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Spiritual Maturity and Fruitful Bible Reading

bible reading job psalms Aug 25, 2022

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help people grow deeply in understanding the contents of the Bible. "Searching the Scriptures," as John Wesley often called the habit, is a means of grace for us to develop in faith, yet something seems to put a chill on this practice for far too many people. One reason has to do with a faulty assumption about the Bible and Bible reading. We have a long history in the West of assuming that the Bible is perfectly clear and that anyone can read and understand with little difficulty. As we gain familiarity with larger and larger swaths, however, the more we find the Bible putting real pressure on these easy assumptions. Consequently, too many people feel very unsure about how to understand the Bible, which inhibits reading, thereby worsening the insecurity and reinforcing the hesitance even to try reading it.

Take this example of two sets of verses, one well-known one from Psalms 8 and another, from Job 7:

(Ps. 8:3-5, NRSV), "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers...what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor."

(Job 7:17-18) "What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment?"

We have the same basic question: "What are human beings?" with dramatically different directions of thought and emotional tone. In the Psalm, we see the glory of humanity as an exalted steward in God's providential order. It's full of joy and amazement. In Job, we find a person overwhelmed with grief and wishing that God would just leave him alone.

How can both verses communicate God's word to us? A few reflections to work toward an answer..

1. In each verse, we can see God's sovereign gaze upon human beings. In one case it seems to be human beings as a race, the "Adam" of Genesis 1 and 2. In the other, a single subject. Both passages acknowledge God as the One with whom we have to do. 

2. With this shared viewpoint, the responses go in what seem like opposite directions. In Psalm 8, to be the subject of God's attention is wondrous and joyful. In Job, God's attention is an oppressive burden. Righteous Job will not curse God, but he does wish he could die and be left alone. Depending on our circumstances, the same point can feel wildly different. 

3. It takes the combination of sufficient breadth of knowledge of the Scriptures and attention to detail to begin recognizing that these tensions in the Scriptures exist and that, if we want to be wise and mature readers, we must grapple with their implications. Therefore, productive Bible reading, with deepening understanding, takes time and honest thinking, that is, a kind of candor about what we find when we read. 

4. It also takes patience and courage to face these moments of cognitive dissonance. An important step in understanding the Bible is to accept that we live with these tensions. Reading the Bible sometimes does not allow immediate clarity. Serious Bible reading regularly leads, not to a quick-and-clean grasp of a biblical principle that one can apply to one's life, but to struggle and darkness before the light dawns. What if we realize that this multi-faceted texturing of Scripture is a means of divine work in us? 

(I am seriously tempted to climb on my soapbox here. We cannot grow toward maturity by shortcutting our own deep engagement with the Scriptures and rather passively depending on some teacher's pre-digested conclusions. I have committed my life to teaching. I love the privilege of teaching. But the goal of teaching is to help people grow, not to keep them dependent on our expertise. Growth requires taking responsibility for oneself. This is as true of Christian discipleship as it is of any field of endeavor. Teaching should lead to less spoon-feeding and more competence and confidence. Teachers will always have a role, even for the most adept Bible readers, because we all are constantly learning. As a teacher, I am a learner, benefitting from the insights of people more skilled and knowledgeable than I. Teachers should help students become peers.)

5. Fruitful Bible reading requires cultivating a sufficient degree of self-awareness. If we read big portions, we will start to lodge in our memories places in the Bible like these in Job and Psalms, where the wording is the same or very similar, yet the tone and direction sometimes seem to lead to opposing conclusions. (Read Job and Proverbs. In Proverbs, righteous living leads to blessing. In Job, the righteous suffer.) A sensitive reader inevitably will feel that internal struggle and reflect. "What is going on in me? "What do I make of this tension?" We don't like this feeling. It is key to growth.

6. We don't have to stay stuck with no answers. Humility in self-awareness sets us up for good understanding. If we put our shoulder to the wheel and prayerfully stay with reading and pondering, the Spirit will help us to settle into a faithful conclusion. We can still recognize the new understanding as partial, with room to grow. But, it is solid. It produces wisdom. Faith in the Father of lights, in whom there is no shadow of turning, grows.

(Another soapbox: I am no fan of the "It's not the destination, it's the journey" platitude. We can enjoy the journey, but there is a destination. It is a rich, vibrant, joyful, discipleship that bears much fruit for the Kingdom and leads to heaven. I want to be in that number! We can't be in a constant state of questing and never finding - impossible, anyway - and expect to accomplish what God has given us to do.)

7. The whole Bible is God's word. It's why we use the word "canon" (rule, standard) in reference to it. To be sure, it comes to us in human words, with all the texture and history and culture involved in human communication. God speaks to us in the present from these ancient texts. I don't get to pick Psalm 8 over Job 7 (or vice versa), preferring one and ignoring the other. I read both always. Once I decide that some part of scripture is not able to communicate God's word to me, I arrogantly place myself as judge over the text. That move is always dangerous to my soul.

My prayer is that an ever growing number of Jesus' students become adept, confident, fruitful, always growing, Bible readers. May the church be full of such people. And may the world benefit because of it. 



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