A slow walk in a strange country always makes for an exhilarating experience. In the past few years, our family discovered how much we love plodding through sleepy villages, across rugged landscapes, and into the urban thicket of unfamiliar cities. This mode of travel, moving only as fast as your feet will go, permits a leisurely attentiveness that allows viewing the world in ways you’d likely miss otherwise. It starts to become clear how many preconceived ideas—those assumptions you carried without realizing—are at odds with the people you encounter, the conversations you have, the songs and stories you hear. You discover how little you really knew about the place, and the discovery is magnificent.
Likewise, whenever we journey into the Bible and set a deliberate and attentive pace, we’ll discover a strange, wonder-filled world certain to diverge from what we expected. The Bible opens up entirely new terrain where we come face-to-face with the living God and glimpse the vibrant possibilities of the life He envisions for us. In order to embark upon such an expansive odyssey, however, we’ll have to release our narrow, confining presumptions about this dynamic book. We’ll need to unleash our imagination. Rather than rush into Scripture with all our assumptions in tow, we must pause, pay attention to subtleties, and ask questions that may not yield immediate answers. It’s also important to recognize that though the Holy Spirit promises to give us all the wisdom we need, some knowledge will prove elusive.
While the Bible is not esoteric or incomprehensible, attentive care is needed to adequately appreciate its artistry and potent wisdom. With an estimated 5 billion in print, God’s Word tops the list of books with the most copies worldwide, yet it defies any simplistic description. The Bible contains wisdom for living well but is no mere instruction manual. It gives us gripping narratives of kings and peasants, wars and triumphs, power brokers and slaves, yet is so much more than the dusty history of peoples we’ve forgotten. Scripture answers some of the deepest questions of human experience, and yet it doesn’t tell us everything we want to know. Sometimes what we read leaves us befuddled by all the new questions we’ve added to the list.
The Bible’s primary purpose is to give us God. This collision—between what we expect the Bible to do and what it actually does—can turn us topsy-turvy.
As we approach the Bible, we’ll need humility—and a lot of it. We will need to resist the temptation to think we already know what we’ll find and be humble enough to discover, with openness and curiosity, what’s actually there (and what’s not). To engage with the Bible this way, we need eyes to see and ears to hear (Matt. 13:16).
Finding Our Way
On an extended trip into Venezuela, I ran headlong into the fact that something I assumed self-evident and foundational—my perspective of time—was in fact a cultural blind spot. To me, the clock requires precision and punctuality. However, for my friends living in Caracas, the clock invites flexibility, punctuality optional. They assumed the clock provided a general framework that, though helpful, should never take precedence over a conversation, slow lunch, or other human pleasure. It wasn’t that my friends failed to learn how to read their watch or that they practiced an unenlightened lifestyle; rather, the problem was that I carried unexamined expectations into a culture oriented in an entirely different direction. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to completely rid ourselves of biases or presumptions, and this is why, whenever we enter a new world (whether on foreign soil or within Scripture), we should expect a disorienting experience.
Since the Bible offers us the trustworthy story of God’s action in the world, we can understand why His sacred words are certain to dislodge our preconceived ideas. Scripture centers on God, whereas we are often tempted to think (no doubt in subtle ways) that we are the center of the story. We might think the Bible’s job is to give us quick and uncomplicated answers—even good theological answers—or that its main intent is to serve as a self-help coach or a source for quick jolts of inspiration. We might assume the Bible is meant to provide an uncomplicated road map that, if followed with meticulous rigor, will open up a successful and pain-free future. Some of us use the Bible like a talisman, assuming that if we employ its vocabulary, we will secure success.
With two young teenagers, it’s remarkable how often I find myself saying, “You know, the world really doesn’t revolve around you.” It’s even more remarkable how, at age 45, I need to be corrected with this same truth. Whenever we open the Bible, our default posture is to come with our own objectives and queries. However, the Bible’s primary purpose is to give us God. This collision—between what we expect the Bible to do and what it actually does—can turn us topsy-turvy.
The very first words of the Bible erupt with God’s action (“In the beginning God created …”), and on every page that follows, His powerful action is highlighted. From Israel’s history in Exodus and Numbers to the poetry of the Psalms and Ecclesiastes, to the prophetic pronouncements of Jeremiah and Zechariah, to the narratives of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, to the letters of Colossians and Philemon, to the mind-bending visions of Revelation—all of Scripture reveals to us a loving Father who speaks into human reality and who acts within the grit and glory of our lives.
This is good news because what we need most is not self-knowledge but God-knowledge. It’s remarkably easy to get lost in a trap of self-obsession and delusion. However, as the church father Augustine taught us, we know ourselves better in God than we could ever know ourselves on our own. When we enter His story, the skies open and light shines through.
While the Bible often tells us what to do (i.e., don’t steal, don’t lie), it places first priority on telling us what God has done and what we can rest assured He will do. In the Old Testament (also known as the Hebrew Bible), God creates a people named Israel and outlines how they will participate in His unfolding plans to heal and redeem the world. In the New Testament, our healing arrives when God becomes human in Jesus Christ, the Son who does not merely tell us what the Father is like but rather shows us. Jesus dies for us, rises from the dead for us, and creates a new community (the church) as a harbinger of the new creation. Both Testaments, even with all their peculiarities and variety of focus, narrate a single grand story with one primary actor: God.
All of Scripture reveals to us a loving Father who speaks into human reality and who acts within the grit and glory of our lives.
However, we must remember that this is God we are dealing with, the almighty Creator of the universe. If the Bible is a book about God, then we should expect it to be a strange and marvelous book, one we could never pretend to completely understand or hold with too tight a grasp. The Bible will delight and baffle; it will instruct and mystify. Sometimes its searing words will clear the ground around us, but other times they will hem us in. The Bible will disorient us, but then it will set us aright. J. Todd Billings describes the new world offered in the biblical story as “wide and spacious.” However, “it also has a specified character. It is a journey on the path of Jesus Christ.” The Bible insists on leading us to God.
Since we describe Scripture as a story, we should expect to encounter true drama: points of tension, unsavory characters, tales without tidy conclusions, strange lands, and unanticipated plot lines. What’s more, we need the full story in all of its complexity before we can be sure we get the comprehensive picture. We cannot fully appreciate Genesis apart from Revelation or Jonah without reading Luke. We need the entire narrative, every twist and turn. We need the odd books and the genealogies. We need the stories that confound us alongside the stories that make us weep.
However, when we say that the Bible provides a trustworthy story of God’s action in the world, we must quickly wrestle with how the reality described in its pages seems markedly different from our everyday lives. How does our experience of cell phones, two-income families, and multinational corporations bridge back to nomadic shepherds, patriarchal culture, and monarchies with absolute rule? How do some of the Old Testament laws (such as Leviticus 19:27 and Deuteronomy 22:11, which instruct men never to cut their sideburns or trim their beard and prohibit wearing clothes mixing linen and wool) do anything other than leave us scratching our head in bewilderment? And how do we understand those places where Scripture acknowledges (at times without overt judgment) the prevailing social views of its day (i.e., violence, slavery, and subjugation of women and children) that we now understand to be at odds with the full expression of God’s character?
Each of these questions deserves a lengthy answer. But for now, suffice to say that many such conundrums dissipate when we recognize the genius of how Scripture communicates within specific times and social situations. Sometimes God’s instructions (beard-trimming, for example) are simply narrow in focus, aimed at Israel for a precise moment and purpose. Other instructions (guidelines for the humane treatment of slaves, for example) implemented new protections for those who suffered while moving incrementally toward full equality. It’s helpful to realize that categorically disrupting the slave system in one fell swoop would have abandoned slaves to poverty and starvation. Then we can understand the brilliance of Scripture unfolding the patient but determined push toward Jesus’ new community, where there’d be “neither Jew nor Greek ... neither slave nor free man” (Gal. 3:28). And yet all along the way, God works with people wherever He finds us.
However, all this nuance and complexity unveils the fact that the Bible was originally written to people enmeshed within cultures not our own, with questions and world-views very different from ours. Penned primarily in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic and written to people detached from the modern scientific age, no wonder the Bible manifests a strange, unfamiliar world. Its 66 books emerged from the deserts and oases of the Middle East, not from the laboratories or boardrooms of corporate America. This Eastern perspective understood creation and humanity in more holistic ways than we modern Westerners typically do. For example, while we exhibit much anxiety over the conflict between faith and science, Eastern readers of Scripture would struggle to comprehend what all the fuss is about. God is active in creation, they would say, and every truth we learn comes from the God who is the source of all truth. Their language was nimble, often more poetic and sensory, describing the world as they encountered it. Similarly, while we often think in binary categories (either/or), those who first received the Scriptures tended to think in complex categories (both/and).
Further, the Eastern world was (and often is) more collective, with an imbedded sense of how their well-being was bound to the health and prosperity of others and to the flourishing of the natural world around them (the land, water, and creatures). While Western readers often come to the Scriptures with individual concerns, Eastern readers came first with concerns for the whole community (or perhaps, in ancient economies, the whole family). We might tend to read Scripture, wondering, What are God’s intentions for me? whereas its first readers more often wondered, What are God’s intentions for us? These are two postures that would lead us in different and sometimes opposing directions.
Our individual posture toward the Bible shows up whenever we think of it primarily as a book centered on individual devotion. While reading Scripture for personal nourishment is a thoroughly biblical idea, it was first intended to be read within a community. In fact, most early Christians never possessed an individual parchment that they could take home and read on their own. What’s more, we should take caution if we primarily interpret the Bible in isolation and with little regard for the broader church or the historic creeds of our faith. For example, the Berean Christians were called noble because they searched the Scriptures daily to see if the teaching they were hearing was true—but they searched the Scriptures together. Despite the current cult of individual opinion and self-expression, it’s important to recognize the Bible as a communal book. Any ideas foreign to the witness of the church across time and geography should raise more than a few eyebrows.
What’s more, it’s remarkably easy to unwittingly limit ourselves by reading this ancient, intricate book through a narrow, contemporary lens. For instance, how might it shift the way we envision scriptural teaching to recognize that no character in the Bible was white or considered it an inalienable right that he should enjoy an extended vacation or indoor plumbing? What does it mean to pray, as many in the Bible do, for God’s blessing or prosperity when we exist in a sea of blessing?
Recently a friend who’s had an extremely difficult time finding work admitted to me, over plates of sushi, that he’s angry at God. “However,” he admitted, “my argument is unconvincing. God’s been very kind to me, and I know my expectations are unfair.” Still, we all have these expectations and carry them with us every time we open Scripture. What this means is, we cannot assume that the questions we’re asking are always the ones the Bible answers. We must conform to God’s Word, not demand that it conform to us.
We Are What We Eat
Perhaps the strangest thing about the Bible, however, is not what it is but what it does—that is, what it does to us. Fundamentally, the Bible is not a textbook of religious facts or an ancient account of celestial wisdom but rather the living, breathing words of God. These words touch our heart, expand our imagination, call us to obedience, ignite faith, and heal the deepest wounds of our soul. As Hebrews insists, “The word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12). Jeremiah says God’s Word is like a fire burning hot and like a hammer shattering boulders into rubble (Heb. 23:29). The psalmist tells us that God’s Word revives our weary soul and implants wisdom into our confused minds (Heb. 19:7-8). On every page, the divine voice echoes, kindling cold embers and rousing forgotten courage.
For nearly two decades, my wife and I have written notes to each other whenever one of us travels. It’s delightful to open up my suitcase and find two or three envelopes tucked among my stack of shirts. Each evening when I unwrap one, I don’t scrutinize the penmanship, objectively critiquing her choice of vocabulary and formulating ways I would have expressed everything in a more contemporary or scientific way. No, I rip each envelope apart and revel in the words of intimacy and affection intended only for me. While Scripture was written to a community, one of the wonders of the Bible is how its words are also written to each of us, holy words to penetrate our heart. “When you read the Bible,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught, “you must think that here and now God is speaking with me.”
We cannot assume that the questions we’re asking are always the ones the Bible answers. We must conform to God’s Word, not demand that it conform to us.
The apostle John used imagery of eating the Holy Book to describe how we ingest Scripture, how the Bible works its way into us (Revelation 10:9). He tells us the words tasted “sweet as honey” (Revelation 10:10; see also Jer. 15:16). Eugene Peterson explains the corrective John provides: “Eating the book is in contrast with how most of us are trained to read books—develop a cool objectivity that attempts to preserve scientific or theological truth by eliminating as far as possible any personal participation that might contaminate the meaning.” However, eating the book means we read the Bible by devouring it, by chewing on it, by meditating on it, by welcoming it into us.
Menachem Mendel, the 19th-century Hasidic rabbi of Kotzk, Poland, taught that we read the Bible so its holy words will land on our heart. Then whenever troubles, sorrows, or questions crack our heart wide, Scripture can easily tumble inside and become an integral part of us. The hope is that in time Scripture feels at home in us, and we feel at home in Scripture. Somehow, after a lifetime of loving attention and careful meditation, we find that the Bible’s strange world is not nearly so curious as it once seemed. We would never suggest any mastery over this magnificent book, but we find ourselves satisfied and energized in its pages. We now have eyes to see the Bible’s many wonders, to appreciate its abundant wisdom. We realize how this book has transformed us.
As for my family’s love for those walking tours, it’s landed us on several advertisers’ mailing lists. Last week, a tour company specializing in tailored, immersive junkets sent us a packet outlining its guiding principle for global travel: “How you see the world matters.” This is absolutely true, whether for the strange world we discover on another continent or for the strange world we find in Scripture. Our work is to see the Bible for what it truly is—with all its wonder, power, and beauty.
Illustrations by MUTI