It’s a recurring call to action from preachers, church publications, and leaders: if we would only read the Bible—or read the Bible more—we would grow spiritually. It’s also one of those resolutions many of us make with each new year.
Bible reading is an important spiritual practice, but I wonder if quantity is everything, and I wonder how we might measure the Bible’s effect in our lives. After all, even Ellen White warned, “there is much reading of the Bible that is without profit and in many cases a positive injury” (Steps to Christ, p 110).
. . . we cannot rightly read the Bible and miss the repeated call to “do justice” (see Micah 6:8).
While a good place to start, perhaps Bible reading is not the goal we sometimes make it out to be. Reflecting on these questions, and on one of the central themes of the Bible itself, there seems a more practical method of judging the quantity and quality of our engagement with the Bible.
At least one in every 15 Bible verses—more than 2100 out of about 31,000 (of course, these specific numbers vary on different counts and in different translations)—speaks of God’s concern for the poor, His impatience with injustice, and His desire for His people to work on behalf of the oppressed and marginalised. While reading the Bible must be more than merely a statistical exercise, we should be alert nonetheless to those ideas and themes that just keep re-appearing through the various stories and literature that make up the Bible. As such, we cannot rightly read the Bible and miss the repeated call to “do justice” (see Micah 6:8).
This is important. Our engagement with justice is practical. It is something we can observe playing out in our lives, and the lives of those in our community of faith. We make different choices, have different priorities, and seek to serve in our communities and change the lives of others around us and around the world. As a practical response to our Bible reading, “doing justice” is one gauge by which we can monitor how the Bible is echoing in our lives.
Historically, both the abuse and neglect of the Bible have fuelled injustice. Many people seek justice apart from the motivation of the Bible; and we should celebrate and support such people and movements of good will, great hearts, and generous hands. But ignorance of the Bible and ignoring the Bible both silence a strong voice for the causes of justice in our world. And the divine mandate to “do justice” is something we who seek to follow God cannot afford to ignore.
To a similar effect, abuses of the Bible—such as selective reading and cultural misapplication, sometimes blindly, sometimes wilfully—have also fostered or justified the abuse of people and the trampling of justice. Indeed, the anti-justice stances of some people of faith are among the greatest blights of Christian history.
Sadly, in cases such as the Abolitionist and the Civil Rights movements, for example, some of the greatest opposition to these faith-inspired justice movements came from fellow believers. Soberingly, earnest Bible readers used the Bible to try to silence these disturbers of the status quo. Or, worse, some even appealed to the Bible to justify and perpetuate the injustice, inequality, and oppression in their societies. In doing so, they have rendered the Bible a “positive injury,” offensive and unpalatable to so many in our world.
Borrowing from the Bible itself, we often use metaphors of food when talking about the spiritual nourishment offered in reading the Bible. More important than mere bread (see Matt. 4:4), it points us to the Bread of Life. But rightly read and prompted by His Spirit, it will be less about our filling and more about creating in us a new kind of hunger. As Jesus said, “God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6, NLT).
Want to know if your Bible reading is working or worthwhile? As the Bible itself addresses and urges its readers, “Listen to me, my people . . . for my law will be proclaimed, and my justice will become a light to the nations” (Isaiah 51:2, NLT). So let’s ask ourselves: What differences does our reading of the Bible make in the lives of others, particularly those most in need in our communities and in our world?
Nathan Brown is editor of Signs Publishing House in New South Wales, Australia.
Many newer translations use “justice” and “righteousness” more interchangeably than older translations, portraying the original concept of the full goodness God desires for His people and His creation. “The standard reference work explaining New Testament Greek words lists three fields of meaning for dikaiosunē: (1) ‘the quality, state or practice of judicial responsibility with focus on fairness, justice, equitableness, fairness; (2) quality or state of juridical correctness with focus on redemptive action, righteousness; (3) the quality or characteristic of upright behaviour, uprightness, righteousness.’ Jesus’ fourth beatitude makes clear that justice is among the goals of His mission” (Steven Thompson, “The Strand of Justice” in Do Justice: Our Call to Faithful Living (Nathan Brown and Joanna Darby, eds.), Signs Publishing, 2014, p 10. <www.amazon.com/Do-Justice-Call-Faithful-Living-ebook/dp/B00OKERKOG>.
Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.