Sometimes my relationship with reading the Bible feels a bit like my relationship with running: I like running. It’s good for me. It makes me feel more energized and focused, strong and confident, more like the best version of myself.
But I also sometimes dislike running and so can be rather sporadic in how regularly I run. Running takes energy. If I haven’t been running regularly, getting back into running can be exhausting. And the longer it’s been since my last run, the more out of shape I get, and the harder it is to begin again.
I could easily beat myself up about my love/hate relationship with running; but I’m learning that, for me, a better approach is one of gratitude—for the gift that running is in my life, and in knowing that it’s always there for me when I’m ready to return to it.
And that reminds me of my relationship with Scripture, because the regularity of my engagement with Scripture has also always come in similar ebbs and flows. I love the Bible, and know that my life has been enriched immeasurably by the ways I’ve encountered God in its pages. Still, it’s a complex book—set of books, in reality—and it can be intimidating and exhausting to try to understand and engage with in a fresh and meaningful way. So, like running, sometimes my reading Bible sits untouched for periods of time before I return to it.
I could beat myself up about that, too, but I think one of the best ways to kill your love for anything is to turn it into a “should” or a “duty.” Instead, I’m learning to accept the Bible for the transformative gift that it is, and to be at peace with the ebbs and flows of how God works in me through its pages—knowing that it’s always there for me when I need it most.
Over the years, I’ve also learned, from the wisdom and experience of others, a few insights and strategies to help me appreciate the Bible and embrace its gifts without fear.
First, be aware of your expectations when you begin to read.
We’ve all been given messages about the Bible that have shaped our expectations for what we will experience when we read it. Maybe you’re used to thinking about the Bible as a sort of divine “answer book” to any question you might have. Or maybe you’ve been told it’s a “manual” or “blueprint” for human life. Or maybe you open the Bible expecting a life-changing encounter with the Spirit in every verse you read.
The truth is, while there’s some truth in each of those expectations, the Bible is also much more complex than any of those expectations allow for. The Bible is not organized as a series of clear-cut answers to human questions; it is organized as a collection of diverse genres written over a long period of time, each text emerging in a specific context. And the Bible as a whole is less interested in answering our list of particular questions than it is of the questions God is asking of us—how we’ll respond to the Spirit’s leading and calling to live with justice and mercy.
Instead of trying to force the Bible to act in the way you would like it to, try your best to be aware of how your expectations might distort how you hear and respond to what you read. When you surrender your expectations, you’ll be amazed by how much God will surprise you!
Don’t be afraid of your questions and reactions to what you read.
One of the beautiful things about Scripture is the fearless way it embraces honest engagement with the hard questions about God and life. In the book of Proverbs, we find general principles for how living wisely can lead to human flourishing—but Scripture holds up with equal importance in the books of Ecclesiastes and Job the reality that tremendous suffering and injustice can still devastate those who live with integrity and wisdom. So if you find yourself asking hard questions about what you read, remember that God values your honest engagement in the realities of your life. In fact, nearly any hard question you have you’ll find echoed in Scripture’s own pages.
Read in conversation with others—past and present.
A favorite professor of mine once said that reading Scripture is an exercise in the discipline of cross-cultural communication, one reason for his passion for learning languages, both Scripture’s original languages and other languages as well. Although we have the tremendous resource of high-quality translations, each translation is still the translation team’s best attempt to communicate across a significant cultural and language divide. And understanding across language and cultural barriers is hard! But the richness of coming to understand what has been said in a different culture and time is well-worth the effort.
The fact that God inspired his revelation across a range of times and languages also means that it can’t fully be appreciated when read on our own, in a vacuum. When we read Scripture, we join a community and conversation about living with faith that has continued for thousands of years. If we read Scripture on our own, we make assumptions based on our own culture and background that we aren’t even aware of.
So instead of expecting to understand what you read on your own, take advantage of the rich resources that have developed over the centuries of God’s people seeking to understand how God is revealed in Scripture. And, whenever possible, have conversations with those different from yourself in age, ethnicity, and culture about how they read Scripture.
Treat yourself with compassion.
Never forget that God’s love in Christ is God’s ultimate revelation to humanity, and that nothing can separate you from his love. So even as you adventure through God’s Word, give yourself compassion and grace if the going gets tough. Whether your time in Scripture on a given day is rich and transformative, or more of an exercise in endurance, you are always held in God’s love and grace. So relax and enjoy the journey!
Monica La Rose