This blog focuses on the quest to know and please God in a constantly increasing way. The upward journey never ends. My prayer is that this blog will reflect a heart that seeks God and that it will encourage others who share the same heart desire.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Reasons for Not Understanding the Bible

Some Christians say they don't read the Bible (or read it only with frustration) because they don't understand it. This is sad, because God intends for the Bible to be of great benefit to the Christian, benefit which cannot be fully attained in one or two sermons a week. Self-study of the Bible is a necessity. Increased understanding of the Bible generally comes with increased study, but there are various reasons why some people really do struggle to understand the Bible.

1) A Christian could have a preconceived notion that ordinary Christians can't understand the Bible. A believer who is convinced that the Bible is only for church and only to be explained by the pastor has erected a barrier to understanding. God intends the Bible to be for all believers. God commends the believers in Berea, stating, "Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so" (Acts 17:11). Far from relegating Scripture to the church setting alone, these believers went home and studied the Bible to make sure the preacher was instructing correctly.

2) A Christian could be limited due to his intellectual ability. God has not given every individual the same abilities or opportunities. Someone with more education and a higher reading level is better equipped to understand anything he reads, including the Bible. This does not mean, however, that a less educated person cannot understand the Bible. "The unfolding of Your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple" (Psalm 119:130). If the wording of the King James Version is restrictive, a believer might consider using a reliable modern translation, such as the New American Standard Bible or the English Standard Version.

3) A Christian might not be using profitable reading techniques. I have discussed this elsewhere, but a few general guidelines are that a reader should pause to absorb what he has read, should summarize content in his own words, should read passages within their context, and should approach the Bible systematically.

4) A Christian could struggle due to limited Biblical background. Understanding of the Bible builds over time. The truths found throughout the Bible interconnect with and support each other. As a reader gains understanding of one portion of the Bible, he will be better prepared to understand other portions. As his understanding of those other portions then increases, he will be better equipped to increasingly understand the initial portion. Understanding the Bible is an ongoing process that constantly contributes to increasing understanding. Even new Christians can have some understanding. "Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation" (I Peter 2:2).

5) A Christian might be troubled by his inability to understand certain parts of the Bible. Some parts are harder to understand than others. Peter describes Paul's writings: "In which are some things hard to understand" (II Peter 3:16). The Bible deals with eternal and divine concepts; mere mortals won't be able to understand completely. Limitations in understanding some portions of Scripture should not prevent a believer's continued sincere attempts. In some cases, a Christian might simply need to set aside a certain passage and focus elsewhere. "But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil" (Hebrews 5:14).

6) A believer might struggle to understand because he has "become dull of hearing" (Hebrews 5:11). The author of Hebrews rebukes certain Christians: "For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food" (Hebrews 5:12). The problem is not with the Bible, but with the reader.

There are indeed people who can't understand the Bible. "But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised" (I Corinthians 2:14). This ought not to be true of a Christian, who has the Spirit of God to enable him to understand spiritual truth (John 16:13). A failure to reasonably understand the Bible can be an indication of carnality. While Christians have a spiritual nature, they can allow their carnal natures to squelch their spiritual natures; when carnality rules, spiritual discernment wanes.

Carnality can be expressed through a love of the world. "Do not love the world nor the things in the world" (I John 2:15). "Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God?" (James 4:4). An obsession with, desire for, and following of the world's lifestyle, philosophy, and pursuits creates a great barrier to spiritual discernment by putting a believer in opposition toward God.

Carnality can be expressed through distraction by earthly things. Life contains necessary "distractions," such as family and work; life can also be filled with unnecessary, chaotic, and detrimental distractions, like technology, entertainment, and activities, which quench spiritual appetites and sensitivity. II Timothy 3:4 refers to those who are "lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God." No man can effectively love both (Matthew 6:24).

Carnality can be expressed through resistance to God. A believer can "quench the Spirit" of God who wants to give him understanding (I Thessalonians 5:19). A believer can fight with God over some issue, thus introducing a barrier. "God is opposed to the proud. . . . Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God" (I Peter 5:5-6). Un-confessed sin also introduces an obstacle (I John 1:6-9).

The Bible is powerful and effective (Hebrews 4:12), and God intends for it to be a source of light and understanding (Psalm 119:105). A believer who struggles to understand the Bible should examine these potential areas of limitation and should earnestly ask the Spirit to aid his understanding.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Devotional Drags and Snags: Part 4

The final post in this series shares two additional statements of frustration, confusion, or carelessness regarding daily devotions. Again, the sample statements are not intended to criticize, but rather to provide a springboard for profitable examination.
Part 1: "I didn't have my devotions yesterday, so I had a terrible day" and "I have to read the Bible to get a verse to help me today."
Part 2: "I read the Bible every day, but I don't remember what I read."
Part 3: "Here's what this verse means to me."

5) "I'm almost finished with this devotional book, so I need to find another one."
I don't have an intrinsic issue with devotional books; I have written a couple myself and have contemplated writing others. My concern is for people who only ever use a devotional book, never studying the Bible on their own. Some Christians even claim devotional books are a necessity, as they can't understand the Bible without help. (I intend to do a post soon exploring why people might struggle to understand the Bible. My goal in this post is to encourage those relying on a devotional book to initiate seeking truth for themselves.)

Devotional books primarily contain man's words. A good devotional book will strive to accurately explain and apply God's words, but because of the imperfection inherent in a human author, his words and interpretations can be flawed. There is the danger that a devotional book may not be completely reliable in its teaching.

In many devotional books, a daily entry contains a single verse or perhaps only a portion of a verse. The reader might be exposed to no additional Biblical text in the remainder of the entry. A second danger is that someone using only a devotional book may receive a very restricted diet of Scripture.

A bigger concern than the amount of Scripture is what the author does with that Scripture. While some authors deliberately focus on God's words by explaining the verse(s), others primarily present man's input. The opening verse can be followed by an interesting story or inspirational anecdote so devoid of Scriptural teaching that it could be found in a secular genre. A third danger is in being deceived that one has examined God's truth when he has merely had his ears tickled.

God has given Christians His Word so they can learn about Him and about what He expects of them. The Bible itself claims to have much profit for the believer. "All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness" (II Timothy 3:16). Just like one person's physical exercise cannot profit another, so there is no substitute for personal spiritual exercise. A fourth danger of reliance on devotional books is that a believer might remain weak and dependent.

Devotional books can be valuable when they guide the reader in understanding the Bible. Devotional books may be helpful for new Christians who do not have a Biblical foundation. Devotional books can be beneficial to believers who are in a particularly challenged time of life. Overall, however, Christians who want to grow should pursue the Word itself as the primary focus of their devotions, delegating devotional books to a secondary role.

6) "I am discouraged from having devotions because I get bogged down or bored."
This is a valid concern. Rather than discouraging one away from devotions, however, it should encourage him toward seeking better methods. Any aspect of life - meals, exercise, marriage, activities, daily routine, work - can fall into a rut when it is always the same day after day. The answer is not to stop eating, exercising, being married, seeking diversion, living life, or working. Instead, the person in question should seek to add spark and variety.

From observation and personal experience, I suggest there are three common methods of having devotions: reading an entry from a devotional book each day, reading a chapter of the Bible each day, and reading through the Bible in a year. Christians typically choose one of these methods and then follow it month after month and year after year. It is no wonder that they get bogged down and often perceive minimal return for their investment. It is not surprising that devotions can become an obligation rather than a desired pursuit.

Using a schedule to read through the Bible in a year is a wonderful plan with certain advantages. It helps believers to understand how the parts of the Bible fit together, ensures that a believer is regularly reading all parts of the Bible, and helps to build a strong foundation of Biblical knowledge. But anything with advantages in one area will have weaknesses in other areas. Using this method exclusively prevents a believer from digging deeply into particular passages. In fact, none of the three methods listed above provides the opportunity to delve into the profound truths of the Bible.

A variety of devotional methods can lead to a well-rounded devotional experience, as each method contributes its own areas of strength. While I don't advocate jumping from one method to another with no cohesion or plan, it is certainly reasonable and advisable to alternate methods - perhaps a year at a time, a quarter at a time, at logical junctures, or when freshness is lost. Consider the following sample progression.

Read the Pentateuch at several chapters a day.
Read Genesis, examining the promises of God.
Use Leviticus as a springboard for studying God's holiness.
Study Moses' charge to Israel (Deuteronomy 29-30).
Study the phrase "wait on the Lord."
Read the gospels at several chapters a day.
Read Mark, focusing on Jesus' heart of service.
Study names of Jesus found in John.
Study in detail abiding in the vine (John 15).
Do a word study on peace.
Do a verse by verse study of James.

Broader, general studies can be interspersed with deeper, specific studies to provide a fresh and well-rounded devotional life.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Devotional Drags and Snags: Part 3

The illustrative quotations in this series are intended to reflect common statements of frustration, confusion, or carelessness regarding daily devotions. Rather than questioning the intent of people who make these statements or denying that truth they may contain, I merely desire to clarify or redirect those thoughts.
Part 1: "I didn't have my devotions yesterday, so I had a terrible day" and "I have to read the Bible to get a verse to help me today."
Part 2: "I read the Bible every day, but I don't remember what I read."

4) "Here's what this verse means to me."
I cringe inside when I hear these words. Granted, they can be simply imprecise wording by someone who wants to explain why a verse is special to him. Other times, unfortunately, people mean those words "to me" literally. With literature, the Constitution, and even common terminology, people have come to comprehend things based on the individual reader's interpretation rather than the original author's intent. Sadly, this same fallacious method has transferred to the Bible.

If an author hasn't first clearly identified his message, his words will be unorganized, empty, confusing, and even contradictory. Sometimes authors might be ambiguous intentionally, but generally writers have a clear message they want to communicate; otherwise, they wouldn't go to the trouble of writing. Of all the authors ever in the history of the world, this is certainly true of God. Never has anyone else had a message so important or a desire so fervent for people to understand His message.  God therefore chose His language carefully and deliberately so He could communicate that message effectively.

The Bible is not ambiguous or open to personal interpretation. When a Christian reads the Bible, therefore, he can't decide what he wants a passage to mean; instead, he must endeavor to find out what God intended it to mean. "No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (II Peter 1:20-21).

Repeatedly the Bible reveals about itself that the Holy Spirit directed men to record God's words. This important truth gives the Bible an unsurpassed level of credibility. It means that God accomplished His goal of accurately giving His message. This divinely-inspired accuracy and precision allows for no error or interpretation. With a man's writing, I might realize that he didn't say exactly what he intended to say; I might adjust my interpretation accordingly. God's words cannot be adjusted, adapted, or personally interpreted. He actually did say exactly what He meant to say.

Paul admonished Timothy, "Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth" (II Timothy 2:15). Timothy was to preach God's Word straight and smooth, right down the line, without straying from God's intended message; every believer should strive for that same accuracy.

Each part of the Bible was written within a historical context. These historic events cannot be plopped into the middle of an individual's modern life. For example, one summer I traveled on a missions team to Mexico. In nearly every location we faced water shortages, and it never seemed to be my turn to do laundry. I happened to read Exodus 19:10: "The Lord also said to Moses, 'Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments.'" While perhaps humorous in my context, that was not an instruction for me personally.

Promises in the Bible were given to specific historical people. God told Abraham, "I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son" (Genesis 18:9). This should not be construed by any modern couple to indicate that they will have a miracle baby. Some of God's promises are repeated and restated elsewhere in Scripture to broader groups of people. For example, Joshua 1:9 was spoken specifically to Joshua, but it is one of many times that God declared He is always with His children; this verse is therefore a good example of applicable truth to the modern day.

While error can come from imposing a historic context or promise onto a modern situation, other error comes from seizing upon a word or phrase regardless of context. In his final challenge to Israel, Moses stated, "I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live" (Deuteronomy 30:19). I read an author who took those words "choose life" and interpreted them to mean living life to the fullest by moving on from grief, embracing family, and becoming involved again in activities. That isn't at all what God intended to say through Moses; He was presenting the option of following God or not.

Readers can easily err in understanding the Bible when they have some favorite topic. Rather than reading passages literally or with a mind seeking to receive the intended instruction of individual passages, they impose their favorite topic onto nearly every passage they read. This could be an already erroneous teaching, such as "I have liberty to do whatever I want, so don't judge me," or even something totally scriptural like soul winning.

Each Bible passage has an intended message, and each careful reader should find the same message when reading the same passage. God's specific truth can certainly apply to many people in many situations. For example, "Casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you" (I Peter 5:7) can encourage an overworked mom, a pressured breadwinner, a struggling missionary, or a lonely widow. The specifics of each situation are different, but God's truth is the same.

Instead of "what this passage means to me," a better statement might be "Here's how God's truth impacted me" or "Here's what I believe God means in this passage."

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Devotional Drags and Snags: Part 2

In this brief series I'm examining areas of frustration, confusion, or carelessness regarding having daily devotions. The opening statements that represent these drags and snags often have some validity; my desire is to provide some clarification or refining of those thoughts in order to encourage more profitable devotions. (See part 1 for "I didn't have my devotions yesterday, so I had a terrible day" and "I have to read the Bible to get a verse to help me today.") Here is the third statement.

3) "I read the Bible every day, but I don't remember what I read."
This statement is generally true of every kind of reading, whether it be the Bible or anything else. It is therefore less reflective of Bible reading in particular than of general reading technique.

For many years I tried to teach students how to read their school assignments more effectively. Various systems promoted over the years have the same basic premise - that the reader has to be looking for something when he reads and has to identify what he has read. The idea is that if the reader has some idea beforehand what the passage is about, he will be better prepared to understand it. The ability to summarize the content in his own words afterward demonstrates that he understands what he has read, while knowing he will have to summarize causes him to read more alertly and purposefully.

For example, in the SQ3R system, the reader Surveys, Questions, Reads, Recites, and Reviews. Here's a rough demonstration of a history assignment. Survey: student looks over chapter title and section headings and observes, "This is about beginning of the Civil War, the reasons it started, and the way the sides divided." Question: student composes questions. "How many causes were there? What were those reasons? How did states choose their positions?" Read: student reads the passage, especially looking for the answers to his questions. Recite: student verbalizes the answers to his questions. One section at a time, he states in his own words what each paragraph or section revealed. Review: when the student reads a later assignment, he again summarizes the previous assignment.

The Bible is not merely a textbook and is not designed like a textbook, but a similar approach is helpful in reading, comprehending, and remembering the Bible. There is little profit in reading the Bible just to check it off a daily list of requirements, and there is even less profit in rapidly reading to accomplish the task more quickly. I would suggest a variation of the above method, using at least the questioning, reading, and reciting steps.

Question: The reader should know before he starts that there are answers he is looking for. Here are some general questions that could work for any Bible passage. (I introduced these questions in Teen-Aged Aimlessness, which is primarily a personal testimony of my initial struggles to have devotions.)
·         Why did God put this passage in the Bible? What is it supposed to teach?
·         How can I summarize this passage in one to three sentences?
·         What does this passage teach me about God?
·         What things can I pray based on this passage?
·         How should this passage impact my life?

While the above questions are a good start, a reader could also ask and answer questions pertinent to a particular passage. In reading John 10, for example, about the Good Shepherd, the reader could ask, "What does a shepherd do for his sheep? What makes Jesus a good shepherd? What is the difference between a good shepherd and a bad one? Why should I trust Him as my shepherd?" If reading Jude, a reader could seek to learn where false teachers come from, what their false teaching is, how to respond to false teaching, and how to avoid becoming a false teacher.

Read: The most crucial requirement of reading is to read with care - not rushing, not skimming, not mindlessly. It may be necessary to read a verse more than once, and it is often helpful to go back and read a previous verse or verses again to lead effectively into a new verse. The reader is primarily looking for the literal meaning, trying to understand what the words actually say. With that foundation, he can seek to comprehend how the different verses fit together and what God intended to teach through the passage.

Recite: I believe that perhaps the most beneficial component of devotions is to write something down - a summary, an outline, answers to the above questions, personal application, etc. Formulating the thoughts in this way prevents a fuzzy and imprecise "I think I have an idea what that was about" result. Many teachers would assert that if a student can't explain something in his own words, he hasn't really learned it. In Write It Down, I demonstrate a very simple approach that I used when I first started to read the Bible. In Basic Questions Applied, I demonstrate what answering the five questions above might look like when reading Psalm 23.

Over and over again I told my students, "The more times you handle a piece of information, the more likely you are to remember it." Writing truth down is a very effective way of handling God's truth again (beyond merely reading it). Writing His truth in one's own words has the same reinforcing advantage that actually baking a cake or building a birdhouse has over merely reading the recipe or instructions.

Some of the profit from reading God's Word is subtle, gradual, and progressive. Value comes through habitual reading over the long term. Value comes through regularly prioritizing the Bible and maintaining a mental estimation of its worth. Value comes through repeatedly yielding to God's Word as it impacts the heart.

In addition to this long-term growth, daily benefit can be achieved when the reader states, "I will utilize strategies to help me understand the Bible better."