by Laurie A. Jungling—
Reading the Bible is a big deal. Whether we’re reading it alone or in community, whether we’re hearing it in worship, engaging in group Bible study or doing personal daily devotions, reading the Bible is important for our relationships with God, neighbors and ourselves.
The Bible is the primary way God’s Word—Jesus Christ—is revealed to Christians. In fact, Martin Luther referred to the Bible as the manger in which Jesus lies, for it delivers the good news of salvation through Christ, the faith we need to trust this good news, and the guidance we need to respond to this good news as disciples. Since God’s Word comes to us through the Bible, how we read it and why we read it matters.
There are at least three reasons why Christians read the Bible. First, we read it to know more about God. This isn’t about memorizing facts or searching a database for easy answers. The Bible is not a science book, a history book or a legal code, though it may contain these in its library of texts. Instead, the Bible reveals essential things that we as God’s beloved children need to know about God: who God is, how God relates to the world, how God saves us and how God works in our lives today.
Take for example Jesus’ famous words in his “don’t worry, have faith” sermon. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26). Here we learn about a God who cares deeply about creation, feeding “the birds of the air” while at the same time valuing us so much that Jesus promises us a kingdom without worry. When we read Scripture seeking knowledge of God, we come to understand a little better the God who values us, even though God remains beyond all human understanding.
The second reason we read the Bible is devotion. In the congregation I’m serving, the council still has devotions when their meeting begins. An older couple I know still does devotions before breakfast every morning. Devotion is not just learning things about God; it’s living a devoted relationship with God. When we read the Bible as devotion, we’re opening our hearts and spirits to a relationship with the living God so that the Holy Spirit can breathe (inspire) faith and
devotion into us.
In Matthew 6:25-34, for instance, we don’t just learn about a God who wants to protect us from worry. We actually receive God’s Spirit of faith into ourselves through Christ’s comforting promise of an abundant life without worry. When we read the Bible as devotion, with hearts and spirits open to receive God’s Spirit, we are transformed into faith-filled followers of Christ who will not worry because we no longer need to worry.
That brings us to our third reason to read the Bible: to love our neighbors. Now that we’ve been in-spirited with faith in the God who loves us, we are called to love God and neighbor. Through the Bible, we learn what Jesus, God’s loving Word incarnate, means by love. “‘You shall love your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). Responding to the gracious love we have received in Christ, we read the Bible to learn how God wants us to love our neighbor.
In Matthew 6:25, we first hear Jesus’ teaching as a command, given to protect us and other people: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…” Here Jesus directs us not to worry because he knows our anxieties cause harm to us and to others. When we worry, we are more apt to lash out, close our hearts, become defensive or get angry at people—behaviors that are not particularly loving to our neighbors. Part of loving our neighbors is letting go of our fears and the things we worry about so that we can seek a faith-filled relationship with God and love-centered relationships with those around us.
The Bible is full of teachings about how we are to love our neighbors. Some of these teachings are eternal and universal, such as the Golden Rule: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Other guidance is more contextual, such as God’s command to bury human excrement outside the camp (Deuteronomy 23:12-14). While the nation of Israel travelled into the promised land, it made sense to place the ancient latrines outside the camp for cleanliness purposes. But today, with indoor plumbing, laws to place bathrooms outside the city would no longer be applicable to modern life.
However not all biblical teachings about loving the neighbor are clear. Nor are they always easy to apply to our contemporary lives. Every teaching requires careful reading, close study and compassionate understanding of different perspectives as we read God’s Word in conversation with other Christians. Too often in our confusion, in our search for easy answers, in our sinful attempts to play god-over-others, our readings of the Bible can actually do harm to our neighbors…and crucify the Word of God itself. How Christians read the Bible matters as much as why we read the Bible.
So how can we read the Bible in a loving way? What are some practices of reading Scripture that help us love our neighbor? And how can we avoid certain pitfalls so that our reading doesn’t hurt others?
What follows are four Bible-reading pitfalls that, regardless of our good intentions, end up hurting the neighbor, and then four Bible-reading practices that seek to love the neighbor:
Bible-reading pitfalls to avoid
1. Avoid Bibliolatry.
Searching for certainty, Christians often turn the Bible into a god, worshipping it rather than the God of the Bible. Christians are to be Christ-believers, not Bible-believers. We turn to the Bible as the inspired, yet earthen vessel through which God chooses to reveal the fullness of Jesus Christ.
2. Avoid making the Bible a weapon.
Too often when discussing hot-button topics, we start shooting Bible-bullets to prove our case or use the Bible as a weapon of mass destruction to slam those with whom we disagree. The Bible is a gift from God to be used for love, not to attack or threaten our neighbors.
3. Avoid proof-texting.
We proof-text when we take verses out of their place in Scripture in order to impose our own meaning on them, rather than discerning God’s meaning. Proof-texting abuses the neighbor and the text by using the Bible for our own agendas rather than seeking God’s way for our lives.
4. Avoid excluding or silencing other readers.
To silence others or their readings is to silence the Holy Spirit’s inspiration in our midst. As Scripture shows, God can speak through anyone. By accepting only those readings that sound like ours, we all too often deny God’s presence at the reading table.
Bible-reading practices that love
1. Read in community
Reading the Bible alone can be vital to our faith and devotion. But when it comes to discerning how we are to love our neighbor in community, God’s Spirit comes to us primarily in communal readings. Reading in community keeps us honest and humble, opens windows into God’s will through alternative perspectives and enacts the communion of God’s Word that Christ brings in the Lord’s Supper.
2. Do justice.
Do justice to the text, to those who wrote it, to God who is revealed in it and to those who are reading it with you. Treat the text and other readers fairly by listening as the Bible does the talking. As much as possible, we need to put our personal or political views to the side, let go of preconceived meanings and come to the text and its diversity of readers with open minds, hearts and souls so that God’s Spirit has a welcome space to enter and transform us and
3. Seek shalom.
Shalom is living in communal harmony, peace-filled interrelation and the blessing of abundant life. Seeking shalom in our Scripture reading asks about the consequences of our reading. Does our act of reading hurt others or lead to competitive claims of “I’m right/you’re wrong?” Does it destroy the intentions of the text itself?
Or does our reading open the door to living interpretations that engage other interpreters in mutuality? Do our readings inspire the creative imagination of the community and serve life? Reading the Bible is not a competitive sport. It is the journey of Christ’s community seeking God’s truth and life.
4. Do love.
Reading with love searches the Bible for God’s guidance toward the well-being of all creation. It means interpreting each text for the love and care of the neighbor. Patiently, with kindness and hope, a loving reading of God’s Word means asking how we can best live a responsible life on behalf of all our neighbors in need.
Reading the Bible is a journey we take together with God and our neighbors. It involves ongoing conversation as we travel, for as finite creatures we can never know the full and final meaning of God’s revealed Word. Ultimately, reading the Bible is an act of love—an act of deep devotion to God and love for the neighbor. In our Bible reading, we are called to receive the Spirit’s love given through God’s Word and to be transformed into Bible-readers who love all through our devoted act of reading.
The Rev. Dr. Laurie A. Jungling serves as an interim pastor in the ELCA Montana Synod, focusing on transition ministry while also writing, researching and leading workshops on the side.
This article is from the April 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.