The Bible and I have had a long love-hate relationship. Like star-crossed lovers we seem not to show up to the right moonlit balcony at the same time or on the same night. As the sacred words on the page call my name, my ears are stopped up tight to their romancing sighs. I come to those pages lusting for truth and have often found a cold shoulder pointed in my direction. My numerous study Bibles and countless marking pens brought me neither appreciably closer to God nor to Christ-likeness. I was left to wonder…why? In fact, it was actually starting to become boring and stale.
I found reading Shakespeare or Gerard Manley Hopkins more satisfying, theoretical physics more challenging and novels interpreting Arthurian legend more engaging. It seems that I had fallen under the same spell as any other post-Enlightenment, rational, Western individualist and treated the Bible much like the DVD manual. This makes the following questions not only fair but also, expected.
What happens when I get it mastered? What then? Should I move on to more “difficult” material than God? When all the pieces are finally put together, as is the intent of such an approach, will I be more like Jesus? More fulfilled? More? Is it me I wonder? Am I missing something? Is it more biblical education that is the key? Does my disobedient spirit somehow “block” the truths that are otherwise forthcoming? What if I have it all put together and there are pieces left over? Missing? (Come on, we’ve all been there).
Like so many others before and around me, I had missed the point – life, abundant and authentic, through Christ. In the words of Thomas Merton, “it is of the very nature of the Bible to affront, perplex, and astonish the human mind. Hence the reader who opens the Bible must be prepared for disorientation, confusion, incomprehension, perhaps outrage.” In other words, if we’re seriously interested in what the Bible has to say, we’d better be prepared for God to mess in our business.
As Wesley insisted, we must come to the text in the same spirit in which it was inspired. It can then do its deepest work as a living entity – alive because of the Life dwelling both in and outside its pages. Both the heart of faith required to even enter the arena with God must come from God and the understanding gained from such a partnership also comes from God. We are equally at the mercy of the God whose word we treasure and at the behest of the word whose object and subject is the God we seek.
To a large extent, I don’t believe it’s possible to come to the Bible completely unfettered of all cultural derivations, emotional misgivings, and preconceptions – the detritus of our existence. This is why I believe the Scripture cannot be separated from the Logos to whom it ultimately points or from the Spirit who wields its power and brings its light. Only in Trinitarian tandem can they break the crust of our lives and settle us into the unforced rhythms of grace (see Jonathan Edwards’, Religious Affections).
As the Word in the word slowly transforms us we come to live in kairotic ways (mystical rather than intellectual); the time behind time, the spaces between the words in which God works mystery into us. In abandoning ourselves to this encounter we become incarnational shadows of Ultimate Reality. This cannot be the case if we approach holy writ as merely a book; God reduced to a subject of textual dissection. In so doing, we deny the Spirit in the text access to an available and willing subject for the healing scalpel of God. God will not submit to being a concept for us to master but seeks to be the Master of all our concepts.
The Bible and I have become lovers again. Symbolically, I have given permission to the iconic Scripture empowered by the living Spirit to “undress” me that we might, in the mysterious dance of faith, dance naked together in silent vulnerability. In many ways, largely imperceptible, it is slowly doing its work of advancing my soul in matters of spiritual formation. Through the Word I am becoming a word from God to the world.
In an effort to multiply applicable metaphors: the Word of God is: life not death, iconic more than descriptive, poetry more than prose, a novel more than the phone book, rhyme more than reason, portrait more than photograph, passion over the prosaic, a spring of new growth more than a silo of old grain. It is God’s written voice that, by the Spirit’s illumination and guidance can become our voice. I pray that it is becoming my voice.
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Robert Rife is the music and worship minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church (www.westpress.org), a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, poet and writer. He is a recent graduate from Spring Arbor University with an M.A. in Spiritual Formation and Leadership and blogs at innerwoven.me.