Monday, November 25, 2013

Reading Scripture: Is simply reading enough or should we expect more?

At the end of September and beginning of October I posted these two quotes from "God on Fire" by Fred A. Hartley on Facebook.
There is nothing more wearisome, pointless, or boring than trying to carry out church life without the fire of God's presence.
Any religious experience that does not lead us to an encounter with the fire of God's manifest presence is a big ripoff. A fruitless vine. A rainless cloud. An idol. It promises great things and yet leaves us empty.
To me, they seemed to echo themes of Scripture:
These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
is based on merely human rules they have been taught.
Isaiah 29:13 - quoted by Jesus in Matt. 15:8-9
This states that it is possible to worship ("carry out church life" as Fred A. Hartley says) without truly encountering God.

Even to this day when Moses [Scripture] is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. - 2 Cor. 3:15-16
Here Paul states that the Jews read and heard Scripture without truly encountering God in all of His glory.

Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. - Jeremiah 29:12-13

"Whoever has my commands and obeys them, his is the one who loves me.  He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him...If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him." John 14:21, 23
"Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me." Revelation 3:20
These three Scriptures all suggest that there are those who call themselves "the people of God" who have not actually "found God", "been shown Jesus", or "eaten with Him".

- - - - -

Quite unexpectedly to me, the posts from "God on Fire" were met with quite a discussion regarding the nature of Scripture and what we ought to expect when we seek God.  The heart of the discussion seemed to revolve around the question: Is reading Scripture an encounter with God, or is it possible to read Scripture and not have encountered God?  I would affirm that Scripture is, in fact, the words of God, it is God-breathed, and so, in that sense, when one reads Scripture they have heard from God.  However, I would also suggest that, as one can read a letter that a person has written without ever meeting or knowing the person, so it is possible to listen to God speak through Scripture without ever meeting or encountering God, without ever truly hearing God.  The difference is not in the nature of Scripture, as God's words, or in the nature of the experience: an exciting, emotional, supernatural encounter should not be expected; rather, the difference is in the heart of the reader (worshiper, seeker).

I am currently in a course at Biblical Seminary on Biblical Interpretation, which has once again brought this topic to the forefront of my mind.  After a month and a half of contemplation I still was not any closer to a conclusion on the topic.  I knew that I agreed in essence with the argument others were presenting on Facebook: affirming Scripture as the words of God and not requiring some secondhand experience with an "inner light" or emotional experience apart from Scripture.  I knew I also agreed with Fred A. Hartley: simply reading the Bible, praying, and attending services of worship does not necessitate an encounter with God; there are those who worship, but not in spirit and truth; there are those who approach God with their lips, but their hearts are far from Him; there are those who seek God, but not with all their hearts.

Today I was reading "Eat This Book" by Eugene Peterson and he said something that brought clarity to my thoughts on this.

"The primary organ for receiving God's revelation is not the eye that sees but the ear that hears - which means that all of our reading of Scripture must develop into a hearing of the word of God."  "Language is essentially oral.  We learn our language not from a book, not from a person writing words, but from a person speaking them.  The written word has the potential to resurrect the speaking voice and listening ear, but it does not insist upon it.  The word can just sit there on the page and be analyzed or admired or ignored.  Just because we have read doesn't mean we have heard it."
And so, these are my conclusions:

1) It is possible to read the words of Scripture without receiving the person of Jesus.  This was true of the people of God in the past: the Jews of Isaiah and Jeremiah's day, the Pharisees of Jesus' day, and the Christians in Laodicea.

2) We ought not to expect some mystical or emotional experience when seeking God.  The fire of God's manifest presence, being filled with the Holy Spirit, is not evidenced by radical moments but by radical lives.  We are not seeking an experience, we are seeking God!

3) Any reading of Scripture that does not come from a heart of seeking God results in listening to the words without hearing The Word.  Hearing The Word will always result in living the words.  Evidence of an encounter with God is transformation; therefore, "church life" and "religious experience" that does not lead to change and transformation has not moved from the realm of human activity to a true divine encounter.

Therefore, I would say that it IS possible to read Scripture without encountering the fire of God's manifest presence.

May we be those who hear and obey.  May we be those who seek with all our hearts.  May we be those who love God and are known by Him.  May we encounter the fire of the manifest presence of the living God.

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