Bible reading has remarkable power for some. But for most people it’s a serious put-off.
On the positive side of things I met with a new Bible reading partner yesterday. Even after just one week of reading he was gushing—honestly delighted with the venture. His wife has also picked up on it and now shares verses with him.
But Jerry and his wife are exceptions. Over the years I’ve found different responses. When I mention I’m looking for a man to do a four-month Bible read-through the crowds quickly scatter. Athletes run for cover; slower men start thumbing through car magazines; and younger men focus on their iPhones. It’s not a lively prospect for most modern men!
I also know there’s no point in shaming or scolding guys into bold Bible reading. It has to come from the heart. Like it has with Jerry. “A year ago,” he told me, “I felt the Spirit nudging me when you talked about read-throughs … but I ignored him. Then when you mentioned it again in your sermon two weeks ago I felt the same nudge and I knew I had to give it a shot.”
But let’s think about it. Why is an appetite for bold Bible reading so rare today, even in Bible-centered churches? And by bold I only mean the time we might offer a friend over a quick coffee, or in a pause spent in texting, or in watching a favorite television program: about thirty minutes each day. And I mean actual reading and/or listening to the text itself. Journaling is an added feature for those who go there. My time each morning, including prayer, takes about 40 minutes.
I can’t speak about the motivations of others—about why such reading is so rare—but I can at least track some leads offered by Jesus in the gospels.
In John 8:31, for instance, he set a standard with the term “abide”—as in, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” It’s the same word he used in the branch-and-vine metaphor of John 15:5, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
So Jesus treated time spent in his word—the Bible—as an identifier of his presence in us by the Spirit. The Spirit awakens our hearts to the Father’s Heart and that brings new desires. So apart from him a love for bold reading just won’t happen. Jerry’s “nudges” by the Spirit are a great example.
And that brings me to the point of this entry. If someone wants to be religious but doesn’t have the Spirit within—along with his nudges—he or she will need to recreate God. Even if a proposal to reconstruct God seems bizarre. The fact remains that we were made by God to have a God. He offers a basis for life and meaning. So we all need to have a God we can live with.
Let’s list some options.
Simple idolatry is one. I’ll never forget a visit to Kathmandu and driving by open-front shops that allowed us to watch wooden posts being carved, painted, and overlaid with precious metals. The objects themselves were not innately sacred but were avatars for less-than-divine spirits to come and own the owners of the objects. They offered gateways into a supernatural counterpart to God’s kingdom: a realm opposed by God’s word but with powers that could still change lives.
A Western alternative to such explicit idolatry is the muted worship of creation we find in most academic venues today. Westerners prefer this because it despises explicit icons and demonic practices but it still allows practitioners to navigate life. Irreligious science, for instance, adores nature as a closed system—without a Creator. As such it’s like a warm blanket that insulates worshippers from any explicit questions about the true God while at the same time justifying self-devotion—as beings at one with nature—to prosper. It also allows for a divinization of wealth as the basis for personal security.
Finally let’s touch on the most attractive Christian reconstruction: of turning God into a behaviorist. This offers a host of robust forms of religion that still keep the true God at a distance and self at the center.
Religious behaviorism was a preferred option in Christ’s time on earth. Today it appears in moralistic churches and in modern Islam among those who promote Sharia law. Leaders in such systems designate religious behaviors and creeds that must be followed in a carrot and stick arrangement. The carrot is the promise of eternal life. The stick is a social threat of some sort: of dismissal from the synagogue in the first century era; and, in modern times, a beating by the Sharia police, or ostracism from a local church.
While this reconstruction of God into a growling Behaviorist seems dark, it still allows him to be managed. His demands can be met with due diligence. And any oppressive features—his immense power and an ability to withhold eternal life—can be managed by feigned devotion. It allows, for instance, a certain autonomy to prosper as long as worshippers stay within well defined marks of orthodoxy. This was tangibly illustrated by the balustrade-wall around the temple when Paul was arrested in Acts 21—and dismissed by Paul in Ephesians 2.
Jesus, of course, made hash of this approach with his devastating set of “woes” in Matthew 23 as illustrated in verse 25: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.”
Which invites us to one sound option: to love the Triune God as revealed in Christ; who sends his Spirit to pour out his love in our hearts; and who shares all this in the Bible.
Jerry certainly likes him!