I have known many people that give up reading the Bible because “they don’t understand it.” This is a challenge. The Bible can be a complicated text. It needs interpretation. Often you need some cultural or historical background to grasp the particulars of a chapter or verse.
I’d like to suggest, however, that part of the difficulty you may sometimes have with the Bible is in the way you have been taught to use it.
Let me tell you right now, you do not need a better study Bible with the best notes and cross-references. Nor do you need a better teacher or preacher to “explain” the Bible to you. You need to read it differently and worry less about “understanding.”
I’ll try to explain what I mean…
If you’ve spent any time in the church at all, you’ve heard sermons and you may have attended Bible studies. Neither of these activities promote reading the Bible. Rather, they promote studying it, or what I’ll call “standing over the text.”
We stand over the text to look at it, dissect it, analyze it, discover the meaning of it, and hopefully apply it to our lives. We do this because, frankly, it is an expectation of modern people. Church people want the Bible to be “applicable” and generally want a preacher to uncover the application for them. Preachers oblige, often Bible study leaders do as well, though Bible Studies can be more interactive at least. I’m not down on preaching or study. I am a preacher and I’ve led or been part of plenty of studies where I have learned a ton about the Bible, about God, and about myself.
I am simply trying to point out the detrimental effect preaching and study can have on personal reading. We have over-emphasized “understanding” the Bible, “getting the main point,” and “applying it to our lives.” This is the “over the text” posture.
Our usual posture over the text subtly teaches us that we have control when it comes to the Bible—but you are not in control of this text. I’d like you to think of getting under the text instead. Put it on a table, get on your hands and knees, and crawl under the table if it helps to bring this point home. The Bible is over you, not you over the Bible.
It can be helpful to think about the way you read a novel. You don’t dissect little bits of it and try to figure out how it applies to your life. You just read it. You don’t stop to read what the experts have said about the novel (this is what notes in study Bibles and commentaries are). When you encounter a difficult section in a novel that you don’t quite understand, or a word you don’t know, you simply keep going. Rarely do you stop to consult a dictionary.
The thing is, by the time you reach the end of the novel, the trickier parts are either forgotten, or have somehow added to the overall grandeur of the story (even though if you read the tough passage again you likely still wouldn’t fully grasp it). The important thing in a novel is that by the end you know what the story is about. You have encountered characters, plot twists, grand themes, struggle, and triumph.
You are, when you read a novel, spending time with the author of the novel. You are hearing the author’s story and allowing him or her to hold sway over you. An impression is left. You don’t spent time controlling or manipulating the text, trying to make the author say what you want said. You have placed yourself under the text. You have allowed it to have its way with you.
This is how we ought to read the Bible. Allow the Author to tell you His story. Let God make an impression on you with His beautiful and wonderful book. Allow God’s text to have its way with you. Stop standing over it and allow it to be over you. Will you understand every verse? No. But keep reading – by the time you reach the end of the story, you’ll know what it’s about.
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