot return void” (Isaiah 55:11), right? But as I have studied the scriptures and theology as well as lived life as a follower of Christ, I have found that perhaps us Protestants in general and Evangelicals in specific have gotten our doctrines and understandings of Scripture quite wrong. And in so doing, many of us have missed out on hearing God speaking into our lives.

Last fall, I went to a lecture on teaching the Bible to children given by Biblical Scholar Dr. Peter Enns. At one point in his talk, he made the statement: “We need to be training our children to cultivate a relationship with God, not a relationship with the Bible.” That sentence hit me like a ton of bricks. You see, I have been going through a really rough personal situation. My first response in my time of pain was to run to the Bible. With tears in my eyes I opened up the Scriptures and landed on Isaiah 3- a chapter about God judging and destroying his enemies… not exactly the encouragement I was looking for. I turned to the New Testament and skimmed the typical “encouragement” passages like Romans 8 and Philippians 3, but they didn’t seem to be working. Then when I finally found an encouraging section in the Psalms, I realized that the context of this Psalm had really nothing that could be honestly applied to my situation. So there I was, in desperate need of hearing from God, but it seemed like he was just giving me the silent treatment.

But then I heard Dr. Enns’ statement- “cultivate a relationship with God, not with the Bible.” How often do we doubt that we actually believe in a God who is “living and active” (Ephesians 4:12)? In Evangelicalism, I suppose, this doubt in the supernatural, that God is alive and is actively at work and speaking into the world in which we inhabit, that has led us to believe that the primary way that God speaks to us is through the Bible- our ancient authority that documents the very words of God. We have come to believe that God can no longer actively speak into the lives of his people because he has given us the Bible which is his “final word” on everything. The problem with that thinking is that it is not only completely absent from the Bible and Christian Tradition, it is not experientially true. How many of us have run to the scriptures time and time again, only to find that they have nothing to say to us in our circumstances? If we are honest, I think we all would agree.

After thinking about Dr. Enns’ statement, I began to ask God to actually speak to me. To show himself to me throughout the day and begin to heal my soul. I then went out and met with a friend. The conversation that we had began to immediately heal many of my hurts- God was moving through our conversation. I then went to church. The message that evening was on relational conflict- the exact issue I was struggling with at the time. God spoke through the mouth of my Pastor directly in to my situation. On the train ride home after the service, a young man approached me and began to speak to me about God’s liberating power, desire to forgive and heal me. He told me that “God wanted him to tell me these things.” I went home that night and felt full of faith. After all of my seeking of God in the pages of the Scripture and coming up dry, God reaffirmed his love, grace, and care for me in very clear and very direct ways. God has spoken- and he had done it outside of the pages of my Bible.

This isn’t to say that the Bible is at all “irrelevant” or “useless”. To be sure, we are called to study the Scriptures and gather to hear them read and preached. God does speak through the Bible sometimes. But it seems to me that the real way that God communicates most often is through the lips of other people. God is actually living and active. He is actually involved in our world and has a lot to speak into our lives. And the method that God speaks to us is through others. Whether it’s a conversation with a friend, a sermon by your Pastor or a message from a stranger, God actively moves through other people to communicate with us every day. It’s the incarnational inclination of God- he loves to moves in and through people. He did that in Jesus Christ. He promises to do that through the Church, whom he calls his “body”. Throughout the Scriptures we have frequent references to prophesying, preaching, praying, and mediating the power, person, and presence of God to others. In the beautiful words of St. Theresa of Avilla:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

God is still speaking, moving, healing, seeing, touching, and loving. And he is doing through the hands, feet, eyes, ears, and mouths of those who surround you every day. But so often, I think, Evangelicals miss this reality. Instead of seeking God in the “communion of his saints”, we often find ourselves off in our corners reading our Bible’s alone and expecting God to show up and speak. Now once again, I am not suggesting that private personal Bible reading is wrong. Of course not! But it isn’t the primary means through which we encounter Christ. In Evangelicalism we have become deeply addicted to our individualism- everything is about my personal relationship with God and my private devotional time. However, one would be very hard pressed to find such a practice being a regular occurrence in the New Testament or in the early Church’s practice. Because the teaching of Christ is that God is present in, with, and through other people. God’s Spirit speaks through the mouths of human beings around you.

I guess what I am suggesting is that though the Bible is very important, it’s not God. God has spoken through the Prophets in the Scriptures, as the Creed affirms, but God continues to speak to us today. He is living and active. And maybe we all need to cultivate a deeper relationship with the God of the Bible instead of the Bible itself. You may never have a dream or vision. Jesus may never appear to you in the forest. But God is speaking to you everyday through other people. And maybe if we all became aware of that reality- the Christ in us- we would all be radically transformed in the way we respond in crisis and live our day to day life.

God is still speaking. Can you hear him?

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  • I think all of us can relate to the frustration about which you speak. And certainly God is not the Bible.

    And yet, I don’t see that there can be a clean division between knowing God’s word and having a relationship with Him (of course we have relationship and know Him in the context of our Union with Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, etc.). But those things are revealed to us in His word.

    I think the frustration about which you speak arises from misconceptions and false expectations about our relationship to God’s word; certainly not an inability of God’s word. Joel Green and Robert Mulholland, Jr. have written some excellent books on this very topic. I cover them in a lesson series I recently did, “Reading the Bible to Be Transformed” –

  • Fallulah

    Be careful of what the “god” in your head tells you. As an atheist, I think introspection is fruitful and I think the prayer aspect of religion can be beneficial because you are working out your problems in your head. But actually thinking a “being” is communicating to you through your thoughts is extremely dangerous. The human brain is a dangerous thing. Just look at how many cases of parents killing their children (ala Abraham) because “god” told them too.

    • PN8891

      Abraham didn’t kill his kid, nor did God actually want him to do so. God already knew He was going to send an angel to stop Abraham before He started the test in motion. The Bible teaches us that killing is a VERY serious thing: “If anyone shed man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He created man.” In other words, Just. Don’t. Kill.

      This is one case where people can apply something I’m going to comment on in more detail when I respond to this article in general–Bible study goes hand-in-hand with “hearing from God” in the way this article talks about. It is through Bible study that we find out about God, so that when we “hear from God,” we know whether we’re really hearing from Him by whether or not what we’re hearing lines up with Scripture. For example, that woman who recently claimed that she killed her kid because she thought God was giving her an Abrahamic test, but “he just never stopped me,” could’ve known that God didn’t want her to kill her kid just by reading the Bible–that way, she would’ve known the “feeling” she had wasn’t from God, because it didn’t line up with God’s Word!

      • Fallulah

        Hmmm I dunno about that. There are PLENTY of passages in the bible where god commands his people to kill. Let’s look at a couple examples:

        “1 Samuel 15:3 Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”

        NUMBERS 31:17-18 God commanded Moses to kill all of the male Midianite children and “kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.”

        It just seems to me that God breaks and commands people to break his own commandments in these passages.

        I know exactly what you are going to tell me. I am not interpreting it correctly. But, if I interpret it incorrectly, what is to stop Christians who actually believe that god speaks to them from interpreting these passages in this fashion?

        Food for thought.

  • As someone who became a Christian in my early 20’s and reading the Bible for a long time since then – I understand some of what you are saying. I also know that serving with many young people for may years it is very easy to create your own version of “God” or Jesus in your mind based on your own emotions and thinking of what is like or isn’t like. I have talked to people who say they pray all the time to God, but then you ask them about God and it isn’t matched with what God has revealed about Himself in the Bible. Or saying what Jesus would do or not do, which isn’t based on studying the Bible and Jesus’ words but their personal feelings or opinions about who they think Jesus is and what he’s say or like. Often it is matching their own opinions of course. So the older I get, the more I find myself clinging to the Bible actually and don’t want to start a day without starting my mind and heart in it. I don’t want to create a God or Jesus that may not match the God or jesus revealed in Scripture, which I can subtly and easily do. And when topics or questions come up, I turn to the Bible and prayer of course. I know my heart is prone to create a God that would be like me and speak to me in leading to me in what I personally would prefer in life or opinions that I have. So I have found I need to be all the more in Scripture so I am not subtly creating my own God or Jesus based on my own emotions or feelings. Anyway, thought I’d throw that in this discussion!

  • Robin

    Yes, sometimes we are stuck in reading Scripture and analyzing Greek words and such that we miss the life that it teaches us to live, the relationship with God that it leads us to. As great as the Bible is it is only a pointer, the Gospel is something lived and not just studied. If we depend on our study and reading too much then we confine God to what we can understand and that’s not a good thing.

  • Rick

    “we often find ourselves off in our corners reading our Bible’s alone and expecting God to show up and speak.”
    But what is that expectation based on? Are you looking for a clear experience? Not “coming back void” does not mean we will “hear” something. Sometimes it is a silent, yet transforming time as we run to God. God uses it to shape us, but that does not mean we will always have some “aha” moment.

  • todd

    While I can agree that sometimes God doesn’t specifically speak into a given situation, I think it is problematic to advocate for not recognizing the primacy of the Bible. The culture is busy beating up the Bible and it’s innerancy is certianly under attack, but let’s not forget that as soon as we lose the Bible as God’s revealed word concerning the redemption of his poeple, we are left with nothing. The Bible is what reveals God to the world. Wihtout it, we are left with a general knowledge of a higher power which could in fact be any god of any making. The Holy Spirit reveals the truth of God, and He does so through God’s word. We know of the Holy Spirit because scripture reveals not only who He is but why He was sent.

    • Robin

      The revealed Word is Jesus, God fully disclosed Himself in His Son. His teachings are our guide through life. The scriptures testify about Him.

      • todd

        Right, and we know that from God’s word. Nothing inside of us defines who God is. That is only accomplished through his word, which he had recorded by the inspiration of the spirit. To rely on our internal God compass instead of standing on his holy word, negates it and allows us to interpret things how we want to. It erodes the authority of scripture and gives us authority that we are not entitled to and shouldn’t be. While we are indwelt, we are also still in our flesh. The Bible may not be God, but God gives us the Bible, so we may know him better. Once we start minimizing the importance of God’s word, then we soon fabricate a god of our own making. And our ability to witness to the truth of scripture becomes irrelevant since our argument then becomes much the same as others who testify to the “burning in their busom.”

        • Robin

          There are also damages when we inflate the Scripture so much that we miss God, I believe the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were examples of this. They were steeped in the Torah and completely missed God himself in front of them. In fact they used the Torah to their own ends, to condemn him. God wants you whole soul not just your mind.

  • Frank2918

    If the bible is lacking for you, the problem is not the bible.

  • SurplusMama

    Yikes! This explains the seemingly “devout” people I know who, when questioned on their beliefs and doctrines and how they *don’t* line up with God’s revealed will, are often surprised to learn that their beliefs aren’t Biblical.

    I definitely don’t believe our relationship with God should be restricted to Bible reading – but if you don’t know God’s will as revealed through His Word, those voices in your head can take you way off track – as they’re not all from God.

    If you’re coming up dry reading God’s Word, it’s not that the Word is lacking.

  • Brian P.

    There’s a well-known koan that goes like this: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. The meaning of this koan may be related to your post in at least a few layers.

  • PN8891

    I’ve heard it said that the Bible doesn’t tell us to “read the Bible,” but rather to “study the Scriptures.” The things we can gain from reading the Bible are wisdom and knowledge. Sometimes, we can gain such things as encouragement and other emotional support through other people, just as this article talks about (in fact, the Bible commands us not to forsake the gathering together of the saints).

    To me, it seems that studying the Bible goes hand-in-hand with hearing from God in different ways, because when you think you hear something from God, you can tell whether it’s really from God by whether it agrees with what God has said in His Word.

    In that way, the Bible could be compared to a polarizing filter–the light has to be lined up with it to go through!

  • God is supposed to be the source of our life. He is the one who has given us a new birth and has therefore truly become our father. And as an earthly father doesn’t use only a written message to communicate to us, but also calls us, texts us, and speaks to us face-to-face so our heavenly father speaks to us in many, many ways. Seek him and he will answer you, perhaps through a verse, or a message spoken by others or by the words of a friend.
    However, since the Spirit is one, the message, whether spoken directly to your heart, or through others and other things around you, will always agree with the intent of his Word.