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!
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.'