“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.

Related Podcast

Renovaré Book Club: Next Book Begins Soon

The next book in the Renovaré Book Club, Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, runs February 3-March 21. Join others online or in-person, or take a guided journey through the book on your own.

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