How do you feel about your feelings? Do you downplay them and try to make them go away? Do you wear them on your sleeve for all to see? Feelings are not bad, nor are they “fluff.” Feelings are, in fact, from God. There have been some church traditions that have downplayed feelings as being part of our broken, sin nature, but we are created with feelings and unless our feelings are pricked, we almost never do anything. From getting married, to serving the poor, going on vacation, or rooting against the rival football team, our feelings are involved.
We see feelings as a big part of the biblical story. The Psalms are filled with powerful and moving feelings. Psalm 150 is an example of powerful emotions. That chapter is a powder keg of emotions. You can’t authentically worship like that without your emotions being engaged.
Though feelings are not bad and are a necessary part of how God created us, feelings cannot always be trusted. We often read our feelings into the Bible in such a way that we make the Bible say what we want it to say rather than what it was intended to say. I do this and have experienced it in many areas. If we approach the Bible from the position of how we feel, we can make it say things that affirm our destructive or dysfunctional decisions. Let’s say you are feeling frustrated with your kids because they won’t listen and clean their rooms when they’re told to. Unsure of the best way to handle it, you open your Bible and read in Deuteronomy 21 that parents can bring disobedient kids before the elders and stone them to death. Just in case you’re wondering…it’s not a good idea to stone your kids! That example is obviously tongue in cheek, but we do the same thing with more serious examples. There must be a better way to understand the Bible.
Let’s talk about the basic challenges of understanding the Bible and one way to study it so that we understand what it really says and not what we feel like it says.
The Challenges of Bible Study
Language Challenges: The Bible was originally written in three ancient languages, none of which are English. Jesus didn’t say “verily, verily” in John 3:11. Jesus spoke Aramaic and the Bible’s New Testament was originally written in Greek and Aramaic. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew. We don’t always have an exact English equivalent to the original Greek (biblical Greek is different than modern Greek) or Hebrew word. We have many more (thousands) English words than ancient Hebrew words. Each Hebrew word in the Bible can have several possible English meanings. The language gap also poses a barrier because languages change. Think about what social networking means today (Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram) versus just 20 years ago (hanging out in the mall or cruising on the strip). And new words are created all the time. Think Wii (I know an older example, but this is a fun word! We could also think about words like Zoom or Butt Dial). When I was a kid “wii” was either what I did on a swing or if I needed to go wii/wii. Today, Wii is just one of many classic gaming systems, and an outdated one at that. In addition, words and phrases have different meanings in different parts of the world. “Think green” in the US is about renewable sources of energy and conservation. In India, thinking green has to do with the “Green Revolution,” which is about the country’s ability to have enough food to sustain its population without imports. This is one of the reasons why we have many different translations of the Bible with specific philosophies of translation, and why we still need Greek and Hebrew scholars.
Cultural Challenges: We don’t like mystery, but the Bible is filled with mystery. The Bible does not try to answer every modern historic or scientific question. The Bible is not a modern history or science book. The Bible is comfortable with mystery and provides the opportunity for us to walk by faith. The Bible is about God, his story, and how he is working in his creation.
Another cultural challenge is that our 21st century American society is very different from what was experienced in the Bible. Most of us don’t sleep in tents or on the roofs of our houses. We don’t have slaves, servants, kings, or emperors. We don’t live in an occupied country. We don’t sacrifice animals, tend sheep, work in fields with oxen, and we don’t have to hunt for food to survive. Unless you live in WI… Okay, we don’t have to hunt to survive but a ton of people do it anyway. We don’t live with multiple generations under one roof and most of us don’t regularly experience a loved one dying in our homes. All of these were common in biblical times.
These are just some of the challenges of studying the Bible and why we can’t just trust our emotions when reading the text.
How Do We Study the Bible?
Pray for the illumination of the Spirit. The Bible is unique in that it is the only book that is God-breathed to human beings. God wrote a book through human authorship. Proper understanding of the Bible that leads to transformation in our lives is a work of the Holy Spirit.
Approach the Bible with humility. Recognize that we have biases, that we are emotionally attached to ourselves, and that we might not be seeing things clearly. Recognize that we tend to live in our own personal “echo chambers” with many blind spots. It is by taking the position of humility that we will truly learn from God’s Word. A prideful person believes they know the interpretation, the story, and the answer before they come to the text, and they are not taking the position of one who can truly learn.
Search at least three good translations. You don’t have to know Greek and Hebrew but if you have at least two or three different translations to look at you will most often get a fuller understanding of a word. Each translation approaches the text with a different philosophy, so be sure to understand the basic philosophy of the translators. Check out the NIV, ESV, NASB, NLT, The Jewish Study Bible and The Message.
Ask questions about what you’re reading. Be curious! You can ask many questions of the text but let me give you four to start with:
- What did the text mean to the biblical audience? You do this by first observing the literary context. Notice the grammar used, the verses or chapter before and after the text. What kind of literature is it? Poem, narrative, parable, letter, etc. A basic study Bible like the NIV Study Bible, ESV Study Bible or NLT Study Bible will help you identify the kind of literature. Second is the historical context. This has to do with time, authorship, audience, etc. Again, a study Bible can answer some of these questions, but I would also encourage you to check out a book like Bible Manner and Customs by Howard F. Vos. Two other books that would help are Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes by Kenneth Bailey.
- What are the differences between the biblical audience and us? This is an extension of the first question. When Paul was writing, he was under foreign occupation by the Romans. We are not. That is a big difference. Spend significant time reflecting on those differences.
- What does the text say about God? Or, what is the timeless theological truth in the text? This is the truth about the character of God that is timeless and doesn’t change with the culture. Does the love, compassion, patience, holiness, or justice of God shine through the text?
- How should I apply this truth about God to my life today? This is a very concrete next step of driving the biblical truth into our everyday lives.
These are four questions that can help you go deeper and avoid unhealthy interpretation. The final step is to INTERPRET THE BIBLE IN COMMUNITY. Discuss the text with your Grow Group. Read what other pastors, scholars and commentators say about it and don’t forget the dead people who lived in a very different culture and time – people like Calvin, Augustine, Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis, to name just a few. They can often offer very different and helpful perspectives. We meditate on the Bible alone but study it together!
I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading the Bible. Just read it and allow its power to seep into your mind. As you grow in this journey of following Christ and if you are concerned (and we should be) that at times we bring pure emotion (not to mention cultural baggage) to the text that can skew real understanding, then utilize the techniques we just engaged.