…coming from a conversation with Mandie this morning (actually, she did most of the talking, I – for once – just listened):
I’m been reminded this morning how necessary it is for the Christian to regularly be shaped by scripture. Hearing Mandie speak, it struck that the battlefield of the mind – what we think – is one of the enemy’s primary attack points in the war of our spiritual development. There are few consistent tendencies that I see in my life when it comes to how I approach scripture:
1) I believe because I feel it. This hardly needs much amplification because this kind of bible study runs rampant today. The obvious tendency here is to find a passage that seems to justify what I’m already thinking. I might grab my nearest concordance, online search tool, whatever and look up a word that resonates with what I’m feeling. If the passage I find seems to correlate, this results in belief.
While this sure seems convenient, the likely conclusion is that I’ll do one of a few things: 1) Ignore the parts of scripture I don’t like or easily agree with, 2) Learn from and teach only the texts that support my current hobby-horse, 3) Expect others to be as passionate as I am about my issue. This is akin to a blind man feeling only the rough, hard, cylindrical leg of an elephant and – because of his limited experience and knowledge – passionately insisting that he’s holding onto an oak tree.
So – here’s another option:
2) I go to Scripture when I need answers. There are times in life when we’re able to correctly identify a pattern (whether a sinful attitude, behavior, etc.) that needs correction (i.e. 2 Tim. 3:16). If we’ve been given the gracious gift of a soft conscience toward God, we’re drawn by impulse to Scripture. The problem that I find (at least with me) is that once I crack open the book, I usually follow the same pattern: 1) I locate the passage that deals with the topic I’m dealing with. Example: “contentment” might draw me to Philippians 4:10-14. 2) I read and reflect on what that passage says about my issue, prayerfully asking God to show me where my attitude or behavior deviates from His desire for me. In this case, let’s say “the missing link” is my feeling that my contentment is really dependent upon my circumstances. Paul points out that he has “learned to be content whatever circumstances” (4:11). The fuller answer is amplified in 4:13 where he states that he can “do all thing through Christ who strengthens me.” There’s my answer. I now supposedly understand truth. 3) I walk away with a clearer picture of biblical contentment a more resolute decision to guard myself against self-strength and situational contentment. There are a billion ways I can apply that to my life – supposing I’m really reading circumspectly. But do I really understand what I’ve just read?
Here’s my concern with this kind of reading: First, I have to know where a given subject is addressed and where to find it. Given our age of increasing biblical illiteracy, that’s a pretty huge assumption. Without the background of steady biblical teaching in my life (thanks to involvement in solid churches), formal theological education (which incidentally served in my case to puff up my mind more than soften my heart), or a variety of church leadership roles, I’m not sure that I would have known where to find a given passage. I’m fortunate that grace has allowed me to have the background I have. Not everyone has that. For those of us brought up in church world, this is a gift. Thank God for it. Although it isn’t the norm.
My second concern though speaks more to the root of the issue: This kind of reading assumes a heart that is: soft (ready to hear), circumspect (ready to humble oneself and learn), and desperate (eager to apply). Honestly, this has been the biggest issue for me – and many people I’ve known – over the years. I like to pull out structure, meaning, or depth – often citing literary allusions, metaphors, linguistic nuances, or theological underpinnings – but the real key to understanding scripture is predicated on a soft, humble, and desperate heart. The consistent danger that I face is that I’ll walk away from scripture with a full head, a hard heart, and empty hands. The result is (at least in my case) the life and a neat and tidy – yet self-sustained sinner. Because (if I’m honest) I’m merely looking for answers – not transformation. That’s like cleaning only a noticeably dirty fingernail when what I really need is a shower. I do this because: 1) The smaller part is often more noticeable, and 2) Showering takes more work. And I’m fundamentally lazy.
So – here’s a third option:
3) I make a habitual practice of ingesting the word – regardless of immediate results, but by faith trusting that our minds are consistently being renewed and transformed (Rom. 12:1-2) The idea here is this: We will be shaped by something although we may not recognize it. I see this principle at work in our children. Joseph (4), Carston (3), and Hannah (7 months), already believe certain things about the world, themselves, God, His church, and unnumbered other concepts. The hard question that I have to ask myself as their father is: “Is what they believe about this or that informed by Scripture or their own thoughts?”
Example: Joseph understands that sometimes other kids can be hurtful. He has seen this through TV, overhearing conversations, and personally experienced it through his classmates and acquaintances at school or church. The larger question is: “What does he believe about why people are hurtful?” How he answers that question will determine his action and heart towards those who hurt him. Let’s say he believes that people are hurtful because they’re having a bad day, because they don’t believe enough in themselves, or because they are victims of a form of unfair oppression. Any of those may be partially true.
If however, he is shaped by the foundational belief that people are hurtful because we’re all sinners and that hurting is one of the results of living in a fallen world, he is much better equipped to love them as God does. He will hear their stories – whatever has led them to act hurtfully. He will be gracious in listening and slow to speak. Because underneath the pain that he sees, he is convinced of God’s perspective on the matter. He will understand how sin factors in the equation. He will understand how sinful choices factor in. He will understand that pain has a remedy. Adam and Eve – Ecclesiastes – the woman at the well – 1st Corinthians 13 – and others must all be very real to him.
The result of regular ingestion of the word is that we find our primary conviction about an issue is also scripture’s – and therefore, God’s. We must be consistently shaped – not occasionally re-directed. When we read like this, our minds need less correction, but instead crave more training (2 Tim.3:16-17). Like a small lamp that enables a wakening sleeper to navigate an otherwise dark room, scripture gives us the ability to function and survive in an unknown and often frightening world.