Introductory Note:

Richard Foster and Kathryn Helmers invite us to see the Bible with fresh eyes in the opening chapter of their book, Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Transformation. They identify two approaches to studying Scripture that, while good, fall short of reading with the objective of “whole-life discipleship to Jesus.” Read this excerpt and then consider your objectives in studying Scripture, making a list of the role Scripture plays in your life. Richard and Kathryn encourage us to see that the “dynamic, pulsating with-God life is on nearly every page of the Bible.”

Margaret Campbell

Excerpt from Life with God
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
—Isaiah 43:19

God has given us a written revelation of who God is and of what God’s purposes are for humanity. And God has chosen to accomplish this great work through the People of God on earth. This written revelation now resides as a massive fact at the heart of human history. There is, simply, no book that is remotely close to achieving the significance and influence of the Bible. It is truly The Book (hay Biblos).

But the intrinsic power and greatness of the Bible does not make it easy for us to receive the life it offers. The average Bible consumer,” publishing research tells us, owns nine Bibles and is looking for more. This is mute but powerful testimony to a deep and abiding sense of lack — a sense that we have not really achieved a grasp of the Bible that is adequate to our needs. 

In point of fact, we can often use the Bible in ways that stifle spiritual life or even destroy the soul. This happened to any number of people who walked with Jesus, heard him teach, and saw him exercise the power of the kingdom of God. For many, their very study of the Scriptures prevented them from recognizing who he was and from putting their confidence in him (John 5:39 – 47). And later, Peter speaks in very grim terms of how people can twist” Scripture to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16).

Is it possible that this still happens today? Sadly, we must admit that it does. Think of the multiplied millions of people who say, sincerely, that the Bible is the guide to life but who still starve to death in the presence of its spiritual feast. This tragic situation is obvious from the usual effects (or lack of effects) that the study of the Bible has in the daily lives of people, even among those who speak most highly of it. 

The Source of the Problem

The source of the problem is rooted in the two most common objectives people have for studying the Bible. The first is the practice of studying the Bible for information or knowledge alone. This may include information about particular facts or historical events, or knowledge of general truths or doctrines, or even knowledge of how others are mistaken in their religious views, beliefs, and practices. 

We know from experience how knowledge can make people arrogant — even knowledge of the Bible and of God. It is not surprising, then, that study that focuses on knowledge alone does not lead to life transformation, which is the real human need. No wonder we who love the Bible keep buying more editions of it, hoping to obtain what we know in our hearts is there for us.

The second common objective people often have for studying the Bible is to find some formula that will solve the pressing need of the moment. Thus we seek out lists of specific passages that speak to particular needs rather than seeking whole-life disciple-ship to Jesus. To be sure, these needs are important, desperately so when we are trapped in the harsh realities of life. They can involve anything from needs for comfort or forgiveness, to physical healing, to conformity to a particular denominational or political persuasion, to special endowments or gifts of the Spirit, to works of social liberation. But in the end they always have to do with being a good citizen,” a good spouse,” or a good something else” — perhaps even with being a good Christian” by certain interpretations. 

What we must face up to about these two common objectives for studying the Bible is that they always leave us or someone else in charge. They are, in fact, ways of trying to control what comes out of the Bible rather than entering the process of the transformation of our whole person and of our whole life into Christlikeness. 

If we want to receive from the Bible the life with God” that is portrayed in the Bible, we must be prepared to have our dearest and most fundamental assumptions about ourselves and our associations called into question. We must read humbly and in a constant attitude of repentance. Only in this way can we gain a thorough and practical grasp of the spiritual riches that God has made available to all humanity in his written Word. Only in this way can we keep from transforming The Book into a Catholic Bible, an Orthodox Bible, a Protestant Bible, an Ours Is More Accurate than Yours” Bible.

What will enable us to avoid this soul-crushing result? 

The Supernatural Power of Love

Jesus founded on earth a new type of community, and in it and through him, love — God-given agape love — came down to live with power on earth. Now, it is this God-given agape love that transforms our lives and gives us true spiritual substance as persons. Suppose, then, we simply agreed that the proper outcome of studying the Bible is growth in the supernatural power of love: love of God and of all people? 

We could call this The First Corinthians 13 Test: If I… understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (verse 2). And so the test of whether or not we have really gotten the point of the Bible would then be the quality of love that we show. 

Knowledge of the Bible and its teachings would, of course, continue to be of great value, but only insofar as it leads to greater love: to greater appropriation of God’s love for us and for us to have greater love for God, others, and ourselves. 

When we turn to Scripture in this way, our reason for knowing” the Bible and everything it teaches would be that we might love more and know more of love. We would experience this love not as an abstraction but as a practical reality by which we are possessed. And since all those who love through and through obey the law, we would become ever more obedient to Jesus Christ and his Abba Father.

Regarding the Bible, then, perhaps the most basic question is: Shall we try to control the Bible, that is, try to make it come out right,” or shall we simply seek to release its life into our lives and into our world? Shall we try to tilt” it this way or that, or shall we give it complete freedom to tilt” us as it will? 

Can we surrender freely to the life we see in the Bible, or must we remain in control of that life, only selectively endorsing it so far as we find it proper and safe from our perspective”? Can we trust the living water that flows from Christ through the Bible, open ourselves to it and open it up into the world as best we can, and then get out of its way? This is the goal of reading the Bible for spiritual transformation. 

Life With God: The Immanuel Principle

The Bible is all about human life with God.” It is about how God has made this with” life possible and will bring it to pass. In fact, the name Immanuel, meaning God is with us,” is the title given to the one and only Redeemer because it refers to God’s everlasting intent for human life — namely, that we should be in every aspect a dwelling place of God. Indeed, the unity of the Bible is discovered in the development of life with God as a reality on earth, centered in the person of Jesus. We might call this The Immanuel Principle of life. 

This dynamic, pulsating, with-God life is on nearly every page of the Bible. To the point of redundancy we hear that God is with people: with Abraham, with Moses, with Esther, with David, with Isaiah and Jeremiah and Amos and Micah and Haggai and Malachi, with Mary, with Peter, with James and John, with Paul and Barnabas, with Priscilla and Aquila, with Lydia, Timothy, Epaphroditus, Phoebe, and a host of others too numerous to name. These varied stories form a mosaic illustrating how the with” life works in all circumstances of human existence, both in specific historical periods and through all times. 

This mosaic suggests a beautiful design for the way in which we view the Scriptures. From Genesis to Revelation we learn that The Immanuel Principle is, after all, a cosmic principle that God has used all along in creation and redemption. It alone serves to guide human life aright on earth now and even illuminates the future of the universe. It is the wellsprings of the river of life flowing through the Bible, surging with the gracious word of God to all humankind — I am with you.” This river pours into the thirsty wastelands of the human soul, inviting us to enter with its insistent call, Will you be with Me?” Now, once we decide to surrender freely to this river of life, we must learn how to see into the divine Life within the Bible, and increasingly receive that Life as our own, not just for us but for the sake of the world God so loves. 

Excerpted from Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Formation by Richard J. Foster (HarperOne, 2008). Used with permission.

Text First Published April 2008