On the hunt for a specific answer to a particular dilemma? Sometimes it can feel as though the Bible elicits from you more frustration than faith. Maybe you are continually vexed by a troublesome in-law. You look up “in-laws” in the small concordance or index in the back of your study Bible. Likely you’ll get a few “hits,” and perhaps some of the verses noted shed some diffuse light on your situation. (If nothing else, you’ll get a chuckle out of reading about some of the more interesting in-laws of antiquity, like Moses’ father-in-law: quick with the advice in Exodus 18.)
But sometimes even when your topic-of-need appears in the Bible, none of the cited verses hit you square between the eyes. They are not far off, perhaps, but they are not spot on, either. So you set down your Bible with a sigh, having hoped that in clear tones it would simply tell you what to do the next time your mother-in-law comments on the relative cleanliness of your living room. (Why can’t she just keep quiet?)
If there is a downside to the mass production of personal Bibles in the last century, it may be the prevalent notion that the Bible can readily answer all of our immediate life questions when we need it to. (Remember those black “8 ball” toys from a generation ago? Ask it a question, shake it up, and see what answer floats to the top of its murky interior. How handy!) Yet a hasty scramble through the Bible to look up quick wisdom about “money” or “fear” or “other religions” often plunks you down in the middle of some strange narrative that calls for more setup and study than you have time.
In 15 years of teaching adult Sunday School and Bible studies, I have noticed that the most helpful sections of many a person’s Bible seem to be the study notes and sidebar mini-commentaries found in numerous recent versions. It’s an understandable trend: At least these notes, written in this century, go a ways toward making the Bible more relevant to our workaday lives. When I graduated from high school, the Ladies Circle of my church gave us each a book of “Precious Bible Promises”—individual verses plucked from their context and arranged by relevant life-topic (peace, promiscuity, prayer, etc.). It was a lovely gesture, but such books send a not-so-subtle message: By its crude self—unaided, unedited—the Bible will frustrate your quick search for solutions.
To be clear, there are solid answers to our problems in the Bible. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,” Jesus counsels us in Matthew 6 … “what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” He’s right, of course, and his words surely place our current problems, whatever they are, in better perspective. (I remember a certain night when, as a much younger man, I was wrestling with a rather poor decision in my past. I hastily flipped open a nearby Bible and randomly discovered for the first time Psalm 32, with its summons to confession and its assurance of God’s lasting pardon. It was exactly what I needed.) Aided by the Holy Spirit, the Bible will do its best to be there for us when we need it. (Psalm 124)
But what about those moments when it is not, when it feels like your questions and its answers are not synced up, not on the same page? What about when it feels like you and the Bible are in two different conversations? (Psalm 10) More precisely, how can we stretch our ability to listen more closely to scripture, to balance our ways of asking with its way of answering? How can we be present to it, even as we hope it will be present to us?
Consider your grandmother.
If you are (or were) lucky enough to have a wise and thoughtful grandparent, from time to time you would likely go to her for some practical advice. “Grandma, I have to decide if I want to play basketball or be in the band. Why can’t I do both? What should I do?” If she loves you and wishes you well, she’ll probably make some helpful suggestions—this, despite that fact that she knows little about basketballs or bassoons. Indeed, for a child, a good grandparent is a sturdy, fixed point in a fast-paced, haggard world. One can always be counted on in a pinch. So over the years, you come and go from her house—in from one event, off to another, with brief chatting in between. And all the while she’s there, ready to hear all about the trials and tribulations of being a modern kid. Graciously, she’s even willing to sprinkle some of her sagacity over the life and times of your story. (Proverbs 2:1-15)
Now on the one hand, you could look upon her as merely someone who will always give advice and counsel when you need it. You could see her as existing mostly for you, and not expect much more from your relationship. It’s likely she won’t complain about this, because at least this way she gets to see you once and awhile.
But on the other hand, what would happen if one afternoon you lingered in her living room long enough to stoke her story, to hear her tale? “Grandma, tell me what it was like when you were a kid.” Or maybe in response to some odd piece of counsel she gives you, you ask, “Grandma, how can do you feel that way? That’s not quite the answer I need. I don’t understand how you could see it that way.”
Inevitably, a narrative begins.
“It was 1933, and my parents were broke. Back then, you see, people had to struggle to make ends meet. Why, we didn’t even own a car until …” What follows is more of her story than you’ve ever heard before. And the more she tells, the more a new world begins to take shape in your imagination. As she tells you about war, the price of meat, and walking to school both ways, it is as though some portal opens to a strange time, to some distant country, some other world. “When the sirens went off at night, we all had to go to the basement and wait for them to stop.”
If nothing else, before long, there is a twinge in your tummy that signals a new truth: Maybe you don’t know quite as much as you thought you knew. Maybe your life-questions, though still pressing, are not quite as urgent as they seemed an hour ago.
Eventually, she brings the whole story back to your situation. “So you see, that’s why I think the way I do, why I feel the way I feel. But of course you have to make this decision for yourself.” Learning to listen to the Bible is like this: The more we appreciate its own story, the more our questions are reshaped to hear its answers.
So, yes, go to the Bible with your urgent questions and vexations. In moments of confusion and doubt, pray for illumination and trust that the Holy Spirit will meet you somewhere in the pages of your gold-leafed Bible from Barnes & Noble. It will be so.
But your Teaching Elder invites you to stretch your ability to listen to Scripture on its own terms. One can search for plausible answers in its pages, yes; but we can also search for the proper questions. Aided by the Holy Spirit and furthered by our patience, over time the Bible will teach us how to listen as it speaks to us in its own terms. Truth be told, the Bible is less interested in making itself relevant to our world than we care to admit. It wants to name another world, another reality. It wants to tell its own story on its own terms, in its own time. It startles us by asking us in our search, “How relevant are you to me?” (Mark 10:17-22)
Here’s how it seems to work: You run to the Bible for help with this or that quandary. “Absolutely. Glad to help out,” say its pages. “Nice to see you again. Pull up a chair. Let’s see … where to begin? Ah yes, here we are:
At this point, the restless, impetuous pilgrim interrupts the conversation. “What? This has nothing to do with my situation! Forget it.” A pregnant pause commences, after which I can imagine the Bible looking back across the table in knowing confusion. “But you wanted to know how best to solve your problem. This is how. It begins here.” It begins in some strange narrative. (Mark 1:1, Luke 1:1-4, John 1:1-18)
If you’ve stuck with me this long, my contention is this: In the way that taking the time to hear your grandmother’s story on its own terms brings her person and advice to life, similarly, learning to listen to the Bible on its own terms brings its Creator and counsel to life in us. It will assist in solving our personal problems, but it will not let those problems dictate how its truth is to be told.
After all, at the end of all our quests for counsel is a call to conversion. For as much as we need solutions, we also need a savior: the truth of an eternal God enfleshed in our not-so-eternal midst. When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he’s not just giving preachers fodder for sermons on other religions. It is his way of saying that the solutions we seek, the counsel we crave, the advice for which we grope in the pages of scripture is more alive than we could ever imagine. The answer is animated, alive … arisen! It is so alive, in fact, that it will even transform our questions, even turn our quest for advice on its head. It turns out that we belong to a living law, an enfleshed answer, a risen reason for our living. The patient pilgrim traveling these pages comes to see that our lives and our problems will never fully find their proper perspective until we are immersed in his life and his promises. “Take up your cross and follow me,” says Jesus, as if to announce that only in following down his path to Sunday will our Friday challenges make any sense.
The Methodist bishop William Willimon makes this claim more baldly than I:
The Bible intends to be more for us than just a book of rules, a repository of helpful principles for better living. Attempts to use the Bible like that are bound to be frustrated by the nature of the Bible’s way with the truth. Scripture is an attempt to construct a new world, to stoke, fund and fuel our imaginations. The Bible is an ongoing debate about what is real and who is in charge and where we’re all headed. So the person who emerged from church one Sunday muttering, “That’s the trouble with you preachers. You just never speak to anything that relates to my world,” makes a good point. To which the Bible replies, “How on earth did you get the idea that I want to speak to your world? I want to rock, remake, deconstruct and rework your world!”
So when someone says that Scripture is impractical and unrealistic, tell them that what they probably mean is that Scripture is difficult and demanding. When we read Scripture, allowing it to have its authoritative way with us, submitting to its peculiar way of naming the world, we are being changed, transformed, sanctified in the hearing. God is breathing an enlivening Holy Spirit upon us, Jesus is speaking directly to us, and a new world is being created by the Word. It’s Genesis 1 all over again.
Thus when we read Scripture, we’re not simply to ask, “Does this make sense to me?” or “How can I use this to make my life less miserable?” but rather we are to ask, “How would I have to be changed in order to make this Scripture work?” Every text is a potential invitation to conversion, transformation, and growth in grace.
“How would I have to be changed in order to make this Scripture work?” That’s learning to listen to the Bible on its own terns. By analogy, it’s like asking, “How do I need to grow up in order to be more like my grandmother?” You came to her mostly to hit her up for some advice; you leave her with a fresh vision of another world, and a summons to see your own reality in a new light. So it is with scripture. It will answer some of our questions, to be sure. But the Bible does its best work in reorienting our questions and transforming our lives. (Luke 24:5)
This is why our sustained reading and studying of scripture are so vital to our growth as God’s people. One has to spend enough time with its way of speaking for it to do its long, slow thing—for it to have its way with our vexing questions and our cherished assumptions. Sunday morning classes, Bible study groups, sermons in worship, and our own personal Scripture engagement during week are all at their best when they stretch our scripture-listening capacities. These appointments with the Bible are God-breathed to the extent that they slow us down long enough to linger a while in the living room of our Lord. “Tell me more,” you might say to your grandmother as she spins her vivid tales. And to the Bible we collectively say show us more. “Teach us to see what you see, teach us to hear what you hear.” With the turn of every page, our prayer becomes that of those seekers in John 12:21 – “We wish to see Jesus.”