Several years ago a close friend blindsided me with a penetrating observation. “Fil,” he said, “you are constantly quoting authors who have influenced your life… but you rarely mention the Bible.” Though I am confident there was no malice intended, his truthful words hurt, and even today I feel their sting. Yet following the initial sadness and shame, came eventual transformation, as I began to discover that reading the Scripture is a way into prayer.
I typically read the Bible every day, but my approach was controlled, pragmatic and ultimately neurotic. I had read the Scriptures looking for facts and information so I could impress others with my knowledge and insights. I had read the Scriptures looking for “Bible Bullets” that I could use to defend myself and wound others when they challenged my ideas or beliefs. I had read the Scriptures looking for principles to assist me in becoming more successful. I had read the Scriptures looking for promises to help me feel safe and secure. I had read the Scriptures looking for inspirational stories and insights so that when I spoke to a crowd I would be affirmed as a gifted communicator and godly.
Mostly, I had read the Scriptures looking for anything that might support my selfish interests and desires and enable me to live in the illusion that I was in control. Thus, I had become frighteningly like the Pharisees who were, in fact, the best Bible students of the first century, yet in the process missed out on knowing Jesus. Meanwhile, Jesus read them (and me) accurately when he said, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life” (John 5:39-40 NLT).
My previous way of reading Scripture, figuratively at arm’s length, prevented me from recognizing God and being embraced and transformed by him. Yet, my friend’s observation awakened me to my need for change. Eventually I was on the path to discovering that the Scriptures reveal a Person who is tirelessly searching for me with a Lover’s intensity. Thus, in my reading of Scripture I began to encounter Jesus, who wants not simply a personal relationship with me but an intimate one.
No longer do I see the Bible as a self-help book or a placebo to calm my fears. Neither is it a guide to career success or greater effectiveness in ministry. It is, in truth, a love letter that invites me to be embraced by the lover who wrote it. Scripture has demonstrated its limitless power to free me from the vice the world squeezed me into. The God of the universe, who, in the beginning, shaped life into existence with spoken words, now speaks words that are reshaping me.
For this reshaping power to take effect, I had to begin reading the living, life-shaping words slowly, carefully, and prayerfully, leaving room enough for me to hear God whisper, “Stay with me, Fil. Pay careful attention to me. Hear my words of tender affection. Don’t be in a hurry. Trust that what I say is true.”
These days my interaction with Scripture is not limited to my mind. It also engages my body and emotions, my curiosity and imagination, my will and desire. This has enabled me to wade into a deeper level of understanding and insight growing out of and leading into an ever-deepening relationship with the One who spoke the Sacred Word.
More than ever before, I resonate with St. Augustine’s confession, “Not with doubting, but with assured consciousness do I love thee, O Lord. Thou didst strike my heart with thy word and I loved thee.”
Without judgment or condemnation, take a look at how you’ve been reading Scripture recently. Have you been like Fil, reading it because you “have to” or because it gives you a way to defend yourself?
What would shift if you spent time prayerfully, listening with your whole self?
Fil Anderson is Executive Director of Journey Resources, based in Greensboro, North Carolina. He’s a frequent speaker at conferences, offers individual spiritual direction, and directs retreats and workshops around the country. He's the author of two books, Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers and Breaking the Rules: Trading Performance for Intimacy with God.