Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How to approach the Bible (a personal account)

Part one: How NOT to approach the bible.

In my early days as a Christian, the Bible tended to be experienced through the handful of verses quoted by a preacher in church during his sermon. When I was feeling diligent and more “spiritual” than other occasions I would even go home and read over those verses again to make sure the preacher had really been quoting scripture. If the verses were there I was satisfied that the preaching had been “scriptural”.

Some times I would recognise that I needed to study scripture more for myself. So I bought myself a study bible and found myself studying the notes in the margin more than I actually read the text of scripture.

Eventually I started to notice a bit of a discrepancy between the Christian life being promoted by the preachers in church and the actual Christian life being lived and demonstrated within the church and of course by myself. Something was definitely missing between professed faith and experienced/demonstrated faith.

Friends of mine came up with the answer, shared it with me and eventually my eyes opened to the truth of what they had been sharing. Christians did not REALLY believe the word of God. We were swayed by everything around us, by experience by emotion by circumstances even when those things contradicted what God had revealed in His word.

I suppose part of this problem stemmed from the fact that most of us had never really understood what God’s word was saying because we had neglected it. All we knew was what we were being taught in church and it was clear that the church had no more insight than we had.
My friends started to lend me tapes of sermons that concentrated on the importance of knowing God’s word and believing it. The teaching was revolutionary and exciting. It all made complete sense and I could see that a diligent application would help me experience the same dynamic Christian experience recorded in the book of Acts.
I soaked up the teaching and studied the many scriptures I was learning through the teaching, memorising what I could and “confessing” them regularly.
I became very adept at having a “scripture” for every occasion and situation. If I started feeling unwell I knew that “By His stripes I was healed” and that illness was subject to the truth of God’s word. What would I believe – the evidence of my flesh or the word of God Himself?

But again it should be noted that my relationship with scripture was mainly second-hand, coming to me selected and interpreted by the people whose teaching I found appealing. I knew a lot of scripture, but my knowledge didn’t include its intended SCRIPTURAL context. My knowledge and understanding came from the context it was given by the teacher.

I’ve written elsewhere how this house built on sand came crashing down and how it took over 15 years to recover so I won’t repeat that here. I’ll just move on next to what I have learned since then and how my understanding and approach to scripture has changed.

Part 2 Starting With Foundations

Firstly I refrained from any attempt to STUDY scripture. In the past, when I had taken the time to turn to the scriptures for myself it was usually to study a particular topic or a selected portion of scripture. But in doing that I had no idea of how that topic or that portion related to the Bible as a whole. I came to realise that I didn’t understand the very basics of how the different parts of scripture fitted together, how one part related to another.
How did the books of law, the books of history, the prophets, the psalms and the other miscellaneous writings of the Old Testament all come together?

How could I expect to understand what I was studying if I had no overall foundation to build upon? Before I could get anything of value from studying PARTS of scripture I needed to get the overview. The only way of getting that was to read scripture without getting distracted by things I didn’t understand. I needed to see THAT things fitted together and HOW instead of trying to make a piece from here join up with a piece from over there whether they ought to be joined or not.
I also couldn’t expect to understand everything on my first reading. I had to be willing to put some things aside and move on.

Scripture was written in whole books and not in convenient sound bites. Our ideas of “study” tend to make us concentrate on little bits of information rather than the big picture. Often “study” is little more than a demonstration of our impatience. We want answers NOW and so dig into the targeted area to find out as much as possible as soon as possible.
The problem with this is that we may not be ready to understand that issue. Sometimes we may be lacking a more foundational area of understanding and that lack will hinder out ability to correctly comprehend the subject of our study

I use the example of mathematics. We will not understand advanced concepts of algebra if we have never learned the basic truths of arithmetic. And yet, as Christians we try to rush ahead to understand the complex before we’ve grasped the basics of faith. This is why so often we turn to the teaching of others and so easily we get caught up in man’s ideas at the expense of the truth we need to learn.

Reading rather than study helps us to build up those foundational basics. We pick things up as we go along – those things that we are ready to understand instead of trying to force ourselves to pick up things that we are not ready for. This is why subsequent readings often bring new light. Each reading will add to our foundations and will make us ready to add more. I experienced this recently while reading Zechariah. Some things made much more sense this time than previously – in fact it was like reading a new book. This was because my reading elsewhere in the prophets had added a layer of understanding that helped me to see things in Zechariah that I’d missed before.

Part 3. Practical issues.

One of the most valuable bible reading aids that I’ve come across is a volume called “The Books of the Bible”. No it isn’t some kind of commentary; it’s an edition of the Bible without Chapter and verse divisions. It is also presented more or less in chronological order. For example, all of Paul’s letters appear in the order they were written instead of according to length (as in the more familiar order of other Bibles). The Old Testament is also re-ordered so that the prophets also come in chronological sequence. Other books are grouped to match the order of the Hebrew Scriptures.

It is hard to describe what a difference it makes to avoid the distractions of chapter and verse numbers. Those manmade divisions have made it very easy to pull sections from their context and apply them incorrectly. They also cause unnatural breaks in the flow of the text. Some of the chapter divisions occur on the most inappropriate places.

Another useful aid I have is a dramatised bible on CD. After reading a book through for myself I find it helpful to read along while listening to the recording. However, not all audio bibles are of the same quality. I’ve heard some from readers who seem to have no understanding of what they are reading. Their emphasis and intonation is all wrong and it becomes a hindrance rather than a help. The particular version I have is excellent.

Many people try to devote a little time each day to reading a portion of scripture. My personal preference is to devote a larger block of time to reading, even if it’s not possible to do so every day. That larger block of time makes it easier to keep things in context and with some of shorter to medium length books it allows the reading of a whole book in one sitting. This of course is rarely practical for the longer books. While on some days there may not always be the opportunity for those longer reading periods, I regularly spend time thinking over and discussing what I’ve read and how it fits together with the rest of scripture.
And remember, the Psalms are ideal to read when time is more limited.

1 comment:

lee said...

This is so true. The best thing we can do to disciple people is to get them to read the Bible for themselves. If you need help reading large chunks of the Bible a day, you can try the read through the Bible in 90 days reading plan. You can sign up for it on Biblegateway and that day's reading will automatically come up each day.