My wife and I have been trying to maintain the habit of reading the Bible together every night. We started with the book of James, which is nearly everyone’s least favorite epistle, but I thought it was great. It sparked wonderful discussion, led to thoughtful reflection and renewal, and was short. Never underestimate the value of brevity. (Don’t start expecting brevity from me or anything crazy like that, however.)
Then we read Judges. I don’t really like the book of Judges, but it was still a beneficial part of our lives. We spent a lot of time thinking about how the titular judges were strange people with uniformly bad ideas, then we reflected and tried be more faithful in our own lives. Also, we decided that we would never name any children after the bulk of the characters in Judges. “Hi, I’m Samson. I do dumb things. Ha ha! Wait, are those scissors?”
We eventually decided… Let me back up. My wife eventually decided that we should read one of the Gospels. I tend to avoid the Gospels. I know them; I can quote them; I’ve read them in three languages. I barely understand them in one though, and I’m not always sure that I like them.
You see, I prefer my truth to be delivered to me via propositions, things like “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God is one.” I can handle that. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” I’m ok so far. “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish.” What?
I’m not trying to be disrespectful, and I certainly don’t want to be blasphemous. I’m a Christian, so I’ve bet every part of me on the truth of the Gospel message. I take the Bible seriously, which is why I’ve studied it enough to realize how much I prefer some parts of it to others. Parables just give me trouble, and they give me trouble on multiple levels. First, and most directly, I always identify most with the character who gets everything wrong. Second, because I’m confused by that first thing, I then identify with the people whom Jesus commonly criticized: the people who didn’t understand his parables.
Let me look at a specific parable, just to show you what I mean. The other night my wife and I were reading over the famous parable of the talents (Matthew 25). In it, three servants are each entrusted with “talents,” which refer to a ridiculously large sum of money rather than some skill or ability. Two of the servants invest the money, make a substantial profit, and are complimented by their master when he returns. The third servant buries the money so that he doesn’t lose it, but is cast into darkness as a result, into a place with “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 25:30, ESV).
I don’t really know what gnashing teeth are, but I understand weeping and would like to avoid any darkness typified by it. Unfortunately, I don’t particularly feel like I can identify with the first two servants. As far as I know, I’m not investing any money for God. (If I am, I am a worthless servant indeed, because I’ve misplaced it all.)
I’m not sure I’m even investing skills or abilities. I have a lot of training with writing, and I try to commend my writing efforts to God’s capable hands, but I’m disinclined to feel particularly comforted by that thought. What if that isn’t the “talent” in question? What if that isn’t the right sort of metaphorical investment? (Or what if it’s just a bad investment? My writing could be junk bonds.)
On the other hand, I identify with the third servant pretty easily; I don’t feel particularly talented, I’m more inclined to play things safe than take risks, and I’m terrified of the master’s return. Consequently, I read this parable despairingly. I don’t even know how to fix the problem. The master in the parable tells the worthless servant that he should have given the talent to bankers. How in the world does one apply that?
Like I said, parables give me trouble.
Nevertheless, we try to keep reading. In fact we refuse to stop reading just because one part gives us trouble. (Ok, who are we kidding, there’s more than one part that gives us trouble.) A part of it is stubbornness, we committed and we’re going to do it. A part of it is hope, we hope that we’ll understand more as we keep up the practice. The biggest part is faith though.
If we believe in God and, more importantly, believe God, then we have to trust that he gave us this book to help us, and to guide us toward himself. If we read a part we don’t understand, maybe it doesn’t help us grow very much, but if we don’t read at all, it definitely doesn’t help us.
Let me say this as a parable, because I’m a fan of irony. Maybe using the Bible to learn about God is like driving a car. If the car is stopped, the driver can’t steer it and it never gets closer to its destination. If the car is moving, even if it starts off pointed the wrong direction, it’s amenable to correction. The driver can change its course, however slowly it may respond.
By continuing to read the Bible and trying to grow closer to God, my wife and I keep our little soul cars moving. Sometimes we don’t respond very quickly to instruction, and sometimes the instruction goes over our heads altogether, but we keep moving and trust that the driver–God–will get us home eventually.