(Reading Time: 3 to 4 minutes.)
I bought two side tables for our bedroom, the kind made of pressed woods and veneer, and assembled them myself. They came with step by step instructions, complete with diagrams. Somehow, I could never quite understand the perspective of the diagrams. Was I looking at the pieces from above? Was it a side view and, if so, which side?
The written instructions were worse than the diagrams. I would say they were Greek to me, but I understand Greek better than I did them. The table pieces were, if I remember correctly, constructed in China. I suspect the instructions were written in Chinese, then translated into English by a Russian-speaker, and edited by a near-sighted proof-reader.
I had seen a picture – unless it was of a different table – so I had an idea of what the finished product was supposed to look like. But how to make it look that way was another matter altogether. I am proud to say our bedroom now has two side tables, though I would discourage anyone from looking too closely at them.
Many people approach the Bible the way I approached that instruction sheet. They have a picture in mind of the finished product – usually admission into heaven upon death – and they open the Bible to read the instructions for achieving that end. But there are problems with this approach, which leaves people frustrated.
For one thing, they are working from the wrong picture. The Bible, contrary to popular belief, is not all about how a human can get to heaven, though it has important things to say on the subject. If we mistake the Bible as a set of instructions for getting into heaven, we will find ourselves wondering why the instructions were not clearer.
People who read the Bible this way get frustrated over their inability to understand it. (I have heard people say so many times.) They cannot help but feel as if the Bible were written in a different language. (It was.) They fail to grasp the perspective from which the biblical writers wrote.
The Bible is a daunting book. It contains approximately three-quarters of a million words. It is comprised of various genres. There are historical books alongside poetry. There are narrative, prophetic, and apocalyptic books. There is also, in spite of what I have written above, a good deal of instruction and exhortation.
These various genres, taken together, comprise a story. The Bible, one could say, is a biography of God. It is his self-revelation, an inspired look into the life and times of God. He is the hero of the story, and it is a big story. It covers eons of time and extends to the reaches of the spacetime continuum – and beyond.
When we read the Bible well, we gain insight into who God is, what he has done, and what he wants. We understand what is important to God, and how he operates – that is, we learn his “ways,” as the Bible itself puts it. If, after reading the Bible, we know how to get to heaven but don’t know the king of heaven or desire his better acquaintance, our Bible reading has been unsuccessful.
Coming to the Bible as an instruction book places me at the controls. The end product of my life then depends on how well I read and follow the instructions. I become the agent in charge. God is simply the technical writer who has composed the instructions—and couldn’t he have written them more clearly?
If, instead, we read the Bible as a book written by someone we know and love and want to know better, our experience with the Scripture is very different. We don’t find ourselves frustrated by difficult texts but intrigued. Instead of reading only enough to accomplish our goal, we read as much as we can to understand. We read carefully, not to prove a point, but to be able to know a person.
When I assembled the side tables, I eventually gave up on the instructions and did it my own way. It’s a shame when people do that with the Bible. They miss so much.