I ’m rediscovering an old conviction. What I’ve believed for a long time is coming alive with fresh passion; it’s stirring a low-burning flame into a healthy fire. Paul told Timothy to “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of…” (2 Tim. 3: 14; italics added). I’ve been continuing, at times unsteadily, in what I learned as a child and have believed to be true for five decades. But only recently has a sincerely accepted belief become a meaningfully sustaining conviction.
From my earliest days, I’ve sensed that the book Søren Kierkegaard once referred to as sixty-six love letters from God is in a class by itself. More than once, my father would skip watching his favorite comedian, Red Skelton, on his weekly television show and spend the evening reading Leviticus. That made no sense to me as a ten-year old kid.
It does now. After forty years of exploring the insides of people (including myself) to understand what’s going on that deforms us into self-centered, self-protective, self-enhancing bearers of God’s image, I’m coming to look at the Bible with passionately renewed interest. Here’s why. Here’s the old conviction that has recently come alive. Here’s what I see more clearly than ever before: God speaks into our deformed souls more deeply, with more transforming power, and with more lasting impact through the Bible than through any other means.
Human wisdom developed through general revelation has its place. And Spirit-granted visions, Spirit-led conversations, and Spirit-inspired preaching should neither be devalued nor dismissed. But along with human wisdom, their value fails to achieve its God-intended purpose when it slides off a thought through biblical foundation. To the degree that we don’t hear the story God is telling in sixty-six chapters, we pervert the value of whatever we might be hearing from God through other avenues by aiming too low, by pursuing personal comfort and calling it “God’s peace,” by relieving suffering in the world and calling it “God’s central mission,” or by healing wounds and filling emptiness without repenting of sin and calling it “spiritual formation.”
Studying human behavior and listening to the Spirit with a closed and unstudied Bible sitting on our shelves allows us unwittingly to direct what we hear toward self-focused purposes. The reverse, of course, is true as well. Opening our Bible to study its teaching with hearts unopened to the Spirit yields knowledge that, at best, makes us more doctrinally orthodox and proud of it than relationally alive with love.
The more I dig deeply into the dark regions of my own heart and into the hidden depths of others, the more I’m persuaded of two convictions: (1) something is terribly wrong in our hearts that only passionate relational truth from God as delivered in the Bible can expose as lethal and dislodge as controlling; (2) something is alive with transformational power in the exact center of God’s people that can only be liberated by hearing counterintuitive truth from God as delivered in His Word and revealed through His Spirit.
To an encouraging degree, western Christianity is paying increased attention to God’s Spirit. Post-Pentecost living is no longer a topic of interest only among Pentecostals. Orthodoxy without ortho-praxy is more widely recognized as deadening. Accuracy without passion is properly seen as falling far short of the glory of a God who throbs with relational life.
And that’s good. But increasing dependence on the Spirit to form us through experiences of God—mediated through spiritual disciplines, silent retreats, and spirited worship—runs the risk of decreasing our dependence on hearing God speak to us by His Spirit through His Word—through the love story He’s telling in the sixty-six love letters He’s written, each one advancing an otherwise unseen plot centered in Jesus.
I long to rehear the Bible tell me a story that, through the Spirit, will catch me up in its drama and sustain me with its hope and spiritually reform what’s been badly deformed in my soul. That’s why I wrote 66 Love Letters (Thomas Nelson, January 2010). All my other books took, on average, a year to write. This one required nearly four years.
I read and reread each love letter (what we perhaps academically refer to as each book of the Bible); I read several old and new commentaries on each one; I adopted the intentional hermeneutic of prayerfully and personally reflecting on what the God of love was wanting me to hear Him speak into my naturally stubborn, proud, blind heart, and I arranged what was going on in me and what I was hearing from God in the text into a dialogue, a conversation with God about each of His sixty-six love letters.
These last four years have freshly convinced me that the transformation of self-obsessed followers of personal agendas into God-obsessed followers of Jesus is an impossible mission made possible supernaturally only through the explosive combination of the Spirit and the Word that empowers living worship, powerful preaching, and transforming conversations among awed and hungry Christians, all of which release us to move missionally into this dark world with the light of divine love.
It seems appropriate to offer one conversation with God from my book in this issue of Conversations dedicated to transformation. I trust that my dialogue with God about 1 John, His sixty-second love letter, might provide at least a taste of how reading each book of the Bible as a love letter has spoken into my hungry heart with life-giving power and could perhaps do the same for you.