“My child, if you accept my words
and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom
and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight,
and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver,
and search for it as for hidden treasures—
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.” (Proverbs 2: 1-5)
Confusing or Hard Passages
It’s happened to us all, at one time or another. We read something in the Bible, and can’t figure out what the heck it means.
Here are a few tricks: Try looking at another translation – either another book, or by looking on the internet. Try breaking it down into smaller chunks. See what comes before or after a passage. Some Bibles have devotions or commentaries to help with the hard parts we can look at (be sure to read the Bible itself, not just what others say about it, though). Perhaps most of all, ask our parish priest or someone we trust in the parish. They might be stunned we asked, but they probably know, or can find out, a good answer.
Seems Irrelevant or Boring
Not every part of the Bible – which is actually a library of 66 books and letters and poems and stuff, not one book – is equally riveting. Some parts may speak into our lives more deeply, depending on what we’re going through. Especially if we’re getting started, it’s all right to skip bits sometimes.
But we shouldn’t be too quick to skip. If we do, then we can want to make the gospel into affirming What We Like or What Seems Best To Us, rather than allowing ourselves to be amused, intrigued, challenged and changed by what we read.
Some Parts Seem Contrary to God’s Will
Agreed. The Bible isn’t about God dealing with perfect, obedient people. The Bible reveals Jesus Christ, but we also read about people who do really stupid things, people who are cruel or mean, people who have a deep faith and people who don’t seem to have a sweet clue what faith is. God works in history and with individuals and in particular cultures. Sometimes God goes along with stuff we find objectionable today, like killing our enemies.
It helps a lot to keep the big picture in mind. For example, we can read a story about a cruel man raping a princess. But we can also read a tender love poem, about human dignity, and about self-sacrificial love in a couple’s marriage. We can read passages about war, but we can read about how God longs for peace and the triumph which is won through Jesus Christ.
We need to be prepared to be challenged ourselves. It’s easy to judge the world – or the Bible – by our current standards. Does that mean that our current standard is perfect? Or that others couldn’t have insight we might have lost? We need to be prepared to be challenged, including our own common tendencies to quick judgement.
How To Apply
In applying lessons from the Bible in today’s world, people sometimes fall into one of two camps – one danger is to be too reckless or over-confident; the opposite danger is to be too cautious. The “cautious” camp might say to themselves, “Maybe I’ll get it wrong;” or, “We live in such a different world today; the message of the Bible applies to Bible times. But can it really apply to ours?” In contrast, there are sometimes Christians who say, “I know exactly what God meant in this verse for today, and if you disagree, you must be an atheist.” If anything, Anglicans tend toward the more cautious camp.
Certainly we need to be humble if we are seeking God’s direction. Particularly if we are making a decision based on one Bible verse, we risk making a very foolish mistake.
But all is not lost. First, God has given the Holy Spirit to Christians, who can help us discern what is right. He has also given us minds to think, and given us the gift of one another – the Church – to help discern His will. If we come up with an interpretation which is contrary to all the other Christians throughout the ages, who is more likely to be wrong?
Obviously, if an apparent application is contrary to, say, one of the Ten Commandments, or if it’s not loving, or if we have no peace with it, then we need to start again.
We also need sometimes to discern the principle which is sometimes behind the text. For example, near the end of the Letter to the Colossians, Paul writes about complementary relationships in family life, among parents and their children. Paul then goes on to write about relationships between slaves and their masters. It can be easy to dismiss this instruction, because thankfully we do not have slavery today in the Western world. But what was slavery in the New Testament world? It was a way some people got out of being in debt, or was an employment relationship – a crude and unfair employment relationship, no doubt, but an employment relationship nonetheless. The slave provided the labour; the master provided housing and a small income for the slave. Would it not be appropriate for some employers today to consider how they treat their employees, as an expression of their Christian faith? Equally, shouldn’t employees consider how they behave at work – regardless of whether their employer is a Christian or not?