Cultivating a virtuous character influences how we understand Scripture in three ways: it helps us understand Scripture’s relevance, Scripture’s requirements, and Scripture’s richness.
Do our character and obedience play a role in how well we understand Scripture? This is an important question because it forces us to back up and ask, well, what is Bible reading?
If Bible reading is merely the acquisition of information, then our character and obedience wouldn’t seem to be all that necessary. Yet if Bible reading is meant to be a transformational hearing of God’s voice, then that changes how we engage every step of the process in subtle but thorough ways. For the person trying to hear God’s voice, studying the meaning of a text’s Greek terms, historical background, literary context, etc. isn’t just a matter of trying to figure out the meaning of a passage. I am trying to discover the meaning, but I’m discovering the meaning of this passage in order to discern the voice of God. At root, Bible reading is meant to be an act of worship.
Understanding Scripture’s Relevance
So if you are a person who is actively thinking about truth and trying to put it into practice, then you have a relevant context for reading Scripture. This is a cheesy example, but let’s say somebody were to give you a book on how to make origami but you have zero interest in origami. Or let’s say somebody gives you a book on how to captain an ocean liner but you live in Missouri. In both instances, those books will seem completely irrelevant to you. If, however, somebody is threatening you to make 10 paper storks or else, or if you’re sailing on an ocean liner when the captain has a stroke and you’ve got to take control, all of a sudden those writings become very relevant to you.
What kind of person recognizes the Bible’s relevance? The Bible is written for people who are actively thinking about the truth, meditating on it, and putting it into practice.
“The Bible is written for people who are actively thinking about the truth, meditating on it, and putting it into practice.”
If you’re not doing that, then you’re not the person that it’s designed to be addressed to. Even in literary studies, they talk about an “ideal reader” referring to a person for whom that specific type or instance of literature was composed. Harry Potter books are made for young readers (even though the rest of us can enjoy them too). Scholarly textbooks are written for scholarly thinkers. In the same vein, the Bible is made for people who meditate on truth and try to put it into practice. It’s this care for truth that makes the Bible’s relevance emerge for someone.
Understanding Scripture’s Requirements
When it comes to reading the Bible, we ought to slow down and ask ourselves the question: Do I really want to hear from God? It’s easy for people to say that they wish God would communicate with them, but do we really want that? In the Bible, when God communicated with people, the next natural step was always obedience.
Abraham heard from God and the next step was to leave the home he knew and travel to an unknown land. Moses heard from God and the next step was to go confront the most powerful person in the world (from whom he was hiding). When Paul heard from God, the next step was to give up some of his most cherished beliefs, turn his life around, and devote his skin to suffering for the sake of those he had been persecuting. For people who hear from God through reading the Bible, changes must occur.
Understanding Scripture’s Richness
I wonder sometimes if my character and willingness to obey determines what God will reveal about himself and his will. Psalm 25:9 says, “He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.” I don’t want to over-read this verse, but is it possible that God will withhold information from the prideful and arrogant because they won’t receive it? As a parent, there are times when I’m not going to say what I know would be helpful to hear because my child’s attitude tells me that they’re just going to ignore what I say anyway. In some situations, I’ll let them experience things the hard way so they can learn the lesson and so that next time they’ll come back around in humility so I can share the wisdom they need.
“He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way.”
If we form the habit of ignoring God’s voice, maybe he’s going to stay silent or quieter because we’re not actually ready to hear. I’m reminded of how, in the book of Proverbs, wisdom is cumulative. The wiser you are, the more wisdom you can receive. For example, Proverbs 1:5 says, “Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance.” The assumption is that there’s wisdom in this book for you, but those who are wise are going to receive more of what is offered here than those who are not.
This is why coming back to the Bible over and over is so important. This is why the Scripture comes alive to us as we grow in ways that it wasn’t when we were younger. It’s as if, as we grow, we become more aware of and able to see how big the Bible is–or rather, how big is the God revealing himself in it.
Guided by the Goal
So if the goal of Bible reading is to hear a word from the Lord that tells me the truth about my life and will guide me in ordering my steps—and I have a disposition of resistance or a pattern of disobedience or inactivity—then that will severely limit what’s able to happen here. I may be able to understand the meaning of the text in such a way that I could even write a commentary, for instance. But the goal of Bible reading is not writing a commentary. The goal is to follow Jesus and help others do the same.