I am quite surprised at how, for most of my life, the bible was offensive to me.
I avoided it. I held it in animosity. I felt it was a book that was clutched by the fearful, by those afraid of different interpretations, or points of view, or inflections. And I was taught to use it the same way, for its only job was to prove certain truths and disprove others. There was the obvious umbrella story of God and creation and Christ and salvation, but, in the end, the Word of God needed to only be used to prove correctness, and to justify systems.
My entire coloring of the Word of God hinged on a belief that there was something, some reason, some dogma, that used the Word of God only to parse and select and dissect. And through that learning, I began to feel bitter, and hurt, and that this perspective of the Word of God was nothing short of a tragedy, no different from what was committed by someone like Thomas Jefferson, who cut and sliced the Word of God for his own using, who not only wrote, perhaps, the greatest document in American history, but could also be so blind to the pervasive and holistic truths in the bible. Or even by Martin Luther, who rejected entire books of the New Testament on personal beliefs, even while reclaiming the principle place of the Word of God in the lives of Christendom.
These two men did great things, but their treatment of the Word of God was similar to those I knew who could openly believe and defend certain aspects of the bible, but completely disregard and disparage other parts. So the Word of God became prejudicial, judgmental, and oppressive, and I knew, I knew, that God would not communicate something so harsh. I just had no idea how to prove that.
So the Word of God was a tragedy to me, and in dire need of rescue.
And I was unsure how to resurrect it from this gloomy place, feeling, at one time, that it would be imprisoned in this selfish cell for the remainder of my life.
These claims are rather alarming, I suppose. My calling and life have been spent as a minister, and the bible, the Word of God, is a book used exclusively in my teaching and training. But these are true sentiments, and probably, if you are honest with yourself, dear reader, are probably even true for you.
And then something happened.
I began to read it. I began to let it open itself to me. I decided, as well, to remove all pressure from the journey completely, disregarding plans to read it within certain time frames. I even viewed those (and still do, in certain respects), as opportunities to succeed for the sake of success. When the bible is read only for completion and success, then it is further robbed of its power. It is the magnificent Word of God, not to be used in an opporunity to further prove that it can be completely read in the matter of one year.
Think about that, for just a moment. The story of the Word itself took over two millenium to complete. Even the smallest of chapters contains so much information about God’s sovereignty that it could be read every day, for an entire year, and never lose its luster.
I also changed translations, having used, for the better part of my life, the New International Version. A good, scholarly text, for sure, but I feel that it, even at times, loses the personality of the writers or the prophets and instead tries too hard to walk the fine line between a definitive translation and a readable text. I needed a new life breathed into an ancient text, and have adopted the New Living Translation in my devotional reading, and I now feel, for the first time, that there are translators who seem to believe that real, actual people wrote these ancient texts, for the passion in the writings is now more apparent than it has ever been. This decision, too, was a difficult one to make. My particular bias toward the Word of God was to take care of every single word, and every nuanced translation, and, in the end, the tragedy of that view was leading to an emphasis on the trees, all the while missing the forest.
I began this journey by reading the Psalms and Proverbs, then moving to the Kings and Chronicles, through Ephesians and Galatians and Titus, and Micah and Hosea and Isaiah. These are random places to begin, for sure, but my familiarity with the larger, more exposed books, really kept me afraid of reading. I could not, and would not, begin reading in Genesis, or even Matthew. I needed a random place to begin, which would stir my thoughts back to the origins, much like flashbacks, but gave me suspense and anticipation to read more.
This journey has led to an anticipation, every morning, of reading now. And for the first time in my life, I simply cannot wait to read what God has revealed. Stories and prophecies in Isaiah, written maybe 2,700 years ago, speak truths today … to me. The book of Hebrews, which I largely avoided, makes sense when read next to Isaiah, and I now understand why this New Testament book was entirely controversial to an audience who believed, as I once did, that adopting a line-by-line protocol to interpretation is incredibly dangerous.
To an audience disturbed by the concept of a “once-for-all-sacrifice,” the writer of Hebrews explains that sacrifices, as they once were, have been cancelled by the all-consuming atonement found in the self-sacrifice of Christ. The writer further states that pleasing sacrifices, now, are “doing good,” and “sharing with others.” But even that statement is more clearly understood after the writer has gone to great lengths to explain sacrifices in the Judaical law. Animal sacrifices have been substituted by the sacrifice of God, who now only accepts complete, moral living as the only sacrifice we could ever make that could be pleasing.
I have also opened the book of Hosea through my journey, well aware of the famous marriage of Hosea to Gomer, and knowing that their marriage is a parallel to the story of God and Israel. But in that book, God’s love for them is expressed in tender ways. God says that finding Israel was like finding grapes in the desert.
Read that sentence again, and meditate on its full meaning. To me, it is one of the most passionate statements in the entire bible, and, even in a simple phrase, the meaning of the full story, of the entire Word of God, becomes even clearer.
Later, in Hosea 9, God says that this grape, this luxurious treat in a withered land, disregarded its savior for a god that could not save.
And that story, that line of thought, is later, in Hosea 14, followed by a remark by God that, in spite of the disregard He felt by his people, He will still love them freely, because His love knows no boundaries, and that one day, again, they will blossom like grapevines.
This is the God I yearned to know, the God that was buried beneath a scattering of a few verses — verses repeated only in the arena of defending and proving — and the God I needed to be resurrected in my life.
Moreover, the book of Hosea ends with this statement: “The paths of the Lord are true and right, and righteous people live by walking in them. But in those paths sinners stumble and fall.” Jesus, the Messiah, said Himself in Matthew 7 that the way to God’s kingdom is through a small gate and a narrow road, and only a few find it. Previously, I only knew this statement as a judgmental sentence, an oppresive statement in a belief where only special people — those intelligent enough to find the path — will make it. But when compared to the statements of Hosea, it’s meaning becomes clear. Jesus was making claims to which his audience was already familiar, claims they knew themselves from the book of Hosea. The relationship with God is intense, but delightful, and the road is narrow, not because God made it that way, but because only a few choose to walk it. How much wider it would be if more people made the choice to walk there!
And I never knew this, in all my years as a trained minister, until I separated my vocation to the Word from my devotion to the Word.
Through this journey, I am most grateful to youversion.com, a site hosted by LifeChurch.tv. You can discover more about LifeChurch through their site, but, in essence, they are devoted to bringing Jesus through new media. That is displayed in their ability and foresight to begin youversion.com, a site which has been transforming in my own life. Through this site, anyone has access to over 41 different translations of the bible, for free, and a handful of ways to begin reading the Word of God.
I have learned, then, a few things through this journey.
The Word of God is bigger than doctrine. It is bigger than apologetics. It is bigger than history. It is bigger than me. It is bigger than my beliefs. It is bigger than your beliefs. It is bigger than worship. It is bigger than governments. It is bigger than presidents. It is bigger than politics. It is bigger than colleges. It is bigger than money. It is bigger than your dreams. It is bigger than your life. And if you find any of this offensive, then read the Word of God anew. Read it without trying to prove your beliefs are right, and read it without trying to prove that the beliefs of others are wrong. Read it as if you’ve never read it before, as if you have no idea of its contents.
Because, I believe, that is the only way to rescue the Word of God. It cuts through everything, whether doubt or defense, laying us open to listen and obey (Hebrews 4:12.MSG). And if you’ve never experienced this power, then you’ve never read the Word of God as it is meant to be read.
Rescue it in your own life. Please. Because until you read it, you will constantly look for truth in your music, in your movies, in your television, in your relationships, in your status, in your occupation, in your account, in your muscle, in your wit, in your appearance, in your stamina, in your reputation, in your business, in your family, in your church, in your talent, in your books, in your … .
And if you constantly look for truth in those places, your search will never end. You will keep buying, keep traveling, keep working, keep sharpening, and keep watching. And you will grow weary and tired and bitter, until you see, for yourself, and maybe for the first time, the true sovereignty of a God whose words are proven true (Proverbs 30), who suspends planet Earth without help, who calls his beloved “grapes in the desert,” who desires His creation to learn from even the ants (Proverbs 30), and who planned salvation for humanity even before He created the world (Revelation 13).
And that, dear reader, dear searcher, is a picture of God that can end your search. For good.