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Transformation Blog

 

 

A Reorientation to the Scripture (Scripture VI)

Brandon Cook

The issue is not just what we read, but how we read it. Spiritual reading is reading with an inner attentiveness to the movement of God’s Spirit in our outer and inner lives. With that attentiveness, we will allow God to read us and to explain to us what we are truly about.

—Henri Nouwen

We can read Scripture in a way that strengthens our adoption by making us dependent not on our information download but on the living whisper of God’s Spirit. In the space remaining, I’d like to suggest a practical way of coming to Scripture that can be practiced daily upon the foundation of The Slow Life. 

The Short Read of Scripture: Reading for Awareness

First of all, though I’m knocking Scripture-reading if it’s only about information download, I’m not knocking the long, slow, studied reading of Scripture. Far from it; the long read of Scripture is critical, and information is a good thing. Scripture only becomes corrupted when we rely on it in an unhealthy way. Most idols, by the way, function in the same manner: they are good things that, in the words of Tim Keller, we wrongly make into an “ultimate thing.” As disciples, it’s important that we know and study each act of Scripture, as Jesus did, discovering how the Spirit speaks through each phase of the story. Without Biblical literacy, we can become too dependent on our limited, subjective reading of Scripture. Without study and context, we will no doubt misread what Scripture actually says. So reading many chapters and studying with commentaries is urgent work. At the same time, the long read without what I’ll call “the short read” can be shortsighted and even damaging. As with most everything, it’s all about balance. 

When I say “short read,” I mean engaging a short passage of Scripture to hear and discern the whisper of God’s Spirit through it. 

When we read Scripture, do we allow it, as Nouwen said, to read us? Do we allow it to go through us and cut us, to provoke, challenge, and comfort us? The writer of Hebrews says, “For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.” Do we allow Scripture to cut us accordingly? How might we read in a way that opens us to the voice of the Holy Spirit? As with food, it’s not just what you consume, it’s what your body can process; after all, we know that many vitamins pass through our body without actually nourishing us. So we must develop practices that can help us receive and process the words of Scripture until it becomes the Word of God within us.

As an example, here is a simple practice for allowing the Scripture to become the Word of God for us:

A Simple ‘Short-Read’ Practice

Choose a passage of Scripture that is anywhere from about 5-15 verses. You can choose any passage, though I wouldn’t start with a genealogy or the Levitical Code. Contrary to popular teaching, while all Scripture is inspired and useful, it’s not all equalfor instruction. 

For this exercise, you will read through the passage three times.

The first time, read slowly, but without stopping. After the last verse, pause and breathe deeply as you reflect on the passage. What do you notice in your mind? In your body? 

Read again, more slowly. This time, notice words or phrases that strike you. Don’t judge or critique or analyze; just notice. After reading, pause and breathe. Let your body rest. Notice if you are becoming aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit. You may feel a warmth in your body or a quieting of your mind. You may experience yourmind jumping here and there, struggling to focus. Notice and then attend to what you notice. In other words, don’t judge yourself or the experience; just be in it.

Read a third time, and this time, listen for the voice of the Spirit speaking to you through the text. What do you hear Jesus speaking? See if you can hear the whisper that says, “I am with you; I am here; You are mine.” Again, pause and breathe. Finally, pray in response to the Scripture. Your prayer may be as simple as “help me, Jesus” or “show me how you are with me,” or “help me to love as you love.” Try to put some simple words to whatever longing rises up in you. 

As you practice a slow reading of Scripture daily and weekly, according to the exercise above or some other manner, you will become more comfortable being in the tension of reading and listening. You will begin to notice themes that emerge. Over time, you will learn how you become aware of and hear the Spirit of Jesus through the text. 

When the Holy Spirit highlights something for you, make a note of it. If you don’t know what I mean, just keep practicing reading the Scripture; God will be faithful to teach you when and how He’s speaking and how you best hear. When a word or phrase becomes “sticky,” let yourself be stuck there. 

On a related note, make a note of anchors that God may give you. Sometimes the Holy Spirit will highlight verses or phrases that are significant for us to cling to, even if we don’t even know why they are so captivating to us (although many times, we will know immediately). 

For example, I was reading the Psalms in North Carolina one summer, once again battling a deep depression, andthe phrase “You [God] have exalted my horn,” absolutely leapt off the page and punched me. You know, metaphorically, and in a good way. I nearly started weeping, even though I didn’t know what a horn was or why it would be exalted. When I got back to my computer later, I looked it up in order to understand the context. But I already understood enough to know that God was saying, “I am with you, I have not forgotten you.” The Spirit was speaking to me on a level deeper than my conscious comprehension. I’ve never forgotten that moment.

We don’t just need to know about God, we need to experienceGod. Sometimes people look at experience as though it’s not trustworthy because it’s subjective, as though it would be better to just rely on information about the Bible. But when you read the Bible, guess what? It’s about people who had experiences of God! We don’t exalt our experience above Scripture, but at the same time, Scripture reading without experience of the character of God will invariably become idolatry. God experience and God encounter is what helps us read Scripture rightly.

A Prayer for Coming to the Scripture 

With all this in mind, here is a prayer that can help ground you as you come to Scripture.

Jesus, as I come to Scripture, I confess how easily my thoughts become confused. Sometimes I take my thoughts about you as the entire story of who you are, as if they could contain you. Or I believe my dark thoughts of doubt and suspicion and cling to them instead of you.

Lord, as I read, interrupt me, still me, quiet me, and comfort me. Challenge me with the reality of your goodness. Let the words in Scripture point me to who you are and to what you’re doing. And let me be like you, Jesus, you who found your story in Scripture. 

In seeing you, I am transformed. In hearing you, I am changed. So open my eyes and ears to behold and hear, through these words you have given me.

Through Christ my Lord, Amen.

 

For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'

Or, to read more posts on transformational topics, click here.

 

Reading for Information or Reading for Transformation (Scripture V)

Brandon Cook

Reading in a spiritual way is reading with a desire to let God come closer to us. The purpose of spiritual reading…is not to master knowledge or information, but to let God’s Spirit master us. Strange as it may sound, spiritual reading means to let ourselves be read by God!

—Henri Nouwen

Nouwen’s quote captures the reality that Scripture is not about simply mastering information or downloading knowledge. You can, after all, have knowledge with wisdom, and you know Scripture without being guided by the Spirit. Nor is Scripture reading simply a task that must be done. Jesus seems to have related to Scripture not as a task to be completed (“I’ve read my chapter today, I’m good!”) but as a meal to be savored. He doesn’t read from The Human Paradigm (reading enough to earn something or knowing enough to prove himself), but rather he reads to become more aware of his Father’s goodness and more empowered for a life of loving and serving others. 
Think of Scripture, then, as a meal. Physical food releases energy into our bodies, and Scripture releases energy for becoming aware. When my wife says, “Dinner time!” I don’t grumble about having to eat another meal. I run to eat (she cooks well, after all). If we know the generosity of God, then Scripture reading, as with all spiritual practices, will become a meal to be savored. This doesn’t mean there’s not sacrifice or discipline in ordering our lives around such practices, it just means that our consistent experience will be one of delight rather than one of labor. That’s why Jesus tells us to let his words abide in us, his disciples, and that as they abide in us and as we respond to them, we will experience joy.

I worry that we have not been trained to think of Scripture as a meal, but rather as a collection of maxims or, worse, as data. In college, I went to a church’s Sunday School class which was led by a man who clearly knew way more about the Bible than anyone else in the room. People would ask him good questions about complicated topics and somehow, the “Bible Man” (as I immediately began to think of him) always had a crystal-clear answer backed up by three or four Biblical references. His answers were definitive. They were clearly meant as the answer to each question. 

I felt uneasy. My experience of life was (and is) not that cut and dried. Life seems to have unending levels of nuance, and sometimes the only answer I can see is that Jesus is good and strong.Sometimes that’sthe onlyanswer I have. And sometimes I’m trusting it more than I’m feeling it.

I worry that we have made having answers and “knowing the Bible” into just another way of procuring power, rather than heeding the Biblical invitation to cometo Jesus through our weakness. I worry that we have substituted our need for The Answer with lots of little answers, stitched together to give us a sense of control. This seems to be, after all, what Jesus so consistently chided the religious leaders of his day for doing. Perhaps we have, from time to time, substituted the Bible for the third member of the Trinity, giving us the Father, Son, and Holy Scripture. Perhaps we have substituted faith with certainty and trust with dogma. Human beings like being right, often more than they like being in relationship. The Scripture makes very clear that this is one of our favorite means of being powerful.

Jesus, in fact, spoke about those who use Scripture in such a way. Talking to some religious hypocrites, he said, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” Ouch. 

We must remember that Jesus never had a problem with honest sinners; it was always hypocrites, nearly all of them religious, who raised his dander. We can all read the Scripture to make ourselves feel invulnerable and right, but we’ll likely become religious hypocrites in the process. And we’ll no doubt miss God in the midst of it. Spiritual practices get ruined for us when they are more about being right than about learning to accept and be transformed by the unmitigated goodness of God in a confusing, death-touched world. 

What we need, then, is to orient to Scripture in such a way that we arehumbled by it and, as Nouwen said, read by it. This requires diligence and practice. 

 

For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'

Jesus Chooses the Story (Scripture IV)

Brandon Cook

I saw a Super Bowl ad a few years ago called “Run Like a Girl.” In it, a slew of people are asked to demonstrate what it looks like when a girl runs. The first six or seven people, all older, demonstrate a stereotypical “girly” run, wimpy and not very athletic. Then we are presented with a younger girl, maybe seven or eight. She hasn’t yet been imprinted with and overwhelmed by stereotypes, and so when she’s instructed to “run like a girl,” she does it with passion and power. There’s no limp wrist or fluttering elbow. And it’s transcendent, inspiring. Because here’s a human heart and mind untouched and unclouded by stereotypes and generalization. And here’s a young girl, therefore, who’sliving in a differentstory. 

The morals are many. Once a story takes root, it’s powerful. It can even become a prison. We all have stories in our brain, and it doesn’t matter if your story is true; if it’s true to you, then it’s true in all of its effects in your life. However, this reality also opens up to hope. What if there is a reality outside of our current experience with which we can align, and through which liberty, freedom, and abundance are available? In fact, this is what an adopted life is all about. As Jesus said,“I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” 

Living in adoption means living in a new story, and Scripture has the power to anchor us into the story of new life that God tells through Jesus. It’s not surprising then, that when we turn to Matthew 4, we see Jesus “run like a girl,” if you’ll follow my meaning: we see Jesus living from a different story, not from the templates provided by the dominant culture. Nor does he live out some self-produced story from the confines of a self-consumed ego, as we often do. Instead, Jesus lives from the story that the Spirit tells. Jesus is called “beloved” by the Father, and this is the story that he lives from, always.

Yet right after this declaration, Jesus’ trust is tested. Does he really trust the story of belovedness that the Father speaks over him? Will he believe that he's “in”? Or will he doubt his story and choose some alternate storyline? We read about that struggle in Matthew 4. There, Satan comes and says, basically, “It’s not enough to be a child of God. Prove yourself.” We should take note again that this is always the same strategy Satan uses with us, too, repeated ad infinitum. We should also note how Jesus responds: he answers with Scripture! He parries Satan’s blows with the story and authority of Scripture.

In other words, Jesus lives a Scripture-formed life. Clearly, he has studied it. He has read it enough to memorize it. And his Scripture-formed life is an adoption-formed life. He is living in Act IV, and not repeating Act II (grumbling in the wilderness, as his forebears did), nor Act III (turning to some more tangible comfort—like the bread offered him by Satan, as the Israelites turned to idols) to relieve the tension of trust and suffering. 

All stories—all the good ones, anyway—have a protagonist who clings to hope in the face of great tension and suffering. They remain anchored in their hope and faith, against great odds. We see this in Jesus. And then we discover that we, too, are the protagonists! We, too, can walk the path with Jesus, who has blazed the trail. We are empowered to do this as we let Scripture ground us into the story of our adoption, even when we don’t feel like it. Because we often doubt our adoption; our thoughts and emotions may well contradict it at many points. This doesn’t make us bad Christians, it just makes us human beings. But if we will allow Scripture to inform our story, as Jesus did, we will become grounded in a new story, the very one that God tells and asks us to trust. 

 

For all of these readings in one place, order my book 'Learning to Live and Love Like Jesus.'