Have you ever attempted to read through the Bible in a year? I have. (Have you seen the feather in my cap? It’s a dead giveaway.) You can go to the Christian bookstores and buy Bibles divided and labeled for this purpose. In high school, I followed a program complete with workbook. I bought a small KJV and highlighter crayon and read like mad, ticking the boxes for each day’s readings as I went. Then I took that marked-up Bible and gave it to a favorite friend/foe in atheist/Christian debate. And I felt proud of myself because I had something else to add to my Curriculum Vitae that legitimized all my religious opinions, doubly proud because my behavior was demonstrating to a “lost” friend what “real Christians” are like. And if he ever became a Christian, it was because of my expert “witnessing”. He would be a jewel in my heavenly crown, an achievement, a way to make God proud of me.
It’s easy to do that, I think. Those of us familiar with Evangelical Christianity – and likely other forms of Christianity with which I have less experience – tend to have an interesting connection to the Bible. If it were a status on Facebook, some would be “in a relationship” or even “married” to the Bible. We have daily devotionals, attend Bible studies, cross-reference with our handy Greek and Hebrew lexicon apps. We take copious notes on every sermon (does anyone actually go back over those notes? Honestly now…)
And then we come to Scriptures like this:
21 “Not everyone who calls me Lord will enter God’s kingdom. The only people who will enter are those who do what my Father in heaven wants. 22 On that last Day many will call me Lord. They will say, ‘Lord, Lord, by the power of your name we spoke for God. And by your name we forced out demons and did many miracles.’ 23 Then I will tell those people clearly, ‘Get away from me, you people who do wrong. I never knew you.’
[Matthew 7:21-23, Easy-to-Read Version]
Though I’m not writing to debate theology, taking the above lines at face value certainly has the potential to upset an apple cart or two. We know enough about Jesus to realize He speaks both literally and figuratively, so we can allow for the idea that He might be referring to us in a very real sense. “There but by the grace of God go I,” as they say. It’s uncomfortable, this possibility that I could spend my life around God, even serving God, even experiencing the miraculous, even ministering to thousands, even operating in every spiritual gift… and still not know Him.
While we are open to this premise, the next few verses slam in:
They will be conceited, will love pleasure instead of God, 5 and will act as if they serve God [having a form/appearance of godliness/piety] but will not have his [or deny his/its] power.
[2 Timothy 3:4b-5a, Expanded Bible]
3 For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will reject the truth and chase after myths.
[2 Timothy 4:3-4, New Living Translation]
Suddenly I want to change my relationship status with the Bible to “it’s complicated”.
I have heard it said, “Every time you read the Bible, you get a revelation of God.” I like that statement. It is neat and tidy and completely absolves me of having my own biases and opinions when I approach the Bible. It assumes that the Bible has the power to overcome all my judgments, experiences, thoughts, wounds, and ideas when I read it. If the Bible says it, it must be true.
Or it must mean what I think it means.
And this is dangerous territory to traverse because we see how our culture loves to twist the Bible. For example, we who build defenses against legalizing gay marriage by using passages of Leviticus are reminded by our adversaries of similar restrictions against bacon and poly-cotton blends. Or if we choose to defend our stance with New Testament allusions to homosexuality, we forget about “abstaining from blood” (Acts 15:20, multiple translations) when we grill out.
Again, I’m not here to debate. I’m just pointing out that, hard as it is to admit, our critics might be right about us. To paraphrase Don Finto, we read the Bible to gain support for our own beliefs, not to find out what it really says.
And we forget that the Bible is actually a Person. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God from the beginning. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
There was a time in my life where God said to me, “I don’t want you to read the Bible until you can read it without feeling guilty that you haven’t.” (Similarly, He later said, “I don’t want you to pray for another person aloud until you can pray my heart for them.”) In my case, this was the most heretical thing I’d experienced – well, at least since the first time I audibly cussed God out and wasn’t struck dead on the spot.
I think that was an incredibly delicate statement, and dangerous, too. We’ve all met folks – or sadly watched folks – go off the rails by making massive life changes based on an idea of something God said that has no scriptural basis and no good fruit (of the Spirit) to support the initial premises. And yet there is something of an answer to a heart’s conundrum in it. If I want to know Jesus and avoid the scenario posed in Matthew 7, then it behooves me to allow God to search me and know my heart (Psalm 139:23-24).
Ironically, that Psalm 139 reference was part of my daily reading plan. It wasn’t until I looked back at it for the purpose of this essay that I realized it was Psalm 139 – I had read with glazed eyes, letting the words slip into my brain just long enough to get to the highlighted part at the bottom. If you’ve not read Psalm 139 recently, I recommend it. It is one of the most tender, intimate pictures of God’s heart for us. But I am less than 10 days from finishing the whole Bible! So I check it off and wonder why my heart feels so disconnected.
And maybe that’s the thing. Our hearts are meant to be connected to God’s. All the worry and fuss and bother and drama in our lives is an indication that somewhere our hearts don’t quite know we are loved. In His sweet mercy and kindness, our plans don’t succeed. We find ourselves delayed or thwarted in our well-intentioned activities. The cake didn’t rise. I’m two months’ behind in my daily Bible. And we feel the effect of the crisis in our hearts that no encouragement to pray more or read more or go to more church services can touch. How kind of God that He allows scenarios in which we realize our hearts are dying for something real.
So we come back to those scary scriptures. We stop in our tracks, set aside the planner, and tell it like it is: that’s me, Jesus. I’m the one doing good, not knowing You. And I actually want to know You. I don’t want communication, I want connection. I want something real. I want authenticity. And if it means stepping aside from religious activity, so be it. And if it means allowing my theology to be rearranged, that’s fine, too. Ultimately, there’s something that’s just not satisfied, and I’m looking to You to help me out of it. Knowing that Perfect Love casts out all fear, and Perfect Love is actually a Person, so that Person speaks the Word, which is Himself, with His intended inflection, kindness, gentleness, and grace, all the expectation of a negative outcome is driven from every letter on the page.
And He says He knows the plans He has for us, plans to prosper us and not to harm us, plans to give us hope and a future. The we will call upon Him, and He will answer us. We will seek Him and we will find Him when we seek Him with all our hearts. He will be found by us, He declares. (This I know, for the Bible tells me so.)