This post is part 6 in a series based on the Renovare organization’s “best practices” – which are six Common Disciplines drawn from the six Traditions of Christianity explored in Richard Foster’s book, Streams of Living Water. (Find earlier posts in the Categories list in the right margin menu on the blog home page home page under Continual Renewal).
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Common Discipline #5: By God’s grace, I will share my faith with others as God leads and will study the Scripture regularly. (The Evangelical Tradition)
Transformation is the goal of our spiritual journey. Paul promises us that the Spirit is transforming us into the likeness of Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18). And in Romans we’re told not to conform to the world but to be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2). Scripture also proclaims the expectation that Christians will be transformed: “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).
One of the ways we can be transformed is reading of the Bible. However, reading for transformation may require learning a new way of reading Scripture. We may need to cultivate a new expectation when we open the Bible, a new attitude when we read the Bible, and a new response to what we hear from God as we read. As Richard Foster says, “Reading the Bible with the goal of interior transformation is far different from reading for historical instruction. In the latter case, we learn head knowledge; in the former heart knowledge” (Life with God; Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation).
Reading the Bible for Information or Transformation
To understand the difference between reading the Bible for information and reading the Bible for transformation, let’s look at a few examples:
In her book Soul Feast, Marjorie Thompson compares the difference between reading the newspaper and reading a letter from a beloved friend or family member. First, how do we read newspapers? Usually we scan the pages looking for headlines that interest us. Or perhaps we have already heard a bit of news, so we skim the pages looking for more details about that subject. We may look for a specific piece of information: Did our favorite basketball team win last night? What will the weather be like today?
We may have a favorite columnist or sections of the paper that we may read more carefully, or we may respond in irritation to a ” letter to the editor,” but our approach to the newspaper is generally quite impersonal. We may even multi-task while reading the newspaper – especially if we get our news on our phone. We may read while eating breakfast. We may look over the paper while watching TV. I have even seen people scanning the paper while they are driving down the highway!
Compare this type of reading to reading a letter from a beloved friend or family member. We sit down in our favorite chair, maybe with a cup of coffee, when we are sure we have time to read every word. We savor every detail and even go back to read some parts more than once. We may even read “between the lines” because our goal is to identify with how the writer feels and to understand what the writer really means. This type of reading is a personal experience; we are reading not only for information but to feel close to our loved one. Our relationship may even be transformed by the reading.
Another example of how reading/learning to be informed is much different from reading/learning to be transformed involves cooking. Think of a person who reads recipes faithfully and watches cooking shows on TV or YouTube in hopes of learning how to create a delicious and impressive meal. This person has a much different relationship with food than the person who raises the vegetables, cooks the meal, and then sits down to eat it.
Moving off the “Front Porch”
These examples show us that information is a means to an end but building a personal relationship is the end. Thomas Merton offers a helpful perspective on the relationship between these two purposes for reading scripture:
An adequate grasp of the Scriptures requires two levels of understanding: First a preliminary unraveling of the meaning of the texts themselves . . . which is mainly a matter of knowledge acquired by study; then a deeper level, a living insight which grows out of personal involvement and relatedness . . . . ” For Merton, the task of acquiring information is simply the ‘front porch’ of spiritual reading (Marjorie Thompson in Soul Feast.
So let us move from the “front porch” into God’s “living room” and invite, as Richard Foster encourages, a “Damascus road experience. [As we] venture on to the ancient roads of the Bible’s word with an open mind and an inquiring ear, we can expect to encounter the living God. All we need to do is ask Saul’s question, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Scripture is filled with the promise of the Lord’s reply” (Life with God).
Watch this blog for ideas on how move from “head” knowledge to “heart” knowledge and how to make the spiritual discipline of Scripture reading a transforming encounter with God.