But I Don’t Understand What I Read

An earlier post questioned the nearly universal assumption that to be a good and growing and maturing Christian, one needs to be a regular, preferably daily, reader of the bible. Being raised in the tradition that I have, it grates against me to question that. But years of experience as a pastor causes me to wonder if indeed it is true.

I have known people who were absolutely voracious students of the bible whose theological conclusions were wide of anything that could be construed as sound, and whose profession and character were far from godliness. At the same time, I’ve known wise and godly people who were sporadic readers of the bible. My experience is anecdotal, I know, and no match for the pollsters, and yet I wonder if there is not something to it.

There is a diversity in the mix of those who do or who try to read their bibles. Among that diversity, there are those who admit that there is much in the bible they do not understand. As well, there are others who stumble over the same passages, but are afraid to confess it. I can say this because I often read without understanding. I have a seminary degree. My day job requires me to study the bible. And yet, when I’m just reading the bible, there are large sections as opaque to me as they are to others.

There is no joy, and from what I can imagine, no longterm benefit from hours spent reading something that, truth be told, makes no sense to us. The lack of bible reading is no surprise to me.

The ‘fix-it’ answer to this dilemma, of course, would be to ‘teach them how to do it’. There is some sense to that, and maybe that is the answer, depending on how we conceive of the ‘teach them’. Inevitably, bookish people that we are, we will challenge bible non-readers to first read a good book on how to read the bible. Again, not a bad idea, but it does not somehow manage to address the issue.

The issue is not volume or depth of bible reading; the issue is the pathway to the knowledge of God. We understand that the word of God is a means of grace, a pathway to knowing and communing with God. But is reading the primary means by which that word becomes a pathway to God?

Though I may be wrong, bible ‘engagement’ (Stetzer) or ‘intake’ (Whitney) in the bible is nearly always a corporate act. We are to allow the word of God richly to dwell in us “teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Colossians 3:16) We are to respect our “leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” (Hebrews 13:7) Faith, it seems, comes by hearing (Romans 10:17) the word of God, through the gathering of God’s people and through its preaching (Romans 10:14).

Perhaps our evangelical emphasis upon bible reading is itself a reflection of the literate and individualistic culture of American Christianity. Yes, indeed, faith depends upon the word of God revealed, heard, understood, and applied to the heart. I’m just not convinced that the absence of bible reading is the precise thing to be alarmed about.

Again, I am interested to know what you think.

7 thoughts on “But I Don’t Understand What I Read

    1. Well, when you are on the other side of your thinking and praying, I’d love to know where that leads you. These are thoughts in process on my end which I’d love to have others engage.

  1. I agree with what you’re saying, Randy. I think the individualism of the secular culture has influenced Christian culture in its emphasis on personal ‘quiet time’. As a result we’ve lost sight of our need for corporate worship and the preaching of the Word. This makes me think of the Second Helvetic Confession’s teaching that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God”:

    THE PREACHING OF THE WORD OF GOD IS THE WORD OF GOD. Wherefore when this Word of God is now preached in the church by preachers lawfully called, we believe that the very Word of God is proclaimed, and received by the faithful; and that neither any other Word of God is to be invented nor is to be expected from heaven: and that now the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good…

    INWARD ILLUMINATION DOES NOT ELIMINATE EXTERNAL PREACHING. For he that illuminates inwardly by giving men the Holy Spirit, the same one, by way of commandment, said unto his disciples, “Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). And so in Phillippi, Paul preached the word outwardly to Lydia, a seller of purple goods; but the Lord inwardly opened the woman’s heart (Acts 16:14). And the same Paul, after a beautiful development of his thought, in Romans 10:17 at length comes to the conclusion, “So faith comes from hearing and hearing from the Word of God by the preaching of Christ.”

    1. Thanks, Keith, for your helpful thoughts. I’m glad you ‘get’ where I was headed.

      I don’t want, however, to isolate preaching as the source of the knowledge of God, either. I’ve seen too often those who believe that the only really valuable part of corporate worship is the preaching. In my mind, the Word is imbibed in the liturgy itself, in the Lord’s table, and in the fellowship of God’s people as they teach and admonish “one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in” their hearts to God (Colossians 3:16), as well as in private study and in the preaching.

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