Can We Ever Know God and What He’s Really Saying?
I had a long conversation with a friend recently on the difficulties of reading the bible. These frustrations were vented:
“Surely God wouldn’t make it too hard for people to understand him.”
“I’ve tried reading the bible over and over again, but I still don’t get it.”
“People keep advising me, “Keep trying and keep reading, you’ll get it sooner or later”. I’ve re-read the passage so many times and I still don’t get it. Is there something wrong with me?”
“Maybe I’m the kind that’s not gifted in reading the bible and more gifted at doing work for church.”
If you experience the same struggles, then I encourage you to read on. This has been one of my greatest struggles for the past 2 years and I know how crippling this can be, especially if you’re in the teaching ministry. Although I don’t recommend anyone to teach unless he or she knows the basic biblical literacy skills, but I also understand that churches sometimes do not have the luxury of choosing leaders with the necessary skills to teach, and so they end up choosing anyone who’s willing to learn to teach to fill in the teaching position, whether in youth ministry or Sunday school ministry or cell groups.
The Perceived Problem
When I struggled with reading the bible, for two years, I used to think that the root of the problem was a lack of motivation to spend time with God.
“Maybe I wasn’t praying enough, or maybe I wasn’t fasting enough, or maybe I have sinful intentions for reading the bible and God is keeping me from knowing the truth.”
We’re used to thinking like this because we’ve always been taught that the key to knowing God is a relationship with God.
“God is like a father/friend and He wants you to get to know him more, and the way to do that is to spend more time with Him, whether in reading the bible, or prayer or meditation. When we don’t spend enough time with Him, we’ll never get to know Him personally.”
During the conversation with my friend, he told me that he kept having a guilty conscience: Maybe I wasn’t trying hard enough. Maybe if I kept on praying or reading I might eventually get it. Maybe it’s a secret or unintentional sin that I haven’t confessed or realized, and because of that God is keeping me from understanding Him.
The Real Problem
Although for some, a lack of desire to spend time reading the Word may be the problem, but I think that for most of us, the real problem is not sin, but a lack of understanding of the principles of reading. In other words, biblical illiteracy. Let me explain. For most of us, we’ve probably tried many methods (sometimes too many) to know God. WE HAVE TRIED praying, fasting, meditating, or even reading the bible (a certain passage over and over again), but we still seem unsure of what the bible (or that passage of scripture) is really saying. We don’t know what God is saying because we don’t know how to understand any of the passages in the 66 books of the bible that’s meant to be read as a whole, each book in its own genre and historical setting.
Yes, we can read John 3:16 and think that God loves us, but we don’t know how to make sense of it in light of John 3:18 that talks about judgment, or how about even John 3:14 that talks about Moses and the serpent in the wilderness? And since John 3:16 is part of the whole of book of John, how do we make sense of John 17:9 when Jesus talks about saving only the elect, and not everyone. And of course there’s the passage in Ezekiel 36 where God says that He saves His people not because He loves them, but because He loves His own glory? How do we make sense of John 3:16 in light of all this?
One way of dealing with it is to ignore everything the bible has to say and to keep holding on to our favorite verse. But every lover of God knows that we can’t just pick and choose parts about God that we like and discard the rest; that’s idolatry. Cain made the same mistake by not thinking of God as a God who demands a bloody sacrifice and he offered only vegetables to God (they were of the best quality, by the way). No, we have to understand that God cannot be understood through our “best” prayers, or offer of sacrifices through fasting or our special morning quiet times. All these can help in getting our minds focused on reading the bible, but they don’t do the reading for us.
The way to understand God is to know Him through how He has chosen to reveal Himself to us – by His words, in the form of a compilation of 66 books, with its own genre and style. We’ll need to learn to understand the book and how the author put it together. We need to ask the questions the author asked when he was writing the book. We need to know the readers the author was writing to back then. We need to remember that the book was written in a particular time-space history sense.
Here is where I jokingly told my friend, “Forget the people who tell you that the key to understand the bible is to just keep reading it.” To understand the bible, you need the right tools for reading it, and theologians or pastors have often called them:
- Biblical Theology
- Systematic Theology
- Theological Thinking
I’ve written a list of recommended books which will be helpful for all.
- On Exegesis
- How to read the bible for all its worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart
- Dig Deeper: Tools for Understanding God’s Word by Nigel Beynon
- How to read a book by Mortimer Adler
- On Biblical Theology
- According to Plan by Graeme Goldsworthy
- God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts
- Any books by the NSBT series (New Series on Biblical Theology) edited by D.A. Carson
- On Systematic Theology
- The Difficult Doctrine of Love by D.A. Carson
- The Cross of Christ by John Stott
- Systematic Theology by Dr. Wayne Grudem
- On Theological Thinking
- The Intolerance of Tolerance by D.A. Carson
- No Place for truth by Dr. David Wells
- Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen
These have been helpful for me in the two years of getting to know God better. No doubt, time spent with God is important, but time well-spent, with a mind sharpened and equipped to appreciate Scripture and all its richness will help one greatly to come to a deeper relationship with God.
If you’re reading this and you’ve been encouraged by this, do drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or add me on Facebook and I’d love to be in a conversation with you.
Posted on 20th September 2013 by Daniel Lu