I don’t remember the first time I heard about Jesus’ crucifixion. I do, however, remember the first time I experienced the story as something more than just words.
It was at the University of Cincinnati in the fall of 1989. I was studying architecture, surrounded by art student with every kind belief and background. It was a wild change from my small home community and church. I only knew one other person in this massive university. He was also the only Christian I knew at school. We started a little Bible study just to keep connected.
Months in, one of the guys brought his girlfriend to the group. We were studying Jesus’ crucifixion. She had never heard this story before. She listened, intrigued. She asked questions. As we got to the end of the story, she started to weep. I was stunned. Everyone I grew up with knew this story by heart. I had never seen someone weep over the death of Jesus. Never. Her experience took me out of myself. It was like seeing Jesus and what He had done for me for the first time.
Looking back I realized that there are advantages to knowing the Bible well, but there are some significant disadvantages too. You can become so familiar with scripture that you’re numb to it.
Maybe you’re like I was. We’ve heard the stories, the sermons, and the arguments over and over. Feeling jaded, finding the text dry, we remain unmoved. The result? Little little motivation to read and reflect on Scripture, which leads to stagnation in our spiritual growth.
Is there any way to get that intrigue and freshness back?
Tell the truth.
In my church growing up, it would have been completely off limits to say that the Bible was boring or irrelevant. Yet we could recite our memorized verses and recount our theological bullet points, all without feeling a thing. We had the “moral” of the story drilled into our heads so often that it was quite possible to hear a scripture passage without ever listening to it. After all, we knew what it meant, right?
If this is where you are, the first thing you need to do is just acknowledge it. The Bible isn’t God. God won’t be offended. Each of us has a history with the Bible. For some of us that history is good and helpful; for some of us it isn’t. Some people find the Bible difficult because of how unfamiliar we are with it. We’ll talk about that in the next post. But that’s not you. You have the unusual circumstance of having a deep familiarity with the Bible.
Get this clear: Your experience of deep familiarity with the Bible has no merit on its own. It doesn’t represent your level of spirituality or relationship with God. Mostly, it represents your family and school background. That’s all.
See your advantages & disadvantages
Once you can see your starting point clearly, you can also begin to see the advantages and disadvantages of both sides.
Your advantage is that you know your way around the Bible. You’re familiar with the overall narrative. That gives you a sense of where and when the individual stories fit. You may even have had some instruction on how to handle the text well. Perhaps you learned to read in context. Maybe you know the difference between “reading into” and “reading out of” the text. You’re probably already familiar with various interpretations of controversial passages. You may have even learned how to use the Bible as a way to connect with God.
But you have disadvantages too. For people who have grown up embedded in the Bible, it can be hard to experience scripture emotionally or viscerally. It can feel more academic than real. Often the Bible was treated as a textbook, or an encyclopedia referenced for life’s answers, and you got disconnected from the bigger story. At times, you might go a little brain-numb reading because it’s all just so familiar. For some of us, it’s hard to see past the interpretation we were raised with.
Start seeing differently.
If you know the Bible like the back of your hand and find yourself jaded to it, you need to begin seeing it in a new way. Hebrews 4:12 says that the Word of God is alive and active. For some of us it feels more like a display of dusty, long-dead butterflies pinned to a display board. How can you get back to an experience of the living, active Word?
1. Ask God to light it on fire for you.
The Bible isn’t God. God is separate from the Bible, from our interpretations of the Bible, and from our ability to understand the Bible. The Bible is a collection of writings God has used to shape people over time. God speaks through the words of Scripture, but the Bible is simply a tool in God’s hands.
When you come to the Bible, start by asking for the Living God to light the words on fire. Isaiah 8:11 promises that the words God speaks will have an impact. They will not “return void. The whole passage is a great reminder that God is at work, even when we can’t see it. Don’t trust in the Bible’s ability to move you. Trust in God’s ability, and actively ask God to shape you through the words.
2. Get a fresh perspective.
You’ve heard and read the verses countless times. Often your mind can complete the verse as you’re reading it. Along with that mental “auto-complete” come years of hearing sermons explaining the meaning or moral of the text. All of that can make it difficult to hear the text in a fresh way.
The best way I’ve found to get a fresh perspective is to put your familiar version of the Bible away for a season. Begin reading the Bible again in a different version. Preferrably, a version that is much much different.
Don’t worry for even a moment if your new version is the best one, or a solid translation. (You can find some thoughts on Bible translations here.) That’s not the issue. Your problem is not having an accurate translation; your problem is being so familiar that you can’t really even hear the message behind the familiar words. You need to hear the words in a brand-new way. This will force your mind to reconsider what is being said.
When the Message Bible came out it was revolutionary for my spiritual journey. The Message is a paraphrase. It’s not the best study Bible. It doesn’t get every Greek word right. But my experience with The Message forced me to re-hear the text. Sometimes it broke open meaning that had been obscured for me. Sometimes it sent me back to the Greek and other versions, to verify if Peterson was on track. In every case, this helped me hear the text in a fresh way.
3. Experience the Bible differently. Another way to get a fresh perspective is to take the Bible in another media. The Visual Bible is a video project that has produced 3 films using only the exact text from the NIV version of the text. So far they’ve produced the books of Matthew, John and Acts. Every single word is scripture, but seeing the words acted out in a historical context helps you hear them differently.
There are also quite a few really excellent audio versions of the Bible. We often forget that the Bible was originally meant to be heard. It was an oral collection before it was written. Paul’s letters were meant to be read outloud in church.
Hearing the words, without the distraction of verse numbers and chapter headings, can give you a more global perspective. This frees us from seeing the Bible as a collection of separate bumper-sticker quotes and returns it to it’s larger context.
4. Read Differently. Finally, I would encourage you to change how you read the Bible. If, like me, you grew up in a community that focused on learning the Bible for doctrine, you automatically see the Bible as a textbook, a reference manual. You can break out of that mindset if you try.
When you read a passage, identify who is in the passage. Who is speaking? Who are they speaking too? Were there bystanders? Then think about who you relate to most in that scene? Once you’ve picked a character, read the passage and think about it from their perspective. How would they have heard these words? How would it have felt to them to hear this? What might this experience or teaching have impacted their thinking or actions? Putting yourself in the text in this way can help you get past the tendency to intellectualize scripture, and help you start to listen for God’s voice in it.
The Bible is a primary tool for shaping our minds and hearts as we follow Jesus. It will not serve us sitting our the shelf. If you have the background that gave you deep familiarity with scripture, thank God for that advantage. But don’t let a good thing be turned against you. Don’t let your familiarity become the obstance that keeps you from a regular exercise of reading and reflecting on scripture in order to know and hear God.
This post is part of a series about ways we get in the way of our experience of scripture. The series is called Jumping the Hurdles.
- Maybe you need to ignore the rules in the Bible.
- Is the Bible human or divine? The problem is in your either/or question.
- 2 Reasons why using the Bible to prove your point is often wrong.
- Has familiarity with the Bible left you bored and jaded?
- New to the Bible? Wandering around confused?
- Why reading the Bible straight through is usually a bad idea.
- When the Bible has been used to bash, clobber or hurt you.
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