Making The Bible Come Alive In Your Own Devotional Times

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I should read my Bible more.

I don’t have very consistent quiet-times.

The Bible seems (can I say it?) dull. Unrelated to my life. Reading Scripture is like starting a fire with wet kindling: no matter how much I try, the match seems to go out.

Have you ever thought anything like that? Does the word of God, which claims to be “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12), seem dead and inactive when you read it? If so, here’s good news: you’re not alone! Every Christian has, and will, struggle to give consistent attention to God’s word. Sin, Satan, and a God-ignoring world around us all do their best to keep us away from the Bible, or at least unsatisfied with the Bible’s impact.

But apart from what we might call the “hostile opposition” to our Scripture reading, we face another challenge: the Bible isn’t about us! A resume, a birthday card from your kids – those are about your life directly. But the Bible is filled with stories about other people, distant places, difficult names, battles and birth narratives. How do all those stories and sayings actually impact real life in your world, amid bills, screaming children, chronic pain, sleepless nights, or constant loneliness – all the stuff that fills up our moments?

Here’s one way to get at that question. What Scripture has had a significant impact on your life? We can probably all point to one particular passage, verse, even phrase that has been a milestone in our Christian lives. Maybe it’s the passage that God used to save you. Maybe it was something that got you through a significant struggle in marriage or parenting, a job crisis, or a health emergency. Take a moment and think about that significant Scripture. What stands out about it? What made it leap off the page?

Here’s how David Powlison, a writer and biblical counselor, summarizes the way Scripture comes to life for us. Consider your significant Scripture, and see if you find a mix of these three elements. Scripture comes to life when three things intersect: our situation, the living God, and our response in light of who God is and what he does. Situation, God, response. Let’s unpack each of these.

The situation – Scripture is about the real lives of real people. It has dirt under its fingernails. It portrays life as it really is: messy, painful, joyous, glorious, all at once. It portrays people as we really are. Made in God’s image, yet fallen. Sinful and sinned against. Corrupt and corrupting. The point of all this is to intersect with your life. You live in the same world, a good world made by God but now under his curse because of sin. Scripture accurately portrays life in that kind of world.

God – but Scripture does more than catalogue the joys and woes of humanity. Scripture reveals God. It is fundamentally about the triune God: who he is, what he is like, what he does. Or we could put it this way: Scripture is about God revealing himself in Christ in the power of the Spirit. But note: God doesn’t reveal himself in abstracts. It’s easy as Christians to only have vague, fuzzy notions about God. Fuzziness never changes anyone. Scripture reveals God in specifics, not in vague abstractions.

Response – God reveals himself so that we can respond. And that response (again summarizing Powlison) happens in two-dimensions: vertically, towards God; and horizontally, towards other people. In other words, faith and love.

When you put these three together – the triune, living God, situation, response – Scripture comes to life. Think back to your significant Scripture. Can you see these elements? Now imagine this: what if all of Scripture began to open up to you in these ways? That’s God’s intention. Scripture is about life: your life, and mine. It is living and active (Heb. 4:12). It is able to make us wise for salvation, and useful for godliness (2 Tim. 3:15-17). It brings life, wisdom, joy, and purity (Ps. 19:7-8). And it brings all those good gifts in the midst of the real world, the world we live in as sinners, sufferers, and saints. Life and Scripture aren’t strangers. They share the same zip code. And as we bring our life to the Bible, we’ll find that the Bible comes to life in ways we’ve never expected.

Photo by Chris Yarzab.

What Parts of the Bible are You Ignoring?

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It’s not easy to make sense of scripture. Parts of it are downright weird or even horrific. The story of Judah and Tamar, God’s interaction with Hosea and Gomer, and any story using the phrase “devoted to destruction” come to mind. They are the stories you don’t see in children’s Bible story books, or if they are included it is with some serious sanitation and airbrushing (a Thomas Kinkade version of reality, so to speak).

Those passages get ignored because they gross us out or break our fragile understanding of God. But there are other portions of scripture we ignore in an entirely different way – commands that are uncomfortable or nigh impossible to follow. It is so easy to willfully overlook them, much easier than learning how to reconcile them to my life and God’s reality.

Love your enemies.

Forgive 70 x 7 times (that means ALL of the times).

Bless those who curse you and pray for those who persecute you.

Honor you father and mother.

Children, obey your parents.

Give to any who asks of you.

Lay down your life and follow me.

If it causes you to sin, cut it off.

Husbands, love your wife as Christ loves the Church.

Do not covet.

Serve God, not money.

Do not commit adultery (which includes willfully lusting).

Consider others before yourself.

Pray without ceasing.

Judge not lest you be judged.

Take up your cross and follow me.

And so on.

We have so many rationalizations and excuses for overlooking and ignoring such commands. So often our mindset is that of a transaction: every disobeyed or ignored command is a debt owed, and we simply can’t pay them all back. We’re in over our heads, and it feels impossible to face our wrongs and admit them. But we must, and it’s good and freeing when we do because we are not settling accounts with God; we are being restored in relationship. God’s grace and forgiveness far surpass our willful ignoring of his commands (that’s in the bible too, don’t forget). His grace is so great that what the debt we do owe was paid already so that we can be free to come to Him for forgiveness, as children.

So be brave and ask yourself “what parts of the Bible do I ignore?” Then trust God’s grace for understanding and forgiveness as you would trust a good father, a perfect father. He gave us scripture to show us as much of Himself as we can handle. It is for our good, our peace, even if we can’t riddle it all out. We can trust the parts that tell us of His mercy, goodness, sovereignty, and forgiveness. We can rest in the parts that tell us of redemption at the cross and the coming of a perfect helper to teach and grow us. When we rest in these parts of scripture we will begin to improve at all those hard commands and come to terms with those tricky parts.

If Romans 7 Is About Christians, Why Did Paul Delight In the Law?

I used to believe that in Romans 7, Paul was describing the struggle of the Christian against sin. I don’t believe that anymore, for reasons I’ve detailed here (Romans 7 Is Not About Christians), and here (Romans 7 Is Not About Christians (Part Deux)), and here (So What’s Really Up With Romans 7?). Now, just to be clear, I have lots of good friends who are way more godly than me who believe Romans 7 IS about Christians, and this isn’t a hill I’m going to die on.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about Romans 7 again, particularly the most common objection to my position, which is this: If Paul was not a Christian, how could he say he “delighted” in the law of God? After all, doesn’t Paul say in the beginning of Romans that every non-Christian is an enemy of God?

However, the more I’ve thought about the question, the more I’ve wondered if we shouldn’t be asking the opposite question: If Paul WAS a Christian, how could he say he delighted in the law of the Lord?

In Romans 7, it is clear that when Paul uses the word “law”, he is referring to the Mosaic law. He is not referring to the law of Christ, or the more general moral law of God revealed to unbelievers through creation. He is using “law” in the technical sense, the Mosaic sense. Throughout his epistles, Paul makes it abundantly clear that Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, that the Mosaic law has been eclipsed by the new, wonderful covenant we have in Christ, and that anyone who tries to be justified by the law is under a curse.

Some scriptures to consider in which Paul talks about the relationship between Christians and the Mosaic law:

Romans 4:14-15 – For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

Romans 6:14 – For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Romans 7:6 – But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

Romans 8:2 – For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Romans 10:4 – For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Galatians 2:19 – For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.

Galatians 5:18 – But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Ephesians 2:14-15 – For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances.

Paul’s consistent, repeated point, is that Christians are in no way under the Mosaic law. We are not obligated to obey the commandments of the Mosaic law, we are not required to observe the ordinances of the Mosaic law, and we are totally justified apart from the law.

If these things are true, how could Paul possibly say in Romans 7 that he “delights” in the Mosaic law? As a Christian, how could Paul say that he delights in the Old Covenant, along with all it’s ordinances and sacrifices? Contrary to what many writers have said, Paul doesn’t distinguish between the moral, civil, and ceremonial aspects of the law. He simply states that Christians are not under any part of the Mosaic law.

Paul’s statement about delighting in the law does make sense, however, if he is writing from the perspective of a pious, unregenerate Jew. In Phillipians 3:4-6, Paul shows just how much he did delight in the law prior to his wonderful conversion:

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

If anyone delighted in the law, it was pre-conversion Paul. He did everything in his power to keep the law. The more I consider Paul’s statements about the relationship between the Christian and the law, the more I am convinced he is describing his pre-conversion experience in Romans 7.

As Christians we are not under the Mosaic law. Period. We are not obligated to keep any of the commands of the Mosaic law, because those things passed away when Christ instituted the New Covenant.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? IF PAUL WAS DESCRIBING THE EXPERIENCE OF THE CHRISTIAN, HOW DO YOU MAKE SENSE OF PAUL’S DELIGHT IN THE LAW?

Is The Bible A Love Letter From God?

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

I’ve heard it said that the Bible is a love letter from God to us.

And while I understand the sentiment behind that statement, I don’t think it’s particularly accurate. Here’s why.

A love letter is written by a guy (or girl) who is smitten. He can’t get enough of the girl he is in love with. He can’t see her enough, can’t think about her enough, can’t say enough wonderful things about her. His love spills over from his heart onto paper. He must tell the girl how he feels, must express the intense love and affection that are threatening to completely take him over. The love letter is the guy telling the girl how amazing and wonderful and delightful she is. The love letter is all about the girl.

The Bible is not a love letter.

Does the Bible tell us about God’s incredible love for us? Of course. But the Bible is not primarily about us, the Bible is primarily about God. The Bible is not primarily a subjective account of God’s feelings for us; it is an objective record of God’s magnificent, glorious plan of redemption. The Bible doesn’t exist in order to make us feel good about ourselves. The Bible exists in order to stir our affections for our glorious God.

God is not most impressed with us, he is most impressed with himself. The Bible is not God telling us how wonderful we are; the Bible is God telling us how wonderful he is.

Maybe we should stop calling the Bible a love letter from God.

The Right-Side Up Power of Scripture

Has the Bible ever turned your world upside down? You know the expression. An event that turns the world upside down changes everything. Up is down and down is up and nothing is the same. Does the Bible ever do that for you?

For most Christians, I bet the answer is “sometimes.” There probably have been moments where a passage, a verse, or even a word in Scripture spoke directly to you and changed your life. But those moments aren’t the norm. Sometimes Bible reading is…well, hard. Even (dare we say it) dull.

What should we expect from our daily devotions? Are we to aim for those light bulb, “ah ha!” moments? Or should we just resign ourselves to a sort of spiritual daily grind? Actually, neither. If Scripture is God’s word to us, it should never be dull. But that doesn’t mean every morning will be a mountain top experience, either. Something different is going on, a work that is simultaneously slower and deeper than we can imagine – something that actually turns our world right side up. To understand what I mean, I need to introduce you to Ivo Rohler and his friend Theodor Erismann.

In 1950, Rohler was an assistant to Erismann, an Austrian professor. Erismann convinced Rohler to be the subject of an experiment involving vision and the human perception of reality. Here’s what happened, as reported in The Guardian:

The professor made Kohler wear a pair of hand-engineered goggles. Inside those goggles, specially arranged mirrors flipped the light that would reach Kohler’s eyes, top becoming bottom, and bottom top.

At first, Kohler stumbled wildly when trying to grasp an object held out to him, navigate around a chair, or walk down stairs…

Holding a teacup out to be filled, he would turn the cup upside down the instant he saw the water apparently pouring upward. The sight of smoke rising from a match, or a helium balloon bobbing on a string, could trigger an instant change in his sense of which direction was up, and which down.

But over the next week, Kohler found himself adapting, in fits and starts, then more consistently, to such sights.

After 10 days, he had grown so accustomed to the invariably upside-down world that, paradoxically and happily, everything seemed to him normal, rightside-up. Kohler could do everyday activities in public perfectly well: walk along a crowded sidewalk, even ride a bicycle…

Erismann and Kohler did further experiments. So did other scientists. Their impression is that many, perhaps most, maybe just about all, people are able to make these kinds of adjustment. Images reach the eye in some peculiar fashion, and if that peculiar fashion is consistent, a person’s visual system eventually, somehow, adjusts to interpret it — to perceive it, to see it — as being no different from normal.

Read that last line again. “Images reach the eye in some peculiar fashion, and if that peculiar fashion is consistent, a person’s visual system eventually, somehow, adjusts to interpret it — to perceive it, to see it — as being no different from normal.” That is a perfect description of the human condition ever since sin entered our hearts. We see reality in a peculiar fashion – a twisted, upside down mirage – and yet we think it is normal. And Scripture is God’s gift to turn our world right-side up.

Sin distorts the way we see God. We know God exists (Romans 1:19), but our knowledge of him is gross caricature. We do not understand his holiness, so we think our sin is trivial. We do not understand his mercy and grace, so we think our efforts are needed to earn our way back into his favor. We have a carnival mirror understanding of God – but Scripture gives us a clear picture of God in his true glory.

Sin distorts the way we see ourselves. We imagine ourselves beyond the need of grace, greatly underestimating the scope of our cosmic rebellion. Or we see ourselves as beyond the reach of grace, damaged goods too far gone for God to restore. Both are errors – but Scripture gives us a clear picture of ourselves: sinners and saints, guilty and forgiven.

Like Kohler’s slow adaption to an upside down world, this reorienting work of Scripture takes time. At times there are mountain-top moments, foretastes of heaven, when we get a sudden panoramic view of reality. Other times the adaptation is slower, more subtle. And it’s not magic – instead, this restoration is the work of the Spirit through the written word. But make no mistake: Scripture is turning your world right-side up.

Photo by Liberalmind1012.