Followers of Jesus have always had a sense that our Bible reading ought to lead to a change in the way we live our lives. We are followers, after all, and following has action at its heart — action that is purposeful and directed.
Now, simply getting busy is neither here nor there. Far too many of our self-directed attempts to manage and construct our lives are neither faithful nor successful. If we are to be followers of Jesus, the initiation for that following begins with Jesus, the leader, not with us. Living responsively begins with listening to him and that means turning to the Scriptures.
But the way we read the Scriptures determines what we’ll get from them. If we want to get past a dead-end spirituality, where everything is about me, we must not only read our Bibles, but ask four questions as we do so.
1. What does this tell me about God?
First and foremost, the Bible is God’s story. If it were primarily about us, it would be filled with long chapters detailing our needs and the answers to those needs. But there is not even one single chapter on parenting. There’s a bit more on romantic love and marriage, but still not a whole lot. There are a few proverbs on business advice, but not enough to fill a booklet to be read on a short business flight. The point: Our first question when reading the Bible has to be about God, not about us.
So, what does the passage being read tell us about God? What do we see him doing? Not doing? What surprises us? What do we tend to skip over and take for granted?
When the religious leaders question in their hearts, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” in Mark 2:8, we ask ourselves if they’re right and conclude that they are.
A little later, in Mark 2:15, when we see Jesus sharing a meal with the hated and notorious sinners of his day, we conclude that God is not as put-off by sinners as we are as we see his missionary heart on full display. And that leads us to our second question.
2. What does this tell us about ourselves?
As I mentioned above, the question of the religious leaders in Mark 2:16 exposes our own rejection of people whom we consider bad guys. Perhaps it’s the sinners we reject. Perhaps it’s the religious leaders we reject. But any honest reading of the passage exposes something unsavory about ourselves.
Other passage reveal beautiful and glorious things about we image-of-God humans. And still others point to our purpose on this earth amid all of the seeming purposelessness surrounding us.
Even the briefest of verses — “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) — shows us something of God and of humanity, of tragedy, of need, of longing, of friendship, of love. But we only see it if we ask to have it shown to us.
And when we see it, we begin to understand what to do with it.
3. What does this call us to do?
In a conversation, Eugene Peterson said to me, “After years of reading the Bible, I now simply ask, ‘Where does it call me to obey?'”
Since most of Scripture is story, most of it contains no direct command to us. But with the thinnest amount of imagination, we can all find an implied word to us to be obeyed.
Take that terse verse above, “Jesus wept.” If that’s all I read today, I could take from it the imperative to weep with those who weep, to not hold back my tears at the pain I see all around me — in friends’ lives, on the news, in the novel I’m reading. The command may be to soften my heart. The command may be to comfort those who weep. The command may be to find a comforter so that I may weep over the hurts I’ve been holding behind a brick wall and a stiff upper lip. The command may be to see the world as God sees it and join him in his weeping. The command may be to put my weeping in the past tense and move back into life again. The command may be to pray and work for the ending of that which has caused my tears and the tears of many others.
Again, it’s a matter of imagination, of listening to the voice of Jesus in the text calling us to follow him, of longing to obey the kindest of all masters.
And that voice ends by asking one last question of us:
4. Whom am I called to share this with?
Too often we dead-end the Scriptures with our own lives. We listen. We take them in. We personalize them. And then we stop, satisfied with what we’ve received.
But we’ve been entrusted with a message, with good news, with the greatest story ever told. This should be uncontainable.
Water that gathers and doesn’t go anywhere else begins to stink. It becomes a swamp, a bog, a wetland. It has its place in the ecosystem, but the water becomes undrinkable. We’re not to be swamps, but to be rivers. We’re to let the life-giving water of our Lord pass through us and bring that life to others.
Sometimes, this means sharing the stories with those who don’t know and love and follow Jesus in what we call evangelism.
This might be as simple as, “I was reading this story about how Jesus ate meals with people that religious people avoid. I love that about him and wish I were more like him.”
It might be, “I was reading about the time Jesus cried. I don’t know when the last time was that I cried. I wish I cared for people as much as he does.”
There’s nothing pushy about those comments. And they’d be just as fitting to share with Christians as with anyone else. What they do is combine personal reflection with the sharing of Scripture in a non-manipulative way.
If I’m willing to share my reaction to the last episode of The Walking Dead or some other show, why wouldn’t I be willing to do so with my latest reading in the Scriptures?
And so, we’ve walked in a very natural progression from thoughts about God to thoughts about ourselves to a call to action and a call to share this powerfully transforming Word of God. This is how Bible reading becomes Bible living.
[I learned these four questions from Jeremy and Maria Chase, missionaries in Cambodia.]