For Evangelicals, if you want to know what God has to say on any given topic or in any situation, you turn to the Bible. The Bible is the centerpiece of Protestant spiritual life- it is not only our highest authority, but for many, it is our only sacrament, the only place that Jesus Christ is revealed and communicates his grace to us. The Bible, in short, is the means, method, and message of most Protestant’s faith.
But what happens when the Bible stops working?
I recently experienced a “crisis” moment when I found myself radically disinterested in the Bible. My disinterest wasn’t a result of cynicism or “back-sliding”, but rather the result of finding that the Bible has almost always fallen short of the promises that I have been taught about it. From the earliest days of my Christian faith, I was told to spend time reading the Bible everyday so that I would grow in Christ. I was told that God would speak to me through his word and that whenever I found myself in trying times that I could turn to the words of the Bible and find inspiration, solace, and answers. So for years I made a routine of reading my Bible each day. Every time I found myself in turmoil, I would reach for the Bible. Anytime I had a question about life, I would consult God’s word.
The problem was that I was most often coming back empty handed.
It’s not that God has never spoken to me through the reading of his word. He has. And there have been a few moments in time where I turn to the Scriptures and find the encouragement that I needed. But if I am honest, most of the time, the Bible seems to have absolutely nothing for me. Initially I was convinced that it was something that was wrong with me. I must have just had too much sin in my life or not enough faith- otherwise; God would have spoken through his word. After all, “the word of God cannot return void” (Isaiah 55:11), right? But as I have studied the scriptures and theology as well as lived life as a follower of Christ, I have found that perhaps us Protestants in general and Evangelicals in specific have gotten our doctrines and understandings of Scripture quite wrong. And in so doing, many of us have missed out on hearing God speaking into our lives.
Last fall, I went to a lecture on teaching the Bible to children given by Biblical Scholar Dr. Peter Enns. At one point in his talk, he made the statement:
“We need to be training our children to cultivate a relationship with God, not a relationship with the Bible.”
That sentence hit me like a ton of bricks. You see, I have been going through a really rough personal situation. My first response in my time of pain was to run to the Bible. With tears in my eyes I opened up the Scriptures and landed on Isaiah 3- a chapter about God judging and destroying his enemies… not exactly the encouragement I was looking for. I turned to the New Testament and skimmed the typical “encouragement” passages like Romans 8 and Philippians 3, but they didn’t seem to be working. Then when I finally found an encouraging section in the Psalms, I realized that the context of this Psalm had really nothing that could be honestly applied to my situation. So there I was, in desperate need of hearing from God, but it seemed like he was just giving me the silent treatment.
But then I heard Dr. Enns’ statement- “cultivate a relationship with God, not with the Bible.” How often do we doubt that we actually believe in a God who is “living and active” (Ephesians 4:12)? In Evangelicalism, I suppose, this doubt in the supernatural, that God is alive and is actively at work and speaking into the world in which we inhabit, that has led us to believe that the primary way that God speaks to us is through the Bible- our ancient authority that documents the very words of God. We have come to believe that God can no longer actively speak into the lives of his people because he has given us the Bible which is his “final word” on everything. The problem with that thinking is that it is not only completely absent from the Bible and Christian Tradition, it is not experientially true. How many of us have run to the scriptures time and time again, only to find that they have nothing to say to us in our circumstances? If we are honest, I think we all would agree.
After thinking about Dr. Enns’ statement, I began to ask God to actually speak to me. To show himself to me throughout the day and begin to heal my soul. I then went out and met with a friend. The conversation that we had began to immediately heal many of my hurts- God was moving through our conversation. I then went to church. The message that evening was on relational conflict- the exact issue I was struggling with at the time. God spoke through the mouth of my Pastor directly in to my situation. On the train ride home after the service, a young man approached me and began to speak to me about God’s liberating power, desire to forgive and heal me. He told me that “God wanted him to tell me these things.” I went home that night and felt full of faith. After all of my seeking of God in the pages of the Scripture and coming up dry, God reaffirmed his love, grace, and care for me in very clear and very direct ways. God has spoken- and he had done it outside of the pages of my Bible.
This isn’t to say that the Bible is at all “irrelevant” or “useless”. To be sure, we are called to study the Scriptures and gather to hear them read and preached. God does speak through the Bible sometimes. But it seems to me that the real way that God communicates most often is through the lips of other people. God is actually living and active. He is actually involved in our world and has a lot to speak into our lives. And the method that God speaks to us is through others. Whether it’s a conversation with a friend, a sermon by your Pastor or a message from a stranger, God actively moves through other people to communicate with us every day. It’s the incarnational inclination of God- he loves to moves in and through people. He did that in Jesus Christ. He promises to do that through the Church, whom he calls his “body”. Throughout the Scriptures we have frequent references to prophesying, preaching, praying, and mediating the power, person, and presence of God to others. In the beautiful words of St. Theresa of Avilla:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
God is still speaking, moving, healing, seeing, touching, healing, and loving. And he is doing through the hands, feet, eyes, ears, and mouths of those who surround you every day. But so often, I think, Evangelicals can often miss this reality. Instead of seeking God in the “communion of his saints”, we often find ourselves off in our corners reading our Bible’s alone and expecting God to show up and speak. Now once again, I am not suggesting that private personal Bible reading is wrong. Of course not! But it isn’t the primary means through which we encounter Christ. In Evangelicalism, we have become deeply addicted to our individualism- everything is about my personal relationship with God and my private devotional time. However, one would be very hard pressed to find such a practice being a regular occurrence in the New Testament or in the early Church’s practice. Because the teaching of Christ is that God is present in, with, and through other people. God’s Spirit speaks through the mouths of human beings around you.
I guess what I am suggesting is that though the Bible is very important, it’s not God. God has spoken through the Prophets in the Scriptures, as the Creed affirms, but God continues to speak to us today. He is living and active. And maybe we all need to cultivate a deeper relationship with the God of the Bible instead of the Bible itself. You may never have a dream or vision. Jesus may never appear to you in the forest. But God is speaking to you everyday through other people. And maybe if we all became aware of that reality- the Christ in us- we would all be radically transformed in the way we respond in crisis and live our day to day life.
BRANDAN ROBERTSON is an Evangelical writer, activist, speaker, and the dreamer behind the Revangelical Movement. He desires to build-bridges across cultural, theological, and political divides and to help others rethink, reform, and renew what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus in our post-modern, post-Christian world.
Brandan has a B.A. in Pastoral Studies and Bible from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and is pursuing his M.Div. Degree from Wesley Theological Seminary. He writes for Revangelical on Patheos, Red Letter Christians, Sojourners, and IMPACT Magazine, and has been a featured contributor to a number of well-read blogs and news outlets. He is currently working on a book to be published by Destiny Image Publishers in early 2015, and is a contributing author to the book Praying In The Frat House, Kissing In The Chapel edited by Adam Copeland. Be sure to follow his latest thoughts on his blog, Revangelical.