Reading the Bible
T: So in there somewhere, I remember that you got really frustrated.
T: Because you were starting to look for your own path. You had been sort of surfing on my wave for a while. And then you hit this point of frustration like, “I can’t understand the Bible for myself. It’s all over the place. It’s obtuse, it’s thick, and I have no idea of what to do.” And you were kind of tearing your hair out.
M: It’s especially frustrating for somebody who’s older. I didn’t come to it as a kid and so itwasn’t introduced in a way that it was just inherent in who I was.
T: You didn’t grow up listening to Bible stories.
M: There’s nothing to inculcate me into how to study the Bible or the culture of Christianity. So for me, when I first became a Christian, of course, my heart lights up and my love for Jesus is there. Now I want to know. And now I need to study because that’s my way. And so I start to read the Bible, and it’s incomprehensible. And a big part of it is nonlinear. As Westerners, we’re entirely linear. We don’t read stories that are nonlinear, generally speaking. If we do, we would call that ‘experimental fiction.’ I might have read some of that in college because it was cool, but it’s hard to read and it’s hard to follow. Occasionally they’ll do that with movies and if they do too many flashbacks, you don’t wanna understand the movie anymore–that was the Bible to me. Wait, who am I reading? Wait, when does this take place? Did this happen before what I read next? None of it made sense to me and so I really struggled to just sit down and read the Bible. I knew I need to read this book. This is the book, this is the Word, so I need to read it and do my best to absorb and understand it. It was like banging my head against the wall. It was not an enjoyable process. It was very frustrating.
T: So what was your breakthrough there? Was there a breakthrough or was it gradual?
M: So I read my way through the New King James version. I read my way through the entire Bible. It was a horrible experience.
T: It was just something you felt you needed to torture yourself with.
M: It was my penance for salvation. God, I know I’m supposed to read the word, so I’m gonna read the word because you were willing to give me your grace.
T: Why King James?
M: I think it was because I wanted to be as close as I could to the original. So, when I read the English Standard Version, it felt like a pop version of the Bible.
T: Oh, interesting. So it felt more authentic probably because of the movies.
M: Yes, I needed more of the formality in my mind.
T: That’s hilarious.
M: And so that’s why I did it. I think also because it was more challenging. So I felt like, “this must be the real deal because it’s harder to read!”
T: Well, Charlton Heston spoke in Kings James.
M: Exactly. So that’s kind of what started me and where my breakthrough came. So I read my way through the Bible and it was very unsatisfactory. I tried to read commentaries and stuff, but again, nothing said, “Well, let me help you make sense of this.” It was like, “well here’s my interpretation of what that is.” And then there are a million interpretations of what that means. So I was just lost. The second time through, I said, “Okay, I gotta do it again because I didn’t get it.” I know I understood intellectually that it’s a lifetime pursued. I’m not supposed to understand the Bible in one read. And so the second time through, I did something different. The biggest problem for me was chronology, I didn’t make sense. It was nonlinear. So I listened to the Tyndale Audio Bible in chronological order. I listened to that at the same time that I was reading New King James again. They were obviously not perfectly parallel. They’re kinda going like this, as you read they’re crossing over back and forth.
T: So, New King James or King James?
M: New King James.
T: Okay so you went for a more modern approach.
M: Yes, because I felt like, “Okay, King James is just difficult. So now I’m gonna go to New King James to modernize the language a little bit, but it’s not as new as English Standard Version and those like that.” So I did both of those in over a year, Tyndale is set up over a year. I use this analogy that it was weaving because it’s going back and forth, literally like fibers on a loom. When I was done with that year, I felt like–I get it. Not in a profound sense that I understand the Bible, but there was a woven tapestry in front of me that was the whole story that I understood. When somebody now would talk about something from the Bible, even if I didn’t really remember the whole story, I kinda remembered hearing it.
The New Christian on the Block
M: I have a reference, I kinda know where that is in the story and when that happened in the story. There was something else going on in the background during that time that was very difficult. Which was, I think when you become a new Christian–and I think if you’ve been a Christian your whole life, it might be hard to recognize this– and then you meet somebody who’s an adult who becomes a Christian and everybody’s wonderful and and welcoming.You know, “We’re so glad to have you in the family.” And now you stand in a group of Christians and you’re a new Christian, and everybody starts speaking Latin, at least that’s what it sounds like to you. Because people are quoting Bible verses and you have no idea where those came from and making Bible jokes. And you’ve been welcomed into the club, but nobody said, “Oh, and by the way, here’s the glossary.”
J: They give you a new language.
M: Yeah, like “there’s all the new terms you need to understand.” So you’re just standing there listening to everybody talk like “I’m fully an outsider here. I have no idea what’s going on.” And I also think it makes it hard to integrate as a new Christian into the Christian community, it’s also true in church. Because your pastor’s up there, and I think most pastors are this way that I’ve watched, there’s an assumption that you’re talking to the flock. You are talking to the flock.
T: Because mostly you are.
M: Right. And so the conversation is at this level instead of for a brand new person at this level. So you sit in church and you think, “I’m the only idiot in here that has no idea what’s going on.” All these references being made and I can’t even flip my Bible pages fast enough to follow along with what’s going on. So it was a very frustrating process of integration for me that really took years to try to integrate myself into it. And it’s almost like there needs to be an Awana for adults who become new Christians.
T: So now, in the teaching that I gave you, I did those chronologies constantly.
T: It didn’t stick. You had to figure it out for yourself. Really, it’s the bottom line of that, isn’t it?
M: Well, I think that’s true, I would guess, for most people. You can listen to somebody say it to you, but until you actually integrate it…and I think I had an advantage because of what you were teaching, so I had a first pass.
T: You knew there was an answer.
M: Right, and I knew there was a chronology. I just couldn’t find it for myself.
T: I remember talking to you at one point about some Bible tools, Maybe Blue Letter Bible or something.
M: Ultimately, what I found is when you referred me to Blue Letter was that it was a little early for me.
M: Because there’s a lot of information there. Blue Letter allows you to dive into a passage in an incredibly deep way.
T: Look at the language behind it and look at the words behind it.
M: So now, to me, that’s one of the most important things I do whenever I read a Bible passage. Because what I’ve found now, over the years, is what I read in the New King James or English Standard version is that a lot of times they’re not correct, linguistically.
T: Maybe not complete.
M: Because exact translations often don’t exist.
T: Don’t exist yet.
M: So what I’m getting is somebody’s opinion from their studies.
T: They’re doing the best they can do.
The Nuances and Depths
M: The best they can, right. Now I find that the deeper I get into it, the more nuance I get. You had me do, at one point, a deep dive on Ecclesiastes and what’s the meaning of vapor.
M: That’s a great example because the entire meaning of Ecclesiastes has changed around that one word, depending on how you define vapor. So, in a way, you could read Ecclesiastes and say it’s kind of a negative.
T: And it is if you approach hevel the wrong way.
M: Right, but from studying that and having you have me do a deep dive it’s like “Okay, now I get it. He’s not saying ‘don’t do any of this stuff and it’s all useless and stupid.’ He’s just saying ‘You can’t grasp that stuff. You can grasp the Lord and have faith in the Lord. And what’s forever?’” So that one word was transformational. But when you start reading the Bible, you don’t know any of that stuff, so it takes time. I think one of the big things that I’ve learned over the years is to be patient. Don’t expect to understand and it’s okay if you don’t understand. Even if you think you understand, there’s a decent chance you don’t understand.
T: Well, really, when you get to the point where you think you understand it all, you actually have lost the point.
J: It’s time to start over.
T: It’s time to start over because you’re peering into infinity and so what should happen is it just keeps getting bigger.
Old Christians Learning Anew
J: What strikes me as you’re talking is that this is a similar journey for someone who’s grown up Christian their entire life. Even people who have been lifelong Christians, they’ll hear words like sanctification and think “everyone knows what that means except me.” I’ve even said it. I’m not even really sure what that term means. But I think all of us know more about what other people have to say about the Bible than we know about the Bible. And it’s daunting and it’s challenging to get in there. Then we get into this idea that, “Well, I’ve been a Christian my whole life, I know what the Bible is about.” Because you bought something in a frame and put in it your home, or because you’ve heard the jokes long enough that you can repeat them. Whatever it is. But I think even lifelong Christians struggle with “what does Scripture actually say and what is it actually about?” We had a woman in our community group that was brand new to the faith, same as you she had been adamant against Christianity for most of her life. And she was a revelation for us because she would ask questions or she would say something that was just like, “Well, wait, all of you guys were talking about this, but that’s not what this actually is saying.” You know what I mean? Things like that where we just see past it because we assume some interpretation along the way or some popular interpretation of something. We’ve just kind of swallowed it and we’ve lost our ability to question and really seek it for ourselves.
T: Probably worth saying here that this is Yellow Balloons Podcast and it’s me teaching and in this story, I’m the mentor. But 26 years ago, I basically took everything I thought I knew about the Bible and just scraped it off the table and said, “I gotta start all over again.” I was not understanding what this said. Because I started over with a totally new paradigm. When I shifted my paradigm, it was literally like I have never read this book before. It was a time of unbelievable discovery for me because I was finding treasures everywhere. What I thought were constraints of rules and structures that I thought were keeping me safe from hell or whatever, were actually opportunities to grow and flourish.
J: I’d say the same thing for me. I would say I’m in the middle of, and it’s been the real value of working on Yellow Balloons. I’m learning just as much as providing the resources. I went to seminary and I grew up around the Bible my whole life. But a lot of times, especially in seminary, there were times when I was just like, “This doesn’t make sense, and it feels like we spent six weeks of this class talking about who might be the potential author of this book rather than just talking about what the book is about and what it says.” And so I think I’ve gotten to a place where, a few years ago, I just sort of did that motion of like, “I’ve got to rethink this because I’ve seen the fruit of some of the things that other people have said that just aren’t working. And there are things in here that don’t make sense.” Ecclesiastes is my favorite book of the Bible, because that word that is so often translated to ‘meaningless’, when you translate it to ‘vapor’ it just unlocks a whole thing. And when I discovered that it was like, “Gosh, there’s so many other things that I’ve just completely missed.”
M: (to Tim) Can I ask you your question?
The Importance of Asking Questions
M: I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this question but why did you start asking me about this? Because you asked me, “What do you know about your heritage?” I didn’t dig in and start asking you about faith, you asked me.
T: I don’t know, I think that’s what I do. Is that right?
J: Yeah, I think that’s right.
T: I think studying the Bible has rewired my brain. I think I’m a way better executive because of it. I think I’m a way better person because of it. We were with some church discipleship guys recently, the three of us–Joey, Kylie and me–and I learned something from them I’d never heard before. That was that there’s a math to how many questions Jesus asked and how much He answered. I probably won’t remember the exact number, but he asked like 300 and something, and answered 3 or something like that. If you’ll go through and think usually it’s “What do you think it says?” Right? “What’s the greatest commandment? What do you think it says? Oh, that’s pretty good.”
M: That’s certainly how you taught me.
T: So I think probably,I don’t know the answer to that, but I think probably it’s because that’s kind of what the Bible does–it asks questions. Which is very profound because if you think about it, it’s pointing you to what I think we’re all seeking which is “Why am I here?” What was I made for? And the answer is to seek. Because you have a choice and I have a choice and you have a choice. The made in the image of Godness is making choices. And I said, “Well, I don’t know what’s best. Why don’t you just tell me? Give it a try.”
J: My parents, a few years ago, got me this little book called “Questions God Asks.” And I devoured it just because I feel like we are always going to God with questions. We even go in the scripture, like “We’ve got some questions for you. How are you gonna answer?” Kinda putting him on trial. But yeah, that idea was revelatory for me as well. These questions like “Who do you say that I am?” There’s so much importance in what God is asking of us and what Jesus came down to say, “Hey, here is what’s being put on your plate, what are you gonna do with it? How are you going to steward this life?”
Questions and Job
T: Probably the most impactful book in the Bible to me is Job. That was part of that turning point that caused me to kinda scrape the table and start over again. Job was God’s favorite guy. He just really thought Job was amazing. From beginning to end, it’s really clear that this is who you ought to be like. In fact, there’s a passage in Ezekiel where God says to Israel, “even if you had a Job, Daniel or Noah in Israel right now, I would only save them. I would wipe the rest of you out because you’re so bad.” Well, that’s pretty high company, right? He’s lotted like an incredible guy. When God gets to the point of, “Let’s make sure you understand what’s in this for you,” it’s all questions. That’s all, he gets his questions. And at the end, Job says, “Okay, I get it.” And God’s like “Great going, I’m gonna give you twice as much, not because you need it, but so everybody else will understand what happened here.” And it’s like all questions and he didn’t get a single answer.
M: Yeah, that’s interesting because in going to church, not many pastors teach that way.
J: Well, we went through infertility for five years and one of the things we noticed while we were going through it is just how uncomfortable Christians are with questions. We want answers. And so even pastors just putting questions out there and leaving them to let people steward those choices makes them real uncomfortable. If they’re going to ask you a question, they’re expected to give you the answer alongside of it. In the very consumeristic context of Western society, we’ve become used to that kind of an arrangement of like, “Look, I come here so you can tell me the answer, don’t be asking me the questions.” But I think it is one of the most powerful things that we miss about the Christian journey. Even the name Micah, from which we also get Michael, is a question. Micah is “who is like…”, and the assumption is God because they didn’t put his name at the end. Michael, because they just put the L at the end, who was like God. It’s just embedded in scripture and characters and all kinds of things. There are questions that we miss.
T: Or even when you do an exposition of a passage–and I think there may be more questions than you think from pastors–they do an exposition. If they do an application, the question is, “What are you gonna do about this?”
M: Yeah, that’s reasonable. How does it apply to your life?
T: How does this apply to your life? And often, I think if you treat the passage fairly, which we try to do in Yellow Balloons, you’re not given the full amount of information. Some things are clear and other things are not and it’s important to distinguish between the two. But in each case, the question is still always going to be, “So what are you going to do?”
The Wrong Questions and the Right
J: I would say a better way of thinking about this, at least in my experience, preachers and pastors a lot of times do incorporate questions, but it’s the wrong questions. It’s questions that are more comfortable and easier to answer. So you get to Job and get questions like, “Where were you when the Earth was formed?” and that’s not the question Job was hoping that he was gonna get. And so I think, we sometimes try to remake the question in our own image based on our own desires rather than facing it for what it’s worth.
God’s Questions to Job
T: If you wanna look at Job at a real high level, the one thing Job asked, and he was mostly just, “God is God, He can do whatever he wants to”, but he did question that “God is missing something here, and if I could have a day with him, then he would understand it and he would change what he did.” That was his basic wish and what God did instead was say “Let me ask you some questions first, and if you can answer these, then I’ll answer that.” And the two questions were basically “can you understand the making of the universe and explain it to me?” “No.” “Okay, well, let’s just try an animal. Can you tame this animal?” He can’t even do that. “Okay, so you can’t explain physics and you can’t train this lizard or whatever it is, this massive animal, so why is it you think you can tell me stuff? Who needs whose perspective here? And Job is like, “Okay, I get it.”
Christian Discomfort with Questions
J: I think that makes people uncomfortable because it doesn’t feel practical. But it actually is practical in a lot of ways, because now you’re able to say like, “Okay, the choice in front of me is ‘Am I going to trust God? Am I going to trust this thing that does know how the physics work and how the animals can be tamed? And am I going to submit to my life?” And that can open up all kinds of other questions in your life about stewardship. But, again, I think we gloss over some of these things because they’re tough and difficult.