I have noticed when reading biblical passages that I prefer to identify with the good people in the narrative or background of the epistle. Often this is an accurate way to read the Bible, since I am a believer in Christ, I trust what God has revealed in the gospel and otherwise, and I often want to do what is right in God’s sight. Reading this way can be fruitful and affirming for showing community with other believers in the biblical world who lived millennia before now.
Another fruitful way to read the same biblical passages is to identify with the enemies. This is not to say that I am all bad, and neither were they, but I find it valuable to ask: how am I represented there also—in Judas’ treachery, in Cain’s revenge, in Delilah’s subterfuge? These are revelatory for me as much or more than the positive examples of faithful people.
I happened on this way of reading when I noticed how much the Pharisees were presented in the Gospel accounts. If I am sympathetic to their ardent desires to please God and do right after the chastening of Israel in the Exile, then I can see myself in their motivations. As sincere religious people desiring to do right in God’s sight, I am with the Pharisees, and they are with me. Accordingly, Jesus’ rebukes to the Pharisees are spoken to me, and I hear them better when I am aware of my need to be rebuked. Perhaps one reason the Gospels have so much of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees is that they anticipate some of the problems Christians face of being religious to a fault, practicing what appears to be righteousness while missing the point of shared life with God and others.
If I side with the faithful ones in the passage, whether the remnant in Israel, the disciples of Jesus, or the people in churches being harassed by Judaizers, then my tendency will be to identify others as the enemies. This is not usually productive for shared life with others. The work of noticing others’ problems in faith and practice is much easier done and so engrossing that I easily forget to wonder about my own problems. Judging others is a convenient preoccupation to avoid any self-scrutiny. O happy day.
Seeing that I too am the Enemy allows me to hear Paul’s warnings against the Judaizers at Galatia—I too must beware the legalistic self-reliance that obstructs me from the gospel and Jesus. As a teacher in the church, I probably need to hear what Paul warns against the false teachers (so that I do not serve as a false teacher) just as much or more than I listen as someone in the congregation of his letter who has been afflicted by the so-called false brethren.
So, I recommend the question while reading the Bible—especially where Enemies and Threatening People are concerned (since we naturally turn our gaze away from them)—“God, what are you showing me here? How do you want me to respond to this that I am hearing?”
Beyond reading the Bible, these questions are fruitful for other encounters in daily life, since God is constantly speaking to us and showing us things in our circumstances.
God, what are you showing me here?
How do you want me to respond to this that I am hearing?