When the Bible Is Hard to Understand
Years ago Noel Piper recommended a way to read the Bible that helped her, and, as I eventually discovered, helped me as well. She introduced a strategy that turned Bible reading from duty to delight:
I became a hunter, and my blue highlighter was my weapon. The prey was God’s attributes. I set out to underline everything the Bible says about God (didn’t want to set my sights too narrow!). . .
This “hunt for God” was irresistible to me. It drew me like a magnet. And once I was inside the pages, it kept my mind moving — no more drowsing and waking up two chapters later.
I was awakening to the power of God in disability, disease, and suffering, so I chose that as a theme to keep on the lookout.
On one hand, my mind was kept on the move, engaged, enriched. I was seeing things I had never seen before! And on the other hand, I was also sad, and often confused. Some of the texts were hard — no, they felt impossible! — for me to understand. Some even appeared contrary to who I knew God to be as all-wise, all-loving, and all-powerful. I had bumped into some of them before, but now they were staring at me, daring me to make sense of them.
Sensing the Emotional Level
Like most of you, I’m just a guy in the pews. I have no formal theological education. I can’t read Greek or Hebrew. I have a full life with my family, my job, my church, and several other activities scattered within. But I wasn’t content to end with whatever I “thought” the passage meant. I wanted to understand what God meant by these hard texts and therefore I pulled out study Bibles and commentaries and looked over sermons preached by my pastor and other trusted expositors.
Unfortunately this had the effect of feeding what I later realized was a sarcastic, untrusting spirit in my own heart. Intellectually, I could see the connections these faithful men were making in their commentaries. But I was wrestling with God’s word at an emotional level, and I didn’t see these faithful men as having the same experience with the issue of disability that I did. Thus, their intellectual arguments became cold, even calloused.
But surprisingly, over time, my personal struggle to understand God’s word had the effect of increasing my appreciation for my pastors who wrestled week after week to bring greater clarity to God’s word, and increase our affection for it. It is strange to be both attracted to and repelled by the Bible at the same time.
Thankfully, God had saved me. I was not dead but alive! I knew Jesus and my need for him as my Savior. God’s word over and over again exclaimed how entirely trustworthy God is, and I knew that to be true. And I knew that I wasn’t just lazy or stupid. Pastor John had in fact preached that hard texts are actually hard.
I wrestled so hard trying to figure out how Paul’s argument worked here, and I prayed so fervently that God would give me light and guard me from error, that I felt forced to ask, “God, what does this mean, that you have ordained that such a difficult paragraph to be in your word? What am I to learn from this?”
Encouragement to Persevere
So, what to do? Sitting in the pews it would be easy to just walk away from those passages and let somebody else with more training and experience and credentials worry about them. Or I could remain sad that God had carved out space in his word to us for passages that appeared uncaring and unconnected to other parts of the Bible, but that seemed like a definite formula for spiritual disaster.
Or I could trust that he might have something for me and that I should keep scratching and digging with my limited tool set. Even if that “something” doesn’t come in this life, it is still worth pursuing. I read and re-read passages and asked the Holy Spirit to help me see. Sometimes I walked away from those passages for weeks or even months. Sometimes I forgot about them entirely for a season. But I kept being drawn back to them, with a prayerful hope that God might help me. And by grace, I trusted that they were meant for my good no matter my current understanding.
Then one summer, at an unbecoming public library, God answered one of my prayers.
I well remember the tears that came, almost sobs, when I saw and understood one little phrase in Leviticus 21 for the first time. It is possibly the most difficult passage in the Bible on disability, but that one phrase in God’s word turned it into something beautiful and full of hope when connected to the rest of God’s word.
There are still difficult passages every now and then, but that experience served as a help to persevere with those passages. The Bible is God’s word to us. It is precious and valuable. Every word is meant for God’s glory and for our good, even the parts of it that are tough to understand.
So let us not passively read his word, but with Jacob say, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26). And then expect that he will bless, no matter the time it takes.
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