The following is the first post in a series looking at the ways the Bible functions for believers as they read, meditate on and live by the word of God and the ways God intends His word to function for us in those ways.
I have noticed that I read the Bible for many different purposes. My purposes in reading and thinking about the biblical text have shifted over time according to my experience with God and my needs in daily life. I will identify and explain some of the ways I notice people using the Bible in this series. As with everything in life that is good, we are able to misuse the word of God and cause damage to ourselves and others.
An obvious misuse of the Bible is to take statements out of context so that they seem to support legalism, license for self-indulgence, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, pride and revenge. That God has inspired his word written and translated for us does not guarantee that people will only be able to use the Bible for good intentions. Sadly, much evil has been done by people using the Bible as a weapon. God gave his word to facilitate our transformation into people who care for others in mercy and generosity, but people have frequently twisted Scripture to evil use for self-centered agendas and hatred toward others. In many cases, we do wrong with the Bible without meaning to do so.
Besides these obvious misuses, the ten uses explained below are often beneficial practices. My question is this: What are the ways that the Bible functions for us as we read, meditate on, and live by the word of God? Corollary to this question is another: What are the ways that God intends his word to function for us as we read, meditate on, and live by it? I will survey responses to the first question. Part 1 of this series contains uses 1 to 3.
Since the Bible is a special book given by God and a way for him to guide human life, many Christians use the Bible to discern God’s will for them. I do not mean the declarations of God about moral behavior and how to respond to him; I mean using the Bible as a device of God speaking to an individual or group in a magical way. Ancient religion featured experts who could discern the designs of spiritual gods by examining animal organs, movements in the stars, and other omens. Christian divination using the Bible is practiced by flipping open a Bible randomly and then reading what is on that random page, or the statement under a finger that is pressed to the page at random. I think God works with this, especially for younger Christians just beginning to learn to live with God. I did it at least once when faced with a large decision. Our Father accommodates himself to meet us at our kindergarten level and misunderstanding. Similarly, God met Abraham’s expectation that Yahweh would require the sacrifice of a son (Genesis 22; God moved Abraham on from that to hope in a substitute by providing a ram to sacrifice instead of Isaac). God accommodates to us, and then he moves us on to direct engagement with him by other uses (below) instead of misusing the Bible for divination. The desire for personal guidance by God is manifest in the Bible as God spoke in a direct and individual way to women, children, and men. These examples are a different thing than using the Bible as a mechanism of divine guidance—they tell God’s personal involvement with individuals and groups.
By inspiration I mean experiencing God in an undefined way of personal encounter and a sense of his nearness. Since the Bible is God’s direct project of literary communication, we have in these writings God’s own voice to various individuals and groups. Individual sentences, phrases, and words speak to us like a breath of fresh air for hope and assurance. Often the little pieces inspire us apart from the context, so that a promise made to Israel or an individual prophet also sounds like a promise we want to hear God speaking to us. As with divination, I think God accommodates our misapplication of promises and declarations. He does not yell at us that we are misusing the Bible and might refrain from correcting us for some time. For example, I can imagine that God has promised that he has good plans for me (as in Jeremiah 29:11). Years later, I might notice that the context actually limits the promise to Jewish people at the time of the exile. Many biblical promises are specific to the Jewish people—not to me, but there is still benefit for me to know who God is and his past work of faithfulness with the Jews. Instead of being inspired by promises as if they were written to me, I can be inspired by knowing that God is the sort of person who makes promises and fulfills them to people.
The largest use of the Bible for many is to learn things from it about who God is, how he operates, what he provides for human beings, and all the other topics of Christian theology. God’s word is full of information to make people knowledgeable in many ways. I often recommend to students that there is no shortcut to knowing God besides the mundane daily practice of reading the Bible regularly. God acts on us when we turn our attention to his word. God uses his word to inform us. Evangelical theology has been criticized for using the Bible primarily as a deposit of truths and ignoring the experiential literary features by which God encounters readers of his word. We can prize the factual information alongside the personal and relational dimensions of God’s approach to us in his word.
Check back later this week for the next posts in this series.