Reading Scripture

A lot of people come to me, as a pastor, wanting to know if there are specific books they should read to help them study the Bible. Certainly those books are out there, but I think something else has to come first. People need instruction on how to read sacred writing. When I speak of how to read, I’m not talking about something technical, like a method, I’m talking about a framework. Take, for example, the book of Job. It is a classic sacred book about suffering, and one of the most beautiful books in all of literature. One can read this book with different eyes. For example, we can read it and conclude, “God is going to let evil toy with us and we are just helpless pawns.” Or we can read it and conclude, “The point of this book is that if you really suffer profoundly, it is probably because God selected you to suffer.” Or we can think, “This is a book that tells us that God will do as God will do, and we’d better just accept it. God’s plans are God’s plans.” That is the problem with trying to extract “morals” or conclusions from sacred literature.

Generally it is not meant to be read that way. This is because “God’s plans are God’s plans” may be a valuable lesson to learn, but it has to be learned. That is to say, I must experience deep pain and loss, and struggle with it (and perhaps feel abandoned by God in the meantime) in order to come to see this. Just to declare that the story says to be faithful to God through suffering is not going to do much to help me be faithful when my time of suffering comes. At that time I will not be in total control of my feelings and reactions. That’s what suffering does to us. We have to go through it and learn the lessons that it teaches. We cannot will ourselves into responding rightly to it. If you’ve ever suffered deeply, you probably know what I mean.

What is the purpose of these books in the Bible? Do we just get to read them, pull out our object lessons, and blanket our lives in them? The point of Job isn’t to teach you how to respond to suffering before you have suffered, so you can bear down and try really hard and “succeed,” it is to show you what the journey looks like so that one day when you are experiencing unfathomable loss, you will recognize the chatty and philosophical friends with quick answers (Job’s friends), and your own determination not to question God (Job at the beginning), and your eventual giving in and questioning God anyway (Job toward the end), and your eventual surrender to the reality of your situation (Job in the last chapter). All of that is what you find in Job, if you can resist standing outside of it and simply drawing lessons from it about how you should respond. I assure you, all the lessons you may think you are learning in Job will just become bludgeons that are causing you even greater suffering when your time of loss comes and you find that you — just like all human beings — cannot respond the way you believed you would respond.

Reading the Bible to cull morals from it about how we “should” be can be an okay thing to do with some books (like Proverbs, for example), but not all sacred literature is intended to be used that way. Instead I can enter in, see my own struggles in the struggles of Job, or another character, and realize that others have walked the path I am walking, drawing strength and courage from their journeys. This is far better than saying, “What can I learn (some object lesson that exists only in my head) from the life of Job so that I don’t have to walk his journey?” You will walk his journey. And you will find yourself one day walking Peter’s journey toward Jesus on the water. And David’s journey toward Goliath, and Daniel’s journey to the bottom of the lion’s den, and many other journeys you read about in that book. What will matter most to you in those times is not all the knowledge and moral lessons you gain from reading their stories, but the assurance that your journey is a human journey, that God is with you on that journey, and that others have walked that road before.

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  • I like your hermeneutics. So important not to be reductionist in reading the Bible. Another interesting way to read Job is as the story of a prince’s fall from privilege and how he learns what people live like on the fringes of society by experiencing it firsthand. If you read chapters 29-30 of Job, Job’s prior privilege is pretty plainly problematized by the text (especially in the Hebrew). Elihu has a field-day with Job on this account. If you look at God’s whirlwind speech, there’s a specificity to the way that creation is described. It’s not just that God says I created all of this, you didn’t create s***, therefore I win the argument. The creatures God highlights are the inhabitants of the wasteland outside of human civilization that Job describes in 30:1-8: the wild donkey, the raven, the lion, etc. God’s retort to Job is an expression of solidarity with the creatures who don’t matter to princes. Job says in his complaint, “I have become a brother to the jackals.” Exactly. That’s the point. I don’t know. It’s just one more midrashic harmonic within the hermeneutic field, but to read Job as a critique of privilege has a lot of resonance for me.

    On a totally unrelated note, I like the way you lay out heaven and hell on your church’s statement of beliefs. That’s exactly the way they ought to be described.

    • Thanks for this outstanding and helpful comment, Morgan. Scripture is so rich when we learn how to read it. Richard Rohr teaches that scripture can actually become more and more true as we learn to allow it to be symbolic.

  • I’d like to add, that I’d certainly never use a book like Job as a guide on how to respond emotionally to suffering!

  • Dave, I especially like your conclusion, that we are all walking a human journey, that others have walked before.
    I believe there is one thing we have control of at all times – even during suffering – and that’s our attitude. It may be difficult to focus on controlling our attitude when our world seems to be crumbling down around us and emotions are running high, but it’s possible.
    Even Job controlled his attitude. He suffered, he mourned, he grieved, he cried and threw ashes on his head – but he wouldn’t curse God. He controlled his attitude so that he would not blame God.
    Many people don’t attempt to control their attitude though. They lump attitude together with emotions and their lives turn into a roller-coaster of chaos when disaster hits. And because they don’t distinguish between attitude and emotions, I agree, people don’t know how they’ll respond to disaster and suffering. I just don’t believe that’s the way it has to be!

    Also, in my post, my primary message was that we aren’t guaranteed a struggle-free, suffering-free, disaster-free life. That God is in control of planning our lives and some people may suffer more than others.
    My secondary message was about the suffering that everyone will eventually experience and I simply ask people to probe their hearts. Will they separate attitude from emotion and not curse God?