The Word of God Is Worth the Work
Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Range is home to 58 peaks that reach 14,000 feet above sea level. “Fourteeners,” they’re called. Fifty-seven of those 58 peaks are accessible only by a long and sometimes grueling hike — Long’s Peak, for example, runs 14.5 miles round trip and rises 5,100 feet from trailhead to summit. One of these mountains, however, called Pikes Peak, has a parking lot at the top.
Having topped both Long’s and Pike’s — the one through a desperate, why-did-I-agree-to-this trek, and the other through a comfy car ride (with doughnuts at the top, if memory serves) — I will confirm what you can probably guess: there is a difference between walking to 14,000 feet and driving there.
The view may be the same, with those Rockies running like a river of mountains across the West. But the experience of the view is not. The 14.5 miles and 5,100 feet, it turns out, are not impediments to the beauty, but part of the beauty. You can’t separate the summit from the path, or the final footsteps from the 30,000 that precede them. The difficulty of the way increases the wonder.
A similar principle applies to the spiritual life, including Bible reading.
Many Bible readers can see ourselves in J.I. Packer’s description of “restless experientialists”:
[They value] strong feelings above deep thoughts. They have little taste for solid study, humble self-examination, disciplined meditation, and unspectacular hard work in their callings and their prayers. They conceive the Christian life as one of extraordinary exciting experiences rather than of resolute rational righteousness. (A Quest for Godliness, 30)
In Bible reading as well as mountaineering, many would like the experience of heart-skipping beauty without working their quadriceps to jelly. We often would prefer, say, to drive to the summit of Romans 8 without traversing the rocky fields of reasoning, and climbing the alpine slopes of argumentation, and patiently tracing the winding paths of logic in Romans 1–7. We want the thrill of spiritual feeling without the labor of spiritual thought.
“God has carved only one path to the human heart, and it runs through the mind.”
To be sure, a Christian is nothing without sincere spiritual affections. But God has carved only one path to the human heart, and it runs through the mind.
Bright Minds, Burning Hearts
Passage after passage in the Bible shows this relationship between thought and affections. In fact, the Bible’s very existence suggests it, because here we have a book that unashamedly addresses the brain en route to the heart. But consider just one passage for now.
On the Emmaus Road, when Jesus finally reveals himself to Cleopas and the other disciple, the two men say, “Did not our hearts burn within us?” (Luke 24:32). Every Christian has felt something of the burning heart — the blaze of glory, the flame of joy. And every Christian, on some level, wants more.
Notice, however, how the disciples finish the sentence: “Did not our hearts burn within us as he opened to us the Scriptures?” And by opened, they mean this: “[Jesus] interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Jesus took the men on an Old Testament tour, interpreting its Christ-centered meaning. In other words, he led an in-depth Bible study with them. Then, and only then, did fire kindle within. Before their hearts burned with love, their minds brightened with truth.
Packer draws the conclusion,
Man was made to know God with his mind, to desire it, once he has come to know it, with his affections, and to cleave to it, once he has felt its attraction, with his will. . . . God accordingly moves us, not by direct action on the affections or will, but by addressing our mind with his word, and so bringing to bear on us the force of truth. (A Quest for Godliness, 195, emphasis added)
“Our affections catch true fire only when our souls are full of truth’s kindling. And the Spirit lights the flame.”
Deep Christian feeling is supernatural, to be sure, but it is not the product of spontaneous spiritual combustion. Rather, our affections catch true fire only when our souls are full of truth’s kindling. And the Spirit lights the flame.
How to Summit Scripture
How then shall we read the Bible? To return to our mountain image, we read the Bible well by hiking rather than driving — by prayerfully thinking our way to affections rather than bypassing the brain. Or, to get more specific, we don’t pass over the hard places, we slow down enough to see, and we resist the comforts of sentimental reading.
Don’t pass over the hard places.
On the Emmaus road, what Scriptures did Jesus open to Cleopas and his friend? Luke writes, “Beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). He took them to Genesis and Isaiah, Leviticus and Kings, Deuteronomy and Psalms, showing how his whole story reveals his whole glory.
We may imagine a book like Leviticus can do little for our hearts; the sand around Sinai seems to offer little spiritual refreshment. And if we come to the Bible looking mainly for a quick emotional kick, we likely will drive right past Leviticus in search of better views. But what if good Bible reading looks less like finding familiar comfort and more like hiking, sometimes through rough terrain, toward a summit whose beauty will thrill us more because of where we’ve walked?
Christian joy becomes more whole the more we read the Bible whole: whole chapters, whole books, whole testaments. Over time, even a book like Leviticus — filled with Christward types and gospel whispers — will lay so many logs on the hearth, ready to be lit by the Spirit.
Slow down enough to see.
As you travel through whole books and testaments, consider also reading slow, at least slow enough to notice details that can’t be enjoyed by car: daffodils along the path, birds’ nests in the branches, unexpected prospects through the trees.
A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an unexpected sight while walking through familiar territory. “Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good” (Matthew 5:44–45). Suddenly, that simple word his freshly welcomed me into a God-filled world. The sun is God’s sun, and he raises it, lovingly, like a father turning on the lights in a child’s bedroom. A pronoun changed my day.
God means for pronouns to change us — and conjunctions and prepositions and definite articles. Not that we need to know the names of these parts of speech: a rose without a name still smells just as sweet. We can’t enjoy them, however, without noticing them, and noticing calls for an unhurried pace.
Resist the comforts of sentimental reading.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in a sermon on Hebrews 12:5–11, shares some strong words for those who read Scripture only in what he calls “a sentimental manner”:
There are many people who read the Scriptures in a purely sentimental manner. They are in trouble and they do not know what to do. They say, “I will read a psalm. It is so soothing — ‘The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.’” They make it a kind of incantation and take the Psalms as another person takes a drug.
The problem with such sentimental Bible reading is that it goes against the grain of Scripture’s own approach to our problems. “The word of God does not merely give us general comfort; what it gives us always is an argument,” Lloyd-Jones writes. And therefore, “We must follow the logic of it, and bring intelligence to the Scriptures. . . . Let them reason it out with you” (Spiritual Depression, 253).
Often, the logic of a passage — its fors and therefores, its ifs and buts — is the trail leading to the summit of glory. “There is therefore now no condemnation” (Romans 8:1); “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion” (Philippians 1:6); “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16) — all of these are scriptural summits. We can enjoy some of their glory if we drive quickly to the top. But oh, how much better the view if we patiently walk the path.
Patience is, indeed, the virtue many of us may need most in our Bible reading. For the deepest joy, the kind “inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8), comes only to those who prayerfully and thoughtfully plod the path. They read the Bible to know what God says and how he says it — in order that they might then feel that knowledge become worship by the power of the indwelling Spirit.
Resist, then, the urge to drive through your devotions. Glory awaits those who walk.