You’re probably reading the Bible wrong; here’s why

The most important influential book in the world is the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. The Holy Bible is the top-selling book every year and the Youversion Bible app has been downloaded more than 3 million times.

The problem is that there are fundamental principles in reading the Scriptures that are lost to the average reader. It is not that there is a perfect reading that is attainable. We are all limited because we have been removed from the context by at least a thousand years. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t use it. It doesn’t mean that His Spirit can’t reveal truths about life, struggle, strength, and the character of God. As N.T. Wright pens,

“It’s a big book, full of big stories with big characters. They have big ideas (not least about themselves) and make big mistakes. It’s about God and greed and grace; about life, lust, laughter, and loneliness. It’s about birth, beginnings, and betrayal; about siblings, squabbles, and sex; about power and prayer and prison and passion.” 

N.T. Wright Simply Christian.p.173

Keeping all of this in mind next time you read the Bible try and keep a few things in mind.

1) Think of it as one book

   Yes, the Bible is a collection of books. However, when we fragment the Scriptures from each other, not allowing them to tell a unified story. There is a larger story of who God is and how He interacts with His people that you will miss if you are only reading parts and not as a whole. Believe it or not the chapters and verse were not in the original text. They were added much much later. There were also no headings.

Next time you read it, try thinking of each book as a chapter (I know that makes for some long chapters). This enables you to hear the unified story in each book, as well as the whole of Scripture. Ignore the headings and think narratives. In Matthew, the lost sheep, coin and son go together. They cannot be appropriately understood unless they are understood together.

2) Remember it is not about you

 It may surprise you but the Bible is not about you. The Scriptures were written to groups of people in a very different time. In fact, the groups even represent different times. They related to a divine being differently. They had different hang-ups. They also had different struggles than many of us.

This is not to say there isn’t great power and might lessons to be learned. On the contrary, because it has great power and the wonderful lesson that can be learned we must approach with humility and listen to what is being said through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Greg Boyd points out,

“…Scripture is intended by God to be read as the word of God, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and with ‘the eyes of faith within the community of faith.'” 

Gregory Boyd The Crucifixion of the Warrior God.p.520

We need the Holy Spirit, we need faith, and we need the humility to hear each other’s interpretations of the Scripture and what the Holy Spirit is speaking to the community as a whole. 

3) There are different genres

 It is essential that we realize there are different genres. The is history, poetry, wisdom, allegory, metaphor, parable, apocalyptic. Further to the point, the way they told history 4000 years ago is not the same as we do now. Where nowadays we are concerned with facts rather than the overarching narrative, they viewed things the opposite. Facts, whether right or wrong, weren’t as important than communicating the lessons that can be learned.

 What can complicate things a bit more is that just because part of a book is written in one genre that doesn’t mean the whole book is. This is why it is so important to invite other voices into our interpretation. If you stay only within your tradition, whether that be Reformed, Catholic, Charismatic, or Orthodox and are listening only to interpretations from your tribe, you are handicapping yourself. Also, we must read outside of our time and ethnicity. We need to pull from the ancient and the near; we must learn literature from the east and west, it’s imperative we engage the voices of men, women, young, old, white, black, brown, and all the shades and cultures in between. As we engage all these voices, it helps us understand the nuances of genres.

4) Remembering it’s an interpretation is key

Finally, we must remember that as you read the Scripture that is your interpretation of someone’s interpretation, using a collection of interpretations (ancient manuscripts). Men and women have studied and are doing their best. As we learn, we understand better ways to interpret.

Whether we want to admit it or not, our biases influence everything we do. As a reader, we have a theological leaning. These leanings affect how we read and understand. Also, the translators have a theological leaning. They do the best they can with their understanding, but there are times when you have to make decisions when interpreting. Our biases play into how it is translated. While much is the same throughout different translations, there are slight variations.

It is for this reason why I have decided to read a different translation each year. From ESV, Message, TNIV, NLT, NRSV, NASB, Amplified. We need to leverage all we can to engage the text in new, vibrant, and beautiful ways.

My prayer is that this helps you see that we need to wrestle, challenge, struggle, search, yearn, cry, praise, study, and humbly apply the Scriptures. They are challenging and to see them as though they are not is not to take them seriously. As Matthew Kelly writes,

“The Bible isn’t like other books. It requires patience. Reading the Bible is like meeting a fascinating person: it takes time to get to know him or her.” 

Matthew Kelly The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity.p.100

So let’s read, ask, and explore, inviting the Holy Spirit to reveal truth through the Scriptures.

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Is it O.K. to struggle with your faith?

There has been a lot of doubt and skepticism from “high profile” Christians. Many have felt that there hasn’t been a place for this line of thinking in the Christian movement. While there are circles where this is not encouraged, there are also a ton of circles that are exploring.

I have seen a few rebuttals by bloggers and musicians that have some excellent points. Some have pointed out the holes in the arguments; others are urging us to follow God and not celebrity.

As much as these points are valid what needs not to get lost in the conversation and what I want to say to those who identify with the struggle of faith that has invaded so many Christian leaders is,

It is ok to struggle with God and your faith.

I believe it is un-Christian to not.

To not struggle in some capacity or another is to say that you have a full understanding of not just what the Scriptures say, but of God. If you believe in the God of the Scriptures, then both of those premises are absurd! Us understanding God is like a chair trying to understand it’s maker. The maker of the chair is so far beyond what the chair could ever comprehend.

Luckily we have Scripture and can experience God in beautiful and rich ways. To say that Scripture should be the thing that pulls us through and anchors us into the world of certainty is to claim that we have a perfect understanding of what the Scriptures say, which we don’t. Not even close. We rely on wisdom, experience, and tradition, and we do the best we can.

Often not recognizing this, we fix our faith to unhealthy paradigms.

When doubts and questions appear to unfurl our sails of faith, we become crippled. Instead of pushing forward to discovering brave oceans of new realities in God, we can either give up and lose hope or bunker down in safe coves.

I see neither of the later as viable options.

I believe it is good to doubt and question. When I look at the Scriptures, I can’t help but see a God who wants us to wrestle with the big issues, always realizing that there is more to learn.

There is a story at the beginning of Scripture that articulates this. There is a story about a man named Jacob. Jacob, like us all, has some serious baggage, much of which is self-inflicted.

As Jacob begins to travel to create a new life for himself and his family, he begins to wrestle with his ideas of what his life is and who God is. The book of Genesis records the Jacob has an encounter with an angel where they wrestled, and Jacob left with a limp and a new name. In the words of Switchfoot, however, “[he] wrestled an angel for more than a name.”

The Scriptures record,

“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

Genesis 32:28

While the name change is important, we must not lose sight of how the ancient rabbis interpreted this verse. They believed that this set the premise for our approach to the Scriptures and a relationship with God. (more in this in Chapter 2 of my book Hidden faces).

There should never be a point when we stop wrestling with God, Scripture, or hard questions. It doesn’t mean a patchwork of ideas that we throw together as though we’re filling a pothole, but there are times when we need a fresh coat of pavement.

It is not that Scripture, tradition and experience don’t matter. That somehow our wrestling with the big and small questions undermine everything. It just means that sometimes we need a tweak and other times we need a new street.

For me, because I have experienced God, it demands me to push to understand this life deeper. There have been times when my tradition has let me down, majorly. There have been times when no matter how much I trusted and looked at Scripture, it left me frustrated, confused, disillusioned. I had an experience that I could not deny. I knew and still know that there has to be something beyond myself and that faith isn’t built upon the straw of others nor upon the weak foundation of my limited understanding of an ancient text.

My faith is built upon the fact that I have had experiences with something beyond myself. It now demands of me to wrestle.

Saying this, if my faith stopped at the experience and didn’t have the structure of tradition (tried and true practices, rituals, and paradigms) and the Scriptures (God’s word that tells of the Word, Jesus) then my faith becomes a kite flying in the wind with no string.

We must wrestle with all of these aspects of faith.

As a teenager, I had a lot of struggles with the church. Its brokenness has a continual effect on me. One of the many things that helped save my faith was a little book called Joshua by Joseph Girzone. It’s a story of Jesus showing up in the church today. It was then in my first year of college that Len Sweet’s book Postmodern Pilgrims opened my eyes to new ways of expressing our faith. Sweet helped me find the traditions that could keep me tethered.

During my mid-twenties, I was struggling with the abuse of experience in my movement. As I reflected on those I grew up with and the teens I was now pastoring, it was plain to see that in many cases, their whole faith was built upon experience alone. There were no roots! No tradition or Scripture – no wonder they fell away. It was a dedication to Scripture in this season that helped me sift through the healthy and not so healthy experiences — something I still have to do.

More recently, I had a crisis with the Scriptures. They weren’t working for me anymore. I was preaching and leading others, but the words fell flat for me. Luckily, as I stated previously, my experiences wouldn’t allow me to let go. What I needed was a new paradigm of understanding. I am thankful for POD casts like The Bible For Normal People and Reknew With Greg Boyd. I’m eternally grateful of Boyd’s book, Crucifixion of the Warrior God (I suggest the abridged Cross Vision) that has given me a new lens (hermeneutic) to reading the Scriptures that have allowed it to come alive in my heart again.

If I never began to wrestle I would have thrown it all away, of this I’m sure. If I never struggled through the hard questions, I would never have the faith I do now that is vibrant and life-altering.

I not only see the value in doubting and questioning; I see it’s vital. Just remember, it must never end with doubt and question. That’s just lazy. The doubts and question must propel us forward to seek new lands of truth that direct us to new understandings of God that are never complete but continually drive us forward to new areas of discovery.

Check out the resources used in this post