I want to pull the Chris­t­ian Scrip­tures back from the mar­gins of the con­tem­po­rary imag­i­na­tion where they have been so rude­ly elbowed by their glam­orous com­peti­tors, and re-estab­lish them at the cen­ter as the text for liv­ing the Chris­t­ian life deeply and well.”
—Eugene Peter­son (Eat This Book)

Trou­ble Access­ing the Bible

We seem to have a prob­lem with the Bible. 

Research by the British Bible Soci­ety sug­gests that peo­ple in the UK see it as too big and too holy” for them to get their heads, let alone their hearts, around. To put it put it anoth­er way, few think they are clever enough or spir­i­tu­al enough to under­stand and apply Scrip­ture with very much confidence.

If you get a group of Chris­tians talk­ing — real­ly talk­ing — they will admit the strug­gles they have with read­ing and enjoy­ing the Bible. 

I know this for myself because a long way into my adult life I found the Bible, well, dif­fi­cult. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe it, although some of it was beyond me; it was that I couldn’t access it. I couldn’t seem to pry the words off the page and into my life. 

The prob­lem, I found, was that I mere­ly lived on the bor­der of the Bible and the King­dom of God rather than enter­ing into it deeply.

Bor­ders and Bibles

Have you noticed how much activ­i­ty there is on bor­ders? There is usu­al­ly a micro-econ­o­my on both sides of a nation­al bound­ary as peo­ple cross from one state or king­dom to anoth­er. The clos­er you get by boat or car or train, retail­ers are offer­ing all kinds of goods and ser­vices as you make your tran­si­tion. Hotels spring up, restau­rants seek your cus­tom, sou­venir shops try to catch your eye.

Not very far from the cross­ing point are any num­ber of qua­si-offi­cial look­ing kiosks and stores say­ing wel­come, or Well-come’ in some non-Eng­lish speak­ing parts of the world. Not to men­tion the self-appoint­ed tourist offices and cur­ren­cy exchange booths. The last gas sta­tion this side of immigration.”

Then there are the VIP chan­nels, by invi­ta­tion only” lanes, and fast track routes offer­ing to get you through quick­er, eas­i­er and with less has­sle than every­one else — usu­al­ly at inflat­ed prices.

A sim­i­lar indus­try has also grown up on the bor­der of the king­dom of God. Clus­tered along its edges are a vari­ety of evan­ge­lis­tic events, books and web­sites, pow­er-preach­ers, short cours­es, over­tak­ing lanes, and express chan­nels into the new world. Walk this way” they say, and we’ll get you over the line.”

This may be all well and good, but my obser­va­tion is how many peo­ple are still hang­ing around the bor­der, some­times for decades after they have crossed.

There’s a vast num­ber of Chris­tians who live their entire lives on the bor­der, gin­ger­ly step­ping across but nev­er going fur­ther inland, nev­er ven­tur­ing into the hin­ter­land of the king­dom and ful­ly set­ting up res­i­dence there. 

That’s like spend­ing your whole hol­i­day at the air­port hotel. It’s great for the first night, but total­ly inad­e­quate as a place to actu­al­ly live for any mean­ing­ful length of time. You might have land­ed but you’ve not real­ly arrived.

Or it’s like the Boat Peo­ple from Viet­nam stuck in Hong Kong for ten years or more. They will tell you that, for all its ear­ly promise, life on the bor­der is a pret­ty mis­er­able affair. Like­wise, lis­ten to the sto­ries of migrants from Syr­ia or Ethiopia and you’ll under­stand why they often give up and go back. 

I once vis­it­ed a refugee camp in Beirut, set up in haste by flee­ing Pales­tin­ian fam­i­lies in 1946. The flim­sy can­vas tents of the first set­tlers have giv­en way to semi-per­ma­nent struc­tures crammed into unbe­liev­ably small spaces. As their num­bers grew the hous­es got high­er; lay­ers after lay­er and sto­ry after sto­ry got added with the total absence of any plan­ning, reg­u­la­tion or order.

The Gospel writer John noticed how close peo­ple were to the bor­der and report­ed that many of his dis­ci­ples turned back and no longer walked with him.” Jesus even asked his clos­est friends will you also turn away?” (John 6: 66 – 69)

Not a Bor­der­line Book

Here’s my point about the Bible. It’s not a bor­der­line book. It doesn’t work that way. 

No doubt, if we are look­ing for a guide to get us to the oth­er side then I’m sure it has immense val­ue. But we’re not mak­ing full use of it. We’re not using it as it was intended.

A Bible lim­it­ed to a con­ver­sion-only gospel is real­ly a very thin Bible. A hand­ful of vers­es and a cou­ple of pas­sages will just about do it. Well-thumbed in a few places but with most of it total­ly untouched. But what’s the point of the Bible if we’re only liv­ing on the border? 

My own strug­gles with Scrip­ture were large­ly tied up with my strug­gles with God. What exact­ly is he try­ing to do with me? To get me across the line or to live deeply and well in the king­dom? To live in the place, as Dal­las Willard liked to put it, where what God wants done, is done.”

Who, we may ask, will show us how to strike out and press ever deep­er into the vast and expan­sive king­dom of God? If this is our ambi­tion, with all its delights and set­backs, then the Bible is going to become for us a sure and steady com­pan­ion in our growth in Christ­like­ness — an ever rich­er resource for our spir­i­tu­al formation.

For appren­tices to Christ, life on the bor­der is no sub­sti­tute for the life in the king­dom por­trayed in the Bible. 

For the Apos­tle Paul the king­dom is not a mat­ter of what we shall eat, or what we shall drink” (Rom 14:17). Exter­nal rules are bor­der­land issues. The king­dom is about right­eous­ness, peace and joy in the Holy Spir­it”; a jour­ney inland that will take a life­time to navigate.

Learn­ing to dri­ve, get­ting a pilot’s license, and becom­ing a scu­ba-div­er have one thing in com­mon. At some point we have to get behind the wheel, strap our­selves in, and take a giant stride off the side of the boat. We have to ful­ly enter in.

Truth be told, it took me quite a while to real­ize that spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is about immers­ing our­selves in the king­dom of God and explor­ing the depths of that king­dom in the com­pa­ny of oth­ers and the Bible. 

What’s so won­der­ful about the Chris­t­ian Scrip­tures is that they will go about as far and wide and deep as we want go. In fact, there’s noth­ing we can expe­ri­ence on this earth that the Bible doesn’t speak to direct­ly or indirectly.

Press­ing Inland

I once phoned Richard Fos­ter from Lon­don because the Ren­o­varé Spir­i­tu­al For­ma­tion Group that I had formed was com­ing to the end of its eight week run. Earnest­ly I asked him what do we do next? What’s the next course?

Richard chuck­led in response. Yes,” he said. There is anoth­er course. It’s called LIFE!”

It’s now that the Bible real­ly crack­les with ener­gy. Its pri­ma­ry func­tion is our for­ma­tion and the for­ma­tion of the com­mu­ni­ties we inhab­it. And, if only we will ask them, it tack­les all the big ques­tions we face today: pri­vate, per­son­al, social and public.

So let’s stop treat­ing it, or God for that mat­ter, like some del­i­cate great-grand­moth­er who can’t han­dle the messi­ness and obscen­i­ties of our con­tem­po­rary lives. Let’s get it off the shelf and take it into our deep­est con­cerns about a life of for­ma­tion and explo­ration in God’s great kingdom. 

The way to expe­ri­ence the joy of a word-cen­tered life is to under­stand that it is not life on the bor­der. Yes, there will be pas­sages of Scrip­ture that will help us over the line. But what of the rest? After all, if you’ve now crossed the line and are in,” what val­ue could the Bible have except as a mere box of com­forts for those who like to talk theology?

John 3:16 is the most quot­ed Scrip­ture about enter­ing the king­dom. I’d like to sug­gest that the key text for liv­ing in the king­dom is Gala­tians 4:19 where Paul says for I am in the agony of child­birth that Christ be formed in you.” Any moth­er will tell you that the agony of child­birth is off the chart. This is how the lead­ing writer of the New Tes­ta­ment feels about our formation. 

That’s why the bulk of the Bible is not for peo­ple look­ing over their shoul­der and keep­ing their options open about turn­ing back. It’s for peo­ple who have pulled up the draw­bridge, burnt their bridges (and their boats) and have resolved to press fur­ther up and fur­ther in,” bring­ing their lin­ger­ing fail­ures, doubts, and fears with them. 

If we are strug­gling with the Bible then we maybe stick­ing too close to the border. 

The Bible only real­ly works if you intend to press inland and live as though Christ reigns in real time. We will know we are on the right lines when we say to God your king­dom come” and real­ly mean it.

Whether we have crossed the bor­der calm­ly and ratio­nal­ly, or feel like we’ve been flung from a fast mov­ing car, the Bible was brought togeth­er with us in mind. So if we want to bring the Bible to life then we need to bring life — real life — to the Bible. It was intend­ed for this. 

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