When I applied for seminary, I had the naive notion that I would graduate (after just four years) having essentially mastered the Bible. I knew, of course, that I would keep reading it for the rest of my life, even daily, but I figured by then I would be brushing up on what I’d already seen, not hiking up the mountain anymore.
Less than a week into my first semester, that naive notion mercifully crashed, took on water, and drowned. And from its grave, a new hunger emerged, a happy realization that I would never exhaust this book, that if I kept reading, I would see more year by year, not less. Not only could I not master this book in four years, but I came to see that I couldn’t in forty years — or four hundred, for that matter, if God gave me centuries. No, my time in seminary was a serious education in how to be gladly mastered by the Book, ready to be awakened, chastened, exhorted, and thrilled by it for as long as I live.
The iceberg on which my naivete sweetly crashed and sank was one of the happiest men I’ve ever met, a pastor who has served for decades, and devoted many of those years to teaching naive men like me to study, live, and teach the word of God. Now a decade removed from seminary, I firmly believe that nothing I learned was more valuable than witnessing, week after week, a humble, joyful, wide-eyed Tom Steller open the Bible with us.
That Kind of Happy
By the time I started seminary, I had memorized Psalm 1:1–2, but meeting Pastor Tom brought two of the words in particular into fuller, more tangible life: blessed and delight.
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
Walking through Scripture with Pastor Tom, verse by verse, even phrase by phrase, was like tasting honey for the first time. When King David says that the rules of the Lord are “sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb,” we know that honey is sweet, even if we’ve never had any. But actually tasting honey for ourselves makes a verse like Psalm 19:10 really sing. That’s what happened as I watched Tom Steller savor Ephesians. He was (and is!) the blessed man, and his delight in the word was nearly tangible. He’s that kind of happy.
“He treasured what he saw far more than how he might be seen.”
Who knows how many times he had been through Ephesians in his life? And this wasn’t even his first time teaching the book. Yet he came to class expectant, on the edge of his seat, like a five-year-old just before the ice cream comes. You left class wanting to read your Bible more because you wanted to see more of what he saw, to feel what he felt, to live and pastor like he did.
That Kind of Humble
Over time, digging into chapter after chapter with Tom, we slowly uncovered the quiet secret to his joy in Bible reading: humility. Even after reading these verses for years, studying these verses for years, even teaching these verses for years, he came to class to learn — to see what he had not seen (or to correct what he thought he had seen). Don’t be mistaken, he had deep, durable convictions, but he held those convictions with an equally deep and durable humility.
No verse was too familiar. No question seemed threatening. No alternative translation or interpretation was discarded too quickly. In his fifties, he took as much or even more joy in the insights a twentysomething stumbled upon. He wanted to see everything there was to see in these chapters, and he didn’t care how he saw it or who saw it first, whether a fellow pastor or professor, one of his students, or a second grader. He treasured what he saw far more than how he might be seen.
In this rare freedom from pride, he modeled what John Piper says about supernatural, soul-stirring Bible reading:
When the Spirit works in the reading of Scripture, we are humbled, and Christ is exalted. Our old preference for self-exaltation is replaced with a passion for Christ-exaltation. This new passion is the key that throws open a thousand windows in Scripture to let in the brightness of God’s glory. (Reading the Bible Supernaturally, 248)
That’s what it was like in Tom’s classroom, flooded with light. Each week, more windows appeared, opening up some fresh and vivid view of God. Because he never assumed he’d seen it all, even in his favorite chapters and verses, he saw more than most could. And then more again the next day.
The Unblessed Man
Providentially, I met a second pastor during that first week of seminary, a retired pastor who served at the food shelf where I worked. While he was kind and generous, he and Tom were dramatically different pastors (and Christians). Getting to know them, I learned that their many and varied differences had their root in one underlying divergence.
“You left class wanting to read your Bible more because you wanted to see more of what he saw.”
One day at the food shelf, after the staff finished reading our daily chapter of the Bible together, I was talking to the retired pastor about something we read that morning. At some point in the conversation, I asked what Bible reading looked like for him at this stage of his life, imagining that retirement might afford even more time to slow down, meditate, and enjoy Scripture. I’ll never forget what he said next (and where I was sitting when he said it):
Oh, I don’t read the Bible much anymore, just the couple days I’m here at the food shelf. I’ve read it all many times before. Now that I’m retired, I can focus on other things.
Here was a man who had devoted his vocational life to Christian ministry, and yet the Bible had grown old, unappealing, even unnecessary. God himself has spoken in ink and paper and wonder, and yet somehow he’d seen enough.
While Pastor Tom woke up, day after day, to new and wider windows, this man pulled the shades. If Tom’s bright eyes were a towering lighthouse of hope and reward for an aspiring pastor, this man’s dim eyes were an ominous cloud of warning.
Minutes from the Mountains
The retired pastor incriminated himself, exposing a shameful, arrogant ignorance — and yet he’s not the stranger I wish he were. We may not say out loud what he was so willing to say, but we betray ourselves whenever we race past or rush through this book. Satan stands beside all our windows, distracting us, interrupting us, taunting us, entertaining us. His warped lenses make the oceans of Scripture look like thimbles and the lions like kittens. He turns awe-inspiring mountains into molehills.
But even at his murderous best, Satan’s fighting uphill. The brilliance and beauty of the Bible shines through even the heaviest blackout curtains. If we slow down enough to see what’s there, with the Spirit’s help, we’re just minutes from sunlight and grandeur, from reality and vitality, from hope and joy. Wisdom promises this kind of Bible reading to those who come humble and hungry:
If you call out for insight
and raise your voice for understanding,
if you seek it like silver
and search for it as for hidden treasures,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:3–5)
I hope you have a Tom Steller somewhere in your life, someone who throws open windows for you in Bible reading, someone who won’t stop looking and asking and listening, someone who helps you over tall hurdles, out of deep ruts, through thick forests, someone who loves watching you see more — and seeing more through you.
And I hope you, like me, get to be his kind of happy.