Editor’s note: Throughout the month of May we will explore hard/weird/confusing/hilarious passages or verses in the Bible and try to make sense of them (or try to model how you make sense of them) to better understand God and the stories contained in scripture.
Every morning before I went to the bus stop, my mom would walk me to the front door in her zip-up gray robe, smelling of coffee, and start this conversation:
Mom: “What can you do, Aimee?” (big smile)
Me: “All things.” (sigh and eye roll)
Mom: Through who?”
Me: “Jesus.” (another sigh)
Mom: “That’s right! You can do all things today! Do you have your armor on?”
Me [?] Yes.
Mom: Do you have your sword and breastplate?
Me [?] Yes.
Mom: Good! Love you! Have a good day. (big hug)
I didn’t understand any of that.
I knew I couldn’t do “all things.” I couldn’t speak French or jump rope. I didn’t have x-ray vision or know how to make the flying carpet I ached for. There were dozens of things I wanted to do every day that I couldn’t. Poor Mom, she didn’t know what she was talking about.
For years when she asked me if I had “my breastplate,” I thought she was asking if I was wearing a bra. Which was crazy, because I was 70 lbs and nine years old. If I were wearing a bra, wouldn’t she know? I just let the sword thing go.
As an enthusiastic new believer in Jesus, Mom dove in the deep end and always surfaced with more crazy statements. My favorite was, “Aimee, the Bible is The Truth. Anything you’ll ever want to know is in here.” Um, no, Mom. I wanted to figure out how people got color blind, and who invented popsicles. I skimmed some pages and there was nothing like that in the Bible.
Lots of people take words literally, especially kids, and my friends with anxiety and Asperger’s. They believe the words on the page mean only what a dictionary says. That makes the whole Bible very weird. I felt really sorry for people who believed “the Bible is true”:
- Do not be anxious about anything – not possible
- Love never fails – what about divorce?
- God is jealous – isn’t jealousy bad?
- Be salt and light – why and how?
- Take, eat, this is my body – ew!
- God is a consuming fire – terrifying
As a cantankerous and contrary kid, the Bible just wasn’t going to work for me.
I shared before that the Psalms saved my soul. It was poetry that drew me in. I fell in love with God through metaphors, imagery, hyperbole, and personification. Plain words would never be enough to capture the full nature and character of the God who exists outside of time, creates all things, and knows all things.
I began to revel in the Bible when I read it like a lift-the-flap children’s book. Waiting under each word was the literal meaning, the original language, the cultural context, the symbolism, and the artistry. I would roam and linger in a passage of the Bible the same way I would roam and linger in front of masterpieces at the art museum. I would ponder the possible meanings of images for weeks:
- Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls
- As a hen gathers her chicks under her wings
- Taste and see that the Lord is good.
- Like a weaned child is my soul within me
There’s something endearing, though, about a new Christian taking everything literally, as a humble, eager learner of the Bible. Like dear Amelia Bedelia, trusting, soft-hearted, and teachable. She hears, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” and she’s inspired. I can pass this test! I can finish this race! I can shut my mouth! My youngest daughter is in this season.
My other two kids have reasons to be suspicious about God. The Bible promises they’ve always heard don’t feel true. The literal words of the Bible and their bad experiences don’t match up. They feel sorry for me and my silly faith.
Instead of being afraid or angry about this, I’m thankful. This means they’re growing up. They need more than the tiny barnyard of literalism. So I’m out in the fields, extending the fences and expanding the boundaries to make room for their angry questions, eye rolls, and wounds. I try to pick my battles, empathize, and wait.
Someday they’ll pick up the Bible for themselves, and deep will call to deep. The words will come to life, mingle with their holy imaginations, and link with their understanding. Maybe they’ll figure out what that “breastplate” is about. Hopefully they’ll explain it to me.
A Few Thoughts About Reading the Bible
- How are you doing with the Bible? When you read it do you feel inspired and fed? Or do you feel skeptical and discouraged? I like the Bible less when I’m in a season of failure. Even though the Bible is full of losers, I feel stuck in a bear trap when I read all the things that Paul wants me to do in the New Testament. Perfection, judgment, and despair taint all my understanding. Consider going back to the first Bible stories that captured your imagination. Consider a simple prayer like: “Lord, help me with the Bible. It’s hard. Come Holy Spirit, and translate these truths to my heart.”
- Some take on the challenge of understanding the Bible with enthusiasm. We use concordances, do Bible studies and listen to different teachings. We learn about context, metaphors, original languages, and traditions. We find teachers we like and let our understanding of “biblical truth” be shaped in life-changing ways. Do you know how you came to understand the Bible? Take a few minutes to write down the names of your teachers. Hopefully you can thank God for them. But you might have a few names that turn your stomach. If you’re ready, consider forgiving them for any ways you were deceived, intentionally or unintentionally.
- Different interpretations (opinions) of the Bible have started wars, ripped apart churches, destroyed families, and changed culture. Different parents have completely different Bible-based answers when their children ask about homosexuality, divorce, and women in leadership. All of them could preface their opinion with, “The Bible says.” Are you in relationships with Christians who interpret the Bible differently? We should be pursuing that. Like Tim Keller says, “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.”
- Are you looking for Bible study tools? There are millions of resources out there. Here are the ones I recommend most:
- Dictionary – Are you sure you know what that word really means?
- Thesaurus – Would other versions of that word help you understand?
- Biblegateway.com – Type in any Scripture reference and see all the different translations of it. This is my current favorite way to bring new taste to stale verses.
- Concordance – These books are lists of where to find specific words throughout the entire Bible. Like every time “porridge” or “armor” or “peace” is mentioned. Look for one in a used bookstore.
- Commentary – This is straight up interpretation. A Bible scholar gives a commentary on what’s happening in the text (like sportscaster describing the game, or a director explaining a film). If you have a pastor or Bible study leader you enjoy learning from, ask what commentaries they use.
- Words of Delight by Dr. Leland Ryken – This book made me fall in love with the Bible’s artistry, economy, and power.