The cure for bad Bible reading

The sermon was excellent. It shared timeless biblical wisdom but in a fresh way. People were moved.

But I was ticked off. Although I agreed with the preacher’s comments, the way the preacher handled the Bible itself was horrid. The Scriptures had been used to support a powerful sermon, but the Scriptures had been abused in the process.

Too often, the Scriptures serve the sermon, rather than the sermon serving the Scriptures.

Too often, the listeners come away having heard a sermon but not having heard the Scriptures.

Too often, the Scriptures are bent to serve the preacher’s ends, rather than the preacher bent to serve the Scriptures’ ends.

I have tried to read Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy several times, each time making a significant dent into the book. Willard was a wise leader of God’s people, deeply steeped in the teachings of the Church. But his handling of Scripture in the book has always made me squirm. I love what Willard says, but I hate how he gets there.

When we read the Scriptures, we try our best to leave our context and our questions aside. Yes, we carry them with us always, but when we come to the Scriptures, our goal is not to have our questions answered, but to hear what our Lord is saying.

We’ve all been in conversations where the other person is so focused on their agenda that they don’t hear what we’re saying. It’s both frustrating and demeaning. Our words go nowhere. Most of what we say is ignored, unless it somehow clicks with what the other person is focused on. And even then, we’re not sure if we’re heard properly. That’s what we do to God when we read the Scriptures with an agenda.

When we read the Scriptures, we are listening to God. So, it’s only polite to pay attention. Really pay attention. Pay attention like we would like others to pay attention to us.

What is he saying? Why is he saying what he’s saying? Why is he saying these words and not other words? Why is he telling these stories and not other stories?

Most of the sayings and stories of the Scriptures are very tightly worded. The authors are almost always stringently economical with their words choices. This isn’t a sprawling Tom Clancy novel with lots of unnecessary details and red herrings to get us off track. This is tight prose and poetry. A typical story about Jesus will take no more than 10 verses or so. That’s it. When you think about it, the brevity the Scriptures offer us about our Lord should be astounding.

But because these Jesus stories are so brief, what do we do to them? We add in all kinds of extra details. Preachers like to paint scenes and speculate as to what was going on in the minds of this character and that. We use these stories as launching points for what we want to say. But what we really ought to be doing is paying attention to the details of what the biblical author is sharing with us.

If the biblical author thinks a particular detail is important enough to relate, then I ought to pay attention to it. If the author doesn’t include what a character is thinking or feeling, it’s not because those things are unimportant, it’s because those things would distract us from what is truly important. So, we discipline our minds to hear what is being said, not what we’d like to be said.

Good listening sets aside my own questions in order to listen for the questions God is asking of me.

This is huge. In the chaplain work I’ve been doing, this is the cardinal rule. If I’m going to be of any use to a patient I’m visiting, I’ve got to quiet my personal questions and pay the utmost attention to those of the patient.

Attentiveness is everything.

Now, I may leave a patient and have all kinds of personal questions swirling around inside of me which I will then have to pay attention to. But those are for later. And the same is true of how we spend time listening to and responding to the Scriptures.

So, let’s take a quick look at a favorite psalm which is almost always read badly because of bringing our agendas and questions to it instead of patiently listening to what the psalmist intended. It’s Psalm 139.

The psalmist both starts and ends the psalm with a call on God to search him, to investigate his life, to get all the facts straight. If we’re paying attention to the psalm, we now know that this is the real issue: The psalmist isn’t sure if he (or others) is seeing himself correctly and needs God to do some investigation to determine what kind of person he is. Everything else in the psalm is sandwiched between this repeated concern.

From 139:2-18, the psalmist writes some of the most beloved verses in the Psalms as he lays out just how complete God’s knowledge is. Nothing is hidden from God’s sight. The ends of the earth are within his view. The place of the death, the far side of the sea, and the darkness of night are accessible to our God. And yes, even the most secret place of all, the womb where we are somehow formed, is a place known by God. Every day of our lives: seen by God. In other words, there is no better private investigator than God. Not Sherlock Holmes. Not Magnum, P.I. He’s the best because no source of information is off limits to him. He has access to everything.

And then comes the part of the psalm which is normally skipped over. It’s the part about enemies. Even this beautiful spoken version of the psalm simply ignores it as if it weren’t there. Frankly, every time I’ve seen someone read it or speak about it, they’ve treated verses 19-22 as something of an embarrassment, a mistake. But that’s to miss the meaning of the entire psalm.

You see, the psalmist is mad. He’s flipped out in anger. He’s seen bad things going on and he’s hot with rage. He wants God to destroy those who seem wicked to the psalmist. These people who think little of human life and who seek to manipulate the gods through idolatry are below the psalmist’s contempt. That’s what he’s saying in 139:19-22.

And that’s why he wants God to investigate him. He’s seen these others and rendered his verdict of guilty and worthy of death. But in that moment of judgment, he’s realized how bad a judge he is. He’s remembered that God is a far better judge, knowing him inside and out like no one else, including himself. Especially himself. He doesn’t even know himself as well as God knows him.

And so, he returns to his call for God (whom we now know is all-knowing) to render a judgment not on the wicked, but on the psalmist himself. He realizes that in his angry judging of others, he might have let himself off the hook far too easily. And so it’s time for the one who sees all and knows all to offer the only unclouded judgment there can be.

When I read the psalm this way, it becomes scary to me. Because it calls on God to investigate me with an exacting eye that leaves nothing out (and there’s a lot I wish he hadn’t seen and don’t want to have brought up). It calls on God to be as harsh in judging me as I am in judging others.

I’m guessing Jesus had this psalm in mind when he said we shouldn’t just see the speck in someone else’s eye. We should see the plank in our own eye and deal with it first. Because that’s exactly what the psalmist is asking for help to do. He’s seen the speck in others in all its ugliness. And he wants God’s help to see the plank in his own.

But the way I’ve heard this psalm read as a proof that fetuses are real human beings, known and loved by God, and that abortion is therefore bad. Now, I can see how you can draw that conclusion from this psalm. It’s there. But that’s not what this psalm has in mind. Its focus isn’t on embryos; it’s on grown-up, judgmental adults.

I’ve also heard this psalm read as a major booster to our self-esteem. “See how much attention God lavishes on you? You can’t escape his loving eye. You are super important to God.” Now, that’s all true. It’s right there in the psalm. But it, too, misses the point. The psalmist isn’t saying all these things about God’s attentiveness to make us feel important. he’s saying all things things to show just how good God is at judging us when we’re judging others.

By editing out the harsh part of the psalm, we completely change its nature. What is supposed to be somber becomes a puff of wind. By ditching the hard stuff, we get a nice holy pat on the back — “God thinks you’re great!” — and miss out on the caution — “You’ve got a judging eye, but so too does God. And he’s way better at it than you are. So, why don’t you leave the judging to him?”

All this to say: Take more time. Be more attentive. Leave aside your questions and agendas (as much as it’s possible to do so). And listen. And then listen again. And keep on listening. Hear what it is that God is actually saying and not just what sounds good to you. And for heaven’s sake, don’t ever put words in God’s mouth through sloppy interpretation.

God is speaking. Pay attention.

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