Over the past month almost every major sphere of my life has shifted. I’ve transitioned from being a corporate wageworker to a stay-at-home homeschooling mom.
My husband and I moved our family and all our things into an older, repair-needy home.
And my social circle has shifted. I no longer have regular adult conversations sprinkled throughout my day between meetings or over slow cups of coffee. I now converse mostly with my five- and two-year old boys over juice boxes and legos, and on occasion I manage to speak to the weary retail worker at Target.
And I am so impressionable. My conversations have morphed so that I now sometimes sound like I, myself, am five years old… or maybe even two.
My husband has been rock solid in the change. He speaks calmly, makes thoughtful decisions, and doesn’t panic in the new sole-breadwinner responsibility thrust upon his shoulders. In fact, from my vantage point, he is thriving.
I have not been so heroic in the wake of all the transitions. I find myself hunkered down in awe, arms stretched protectively over my soul… asking the Lord to mercifully put His hand over my eyes as He orchestrates the crashing waves of change. I can hardly handle the weight of His sovereignty in all of it. In every breakfast prepared… in every counting exercise completed or storybook read… in every dinner plate washed and stacked by my exhausted hands after bedtime…
I feel seasick and exhausted as I watch the plans He has detailed for my life unfurl in the fresh winds of each new day.
I had always assumed that my calling and my legacy was something to be discovered beyond the walls of home base… that the adventure was out there somewhere. The Lord has opened my eyes to see that the greatest adventure of my life is happening right here… in this place where I scrub toilets and fold laundry and hold children as they cry over scrapes and bruises.
My heart is full. My soul is feasting. And I am being refined in the fire of the obvious and humbling fact that I can not do this without Him. I am nothing without His grace.
My job as a follower of Christ is to obey my Lord. My role as His daughter is to do His will. In this I will fail completely on my own. Jesus is the only one who can truly accomplish the will of the Lord… and here in my home, in the rare quiet of a forced afternoon nap time, He is pouring out His mercy and showing me the way. One beautiful anonymous day at a time.
“The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.”
I may be wrong, but I have a nagging suspicion that most Christian individuals living in the bible belt are passive readers of their Bibles. They may read a portion of scripture every day, but––likely––they are under some sort of compulsion to do so (whether real or imagined), and that compulsion starts them off in the direction of passive readership of God’s holy word.
A passive reader is someone who reads quickly or nonchalantly, and rarely remembers what they are reading. They are typically selfish readers––whether they are aware of it or not.
Some passive readers focus on speed––their goal is productivity in their reading. I call these “checkbox readers” because their primary goal for reading is to accomplish some sense of pride at having finished the reading, whether or not they retained anything from it. I have found that I am tempted towards this type of readership when I participate in the traditional group bible study method of reading scripture. Don’t get me wrong, I love group bible study––but one of my sin patterns is to submit to productivity rather than laying down my list of hopeful accomplishments in submission to the Lordship of Christ. The temptation to read scripture this way is heavy in our American culture––a culture which values what you do over who you are.
Some passive readers focus solely on affirmation and application of the reading to their personal lives. They often read when they feel they need something from the text. I call these “consumer readers.” You may be thinking, well––is that not active readership? This person wants to engage the scriptures for their personal well-being, don’t they?
Seemingly, but no.
This type of passive reader forfeits correct context for what they hope to hear from the scriptures. Often, this type of approach leads to false beliefs about the character of God and our relationship to Him. Imagine that you receive a letter from the White House. Having recently felt unappreciated for any of your contributions to our country’s needs, you open it and quickly skim to the bottom where you read “Thank you for your commitment and loyalty to our country. We would not be the nation we are today without you.” You close the letter happily, encouraged that the President thought to write to you to thank you for being such a special citizen. What you missed entirely was that the letter was a notice of draft into the armed forces requiring your attendance at check-in in two weeks time. You’ve read the letter out of context, and the resulting implications for your citizenship and your daily life are impending.
It is not so much different to approach the holy scriptures seeking personal affirmation and application before considering the context of the text you are reading.
And then some passive readers approach the text only when led by a guide, typically a pastor on a Sunday morning and a guided Bible study. Often, not always, these readers approach the scriptures with unsure trepidation, similar to a foreigner approaching a native to ask where the bathroom might be located or if there is one at all. I call these readers “visitor readers” because they have formed an approach to the biblical text that assumes the text was not written for them, it was written for those who are teaching it to them––they are just visiting during the span of the sermon.
My goal is to inspire you to awaken from passive readership so that you may become an active reader of the one text that I believe is the most important work you will ever engage with in your lifetime.
What is an active reader?
An active reader takes the time necessary to dig into the context of the text they are approaching—considering audience, authorship, time period, cultural happenings, and textual themes. They often read the scripture with pen in hand, making notes on the things they do not understand or those things that engage their thinking on a deeper level. They read the same passage multiple times, and—not always, but often—they read slowly. An active reader reads to understand the text, not simply to benefit from it.
Good active readership requires approaching a text knowing that you stand to be corrected by what you may read. Your assumptions give way to the content in the scriptures, and—although you may wrestle with what you find there—you actually wrestle.
My question to you is:
How are you approaching your Bible today? (If you approach it at all?)
Do you desire to walk away from your reading of scripture––even a small portion of scripture––with a deeper understanding of this God who saves?
In my last article, I encouraged you to begin to pray that God would give you a hunger for His holy word. Today, I encourage you to reflect on how you are currently approaching scripture. Are you a passive reader of God’s holy word—unsure how to extract more meaningful meaty content from these sometimes confusing and foreign passages? Or are you an active reader of scripture, allowing the living word of God to seep into the crevices of your born again existence?
Over the next few weeks, I will provide some suggestions on how to approach scripture in a way that will allow you to walk away with deep truths about God resonating in your soul, supplying you with His bread of life and leaving you longing for the next moment you can crack open your Bible.
If this sounds intimidating to you, rest assured the suggestions I will provide are elementary and all levels of literacy can apply these methods to their reading.
There are a lot of reasons to remain a passive reader––none of them good, in my opinion. But there is one good reason to become active in your reading of the gospel—active readership will fuel a life burning with passion for walking the narrow path with Jesus. What could be more exciting than that?
I highly recommend Jen Wilkin’s Women of the Word for more on how to be an active and informed reader of the Bible. I will be including some of her suggestions that have impacted my relationship with scripture in articles to come.
“In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”
Growing up, I was taught to discover God primarily through life experiences rather than through scriptural study. And, truly, experience is a legitimate and good way to discover God. In Romans, Paul writes, “They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities––his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God” (Romans 1:19-20), and I can attest to this.
Encouragement to seek God through my personal experiences with Him and my observations of His work around me provided me with the confidence to proclaim the presence of a God I knew loved me. Even in my wayward college years, I never questioned the existence of God because I had experienced Him––I heard His voice, I saw His perfection in creation, and I observed His movement in the world in both charismatic and private encounters.
I knew God.
Growing up, it wasn’t God I questioned.
It was Jesus.
As I was taught Christianity, Jesus was kind of this hand-wavy thing over on the side of an all-powerful miraculous God. I knew about Jesus. I believed He was a real person in history––but I was not completely confident in His divinity.
I fell where I think many bible belt Christians fall on the belief continuum. I was a deist at most who thought of Jesus as that impactful man in history who may possibly, in some way or another, be the Son of God. But I was unsure.
My lack of confidence in the Lordship of Jesus is what enabled my prodigal years during college. I walked away from Christianity (who am I kidding… I sprinted away from Christianity) in an attempt to find something solid I could stake my flag in. I didn’t want a hand-wavy possibility… I wanted firm truth, even if that firm truth went against all I had previously experienced. I was willing to consider that I may have missed the mark on who God is and who I am in relationship to Him.
I searched for my solid foundation in books. I read voraciously and devoured every critical perspective: postmodern, marxism, feminist, post-colonial, queer, deconstructive theory and more. I began to wonder, is it possible to be something other than seasick in the ocean of personal discovery?
It wasn’t until after my college years and into my early married years that I faced the God I had experienced in childhood and began to seek the answers from Him, and that is when I found redemption and a Savior. I was reintroduced to Jesus entirely by faith, which is really all it takes for a life restored by Christ.
But, still, not fully certain.
I am the Christian who has prayed time and time again “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
Then, over one inconspicuous dinner, my faith was bolstered by a very simple question. My friend sat calmly on the other side of a steaming plate of baked chicken and said, “I think the meaningful question to ask yourself is ‘do you believe scripture has authority’?”
Up until that point scripture was most often presented to me as some sort of highly suggested self-help guide, although rather than “five points to a better life,” the Bible felt really difficult to apply and therefore difficult to open at all.
I longed to know the answer… do I believe scripture has authority?
I was recovering from an emotional block towards the Bible that caused me to hold the scriptures at a firm distance during my young adult years. In all my reading, I never included my Bible in my critical study. I was so emotionally confused by the use of the Bible as a method for claiming prosperity promises from God that I just felt it best to keep it sidelined for most of my academic career.
But that season was over, and I had claimed my faith in Jesus, although still searching for my solid foundation, so I began to intentionally read the Bible. I approached the Bible as a literary text: in context, holistically and as separate distinct written forms. I began to ask the question “who is this text about?” and discovered––to my surprise––that it wasn’t about me at all. The Bible is a book about God.
My Savior. The one I have experienced my whole life through creation, in private prayer, and in my wonder at His miraculous power. I was reading the Old Testament and seeing descriptions written thousands of years ago that matched the very character of the God I knew.
And that God and those scriptures continuously asked me to consider the divinity of Jesus.
From the beginning of creation, through the early years of Israel, in the laments during the Israeli oppression, and in the warnings of the prophets I read one consistent theme––the Messiah is coming. And in the very detailed accounts in the New Testament I read that Jesus answers every longing for that coming Messiah.
A mantra began to form solid and secure within me: Jesus has been prophesied since the beginning of time, and He is now alive in his human body sitting at the right hand of the Father as the Son of God ruling over all.
Over time––guided by scripture––Jesus, the living Word of God, took His place as the authority over my life. Everything just kind of clicked into place once that was cemented.
I no longer feel seasick in the search for my identity––I am a child of God, completely unworthy and fully redeemed, created for a purpose, placed in this time for His glory, called to simply and steadfastly follow in the footsteps of Jesus my Savior and the Lord over my life. The Bible is now the cement that solidifies my firm foundation in Jesus. What a joy it has been to open the scriptures and discover more about the character of my Savior!
Friend, I want that joy for you as well. If you are one of the many who struggle to approach the Bible, I want to help you open this journey into the scriptures. You don’t have to be a literary scholar, an expert in Hebrew, or a staunch legalist to find meaning in the Word of God. You can be you. The scriptures are not mystical or unapproachable. They were written for you by the One who created you about the One who created you.
If you read that and think Yes, I want to know about the One who created me! then you are my audience over the next few weeks.
But, look, you don’t need me. You need Him. So although I will share about reading in context, building biblical comprehension, and establishing a regular meditative practice with the scriptures, you really only need to do one thing to get started in scripture today.
With no exaggeration, anytime I have approached God with the request to help me read His Word, He has responded by setting my heart on fire for His holy scriptures. God is willing and eagerly waiting to answer.
Scripture does have authority. It is life-giving and transformative. It reveals our shortcomings leading us to repentance before a loving Father––a God who wins us over with kindness (Romans 2:4). And, yes, the scriptures are ancient and long and sometimes seem culturally irrelevant or confusing, but the scriptures also breathe life into our existence by setting us right on who this whole thing is about and how much the God of all Creation is willing to fight for our redemption.
Paul writes that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
If you struggle to understand how that Bible on your shelf may be useful, you’re not alone. Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing a few simple steps and tools that have helped me approach and understand this beautifully written gift of truth from our loving Creator. My hope is that, like me, you will find a solid foundation to bolster a life-giving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
But it starts now with a simple hello to our heavenly Father, followed by a request for His help in opening the scriptures to us. I can’t wait to dive deeper with Him.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
She sobbed into the phone, “It’s just so confusing. Does God heal people or not? Jesus healed everyone who asked him, so where is the healing I’m asking for?”
My heart ached for my friend, as she has found herself in a whirlwind of despair while also riding a fast train of newly devoted faith in Jesus.
“I feel like I’m on a roller coaster, and I just want to know how this all works.”
The issue of healing is confusing in the Bible Belt where main streets in every small town are dotted with Bible thumpers and prosperity preachers arguing about the rights and wrongs of healing faith. I know, I grew up here. I grew up confused.
As we talked, I prayed for wisdom. I’ve personally experienced very miraculous healing. I’ve also experienced long seasons of deep suffering. In some ways, I am still waiting on the Father. I sometimes catch myself observing that although Jesus has conquered sin and death, all things continue to die around me.
As I prayed I kept thinking about the Garden of Eden. Maybe you know the story, but maybe you don’t.
God creates a beautiful garden and then He places the first humans in that garden. We call those humans Adam and Eve. The Lord places two trees in the middle of the garden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil He deems off-limits––it is His one rule. He commands Adam (and Eve through Adam) not to eat of that tree with a warning that by doing so they will die. But a cunning serpent suggests to Eve that God is a liar and that if they eat from the fruit of the forbidden tree they will not die, but will be like God knowing both good and evil (Genesis 3:5). Eve disobeys God and takes the first step towards trusting her own understanding of what is good and what is evil by claiming the forbidden knowledge as her own. Adam also joins her and their eyes are opened to their nakedness. They feel shame for the first time. The Lord clothes them, curses them, and sends them out into the wilderness with a promise that the longer narrative would not end in tragedy.
Before they eat of the fruit, Adam and Eve live deferring to the God of Creation. When eating the fruit, they follow their own understanding of what is right and permissible for them. As a result, death and suffering enter the human story. The next generations recorded in the Old Testament prove that very real result of sin with a gradual, but drastic, decline in the life span of humanity.
And then another story from scripture came to my mind.
Job is a man who, although righteous before God, is allowed to endure great great suffering for a long time––great, great suffering. In his cries to the Lord he advocates for himself based on his righteousness (read: his faith) in the Lord. He is desperate to understand why he is being forced to endure great despair. His friends suggest all sorts of things, including that he might be suffering as a result of sin––but he’s not. When God finally responds to Job’s myriad of questions and pleas and laments, He says, “Who is this who questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? Brace yourself like a man, because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them,” and then He goes on to end in the most epic rap battle of all time showing Job a panoramic view of how great and mighty and sovereign He is. Summary: He is the Lord. Who are we to question His wisdom, even in our suffering?
In remembering this history, it occurs to me that the knowledge of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’ belongs to the Lord, whether we have access to it or not. Living with Jesus as Lord means we follow His example and defer to the Father. The knowledge of what we should do and how the Lord should respond to us is His to determine completely––after all, He is infinitely greater in wisdom than our finite beings (Rom. 11:33).
Jesus understands this firsthand. He pleads, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42). He goes forward and endures the greatest suffering known to man to free us from our sins. The perfect Son of Man responds in obedience and endures His unrighteous suffering, but we––in our weakness––sometimes demand results, and if not results––an explanation, in exchange for our allegiance.
God is not formulaic. God is not transactional. He is relational. And He is beholden to no one.
Yes, not even to you––dearly loved Christian.
Does your skin crawl a little bit and your soul get defensive when you read that? Does something inside you proclaim it is your right to know and determine what the ‘good’ outcome to your suffering should be?
When we demand a formulaic approach to miraculous healing, it’s as if we are holding the bitten forbidden fruit demanding the God of the Universe conform to our understanding of the knowledge He first forbade.
I gently and humbly suggest that if our faith is shaken when God doesn’t respond the way we think He ought to, then perhaps we’ve sized God to our own limited definition of ‘good’ and that perhaps in doing so, we are missing out on the larger blessings––the epic wins––as a result.
“Where is my healing?” is a permissible question to ask the Lord, He can handle all of our questions. But it just might not be the best one. I think the question I am hearing from the cry of the heart of my suffering friend (and so many others) is
“Can I trust Him in my suffering?”
One sure way I know to offer comfort to a believer is to remind them who the God of the Bible is…
He is sovereign. (Colossians 1:16-17)
He is good. (Mark 10:18)
He is righteous. (Psalm 11:7)
He is wrathful. (Ezekiel 25:15-17)
He is loving. (1 John 4:19)
He is merciful. (Deuteronomy 4:31)
He is miraculous. (Acts 3:16)
He is present. (Zephaniah 3:17)
He is active. (Romans 8:38-39)
He is powerful. (Job 26:14)
He is gentle. (Matthew 11:29)
He is humble. (Philipians 2:8)
He is a restorer. (Acts 3:21)
He is trustworthy. (Psalm 9:10)
He moves towards the broken. (Psalm 34:18)
He is our refuge. (Psalm 46:1-3)
He sees you. (Genesis 16:13)
He is the perfect embodiment of ‘love’ (1 John 4:7-8). He is the very definition of ‘good’ (Psalm 100:5). He created those words and ordained their original meaning (John 1:3).
Knowing what we know about our God, can we defer to Him in all the other unknowns?
My limited view values this life too much. My ego sometimes demands immediate relief from my suffering. But His view stretches beyond the scope of time, eternity, life, and death––and He holds for my life and His glory the perfect plan. And, yes, although everything in this life does die, (who can deny this?) I know that the God of all Creation has promised a new life with no suffering in the end (Revelation 21:1-4). And if you are living under the loving mercy of our mighty Savior, Jesus, then this knowledge is for you as well.
Friend, asking the Lord for healing is in no way undermined by our submission to His sovereignty in all things. We fear an all-powerful God who is out for our ultimate good. He has given a spirit that intercedes for us according to the will of God. Be encouraged that, even when it’s so very hard and none of it makes sense, we have a God that works all things together for our good (Romans 8:26-29)
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
“I was immediately worn out by the tyranny of prescriptive joy.” – Kate Bowler
What is it about suffering that causes people to scatter? Many times, when a person walks through a season of suffering, the response is an energetic burst of movement away from that person–a human diaspora initiated by tremors of reality echoing the pain of our universal human condition. Do you need proof? Ask almost anyone who is a member of a church and has experienced a divorce.
I currently find myself sitting in “the pit” of suffering with several lovely women–and by sitting I don’t mean that I am suffering personally, but I am choosing to stay close and empathetic alongside these women. The situation and pain looks different from person to person, but when asked what they need most during these difficult circumstances the response is pretty much the same, “Prayer and not to be forgotten.”
It’s a valid concern… being forgotten. These women have learned this fear from watching others walk through suffering. Some have had a lifetime experience of people leaning away.
So, I ask you again: why do people scatter?
I have to admit that I have been the person moving quickly away from the suffering of others, so I can say something about what has caused me to join the scattering in the past. Much of my own movement was fueled by fear, misunderstanding, or because I felt I was drowning in my own hurt and I did not want to be pulled under by the desperate grasping of others.
But I’ve also had the incredible opportunity to experience what it is like when humans move in. I have been the recipient of courageous Jesus-like love moving towards me in the middle of horrific pain.
The first time I experienced this type of love was when I lost our second baby. A 70-year old woman, who really didn’t know me all that well but was notified that I was miscarrying, took it upon herself to come to the emergency room and claim me as family to get closer. She cleaned up blood, brushed my hair, steadied my husband, prayed over me, and held my hand as I endured the most difficult loss of my young life. She stayed all through the night and when it was all over and my husband and I found our footing, she left as swiftly as she came.
In the days after, we had followers of Jesus bring us flowers and meals, and one incredible acquaintance took it upon himself to dig the gravesite for our precious baby. And one year later, I had a friend text me and tell me how she thought of our loss on that day and prayed for comfort for our souls.
Having experienced this incredible Christ-like response to suffering, I now find that I can sit in suffering with others and that human impulse to flee has quieted in my soul. I take intentional note in scripture whenever I see Jesus moving towards death, the mentally ill and the socially ostracized, and I pray that the Lord will give me the heart of Christ for the sufferer. I pray to be the person who helps the sufferer notice His eager presence with them.
Below, I offer five ways that a person can practice moving in towards the suffering of others, obeying the command in the Bible to mourn with those who mourn. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but hopefully it is enough to fuel in you the courage to notice when you are tempted to scatter, and–rather–turn to help the one suffering look at the face of Jesus.
5 Ways to Mourn with Those Who Mourn
You do not have to be always present and always available, for that privilege belongs to the Lord–but one way to show empathy is to show up. A presence that does not demand the attention of the person suffering or require that anyone notice their presence at all, can be a great comfort. Sitting in silence, and being emotionally ready to mourn alongside another person is a beautiful picture of Christ.
And helpful. When you notice something that needs to be done–an act of true service–simply do that thing. Mow the lawn, clean the kitchen, walk the dog, take the kids to a park, drop off groceries, bring a fresh bag of toiletries to the hospital, help a person move, bring coffee to the caretakers, put gas in the car, bring the mail when you walk in the door.
Hesitate when giving advice.
When you have a moment to speak, for the love of all that is holy and good, don’t be the “pick up your bootstraps” person. And although you may have walked through similar suffering before, and especially if you have not, be very hesitant to offer advice–unless asked.
There isn’t one hard and fast rule, and there may be times when the Holy Spirit is guiding you to offer soft advice to a person suffering–but prayerfully navigate your timing. You are not there to solve the problems of the one who suffers. You are there to mourn with them.
Jesus is alive and He is active, and sometimes the best thing you can do when you feel the urge to correct, offer advice, or give an opinion is to hesitate and practice being quiet just a little bit longer.
We often underestimate the power of prayer, but praying silently and praying with someone who suffers has the power to deeply encourage that person and engage the Lord in both your heart and the heart of the sufferer. What better thing is there than to engage the Lord who offers living waters straight from His heart?
Be ready and willing to look at Jesus.
It always takes courage to bring up Jesus, but the best thing you can do or say to a person who is suffering is to remind them of the gospel or share it with them for the first time. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:10-11) In the midst of suffering, it is good to remind the sufferer and yourself that Jesus is an active King who lays down His life for His sheep. He moves in towards those who suffer and He is ready and waiting with salvation and comfort for our souls.