In a valiant effort to get people into God’s Word, pastors and church leaders sometimes stress the simplicity and ease of Bible reading. We want to make the Bible seem more accessible than it is with the hope that more people will read it. This is the wrong approach.
It’s true that, at one level, it’s easy to pick up the Bible and read the words on the page. But at the deeper level of reading (the act of interpreting correctly and applying well), we face a number of challenges. When we minimize these challenges, we also minimize the great reward that comes from devoting ourselves to something difficult, a Book that demands something of us.
Speaking specifically of young people, Jen Wilkin writes:
When we hand them a vision of Christian discipleship devoid of earnest study, it’s likely we do more than just short-change them on their ability to learn. We short-change them on the process of becoming a mature disciple. We may also short-change the Bible as not actually relevant without hooks or gimmicks, or as not actually accessible without spoon-feeding.
More concerning, we communicate a tacit value statement. Students understand that what is important is worth our time and effort to attain. They regularly invest long hours, not just in their schoolwork, but in their sports team, music lessons, dance classes, or jobs.
When the church says, “We know you’re busy. Just invest a little time in the Bible,” students understandably infer Christian discipleship falls below their other commitments. Since it requires so little of them, it must not be that important.
Why Reading the Bible Is Hard Work
In his book Hermeneutics as Apprenticeship: How the Bible Shapes Our Interpretive Habits and Practices, David Starling makes a similar point about Bible interpretation: “Reading the Bible is not easy. Hard work can be involved in reading any book well, but the Bible poses some particular difficulties for Christian interpreters.”
Starling lists three difficulties we encounter in interpreting the Bible.
1. We read the Bible to read the world.
First, as a book about the God whom it presents in its opening pages as the creator of all things, it has implications for how we are to understand the whole shape and purpose of created existence; all its small and messy particulars are connected, one way or another, with the great universal questions of life.
In other words, Starling says, because the Bible matters for all of life, and because it provides answers to some of the most profound and enduring questions of existence, we will face challenges in rightly reading and applying its meaning. The Bible is not just a book we look to read, but a book to be looked through so that we might rightly read our world.
2. We read the Bible in order to understand and obey.
Second, hand in hand with that, the Bible is given to us not only to inform our understanding but to guide our steps. For both of these reasons, the task of understanding the Bible is, for us, inextricably connected with the task of understanding the whole world, including the immediate circumstances in which we must choose our paths and make sense of our experiences.
The Christian does not merely wish to understand God’s Word, but also to obey it. We want to follow the path laid out for us in these texts. The Bible can’t be reduced to a map for life, but its story does provide a framework for rightly orienting ourselves to God and to others.
Likewise, our circumstances and choices (past and present) are bound up in how we interpret (and misinterpret) the Bible. Reading this book is personal in ways that other books are not because it lays claim to our future.
3. The Bible is God’s revelation of himself.
Third and finally, we read the Bible as a book that is not just about God but from God, as the chief vehicle for the authoritative self-communication of the God with whom we are in covenant relationship; if we struggle to understand or to believe what it says, then our difficulties are not only intellectual but emotional, existential, and spiritual. To interpret the Bible is to interpret the universe, and to wrestle with the Bible is to wrestle with God.
We believe that God is the ultimate author of this Book. Once we see this book as the revelation of God’s character and his saving acts, we are no longer studying in order to merely figure out the text’s meaning; we are reading in order to better know and love our Creator. As John Piper has said, God will not simply be analyzed; he will be adored.
One More Challenge
If I were to add one more challenge to Starling’s list here, it would be that Bible interpretation must be done in community with other believers. No other book is like the Bible in requiring a community’s involvement and embodiment. Interpreting and applying the Bible in community multiplies both the challenges and rewards.
Bible reading is a transformative experience. So let’s keep encouraging people to get into the Bible. But let’s make sure they know how difficult, demanding, and extraordinarily rewarding it will be.