We read Psalm 119, and it seems to us like a foreign language; the Psalmist speaks in an almost sensual way about the experience of reading the Torah, the Word of God. What strikes us is the passion, the delight, the sense of empowerment that come through the Scriptures. The psalm speaks of protection and security from that which threatens. But the Word is also a source of understanding, wisdom, and delight. It brings pleasure, joy, and intimacy.
In our heads, we know this is possible. We know that the ancient text is intimately linked with the Creator and thus with the genesis of the world—God spoke, and all things came into being. And we believe that the creation is sustained through the spoken word of God. But any of us who have read Karl Barth know there is also an intimate relationship between the Incarnate Word and the written Word. We know that somehow our engagement with the ancient text should bring us into an intimate and transforming relationship with Jesus. Beyond this, we know there is an important link between the Scriptures and the Spirit. We affirm that the Word effects the transforming power of the Spirit—making all things new, enabling us to grow in faith, hope, and love—in our lives. We are born again by Word and Spirit; our sanctification is by Word and Spirit, Reformed theologians tell us.
But few of us seem to experience this engagement with the Scriptures that brings us into communion with our Creator as we know the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit. And we wonder if we have lost our way. We wonder whether the contemporary Christian can experience the ancient text in the way that is described in Psalm 119.
01. The Yearning of the Contemporary Church
Not everyone experiences this frustration. Clearly, many are happy with the way things are. A cursory look at the contemporary church reveals an emphasis on performance, worship often being little more than emotional hype. Church after church has dispensed with the oral reading of Scripture, with teaching Christians how to read the Bible for themselves, and with preaching that genuinely enables Christians to experience the Word. Engagement with the Scriptures is far from central to the service—a verse here and there is thrown in to show what Christians believe about this or that.
But there is also a growing and persistent longing within the community of faith for the spiritual nourishment possible only through critical and heartfelt encounter with the ancient text. This was highlighted for me recently when I was invited to preach a series of Sunday sermons for a congregation that had gone through deep distress and conflict. In casually asking what was needed through the preaching ministry, I was struck by the force of the answer: “Just preach the Word.” The conversation that followed highlighted that this longing was simple and profound. We do not need gimmicks; we do not need clever oratory; we do not need the preacher to think he can hold our attention only with cute and heart-tugging stories. We want to hear the Word and hear it in a manner that will enable that Word to sustain us for life and work, our relationships and the challenges of life in the marketplace. And many are longing for this in their personal prayers as well, wishing their own reading of the Bible would somehow match the experience described in Psalm 119.
02. Three “isms” and Their Effects
In my own circles this yearning for the Word comes against the backdrop of three “isms”: revivalism, biblicism, and pragmatism . . . three religious “movements” that have gradually (and insidiously) sapped the capacity of the Christian community to read the Bible as a living text. Any reflection on what it means to engage the Scriptures as a necessary means of grace needs to take account of these.
In revivalism, Christians typically come to the conclusion that everything depends on their will. We are reminded again and again that the problem is with us. We have to “get right with God” and “get our all on the altar,” and the “altar call” itself is viewed as act of getting it right and “surrendering all,” with the recurring assumption that this will fix our lives. Sunday after Sunday, we hear it again: get right with God. How? by the surrender of the will. One could easily conclude that transformation depends on this self-surrender. And while surrender is an integral dimension of the spiritual life (Romans 12:1), alone it will not bring about the longed-for transformation, which also must include the renewal of the mind (Romans 12:2). Sadly, the Christian lives continually in a sense of failure and (false) guilt, assuming that the lack of growth and spiritual vitality always rests on his or her failure to be totally “surrendered.”
Biblicism assumes a mastery and knowledge of the text, but fails to appreciate that the text is centrally a means of encounter with the Risen Christ, an encounter that the Spirit mediates and sustains. Many Christians have been part of “Bible” churches that seemingly highlight the priority of the Word, but in fact have left them dry and spiritually empty. And no wonder. The text had become an end in itself.
Third, pragmatism is surely the god of our age. This becomes manifestly apparent in any approach to spiritual formation or congregational life that assumes life can be controlled and managed; we can make it work if we just have the right technique or approach to church growth, “dynamic” worship, or creative programming. Preaching becomes no more than good advice: the Sunday morning opinion/editorial page. The church becomes a busy hive of activity and programs that, ironically, do not encourage community, learning, or meditation, but rather orient everything toward the measurable criteria of church success. And Christians then get into the habit of reading the Bible to look for a pithy promise or a bit of advice that might carry them through the day. The Bible becomes no more than a self-help book—God’s self-help book, to be sure, but nothing more than a set of hopefully helpful suggestions for successful living.
Some people will be content with revivalism, biblicism, and pragmatism. These provide a comfortable place, a language, and criteria for the Christian life that fill a void. Such people do not have to worry about ambiguity, failure, and suffering, or the fact that the grace of the Scriptures works so slowly and incrementally. Some of them will, therefore, be content with a Bible that is nothing more than a rulebook.
But a growing number of Christians who have experienced these ways of relating to the Bible are yearning to be part of communities of faith that the Word genuinely sustains, where the freshness and energy of the Bible infuse the whole of life—heart, soul, imagination, and actions. They want to know Christ and live in the power of the Spirit. And their instincts are good; they rightly long for the Word and know it is the means by which they will know the life of God.
How do we help them? What approach is demanded of us as pastors, spiritual directors, leaders of religious communities, and teachers as we lead others to the Living Water that will quench and sustain their souls? I can ask the question of myself, of course; what disposition do I need to bring to the ancient text, and how shall I read it if I am to experience it as described in Psalm 119? How can my theological understanding of the nature of the Scriptures be reflected in practices that enable me also to know the Bible as a means of grace?
03. Trust and Patience in the Word
Our approach to spiritual formation needs to incorporate both individual and communal practices. In other words, we need to think about how our individual reading of and engagement with the text complement the way we experience the Scriptures in community, particularly in our worship—the central act of our common life.
We engage the Scriptures on our own and in the company of other Christians. This twofold encounter with the ancient text will find expression in a number of ways. Two in particular are, first, the personal, private daily habit of meditation on the Scriptures and, second, the intentional response in the company of others to the public preaching of the Word.
Personal reading and public preaching are complementary. The private reading strengthens the capacity to respond to the Sunday sermon; similarly, the approach to the Scriptures in preaching forms perceptions about the ancient text and the way it sustains a living faith. For many Christians, the question is whether this preaching reflects proclivity toward revivalism, biblicism, or pragmatism or demonstrates a genuine trust that the Word can be a means of encountering Christ and the transforming power of the Spirit. Preaching, both in its actual practice and by way of example, cultivates within a community the posture and approach by which that community will live the Word. Such posture and approach should also be evident in personal reading and meditation on the Scriptures.
Some of us are preachers, and we can ask how our preaching is consistent with our theological understanding of the relationship between the Scriptures and the triune God. Others of us have little capacity to influence the way the Scriptures are preached and thus shape the community’s experience of the ancient text. But we can at least be conscious of how the Scriptures are being used in worship and in the life of the community and be intentional in how we respond to the text.
On the one hand, it is appropriate to consider the disposition we bring to the Scriptures. When we speak of the appropriate disposition, we affirm that confidence in the Scriptures reflects trust and confidence in God. The two are necessarily twinned. We lean on Christ, and our leaning is evident in a deep trust that the Scriptures can transform. We come to Scriptures assured that Jesus stands in our midst as the ascended, living Christ and that the means by which the Spirit is bringing about our transformation is engagement with this text.
I must be consistent and patient in my daily reading, realizing that this discipline will bear fruit only slowly and incrementally. It will take time. But we are responding to the call of Colossians 2:6–7 to be “rooted and built up in him [Christ] and established in the faith” (NRSVUnless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.). And the faith community of which we are a part can sustain the practice of preaching “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2, NIV Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ). We can devote ourselves to the oral reading of Scripture, to preaching, and to teaching because we live and act with a confidence that in time these practices will bear the fruit for which we long.
One sign of this confidence—in both our communal and our private encounters with Scripture—is our patience with the Word. The promise in Isaiah 55:8–11 that the Word will not return to God void is given precisely because the work of the Spirit through the Word does not seem to be having an immediate impact—though in the long run, it brings transformation. It takes time, but it always delivers; it fulfills the deep longings of our souls. But we need to be patient.
As preachers, we should not be trying to hit a home run when we preach. Our goal should be simply to advance the runner, to get on base. We are not preaching for publication, nor trying to offer a sermon that will bring down the fires of Mount Carmel. We are merely allowing the ancient text to be made present to this people on this day. While we long for transformation, we know it will come slowly, subtly, and incrementally. It cannot be measured. And so our patience matches our confidence in the Scriptures that the Spirit will do the Spirit’s work in the Spirit’s time.
04. Experiencing the Bible as a Means of Grace
This confidence and patience will be reflected in the way the Word is preached and heard on Sunday and read in our daily devotions. Confidence and patience will show themselves in at least six ways—these being characteristics of any approach to the ancient text that is to be genuinely a means of grace.
- Encounter with Christ
Our engagement with the Scriptures, whether in preaching or in our personal reading, is always an encounter with the ascended Christ and Lord. Many of us have learned the discipline of a daily quiet time that was, alas, good but still little more than a study of the Bible. We were students, and our daily prayers were, essentially, Bible study.While I am indebted for what I have received from this practice, it took a while to discover that the Scriptures are not an end, but a means to an end. The end is to know, love, and serve Christ. And this is a response to Christ himself! It is not that we want to know about Christ or cultivate affection for a Christ who is apart from this actual event. Rather, in and through the Word, we meet Christ. We lift our hearts to the Lord as we read the Word or listen to its proclamation. Regardless of the passage, it is Christ who is being preached and encountered through the ancient text. So much contemporary preaching is an encounter with an idea or a concept—helpful, perhaps, but it will not satisfy the yearning of our souls. And in our daily readings, while it is good to study the Bible and learn biblical principles, what nourishes the soul, giving protection, growth in wisdom, and deep pleasure, is the phenomenal reality that, in and through the text, we meet the ascended Lord Jesus!
- Diligent Study
Our reading of the Bible will be hard work, requiring diligence, persistence, and care. Think of the image provided by the book of Proverbs in the call to wisdom: that we would search for it with the eagerness of a miner seeking for silver (2:4). It is worth the time and energy.Part of the hard work of reading the Bible is that we should come to it with critical minds. This does not mean we assume mastery over the text or approach the text as critics. Rather, it means we engage the Scriptures thoughtfully; we recognize the value of careful study and exegesis.
Again and again, I have found that this kind of work bears fruit. Within congregations, this means we teach all Christians to read the Bible for themselves, helping them to read the diverse literary genres appropriately, noting how God’s revelation finds expression in letters, narratives, poetry, and oracles—and then enabling Christians to read the genres as letters, narratives, poetry, and oracles. Any community that upholds the Word will take it as a given that each Christian needs to learn how to read the Bible, and will preach with this assumption: that hearers are also, in their own right, students of the Word.
- Hearts and Minds
But we read with hearts and minds, meaning we approach the Scriptures conscious of the emotional contours of our hearts. One recurring theme in the Scriptures is that we know the power of the Word through the Scriptures when we hear that word with receptive hearts. Psalm 119 profiles the disposition of a heart attentive to the word: “My soul languishes for your salvation; I hope in your word” (v. 81). Jesus speaks of the character of the “soil” (Matthew 13:18-23). And Paul and James stress the emotional quality of our response: 1 Thessalonians 1 speaks of receiving the Word with joy (verse 6), 1 Timothy 2 speaks of turning from anger (verse 8), and this is echoed in James 1:19–21, where we have a call to turn from anger and receive the word of God with meekness.The emotional character of our response is not incidental or secondary to our capacity to receive the Word of God. In radical dependency on the Spirit, we lift up our hearts with childlike attentiveness. While we must affirm and celebrate the ways in which advanced theological education can strengthen our capacity to read the Scriptures, we also need to acknowledge that the academy tends to cultivate a disposition to ask questions of the Scriptures. While this is valuable, it is important to recognize that the primary disposition we should bring to the Word is willingness to let the Bible ask us questions. Truly to attend to the Scriptures requires that we learn how to slow down. The goal is not to take in as much as possible as quickly as possible. Thus the great value of the lectio divina—spiritual practices that foster an intentional moderation to our personal and communal reading.
Music and hymnody are a way to slow down and align the speed of our thinking with the pace of our hearts. It is surely not a coincidence that St. Paul’s call to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” is found in the text where he speaks of hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs (Colossians 3:16). Hymns and spiritual songs are means by which we can lift up our hearts in worship as an act of readiness for and response to the Word, both privately and communally. The hymns of the faith order our affections so that we are disposed to hear and receive the Word.
- Reading the Bible with Others
While personal reading of the Scriptures has a vital place in our formation, including our individual and intentional response to the preached Word, this engagement is enriched by the input of others as they read the same texts with us.All generations and cultures acknowledge the value of reading the Bible in the company of others. When we are alone, it is too easy for us to read in a manner that does not challenge our assumptions and prejudices. Others help us see what we might have missed, or actually call us to take seriously a text we might be inclined to overlook because it does not seem immediately relevant to us. Our reading in community helps us see that our interpretation of a text is sometimes one-sided. For some, this reading in community means participation in a small group Bible study, surely one of the most vital practices that enable us to read the Bible with others. And in the liturgical setting, preachers need to read widely to ensure that their preaching is informed by voices from other cultures and theological traditions. Americans can listen to how those from Africa and India might read this text, and Baptists might gain new insights because they hear how Methodists and Orthodox Christians understand a particular passage of Scripture. Whatever we do to achieve this, it is a vital way genuinely to seek to hear Christ through the Word.
- A Readiness to Act
We know the Scriptures as a means of grace when we read with a readiness for obedience. It is also legitimate to engage the Scriptures for comfort or understanding. But genuine encouragement and understanding take root in our hearts and minds only when we act in a way consistent with what we have read (the illumination of the mind and the rekindling of the heart). In thought, word, and deed, we are being formed and transformed by the Spirit through the Scriptures. The Word dwelling richly within us (Colossians 3:16) is an indwelling that enables us to live in the truth. We live in the light only when we walk in the light (1 John 1:8), and a wise proverb notes that more light is given only insofar as we walk in the light we have already received. We preach the Scriptures on Sunday and meditate on them in our daily prayers with the assumption that we will obey.
- Word and Sacrament
Finally, the Christian spiritual heritage affirms that the Word is most efficacious when it is complemented by the sacramental actions of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Disciples are formed through baptism and instruction (Matthew 28:19–20); the early Christian community devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the breaking of bread (Acts 2:44–47). These visible, gestural symbols complement the preached Word. But more, they embody that Word within us. We are baptized as those who have heard the Word. We eat and drink as those who eagerly embrace the Word of Christ that we have known through the witness of the Spirit.
In our day, many of us experience a longing for a living faith—a yearning to know God, to live in the power of God’s grace, and to know this grace for the renewal of the mind, the ordering of the affections, and the enabling of the will in the face of temptation, trial, and opportunity.
This can be our experience. But it will come only through a particular kind of engagement with the ancient text. It requires us to allow this ancient text to become for us the life-giving Word of the Living God.