I have deep roots in many different expressions of Christianity. As a result, I hear a lot of phrases that only make sense if you’re on the “inside” of that particular group. In recent months though, I’ve continued to encounter and wrestle with a phrase that needs some unpacking. It usually sounds something like this…
“I was searching the scriptures the other day, and I realized God has something different to say.” “When I search the scriptures, I just don’t find support for that.” “I guess I just pray that you keep searching Scripture until you find an answer.”
Because I know I’ve been guilty of speaking “Christianese” without thinking critically about what I’m actually saying, I’d like to think about this together. What does it mean to “search the scriptures” and how does this approach to reading the Bible affect our view of Scripture and God? Whether this phrase is entirely new for you or part of your daily vocabulary, let’s think carefully about its underlying implications.
What are we talking about?
When people tell me they’ve searched the scriptures, I often respond in all my grace and gentleness with, “What does that even mean?” What I have found is that searching the scriptures means something more like searching BibleGateway or Google or a concordance. It means something like, “I have a question I want answered; I have an agenda I need to support; I need some Bible verses to backup my opinion on this Facebook debate.”
When we only approach Scripture from this framework, we dangerously limit opportunities to be challenged, stretched, and transformed. When we use a search engine to find easy answers to our complicated questions, we’re missing the point. When we open the Bible with an expectation or an agenda, we miss out on an incredible opportunity to learn in unexpected ways.
This concept is recent.
If we’re talking about searching Scripture like we search Google, then this idea is fairly new. Christians even a couple decades ago simply didn’t have access to the infinite resources made available by the Internet today. With websites like BibleGateway, we can search for things in the Bible in ways that haven’t ever been possible.
It’s actually an incredible gift but can too easily be abused and misused. We used to have to open a physical Bible and turn physical pages and read large passages and hear full stories, but now we can open a search engine and find what we’re looking for in seconds. Reading the Bible used to take time, but in a culture with instant messaging and fast food, who has time for that? It used to be a discipline, but now it’s an app. Yes, I am thankful for new ways to encounter Scripture, but I need to seriously evaluate the factors that move me to use these resources.
We’re searching for the wrong things.
Maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much if people didn’t follow this phrase with proclaiming how they’re right and I’m wrong. Maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much if more people were searching the Bible for themes like reconciliation, unity, and justice. Maybe it wouldn’t bother me so much if people asked better questions. Check out this list of some of the most commonly asked Bible questions today. Notice the types of questions being asked. I must admit, these questions (and answers!) are sickening but not surprising. How might we change the way we approach Scripture? What kinds of questions are you asking? What questions do you think God might be inviting us to ask today?
It’s a bad way to read the Bible.
Searching Scripture for answers might make us feel justified in manipulating others with our beliefs, but it’s a bad way to read the Bible. I visited a church recently and couldn’t help notice the tagline on the church’s business card: “Do you have questions? We have answers!” I think I visibly shuddered. Although I’d like to pretend this is just one statement from one church, in reality, this is how many Christians approach God, church, and the Bible.
Sometimes my friends will tell me they get frustrated when they can’t find clear answers to their questions as they search the scriptures. I think it can be hard to find “clear answers” to our questions for a couple of reasons. First, a number of the topics people are searching for today simply didn’t exist when the books of the Bible were being written. Furthermore, we assume words mean the same thing in 2014 CE as they did in 2014 BCE. But mostly, I just don’t think the biblical authors were interested in answering our questions. Do you ever notice how many topics seem to go unaddressed throughout the Bible? Do you ever notice how often voices in Scripture, the prophets for example, speak broadly, poetically, and from an unexpected angle?
Too often I forget that the Bible isn’t one book but many. Too often I forget that the Bible doesn’t fall into one genre of literature but many; the Bible is a collection of history, story, poetry, prophesy, etc. I used to think that taking the Bible seriously meant reading it literally. But now I realize that sometimes reading the Bible literally is exactly how we shouldn’t read it.
I guess I’m just not convinced that reading the Bible was ever supposed to be “easy.” I think searching Scripture for easy answers takes the joy and the mystery out of encountering the living Word. The Bible is not a book of answers; it’s a book where Jesus responds to questions with stories or more questions.
What if we stopped throwing bible verses at each other and started throwing our arms around each other? What if instead of treating bible verses like spiritual daggers, we read Scripture in community with open hearts, minds, and souls? Instead of covering up what we really mean with overused Christian phrases, let’s be honest with our words. Let’s be thankful for new ways we can encounter the Bible without letting go of traditions Christians have been using for centuries. Let’s put down our preconceived notions about this or that, us or them, and come to Scripture ready to learn and be transformed.