Where did all the Bible study go?

Keeping on the theme of making the Bible your native tongue, Dave Miller reflects on the tendency to go to commentators on the Bible before we go to the Bible itself:

Read the text, observe it – before you check other peoples’ opinions and insights. Let the Spirit be your first teacher. After you have studied, after you have labored over the text and figured it out, then you consult the wisdom of the wise (often to see where you went astray).

I know that it is my own experience to ‘rush in’ to what others say about a passage rather than do the hard work of working through what insights I can discern first. I would like to consult the author of scripture before I read what the commentators have got to say.

Often, a commentary may very well correct or clarify my own reflections – but I need to keep bringing myself back to going to scripture first, and then, and only then, to the thoughts of others.

Make the Bible your native tongue

I distinctly remember there being times at school when I spent more time reading the ‘Cliff Notes’ guide to a book in my English Literature class than I spent reading the book in question itself. Not that I do things last minute or anything, but I remember watching Richard Brannagh’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ the night before an exam, as a quick way of getting a basic understanding of the plot. It never occurred to me to read the play through for myself!

The point is that we can all too easily rely upon the helpful, but secondary, sources for comment and understanding rather than go to that which is the subject of the commentary.

When we have questions of faith and practice, do we go first to google, our favourite celebrity pastor or twitter to find answers when we should be putting in the hard work of going to the Word of God ourselves? Listening in on what God is saying to others through his Word is no replacement for developing our own listening ears for what The Lord is saying and sitting under the authority of his written Word.

Tim Kimmel on reading the Bible as a second language:

With tweets, blog posts, predigested podcasts, and fingertip access each week to downloads of some of the most engaging Bible teachers in the world, it’s tempting to develop an on-going input of the Bible at the hands of others that overshadows, or even eclipses, input from personal time spent pouring over it on our own.

The drive-by options we have to phenomenal biblical insights can easily meet our need for spiritual satisfaction. Forget the possibility that much of it may be the equivalent of spiritual junk food — great insights and observations that feel good being consumed but can’t possibly provide a well-balanced biblical diet. Throw in some white noise from our preferred theological hot buttons, and the evangelical celebrity status of our favorite Bible teachers, and we shouldn’t be surprised that our primary connection to God becomes one or more steps removed from God himself.

There are some fantastic tools for Bible study and interpretation out there today, but they should compliment and not replace a vibrant personal commitment to hearing God speak daily and personally to us through his Word.

The biblical narrative should be our native tongue, not a second language. I want to know and be familiar with the cadence of scripture – to let it shape my life not sit on the shelf referred to but unread.

A spotlight on our hearts

Winston Hottman on perfectionism and marriage:

Perfectionism doesn’t seem like a big deal to most people, and even we as Christians tend to look at perfectionism as a “respectable” sin. The simple truth is that perfectionism, like all other sin, is a blatant form of human pride…

As a Christian, my brand of perfectionism can be a little more subtle because it sometimes disguises itself in pious clothing. But even when perfectionism seems to be aimed at godly living, it is prideful because it expects from ourselves now what only God has promised to accomplish in the future. Perfectionism disregards God’s promise to make us who we ought to be by attempting in our own strength to meet the goal of that promise in the present, and by positioning ourselves as the final judges of our performance…. Depending on how well we do in our own eyes, perfectionism can play out in a variety of negative responses: feelings of worthlessness, inordinate preoccupation with the opinions of other people, paralyzing fear, impatience with others, and a sense of superiority.

The opposite is also true: sometimes we are so paralysed by fear of failure that we choose to take a back seat and not even try.

I don’t think ‘striving for perfection and settling for excellence’ necessarily indicates a lack of trust in God or an over-inflated sense of self. Trust in God to deliver on what he has promised to happen in the future doesn’t necessarily need to mean that we shouldn’t work – and pray – with all our strength to see that future begin now. It does mean, though, that we should be continually examining ourselves – our heart and our motives – to ensure that our striving is properly framed as worshipful striving and not pride dressed up in pious clothing.

No matter how good our marriages are, as the most intimate relationship two human beings can share, marriage functions like a spotlight on our hearts by enabling us to see our selfishness from the up-close perspective of another person. It exposes us. And, consequently, it has a way of demolishing the pretensions of our self-confidence… God is using my marriage to destroy my pride.

Close relationships – marriage in particular – is a great antidote to self-absorption. Those closest to us are often prepared to say it how it is, and to bring us back down to earth when pride has puffed up our sense of self-importance or self-reliance.

Plastic fruit

Great post by Lindsey Carlson:

If Real Me is radically different than Online Me, which me is real, and which is the impostor? If I’m failing to demonstrate the same fruit of the Spirit in “real life” as I do online, it’s probably plastic fruit—and I need to be aware of the discrepancy… I’d rather bask in the love of my digital perfection than stumble and fall before real people who will call me out and hold me accountable.

The persona we choose to project doesn’t need to be seen only as ‘plastic fruit’ – there is a distinction between ‘faking it’ (pretending) which has no intention of working at actually becoming more loving, and being someone who is choosing to ‘put on’ love, and actively seeking to adopt the behaviour that Jesus calls us to. Working at it is what counts. As I’ve touched on previously, self-control is the area that shows us up!

We would all do well to remember that social media is no replacement for genuine, accountable relationships:

Don’t settle for keeping your life primarily or exclusively online. Social media is a poor substitute for physical presence. Strive, fight for, and pour into those friends with whose voices, body language, and quirky personalities you’re well familiar. These are the hearts that know your heart—and are praying and engaging for your sanctification.

I’m still here: life beyond the web browser and lessons in self-control

Paul Miller got paid to spend a year fasting from the internet. His was a noble quest:

I wondered what else there was to life. “Real life,” perhaps, was waiting for me on the other side of the web browser… I’d find the real Paul, far away from all the noise, and become a better me.

Ultimately (and unsurprisingly), it didn’t work out too well…

I’d learned how to make a new style of wrong choices off the internet. I abandoned my positive offline habits, and discovered new offline vices. Instead of taking boredom and lack of stimulation and turning them into learning and creativity, I turned toward passive consumption and social retreat.

Much of the rest of this post has little directly to do with Paul’s story – which is well worth reading.

Paul’s honesty got me thinking about how it illustrates two really helpful spiritual principles.

Firstly, it’s important to carefully consider what you choose to surround yourself with. What we choose to surround ourselves with can help or hinder us to live lives full of self-control. If we choose to surround ourselves with tempting things, we will be tempted! I’ve noticed that if I spend a lot of time with friends who are more wealthy than me – and have the possessions to prove it – my levels of dissatisfaction increase and my desire to buy new shiny things becomes difficult to handle. If I am surrounded by good friends who are striving to live simply I find it easier to be thankful for all that I am blessed with. What I am surrounded with and by is an enabler for good choices.

But this only gets you so far. Paul chose to step away from the internet and this helped him – for a while – to change his lifestyle and look at life in new ways. What he was powerless to do was to make that change stick.

Secondly, the one ‘fruit of the Spirit’ you can’t fake is self-control. Self-control doesn’t grow in us automatically – it needs to be practiced. A fruit tree needs tending and pruning to bear good fruit. In order to live in the Spirit you have to choose to walk in line with the Spirit (Gal 5:25). Growing in self-control is the result both of the work of God the Spirit in us and conscious choice and hard work. This hard work looks like clothing ourselves in love – ‘putting on love‘- every day. It looks like prayerfully choosing to make godly choices every step of the way, knowing that without God’s help you haven’t got a chance.

I’m not very good at that. I’d like it to become more like my natural behaviour. Just like a bike feels like an extension of your body only after many hours of cycling.

There is nothing wrong with good old fashioned effort. It doesn’t earn us anything but it is part of what it means to live a life transformed God’s Spirit.

The fierce fight for self-control is a fight of faith. “Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (1 Timothy 6:12).

Reflections on the Temptation of Jesus

Temptation of Jesus

I have been reading the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness as told by Matthew 4v1–11 today, and have been finding Tom Wright’s discussion of the passage1 really helpful.

The whispering voice of Satan in this passage comes hot off the heals of God’s acclamation that “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). It strikes me that this was for Satan the number 1 opportunity to scupper the plans of God by causing Jesus to stumble. Spiritual warfare doesn’t get any more intense than this… So what does Satan throw at him? Ouiji Boards? Wiccan Witches? Demons? A Harry Potter novel? No. Jesus’ battle was to submit even his most basic needs (like hunger) before his Father as an offering. Satan tempted him with success and significance, survival and safety. "These suggestions are all ways of distorting [Jesus’] true vocation: the vocation to be a truly human being, to be God’s person, to be a servant to the world and to other people.”2

The big question for Jesus, then, was what kind of Son of God would he be? His answer is clear: he would be the kind of Son who did the will of his Father; The kind of Son who laid all that he was to the service of the Father; The kind of Son that would only do what his Father was doing; He would be the kind of Son that that would make himself vulnerable enough to trust his Father completely, even with his very basic of needs. To quote Tom Wright:3

He is committed to loving and serving God alone. The flesh may scream for satisfaction; the world may beckon seductively; the devil himself may offer undreamed-of power; but Israel’s loving God, the one Jesus knew as father, offered the reality of what it meant to be human, to be a true Israelite, to be the Messiah.

This wouldn’t be the last time Jesus would face the tempter in various guises: protesting to him, through his closest associate, that he should change his mind about going to the cross (Matt 16:23); mocking him, through the priests and bystanders, as he hung on the cross (Matt 27:39–43, again with the words ‘if you are God’s son’).4 The parallels between our passage and the taunts hurled at Jesus on the cross are no linguistic fluke. "When Jesus refused to go the way of the tempter he was embracing the way of the cross.”5

So what about me? When I fast, I am faced with some very base choices and temptations. Voices whisper in my head that this is all silly, a meaningless exercise, a needless experiment in self-deprivation. Yet in choosing to deny these whispers, I am choosing to remind myself of how often I give in to the other whispers in my life. They are intended to distract me from my calling and vocation to be a servant of God. I choose as I fast to let my body echo my true desire (albeit often well hidden) to win the battle against Satan that wages in my mind over the subtler temptations I give into daily. For in choosing to give into these, I know that I am allowing my true vocation to be distorted, to allow myself to get distracted, turning aside from the path of servanthood to which I am commissioned.

Yet this commissioning is often a simpler process than I like to imagine. I recognise that my own reliance on God is often more about big picture stuff rather than a daily reliance on him. I have a tendency to always be looking at the ‘big picture’ of where God is taking me in life and what God is doing, at the expense of what he is asking me to do right now. It takes a lot of my spiritual energy. As I fast, I am being painfully taught the need for a daily reliance on God. Focussing on what God wants me to do today – not tomorrow, next year or in a decade – today.

I recognise more and more that the trajectory of my life, expressed in the daily conscious and unconscious decisions that I make, is in need of continual realignment to the plans and purposes of God.

God has a costly but wonderfully glorious vocation for each of us. The enemy will do everything possible to distract us and thwart God’s purpose.6

What kind of child of God am I? Am I the kind of child that trusts God to meet my needs? The kind of child that trusts that when the Father says he’ll give me good gifts, that he’ll give me just that, and not a scorpion or a rock?

What I do know, is that I’m trying to step towards God’s purposes. One day at a time.


  1. Wright, T., (2002) Matthew for Everyone, Part 1 Chapters 1 – 15, (SPCK: London)  ↩

  2. Wright (2002), p. 25  ↩

  3. Wright (2002), p. 25  ↩

  4. Wright (2002), p. 26  ↩

  5. Wright (2002), p. 26  ↩

  6. Wright (2002), p. 26  ↩

A Phoney War?

… I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway…

Hitler warning

… I have discovered this principle of life – that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.

Romans 7:19-25 NLT

In September 1939 Britain found itself at war with Germany, yet neither side had committed to launching a significant attack, and there was relatively little fighting on the ground. We were really at war, but the reality of war in all its horror hadn’t hit home yet. This was the situation right up until the Battle of France in May 1940, and was called ‘the phoney war’.

Yet this is not my situation, and it is not the situation the world finds itself in today. I am often challenged by how little the wars that are taking place in the world impact on me. If I think about the wars we as a nation are currently engaged in (Iraq, Afghanistan) they have very little impact on my day-to-day existence because I don’t have any close relationships with any of its participants. Gaza is an equally shocking world situation at the moment – I watch the news and am moved with compassion by what is taking place there – yet this ‘compassion’ seems only to move me to weak and feeble prayers. It doesn’t seem to intersect with my life in any concrete way. The reality is that there are significant attacks taking place, but if you looked at my life you’d be forgiven for thinking that the wars being waged by my countrymen are ‘phoney’.

Within me, I am aware that there is a war being waged between my flesh and my true, Christ-like self. Yet very often I continue my life as if it doesn’t really impact on me at all. I am spiritually numb – to the extent that I can continue with my life relatively unaffected by this battle that rages within me.

The war that rages within my soul is not a phoney war. The devastation it causes in my life though, when I allow the enemy to get the upper hand, is often that of apathy and a spiritual bluntness. If I allow this to continue for any period of time, it can deaden me to the things of God and decrease my capacity for God. When I fast from food as a sign to God that I want my physical hunger to become for me a spiritual hunger, I find that I get headaches. Often this is the side of fasting that I find most difficult to cope with. They get in the way of my ability to pray with any coherence, or read with any clarity of thought. They rob me of my ability to focus on the task in hand. Yet these headaches serve as a physical reminder of the war being waged within me. What my true self wants, my flesh is determined to frustrate. I usually don’t need headaches to distract me from God – other things do the job with far less strain – the internet, computer games, reading…. The list could go on and on. I don’t usually suffer from headaches. Yet when I am fasting, these headaches bring to the forefront a war that I am often only aware of at the very edges of my consciousness. The headaches help me to see my life for what it truly is, to see myself for what I truly am.

two-faced

If I am living day-to-day in blissful ignorance of this war then my discipleship to Jesus needs realignment. I need to get closer to Him, close enough to get covered in the dust of my rabbi. I want my heart to be broken for what breaks His heart – for that is the true fast that He requires (Isaiah 58:6-8).