This past week I started a series on spiritual formation via my love and admiration of Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. I’m essentially talking about spiritual habits or practices that help shape our desires (thanks James K. A. Smith!) and exploring ways in which followers of Jesus can grow to be like Jesus.
My first sermon, “Read Scripture and Let Scripture Read You,” introduced the idea of reading the Bible for spiritual transformation. Here are a few of the notes that I was working from…
What is the Bible?
The Bible is unlike any other book ever written… it’s an ancient collection of writings, comprised of 66 separate books, written over approximately 1,600 years, by at least 40 distinct authors. The Old Testament contains 39 books written from approximately 1500 to 400 B.C., and the New Testament contains 27 books written from approximately 33 to 90 A.D. (give or take).
The Bible is both human and divine – written by people as the Holy Spirit inspired them:
“Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved (phero) by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.” (2 Peter 1:20-21 NLT)
An important way that we read, interpret, and apply the Bible is by understanding the relationship between Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and the community (see Kenneth Archer’s A Pentecostal Hermeneutic: Spirit, Scripture and Community or Spirit and Scripture: Exploring a Pneumatic Hermeneutic, especially Mark J. Cartledge’s contribution!). Basically I’m convinced that no one should read the Bible in isolation because that’s not how the Holy Spirit intended for us to read Scripture. Furthermore, that’s how weird beliefs start (too many to name!).
There are a variety of ways that we can study the Bible, as Barton notes in Sacred Rhythms:
- We can study Scripture like a textbook and it will stand up under scrutiny.
- We can study it as a history book full of great literature.
- We can study it as a tool to develop systematic theology.
- We can study it in order to understand sociological issues as it illustrates the various facets of being human.
None of these are bad ways to read the Bible, but unfortunately Scripture is often simply seen as a place to get information. Instead, we need to understand that Scripture is a place to encounter God’s voice and experience his presence.
Let Scripture Read You
When I was in seminary I had several fellow seminarians tell me that their goal was to master the Bible. I obviously understand what they mean in that they were simply saying they wanted to learn as much about the Bible as they could. Yet we need to understand that our goal is not so much to master the Bible but to have the Bible master us.
“For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.” (Hebrews 4:12 NLT)
Now I’ve previously written that I do not believe Hebrews 4:12 is simply about the “Bible” but more about the voice of God, which includes Scripture. But that shouldn’t suggest that Scripture isn’t alive and powerful because it is the Word of God. I realize this is a complex issue and I’m glossing over it but bear with me.
My point is that Scripture needs to be approached in a way that acknowledges the importance of it reading us and not just a place to go to get information. When the Bible is approached just as a “rule book” or “source of information,” it’s easy to use incorrectly, which dishonors both God and the intention of the Spirit with Scripture. For example, people dishonor Scripture and treat the Bible in many ways that I find troubling when:
- They use the Bible as a weapon (“The Bible says God hates you because you are gay…”).
- The use the Bible to manipulate people (“The Bible says you need to do everything I say because I’m your pastor/leader…”).
- They use the Bible to control people (“The Bible says you can’t teach people the Bible because you are a woman or a child…”).
Now each of these examples demonstrates that the Bible is being misused (and there is no grace or love in the way things are being said). The main problem is that people often use the Bible in a way that is focused on what it means for other people and don’t focus on how it applies to themselves (cf. this is exactly how the Pharisees of Jesus’ day tended to use Scripture).
What if you read the Bible not only to get information but you also read Scripture to experience spiritual transformation? Barton actually quotes one of my favorite people in the world, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to illustrate this point:
“The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love. And just as you do not analyze the words of someone you love, but accept them as they are said to you, accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart, as Mary did. That is all. . . . Do not ask “How shall I pass this on?” but “What does it say to me?” Then ponder this word long in your heart until it has gone right into you and taken possession of you.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
This approach to Scripture understands that the Holy Spirit works through Scripture in a way that brings about personal transformation, as Barton states:
“When we engage the Scriptures for spiritual transformation, on the other hand, we engage not only our mind but also our heart, our emotions, our body, our curiosity, our imagination and our will. We open ourselves to a deeper level of understanding and insight that grows out of and leads us deeper into our personal relationship with the One behind the text. And it is in the context of relational intimacy that real life change takes place.” – Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms
Think about the challenges you face when it come to spending more time in God’s Word, our What keeps you from being encouraged and given hope as you read (Rom. 15:4). What if there was a way that you could read Scripture that would naturally provide a context for spiritual transformation?
Introducing Lectio Divina
“Lectio divina (translated “divine [or sacred] reading”) is an approach to the Scriptures that sets us up to listen for the word of God spoken to us in the present moment. Lectio divina is a practice of divine reading that dates back to the early mothers and fathers of the Christian faith. Referring to the material being read and the method itself, the practice of lectio divina is rooted in the belief that through the presence of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures are indeed alive and active as we engage them for spiritual transformation (Hebrews 4:12).” – Ruth Haley Barton, Sacred Rhythms
For some helpful resources in regards to Lectio divina, check out the following resources:
- Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms
- Douglas J. Leonhardt’s “Praying with Scripture” (a Catholic perspective)
- Practical Theology for Women’s two posts (1 and 2).