Reading the Bible through New Eyes

“Read your Bible, pray every day and you’ll grow, grow, grow   …”

The lyrics and melody of this children’s song still slide off my tongue after 50 years. The song was part of a Vacation Bible School. The kids loved to act out the motions with the song. Starting almost in a kneeling position they would begin to rise up as they sang “grow, grow” until they were standing as tall as they could with arms raised high. The next verse was the flip side or warning, “Neglect your Bible, forget to pray and you’ll shrink, shrink, shrink.”

Wise counsel?

Perhaps, but I doubt  that many of the children actually benefited except from the physical exercise of standing and squatting over and over again as they enthusiastically sang. What about the children who weren’t even old enough to read?

 Looking back I realize we didn’t teach the children that could already read how to read their Bible. We simply warned them, “Don’t forget to read your Bible.” Regretfully, that may also be the experience of many adult converts. Having chosen to receive and to follow Jesus, have they also been discipled? (We used to call that “followed up.”) Have they been trained and equipped to grow deeply in their faith?

It seems obvious that we should encourage new believers to read their Bibles daily if they wish to mature spiritually. I have always encouraged this discipline, but I wonder if what I intended to be received as encouragement to read their Bibles may have created a guilt trip. Have I just added one more thing on the “to do” list? “Read your Bible every day or else your faith will atrophy”? Have I set them up for failure and discouragement if I haven’t also offered basic training on how to read the Bible with understanding?

Imagine somebody that has not grown up in a church or a Christian family being handed a leather-bound book that seems so strange at first glance. It actually contains 66 books written by a variety of authors over several millennia. If it is a King James Version even the English sounds foreign. Desiring to grow in their faith, they tackle Genesis and enjoy most of the stories, even though they describe behaviors that seem strange to our modern worldview like slaughtering animals and splitting the carcasses as part of entering into a solemn contract.

 Exodus continues the narrative so they continue to plow forward on their maiden voyage through the Bible. Then they bump into Leviticus. Their mind begins to drift as they read about all the bloody sacrifices and all the rules about diet and sex etc.

If they make it through Leviticus they discover lots of detailed information about constructing a very large tent in Numbers.

I do not suggest that these biblical accounts are irrelevant, but they do make the Bible unique. Perhaps we have heard mature believers share how precious the Psalms are to them, so we dive into the Psalms and wonder why the poetry doesn’t rhyme. We identify with a particular psalm that cries out for God’s help in a tight spot but discover the next psalm asks God to break the teeth of the enemy.

I do not write to disparage the Bible. I love it. I accept it as God’s Word – as holy. It is the holy (unique, one of a kind) book (book is the Greek word biblios or book). The longer I have studied and meditated upon this book the more I have come to love and respect the Bible. So much so, that I do not place another book on top of it. It’s always on the top of the pile as a visible reminder that I believe it truly is what it claims to be: God’s Word.

Let’s face it; there are things that tend to make understanding the Bible a challenge. Without some basic orientation it can be a daunting task for modern minds saturated by the electronic media where scenes change every few seconds. Conversations have been compressed into a tweet or a twitter or sound a byte. Fact is that fewer people actually read anything today. Newspapers are becoming obsolete. (May that never happen with books.)

So, if it has ever been inadequate to simply pontificate to a new follower of Jesus, “Read your Bible and pray every day,” it is truer today.

The lack of basic instructions to help readers understand the Bible may be one of the primary weaknesses in contemporary Christianity.

I speak from experience. Sunday School teachers, youth workers and pastoral sermons consistently and fervently challenged me to read my Bible daily. But, nobody ever instructed me on how to read the Bible with understanding. When I was given a KJV Schofield Reference Bible I felt that I had arrived. I set out my journey through the Bible, but there was nobody to guide and encourage me as I tackled the ominous task of reading the Bible with understanding. Too often reading my Bible was a duty not a delight.

Years later, as a student at The Moody Bible Institute I received tools to assist me. How I delighted in opening my very own Greek New Testament for the first time. Theology classes and Church history widened my horizon. Pursuing a Masters Degree in the Old Testament at Western Seminary expanded my appreciation for the Hebrew Scriptures. I discovered the beauty of Hebrew poetry and delighted in the wisdom literature. Both Western Seminary and Moody provided valuable tools, but even after survey courses of both the older and newer testaments, I hadn’t fully appreciated the Bible as the greatest story ever written. It remained more like a book with hundreds of stories that became the source of hundreds of sermons.

Consider this: what makes a great story? Why do some stories resonate with us? Why are some stories passed from generation to generation?

A great story has a plot with a protagonist (the good guy in the white hat) and an antagonist (the evil vermin). There is a struggle between them. Sometimes it seems that the evil antagonist is winning and hope is lost. Eventually we know that the hero will win. Meanwhile, we are drawn into the struggle and identify with our hero. That, in essence, is the big story in the Bible. In this case the struggle between good and evil has cosmic proportions. What’s more, this story is not fiction or a fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after.

Only in later years have I come to more fully appreciate the fact there is one, big story – God’s story- that binds the 66 books together. Almost every narrative in the older and newer testaments is part of one grand story. From the Genesis creation account and edenic -like paradise filled with intimate relationships to the introduction of rebellion and sin and the resulting curse all the way through to the last chapters of Revelation, there is one big story. Everything that has been tainted by the decision to disobey God will be restored. God will once again live among His people and there will be no more war or death.

Today, 50 years after that VBS song was sung back in Ohio, I regret that I never took the time to help the children and their teachers discover how to read the Bible. As their pastor I never provided the tools or walked with them through the early days of learning to follow Jesus. To be honest, I never taught these basic skills because nobody guided me when I first chose to follow Jesus. They simply said, “Read your Bible every day.”

In retrospect, I wonder how many read their Bibles every day. How many struggle with guilt after failed attempts? How many read without understanding how all these stories fit together into the one story – the greatest story ever told?

I wonder how many, out of frustration, simply buy a commentary or decide to let their pastor or a television preacher read and study the Bible for them. Commentaries and sermons aren’t bad, but do they replace the satisfaction of discovering truth that becomes soul food or priceless pearls to enjoy simply for their beauty?

If this blog post has described your experience in reading the Bible, I encourage you to share by responding to this blog.  

Perhaps, here on the Front Porch Swing, we can share tools with each other and discover how to read the Bible through new eyes.