If you could walk into a Bible machine for 15 minutes and come out with 15 years’ worth of Bible study knowledge and experience, would you go into the machine? In this thought experiment, the machine does not cause any harmful side effects. The scientists who built the machine tell you they don’t know how it works. All they guarantee is that if you go in, you will gain about 15 years’ worth of Bible study experiences and takeaways. Would you go in?
To be honest, I would not go into the machine. The underlying question here is: What do we think the Bible is for? Is the Bible simply a source of knowledge that we can copy and paste into our heads? Perhaps instead of viewing the Bible in this mechanistic way (a book that simply teaches us facts about God or the scriptural story) we should instead see the Bible as an invitation and journey of formation as we encounter God and follow Jesus.
Perhaps instead of viewing the Bible in this mechanistic way…we should instead see the Bible as an invitation and journey of formation as we encounter God and follow Jesus
What we think the Bible is for informs how we engage with it and why we read it at all. The American Bible Society surveyed Americans about why they read the Bible. Respondents were asked to respond to these prompts:
I read the Bible because…
1. It brings me closer to God.
2. I need wisdom for making life decisions.
3. I need comfort.
4. It tells me about the nature of God.
5. It tells me how to treat others.
6. I know I’m supposed to.
7. It is a responsibility for a group Bible study or school.
I don’t read the Bible because…
1. I don’t have enough time.
2. I don’t know where to start.
3. I lack excitement about reading it.
4. I find it difficult to relate to the language.
5. I find the layout difficult to navigate
6. I think the stories are confusing.
Lack of excitement for reading the Bible was the main reason Americans report that they don’t read the Bible. When engaged Bible readers were asked why they read the Bible, Generation Z (1997-2012) was most likely to report, “I need comfort,” whereas older generations were more likely to report, “It brings me closer to God” or “I need wisdom for making life decisions.”1
Pastors encourage us to read the Bible all the time. On some level, we all feel an obligation to. Yet, there seems to be an unshakeable feeling of boredom, ambiguity, and dissociation that Americans experience when they think about reading the Bible. These experiences make it difficult to sit down and read Scripture. Why? Theologians have helped to present compelling evidence that the Bible accurately preserves what the authors originally intended to say.2 Sociologists have found that people who read the Bible experience the greatest sense of enduring hope.3 They’ve also found that people who read the Bible are most likely to engage in care for those in their communities.4 Pastors emphasize the importance of reading the Bible for our spiritual health. We know that reading the Bible is important, but many of us don’t. Why? What do we truly believe the Bible is for?
As a child, I would play Bible roulette. I would pray that God would teach me something or answer a question I had. Then I’d open my Bible, point to a verse on the page, and hope it would be divine guidance. Unfortunately, the verse usually didn’t answer my question and said something unhelpful like, “David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver.” As adults, we can look at our students who play Bible roulette and realize they are being silly—we might write their behavior off as immaturity. Unfortunately, as adults we still try to manipulate the results of our Bible reading in more sophisticated ways.
We see the Bible and spiritual disciplines as machines. If I put X amount of time and effort into reading the Bible or praying, then I will get Y out. We think, if I put fifteen minutes a day into Bible reading, then I will feel comfort. I will have wisdom for my life. I will feel closer to God (the top three reasons Americans read their Bibles). When we don’t get the outputs we want from our time reading the Bible, we get frustrated. We are bored. We don’t make time for it.
We see the Bible and spiritual disciplines as machines. If I put X amount of time and effort into reading the Bible or praying, then I will get Y out
Of course I think Christians can experience comfort, wisdom, and a sense of closeness to God when reading the Bible—but those aren’t the main reasons we should read the Bible. That’s not what the Bible is for.
What is the Bible actually for?
Unlike a machine that is focused on outputs, the Bible is an invitation to a journey of formation. The Bible is an invitation to encounter Jesus and, in doing so, adopt his teaching as your way of life. When the Bible is treated like a machine that gives us the output we want, we are deprived of taking time to connect with God and trusting him with the deepest parts of our lives that need healing. God is in the business of transforming people through relationships, not through quick fixes or meeting the demands we have in exchange for our attention. This mechanistic view of the Bible completely misses the point about what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
If as a church we neglect Jesus, as revealed in Scripture, we are in terrible danger of not being the disciples that he asks us to be. Discipleship starts when you accept that Jesus actually has something to say about your life and you form your every day around his teaching. If we do not think that Jesus actually has something to say about our lives, then we are in danger of a few things:
- First, the Christian faith becomes disconnected from the rest of our lives.5 We don’t feel excited to read the Bible, we get distracted by other things. We don’t think that Jesus could actually have anything to say about our lives.
- Second, we turn to alternative gurus and gadgets that offer insight into how we live our lives. We become so stressed to find comfort, direction, and feel a sense of connection that we turn to other things: artificial intelligence that offers spiritual direction, a personality test, influencers. All these alternative gurus and gadgets seem to offer better ideas for how you live your life than Jesus does.6
- Third, we become apathetic to the big questions in life and stop asking them: What is good in the world that I can cultivate? What is missing in the culture that I can create? What is evil that I can curb? What is broken that I can cure? Jesus has something to say to you about your life in each of these areas.7
- Fourth, our witness to the world will become dampened and muted. During trials and challenges, if we are not primarily formed through Scripture we will be formed by something or someone else. The things that form you will either amplify your witness or silence it.8
It’s not hard to see that as Americans it is easy to become malformed, especially in relation to our Bible reading. We need to start taking what Jesus says in Scripture seriously and meeting him on his terms. Throughout the Gospels we find people completely surprised at how Jesus interacts with them—counter to their personal agendas or culture. There is no better way to encounter Jesus than through studying Scripture, meditating on it, and praying to God. I hope that by putting aside your expectations and desired results, you can read the Bible for what it truly is, an invitation to encounter Jesus and take on his teaching as your way of life.