Turning the Bible into a Living Word for Us Today

Some thoughts on how we discover the Bible’s contemporary message for today.

 Note to reader: This posting continues the discussion on Bible study that I began in my previous posting How to Read the Bible for Greater Insight. I recommend you read it before you read this posting.

 In my previous posting, I mentioned the woman in my church who found Bible study utterly boring. She speaks for many, I believe.

In that same church, I also had a man who found the process of exegesis (which I described in my previous posting) tedious. He was a retired corporate CEO. In Bible study he always wanted to know what was the bottom line in the text we were studying. How does it apply to us?

Like the woman who finds Bible study boring, he also speaks for many. They have little interest in history or literary analysis. Instead they want to know immediately the text’s contemporary relevance.

To be frank, that is why most believers continue to study the Bible. We believe that in it we find a word from God that can illumine and direct our own lives individually and corporately. So for those who regard the Bible in this way, the process of Bible study is never complete until we have grasped its application.

Step 4: Reflection and Application

In my previous posting, I discussed the first three steps in my approach to Bible study. Now I want to move to Step 4. This step focuses on reflection on the text and its application to our lives today. I will offer some of the ways I do that for myself.

I assume throughout that we have moved through Steps 1-3 before we move to Step 4. I believe that how we hear the text speaking to us today should grow out of how the author intended his original audience to hear and understand the text. If we don’t keep Step 4 grounded in Steps 1-3, then we run the risk of floating off into wishful thinking or self-deception.

So here are some ways I use to discern a text’s possible application.

Chew Our Spiritual Cud

 A cow can spend a day munching its way through pasture grass. That grass gets stored in its first stomach and is later regurgitated for further chewing. This facilitates digestion. It’s called chewing the cud.

I use this metaphor to describing a process of meditating on Scripture. We read a passage and then turn it over and over in our mind. We look at it from different angles. We pay attention to details. We try to be alert to something that emerges and engages us as believers today. When it does, the text begins to speak to us as a living voice rather than as an ancient document.

This process of reflection resembles the hallowed spiritual discipline of lectio divina. We listen intently to the text until it leads us to a message for us personally. I value lectio divina as a tool for personal spiritual exploration.

Lectio divina, however, does not always keep our thoughts rooted in the text’s original meaning. It uses the written word as a launch pad for our own thoughts, thoughts the Holy Spirit may guide to address a personal issue.

Lectio divina is not then the best tool, in my opinion, when I as a pastor plan to use the Scripture passage as the base text for a sermon or for pastoral teaching. Then we are appealing to the Scripture text as a kind of authority. When we use the Scripture in that way, then I feel it is essential that we keep our meditations grounded in the text.

Otherwise we run the risk of making our own speculative thoughts the word of God. And that runs the risk of violating the third commandment that we not use the Lord’s name in vain. We most often violate that command not by profanity, but by claiming divine sanction for our viewpoints.

Search for Broad Principles

 When I read a Bible text, I also try to be alert to any principles that the author applied to his own situation that can broadly provide wisdom for today.

For example in 1 Corinthians 8-10, the apostle Paul discusses a controversy roiling the church in Corinth. Should Christians eat meat sold in the marketplace which had previously been sacrificed in the pagan temples? Some in the church see no problem with the practice; others are deeply scandalized.

Paul sees Christians as being free to eat without any moral violation. But if the practice upsets other believers, then a Christian needs to ask himself if the practice serves to build up the community of faith? If the practice is going to destroy the bonds uniting the community, then a Christian would be wise to refrain.

His advice gets summarized:

All things are lawful,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. (1 Corinthians 10:23-24)

Here Paul articulates a broad principle of wisdom that applies to many challenges Christians face.

Notice Any Parallels

As we read a Biblical text, do we notice parallels between the ancient situation that the biblical author is addressing and our own situation today? This may alert us to how the Biblical text provides guidance and insight for today.

I provided an example of this in my previous posting Inviting in the Devil. There I talk about how the crisis that the Judean king Ahaz faced (as described in Isaiah 7-12) provides a parallel to how some American Christians are approaching the current Presidential campaign in the United States. I suggest that the Isaiah passage offers cautionary wisdom for us today.

Watch for Patterns

It is very important to watch for patterns repeated in the Biblical text, especially in the narratives. These patterns provide insight into how the Biblical writers understand the character of God, God’s purposes, and God’s way of relating to the world and humanity.

I do not believe God’s character and purposes change, but God’s ways are infinitely adaptable as God deals with the twists and turns of the human world and the human heart. Yet we can see God’s ways often falling into a pattern that seems to reveal something of his character.

For example, in the social world of the ancient Israelites and their neighbors, the eldest son is usually privileged. He is generally regarded as his father’s heir, and if he does not receive the total inheritance, he receives a far greater portion.

But God does not seem to conform to these social norms. In narrative after narrative, we find God favoring the second born son, or the last born within a family of brothers. Abel is favored over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Jospeh over all his brothers, and David as the last of Jesse’s sons.

Throughout the Old Testament, God is said to be the special protector of the widow, the orphan, and resident alien, all of whom were disadvantaged in ancient Israelite society.

What do these patterns say about where we should look for God in contemporary society? Certainly we cannot claim the Bible as an unqualified approver of any social status quo.

One of the most significant patterns in the Old Testament is the story of the Exodus. In my reading of the Bible, it is the supreme paradigm for how God works in creating a redeemed people. It is the paradigm by which the gospel writers understand the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The apostle Luke explicitly calls Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection his exodus (the Greek word behind the translation departure in Luke 9:31).

And I find it the Biblical paradigm for the spiritual journey for any serious spiritual seeker. As we mature in our spiritual lives we can feel as if we are reliving the Exodus. So we can find the events of the Exodus story instructive for us as we pursue our own spiritual journey with God.

A Final Word of Caution

This posting is getting long enough, even though I could say much more about how the Biblical text becomes relevant to us today. So let me end with one word of caution.

When we sit down with a Bible to read, we should not expect that in every text we open we will encounter something that will apply to us at that moment. We should never force an application. Not every passage will speak to us every time we read it. It may come vividly alive to us at another time in our life, but just not now.

There is still value, however, in engaging in a steady habit of reading and studying the Bible. As we do that, we are incorporating the Biblical mindset into our own. And that Biblical mindset with its understanding of God, its patterns and principles begins to shape the fundamental assumptions and convictions by which we come to understand God and respond to the challenges of the world in which we live as Christians.

Bible reading and study, therefore, play an important role in that transformation that comes from that renewing of the mind that the apostle Paul talks about in Romans 12:1-2:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

May that be so for all of us as we chew our cud on Scripture.

What’s the Measure of Our Knowledge?

Jesus invites us to raise the ceiling level on our spiritual understanding.

In a block of parables (Mark 4:1-34) that Jesus teaches his disciples, he makes the following comment:

Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away (Mark 4:24-25).

It’s a puzzling statement, especially if you think Jesus is talking economics. In that context, Jesus seems to be giving sanction to blatant financial inequality. But the context in which the two verses appear shows that Jesus is not referring to financial concerns. He is talking about understanding the word of God and the pursuit of wisdom.

In that pursuit, Jesus is saying, I believe, that the amount of effort we put into the pursuit will in part determine what we find in our pursuit. So when we seek to understand the word of God, give full attention to our effort. Otherwise we will miss a lot, maybe miss the most important things.

If we take Jesus’ word seriously, it makes a difference in the way we read the Bible. When we hear the Bible read in church or we open our Bible on our lap to read, we need to give it as much of our attention as we can at that moment.

This does not mean we will understand everything we hear or read. We won’t. The Bible is full of puzzling statements. But if we listen intently, we stand a better chance of absorbing what the text actually says rather than what we think it says.

We may notice, for example, that the text surprises us by its peculiar choice of words. That’s not what we expect the author to say, but he does. That may cause us to ask why, and from pursuing an answer we may stumble onto a new insight.

Tools for Paying Close Attention

The practices of exegesis are one of the ways we try to listen intently to what the text says. Those practices are designed so that we do our best to draw the author’s meaning out of the text rather than reading our own meaning into the text.

These practices are not, however, peculiar to Bible reading. I first learned the basics of exegesis in a college class in poetry writing. We use these same techniques when we try to read any literary text closely.

In a future blog, I will try to describe some of these basic principles as I have come to practice them.

A second way we can let the text sink deeply into our consciousness is a form of Bible reading known as lectio divina (Latin for divine reading). This is a very old technique with roots in ancient Israel and Christian monasticism. It seeks to turn Bible reading into a means of prayer. It is also the roots of the Evangelical practice of the quiet time.

In lectio divina we are not trying to understand the text, but let the words sink into our consciousness and take root. As we read we stop at a word or phrase or sentence that reaches out and grabs our attention. We then turn that word over and over in our mind, as a cow chews its cud, exploring the different facets of that word, trying to understand why it speaks to us.

In the process the word, phrase, sentence stands a chance of becoming rooted in our memory. It is because of this practice, I suspect, that the words of Scripture became so embedded in the character and thought of the Church Fathers and the monks. It was almost as if they breathed Scripture.

The Spiritual Principle Behind Jesus’ Saying

Now the interesting thing in this Marcan saying is that Jesus seems to be saying that the measure of attention we give to listening will determine to a large degree the measure of insight we receive. In-depth listening will be rewarded with in-depth and growing insight; lazy, superficial listening will be rewarded with shallow insight. And the one who neglects listening runs the risk of losing whatever insight he or she has.

Jesus’ saying does not promise that careful, attentive listening will be rewarded with perfect understanding. No one, especially as an individual, is granted that blessing. But careful, attentive listening will open the door of the mind to ever deepening understanding.

Behind this saying of Jesus lies an even deeper spiritual principle. That is, that as we grow in the Spirit, we are granted an opportunity to grow in spiritual wisdom. And the measure of the intent of our search becomes a measure of what we will ultimately find.

This reminds me of another saying of Jesus:

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10)

I suspect that it is an understanding of this principle that lies behind the apostle Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthian Christians in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3. He laments that he would like to speak to them as spiritual people, but he cannot because they are only beginners in the life of the spirit.

He compares them to infants that he must feed with milk, because they are not yet mature enough to eat solid food. And what shows their immaturity? The level of jealousy, strife, and quarreling that is going on in the congregation. This behavior reveals the immature level they have attained so far in their spiritual lives. If Paul were to speak about spiritual things at a deeper level with them, it would be like what Jesus describes as throwing pearls in front of swine (Matthew 7:6).

I think C.S. Lewis says something similar about growth in moral knowledge. In his book Mere Christianity, he writes:

When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right. This is common sense, really. You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either.*

 The Sign of One’s Growth in Spiritual Wisdom

One last thing to say about this principle of the spiritual life. If we are growing in our spiritual understanding, we are not growing in infallibility. We are instead growing in our awareness of our capability of being wrong. We are confident but confidence does not award certitude. Instead we know how easy it is to get things wrong. We therefore welcome doubt as a precious companion in our journey to understand. In the highest levels of spiritual wisdom we become the most humble about what we know just as much as we are about how good we are.

* C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1958. Book III, Chapter 4, “Morality and Psychoanalysis.”