The Bible as Interpreter of Us — Weekly Challenge #2

matthewDid you join me in praying for someone last week? If you have anything to share, I’d love to hear how it went.

It’s common for people to talk about interpreting the Bible. “How do you interpret this passage?” Or, “Well, that’s one interpretation of what Jesus meant there.” And to some degree this will always be the case. As rational creatures, we’re interpreters of all things. We interpret people’s body language. We interpret everything we read and everything we hear. The meaning of some things (e.g. most textbooks) is pretty easy to interpret. The meaning of others (e.g. a James Joyce novel), not so much. So it’s not unusual that we would think about interpreting the Bible.

Something that we give less attention to, though, is that the Bible is a book that’s meant to interpret us. That is, it has something to tell us about who we are — who we really are — and it has something to tell us about how we’re living. In fact, some of the biggest transformations in my life have come when I’ve allowed the Bible to really interpret me. To tell me that actions I had decided were okay really weren’t. To tell me that I needed to be giving more attention to actions I had neglected. To tell me who I was when I was telling myself I was something else.

It has been when I’ve allowed the Bible to interpret me that I’ve done things I otherwise wouldn’t have done — apologized to people I didn’t want to apologize to, requested cuts in my salary, and scheduled appointments with people I didn’t want to spend time with, to name a few. It has also been when I’ve allowed the Bible to interpret me that I’ve seen hard situations in a different light — giving me reasons for hope and joy in the midst of sorrow or doubt.

My challenge for all of us this week, then, is to spend some time reading the Bible and asking it to interpret us. I want to read with the question, “What does this have to say to me about who I am and how I’m living?” I want to be open to a surprising and unconventional interpretation of our lives. An interpretation of us that may be different from what most of the people around us might give.

I think one of the best places to start with this is Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew chapters 5 through 7. What if you read that through this week, constantly asking what it has to tell you about who you are and how you’re living? You might read all three chapters on one day, then take the rest of the week to read slowly and carefully. I’m planning to keep a running written list about who this tells me I am and what it has to say about how I’m living. Things like this seem to have much more impact when I take the time to write observations.

What do you say? Join me?

Two quotes

Let me share two quotes with you that I’ve found profound and helpful as I consider taking seriously what I see in Scripture. [I share both of these extended excerpts believing they fit within “fair use” guidelines.]

This profound piece is from J. I. Packer in Knowing God (pp. 306-309):

We are unlike the Christians of New Testament times. Our approach to life is conventional and static; theirs was not. The thought of “safety first” was not a drag on their enterprise as it is on ours. By being exuberant, unconventional and uninhibited in living by the gospel they turned their world upside down, but you could not accuse us twentieth-century Christians of doing anything like that. Why are we so different? Why, compared with them, do we appear as no more than halfway Christians? Whence comes the nervous, dithery, take-no-risks mood that mars so much of our discipleship? Why are we not free enough from fear and anxiety to allow ourselves to go full stretch in following Christ?

One reason, it seems, is that in our heart of hearts we are afraid of the consequences of going the whole way into the Christian life. We shrink from accepting burdens of responsibility for others because we fear we should not have strength to bear them. We shrink from accepting a way of life in which we forfeit material security because we are afraid of being left stranded. We shrink from being meek because we are afraid that if we do not stand up for ourselves we shall be trodden down and victimized, and end up among life’s casualties and failures. We shrink from breaking with social conventions in order to serve Christ because we fear that if we did, the established structure of our life would collapse all around us, leaving us without a footing anywhere.

It is these half-conscious fears, this dread of insecurity, rather than any deliberate refusal to face the cost of following Christ, which make us hold back. We feel that the risks of out-and-out discipleship are too great for us to take. In other words, we are not persuaded of the adequacy of God to provide for all the needs of those who launch out wholeheartedly on the deep sea of unconventional living in obedience to the call of Christ. Therefore, we feel obliged to break the first commandment just a little, by withdrawing a certain amount of our time and energy from serving God in order to serve mammon. This, at bottom, seems to be what is wrong with us. We are afraid to go all the way in accepting the authority of God, because of our secret uncertainty as to his adequacy to look after us if we do.

[…]

Have you been holding back from a risky, costly course to which you know in your heart God has called you? Hold back no longer. Your God is faithful to you, and he is adequate for you. You will never need more than he can supply, and what he supplies, both materially and spiritually, will always be enough for the present. “No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Ps 84:11 RSV). “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13 RSV). “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). Think on these things!—and let your thoughts drive out your inhibitions about serving your Master.

And this piece is from James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, 218-219, [paragraph breaks are mine to make it easier to read digitally]. You’ll see at the end that he’s specifically thinking about “Christian colleges and universities,” but it applies to all of us, I think.

[W]hat if a Christian perspective turns out to be a way of domesticating the radicality of the gospel? What if the rather abstract formulas of a Christian worldview turn out to be a way to tame and blunt the radical call to be a disciple of the coming kingdom?

Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn’t actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?

By reducing the genius of Christian faith to something like an intellectual framework–a ‘perspective’ or a ‘worldview’–we can (perhaps unwittingly) unhook Christianity from the practices that constitute Christian discipleship. And when that happens, we end up thinking that being a Christian doesn’t radically re-configure our desires and our wants, our practices and our habits.

Sure, we might think that we’re supposed to be moral, but we’ll construe this in terms of personal integrity (e.g., ‘honest’ business dealings) or instrumentalizing existing cultural systems for charitable ends (e.g., ‘redeeming’ exploitative business practices by donation a portion of profits to charity; or generating philanthropy for non-profits that is fueled by the charity of the extremely wealthy).

In too many cases, a Christian perspective doesn’t seem to challenge the very configuration of these careers and vocations.

To be blunt, our Christian colleges and universities generate an army of alumni who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder ‘from a Christian perspective.”

If we truly allowed the Bible to interpret who we are and how we live, would we look a bit more distinct from our neighbors? Would our approach to life be considered a bit more unconventional and dynamic?

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