Scripture & Ourselves
By |   August 26, 2013 |   in Scripture |   5 Comments

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.

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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.”

Join the Conversation

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:
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.
  • David Williams

    Thanks so much for this much-needed and beautifully written word of grace, Fil!

    Jesus’ words from John 5:39-40 hit me especially hard during a recent visit to Israel. As I was standing near the Western Wall of the temple in Jerusalem, surrounded by a great throng of men who are deeply devoted to the study of the Word of God, it broke my heart to realize that most (if not all) of these dear souls had not yet embraced the life-giving God of the Word, the One from whom and for whom and to whom the whole of Scripture exists (cf. Luke 24:44).

    At the same time, I was reminded of my own spiritual journey, and of my own tendency to “play the Pharisee” more often than I would like to admit. How often do I, as a pastor and teacher, find myself tempted to retreat to my pre-Christian days as a a short-sighted, self-righteous, religious poser? How often to I fail to recognize the God of the Word in the midst of my zeal to study, observe, and proclaim the Word of God?

    This brings to mind another defining moment during my pilgrimage to the Holy Land. While sharing the Lord’s Supper with a group of friends along the first century road to Emmaus, just east of Jerusalem, my eyes were opened anew to the passionate and relentless grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Like the two disciples who broke bread with the risen Lord on that first Easter some 2,000 years ago, Jesus continues to pursue me even when I fail to follow Him. With my brothers and sisters who have gone before me, I pray that the living Word will continue to give us all “holy heartburn” as Jesus talks with us on the road and opens the Scriptures to us (cf. Luke 24:32).

    • Fil Anderson

      David, thank you for offering such a thoughtful and compelling reflection on what I have written. I especially enjoyed hearing about your recent pilgrimage to Israel and appreciated hearing your candid and humble musings about recognizing God in the midst of your study of Scripture.
      And yes…pray, and I’ll pray with you, for that “holy heartburn” you mentioned.

  • Kevin Mortimer

    Fil, Thanks for sharing this. David Williams response gave me goose bumps. Navigating the troubled world of Scripture both within and without has caused great exhilaration and great angst. It is what has caused me to draw much closer to the ancient church. Thankfully, there is great rest in coming to the realization that the God of eternity is equally the God of the now. It has neutralizes my angst and given foundation to my exhilaration.

    • Fil Anderson

      Thanks Kevin for offering your response to my piece and to David Williams’ response. Don’t be anxious but trust God who is utter and profound mystery: incomprehensible, unexplainable, indescribable, unfathomable…just the kind of big God we need!

  • Jeremy Ridley

    “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).

    We put so much emphasis on the bible which is a great place to learn and seek out God, but even in good intentions it can too become an idol. At the very root of the bible is God. Even if we didn’t have the bible for some reason we still have God. I question, if we didn’t have the bible how close would we feel to God? Do we have a personal relationship with Him? Does our prayer life support the previous answers?

    I will have to admit that I don’t know the bible as good as I could due to my lack of desire to read, therefore I attribute my growth and knowledge only through a relationship with God. Although, I feel convicted as I read this post and as I reply because when I want to feel closer to God I will listen to music, read a book, or listen to a sermon. I find that prayer is the last place I find myself and I am convicted by it. I have idolatrized the very spiritual pathways God gave me to have an increased relationship with Him. I know this post was inspired by quoting books more than the Bible, but John 5:39-40 made me think of how many things unintentionally we put ahead of simply coming before God? My conviction leaves me humbled and on my face thanking God that His pursuit of me hasn’t been a reflection of my efforts towards Him. I do feel close to God although I have to confess it is not because of an adequate prayer life, but only because He is constantly talking to me. The question now is, what will I do next? I have to place myself at the foot of the throne more often having a two way conversation with God; done through prayer. He is the true source of life.
    Thank you Fil