Since childhood the idea of competing against myself has always propelled me farther than the act of competing against others. Can I read a thicker book this time than I did last time? Can I write a longer, or better, story than I did last time? Can I climb higher in the tree? Can I run farther or faster during this track meet? Each personal success pushed me to attempt the next level.
Therefore, when I began reading the Bible at age 14, the goal began as “Can I finish the entire Bible?” Using the approach of one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening, I discovered it took me about 2 years to read from Genesis through Revelation. And the day after I ended the last chapter of the Bible, I started back in Genesis, chapter 1.
This process continued for another 14 years, with me buying a new Bible about every 2 years, because I wanted a fresh start so that I could learn new material, apply new lessons, and I did not want to be distracted by the lessons I had learned last time.
But when I hit age 30, I was worn out. By that time, I had read the entire Bible through 7-8 times and had received my seminary degrees in counseling and religious education. I had had an excessive amount of good teaching under the tutelage of both living and dead authors/pastors, but when I finished the book of Revelation for the umpteenth time that year, I found that I not only did not want to turn the page and begin Genesis the next morning. I couldn’t.
To be honest, I was sick of the Bible. I was exhausted of studying it, of making it my life’s ambition. Like a man who has eaten the same meal every day for fifteen years, I knew I should read it again in order to survive, but I felt as if I would vomit, if I had to put one more morsel in my mouth.
For a few days I waited, hoping the feeling would go away. But each time I picked up my Bible to read, it returned. Finally realizing that I was stuck in a desert of my own design, I prayed. I don’t remember the exact wording of my prayer, but it went something like this:
You know that I have been a faithful student of Your word for most of my life. I have gone to seminary, as You asked. I have taught Sunday School. I have written devotional articles. I have tried to live the best life I can live, according to Your word, and even though I know it’s not possible for me to know everything there is to know in the Bible, I feel like I know everything there is to know in the Bible. I know I should read Your word again, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. What’s the point? Please help me know what to do.
Over the next few weeks, God guided my life to intersect specific sermons and readings in answer to this sophomoric prayer. Then, as I revisited this issue again one day in prayer, God coalesced all the lessons He had taught me over the recent weeks, and spoke to me in my spirit. His response was:
Your problem is simple. All your life you have used the Bible as a self-help book. You have identified issues that you have in your life, then you have sought out what scripture has to say about how to fix that type of issue. Then, with all of your willpower, you would compete against your self, to push past the problem, to achieve the next level.
But the Bible was not written to reveal you to you, Mark. The Bible was written to reveal Me to you.
For a while I sat stunned in the sudden resizing God had given me about myself.
“Uh. Yeah…That’s right,” I said.
Then two questions gradually grow out of this revelation, and helped me learn how to approach the Bible, and God, properly, both in study and in prayer.
1. What does this passage or chapter say about who God is?
2. What does scripture say about how I am to relate to this kind of God?
For instance, in the past I would read a verse like “Cast your cares upon the Lord and He will sustain you.” (Ps. 55:22) as an injunction for me to pray more. Every Christian can admit to needing to do this more in his life, so I would focus my life on increased praying.
But under the lens of question #1, I now find that God is a God who: cares about our burdens, desires to catch our anxieties, has broad shoulders, is stronger than I, is a sustaining God (which means He does not quit on me and a reviving, rejuvenating God), and works with me in my weakness. This is no giant Dr. Phil in the sky. This is a God who is active, sovereign, immutable, revelatory, and mighty.
Thus, question #2 guides my response when I encounter difficult situations. I can look to image of Jesus, for instance, who cast His burden upon the Lord (“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.”) but relies upon the sustaining, strong, sovereign nature of His Father (“Yet not as I will, but as you will.”)
Some verses are direct, such as “The name of the Lord is a fortified tower; the righteous run to it and are safe”, encasing both question #1 and #2 in one verse. Others require discernment. But in all situations, we are best oriented when our lives are centered around pursuing God, not ourselves.
Let these two questions guide your walk with God today, and you will find, like I did, that the infinite character of God is not only a much more delightful feast than merely improving your self but it also redefines who we are, so that we may confidently state with Paul, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Rom. 6:4)