Reading Scripture well

Are you reading rationally or relationally?

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I was sitting in church feeling blessed by the sermon my husband had just preached. He’d spoken about salvation as the free gift of God’s grace, “the one great central truth to be ever before the mind” (Ellen White, MS 31, 1890), and that our role was to “fix our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

As I sat reflectively in the pew, I overheard someone say, “I get that we should fix our eyes on Jesus, but how do we do that?” This question, in a somewhat different iteration, had been one that had confounded me for many years.

My early faith had been nurtured by an Adventist family, church and school, so I had a good foundation for embracing faith as my own. However, while I understood and accepted the intellectual (head) and behavioural (hands) aspects of Christian teachings, the relational (heart) aspect of faith baffled me. I’d heard for years about having “a personal relationship with Jesus” but, honestly, relationships with people were hard enough, so how did one go about having a relationship with an invisible God? I knew it was meant to be through reading God’s Word, but, in my experience, reading the Bible helped me know about God, but it did not help me to really know God. And while I did masters level study in theology, this question of how—how we fix our eyes on Jesus or how we have a relationship with Him—continued to mystify me. It was not until my doctoral studies in practical theology that I understood this how; and, all along, it really was through reading the Bible—but the secret was how to read Scripture.

If you’ve been in Christian circles for any length of time, you’ve encountered the concept that the Bible is like a letter from God; however, what you may not have thought about is the fact that, just as there are different ways of reading a letter, there are different ways of reading Scripture.

Imagine for a moment that you’re returning home after a busy day. As you drive by your letterbox, you stop to check the mail and find two letters addressed to you. The first is a letter from your tax accountant. You’ve been waiting for this letter for some time, hoping your accountant has been able to calculate a good refund. You tear open this letter and scan the two pages, for the information you need.

The second letter is from a dear friend you’ve not heard from in a while. You take this letter inside and put it down on the kitchen counter. You put the kettle on and change out of your work clothes. Then, you settle into your favourite chair with a hot drink and put your feet up. You’re now ready to read the letter. You scan the envelope and notice your friend’s handwriting hasn’t changed in all these years. Only then do you open the letter and slowly begin to read, delighting in each word and enjoying the presence of your friend.

The way you might experience two letters such as these reveals that there are different ways of reading, based on your expectations. In the case of the letter from your tax accountant, your expectations are informational. In the case of the letter from your friend, your expectations are relational. Similarly, there are different ways of reading the Bible.

An informational approach to reading Scripture means the focus is on obtaining information, and so you ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand, and then you think, study and analyse the words that you read. You might also ask informational questions, such as “what might this passage have meant to the author?” and “how might the original audience have understood this passage?” The purpose of informational Scripture reading is to understand all we can about God and His purposes in the world.

In contrast, a relational approach to reading Scripture means the focus is on enjoying the presence of God. So you ask the Holy Spirit to help you know what God might be saying to you, personally. You might also ask relational questions, such as “what does this passage say about who God is?” and “what does this passage say about how God sees me, or wants me to be?” The purpose of relational Scripture reading is to know God.

Which of these is more important? This question is like asking, “which is more important, breathing in or breathing out?”

Informational Scripture reading is important as it shapes our thinking about God; however, it is possible to spend many hours in study of the Bible and not be touched by the love of God. Consider Jesus’ words: “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39,40).

Furthermore, as demonstrated in the lives of the Pharisees, a purely academic study of the Bible can result in cold intellectualism, which ultimately leads to spiritual pride. In contrast, a relational approach to Scripture reading is important as it helps us know God, enjoy His presence in our lives, and experience His love at a deeply personal level. However, a purely personal reading of the Bible can be self-centred and superficial at best and, at worst, can become deception and delusion if not balanced with careful thinking and study. Just as breathing involves both inspiration and expiration, informational and relational reading of Scripture must function together.

Because Adventists have tended to emphasise careful thinking about and study of God’s Word, many of us have a relatively good grasp of how to study God’s Word’ for information about God and His purposes for the world, as expressed in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. However, like my younger self, you may be unsure how to read the Bible relationally. To explore the how of relational Scripture reading, it’s helpful to think about our human relationships, which grow and develop as we spend time with others. Similarly, our relationship with God can only flourish as we spend time with Him. But how do we spend time with an invisible God? Through God’s Word.

Ellen White explained it this way:

“It would be well for us to spend a thoughtful hour each day in contemplation of the life of Christ. We should take it point by point, and let the imagination grasp each scene, especially the closing ones” (Desire of Ages, 83).

These simple words provide a blueprint for reading Scripture relationally. First, a good starting point is reading about the life of Jesus Christ, as described in the Gospels, as this allows us to know God within the context of human life. Second, reading thoughtfully, considering each scene “point by point”, implies that this way of reading is not about speed and volume, but rather, about depth and receptivity; hence, it is important to choose just a small passage. And third, we are encouraged to allow “our imagination to grasp each scene”. While we all excelled at imagining as young children, many of us lost this ability somewhere between kindergarten and high school graduation. Moreover, because of our emphasis on truth and rational thinking, many of us regard the God-given gift of imagination somewhat dubiously when considering reading God’s Word. However, as we “allow our imagination to grasp each scene”, we are creating space for the Holy Spirit to help us enter into specific moments of Jesus’ life and to share His experience. Just as shared experiences are foundational to all human relationships, it is through shared experiences with Jesus that our relationship with Him can flourish.

To demonstrate how informational and relational Bible reading function together, I want to share my experience, earlier this week, of reading and reflecting on Luke 13:10-17.

I like to begin by praying that God “may give [me] a spirit of wisdom and revelation as [I] come to know Him” (Ephesians 1:17). I then read the passage at least twice, beginning with an information-gathering or studying approach and then progressing to a relational reading. In this New Testament passage, which describes Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath, some of the data I gathered through an informational approach included the following: Jesus was in the synagogue on the Sabbath; the author considered the woman to be crippled by a spirit; Jesus had the power to heal disease—evidence of His divinity; the synagogue leader cited the law of God when rebuking Jesus for healing on the Sabbath; Jesus prioritised the woman’s life over a strict interpretation of Sabbath-keeping; and Jesus’ audience was divided in their response to Him.

Having a clear sense of the truths I needed to know from this passage, I then read the passage through again, this time imagining myself as the woman, bent over and unable to straighten up, in the synagogue on a Sabbath morning. I imagined the many people surrounding me, most of whom took no notice of me, a woman in a patriarchal society, and a disabled one at that. I imagined how I might have felt when Jesus made eye contact with me and called me forward. As an introvert, I don’t like being the centre of attention in a crowd of people, and this woman might have felt similarly due to her disability. And then I imagined what it must have been like to have Jesus place His hands on me and pronounce that I’d been set free from my infirmity, which resulted in my being able to straighten my spine for the first time in 18 years.

As I imagined myself in this story, I was reminded of the beauty and goodness of Jesus Christ, who knows my brokenness and yet sees me; among all the crowd of humanity, He sees me and loves me and wants to give me wholeness of life. And as the passage spoke to my heart rather than just my head, I was convicted of my own failure to sometimes see the marginalised people of this world through Jesus’ eyes, and of the reality that when I fail to uphold the dignity of “the least of these”, I am failing to be His hands and feet in the world.

Reading the passage in this way created a special time between Jesus and me. No-one else was encountering Jesus in exactly the same way, through exactly the same passage, at exactly the same time. And as with human relationships, this special moment with Jesus added a new memory to the layers of memories of similar moments with Him, strengthening the relational aspect of my faith.

So, if you’ve ever wondered how to fix your eyes on Jesus, or how to have a personal relationship with Him, I encourage you to be intentional in making space and time to read Scripture in a way that allows you to enter into specific moments of Jesus’ life and sharing His experiences, for it is shared experiences that are the core of all relationships. I’ve always thought there was something missing when many Christians talk about grace. Don’t get me wrong, I agree wholeheartedly on the importance of grace. After all, “by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:5 NRSV). It’s hard to find a more important topic.


Dr Edyta Jankiewicz is Family Ministries specialist for the South Pacific Division’s Discipleship Ministries Team.