Editor's 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.

Originally published April 2008

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