“For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
My bones are dry and brittle in a place where I guess I should be thriving. I sit in the muscle-bound restraints of anxiety. It is an anxiety strapped and tangled in an intimate fight for faith behind closed doors, compounded by the mental struggle of finding myself in a faction of Christianity that demands right theology and a striving for perfection from an imperfect, stumbling follower of Christ seeking to honor her devotion to her Savior at the altar of redemption.
It is a strange thing to be raised in the enlightenment of the charismatic embrace of the Holy Spirit, navigating the rising tides of great spiritual awakening, incredible openness and forgiveness and faith—followed by occasional low plummets to depths of spiritual abuses—to then find freedom and joy in the solid ground of tradition and in the submission to and the feast of the knowledge and right understanding of God’s Word, only to long—to thirst and hunger and pine for—the healing and refreshing waves of the charismatic expression once again.
The Word and His Spirit are one.
My mind—now drenched in His Word and more deeply rooted in the confidence that we can know a right truth found in a perfect scripture—calls down to my heart and across the stretched and exhausted tendons in my body and cries out for childlike expressive worship and to make room in my rationalizing mind for the Spirit to move as He pleases in my humble life.
Oh, Holy Spirit, I invite your active presence. I’ve seen it. I know it. Lord, come.
I feel the tension of being a limited human being and living in the divergence of the worldwide faith in Christ—each faction seeking to follow a Savior as best they know how and as best they can interpret, with the help of a Holy Helper.
Oh, how He loves the church—His bride.
But if the movement of the Lord depends on the rightness of my own humble theology, then I don’t stand a chance. So I stand before my God without a denomination on my name tag, just the name of a flawed human longing to know and follow and be led by the Shepherd in Word and Spirit and a great passion for the Church, His beloved bride.
Jesus, draw near.
I am too small and insignificant to eat up too much time gazing at others with eyes of curiosity, evaluation and measurement in the name of ‘discernment.’ My place is on my knees with eyes fixed upon the crook of the Shepherd who is leading us all in His narrow path. And there, I ask the Holy Spirit to train my eyes to stay.
And now I open my heart with an invitation to the Father to lead me in tradition and prayer, in study of the Word, in depths of creativity and the glory of His Spirit, in healing power and His joy to produce the miraculous. I will trust Him. He is a God that longs to be known— discovered both through experience and through study. Both in word and in action. And I will rest in the loving guidance of a Shepherd who leads His sheep to the springs of the water of life.
I will still my quiet self-righteous wrestling, that I may experience the righteous saving power of our great Lord and Savior for all who call on His name.
At this point in time, I have facilitated eleven Bible studies in the span of three years––ten for women and one that was co-ed and co-led with my husband and another couple. I don’t know if that sounds impressive to you or not. But, just in case it does, let me add a little bit of color for you on what these Bible studies actually look like in real life so you don’t make the mistake of thinking too highly of me.
Typically, I am washing the dishes or changing a diaper and the idea pops into my head that I would like to read some random book in the Bible (likely one I have not read before, because reading the Bible consistently is still pretty fresh to me). I quickly deploy a text out to some intelligent and passionate women in a few of my circles and ask if they might be interested in reading this book of the Bible as well. I generally toss the idea out to about fifteen people and maybe seven of them say they are in.
So, then—during nap time or perhaps during one of those moments when I am holed up in my closet seeking some much needed space (introvert here)—I work out some sort of reading schedule, which generally means I scribble random chunks of verses into the tiny boxes in a calendar of some sort.
In the weeks to come, I build up the hype and confirm that these women are indeed going to show up to my house if I pour the coffee. Then I plan for my kids to have early bedtime. I light candles. I make decaf. I set out all the mugs and arrange all the chairs. I might apply some makeup. And then I sit.
I sit in a circle of empty chairs and watch the minutes tick by and––like a middle school girl at her first big birthday bash––I chew my fingernails and hum until someone finally shows up.
Once they do and everyone gets settled (sometimes awkwardly––me, awkwardly excited), we pray and then we dive in. And, mostly, it’s me getting my mind blown by things I’ve never read in scripture… and sometimes someone else also gets their mind blown… but, mostly, it’s me learning a million things I never knew and asking a million questions and puzzling over interpretation and reveling in the poetry of it all, until finally ending in some sort of mouth-open, starry-eyed dopy gaze––stunned that I am living wide awake in love with a God that loves me too. Eventually, the weeks go by and the study comes to a close and I end up more convinced than I was at the beginning that the Bible is the most miraculous work of literature ever created.
I am currently wrapping up a Bible study in the book of Psalms. The other day I asked the women in my study if they felt like scripture has authority in their lives. They kind of looked at each other and said, “Yeah… I mean, we’re Baptists.” And, there, I recognized the great terrain between how I was raised and how they were raised and why it is so incredibly mind-blowing for us to simply read the Bible in context.
I grew up in a whirlpool of innuendos that suggested that I had authority over scripture. I was taught to use scripture to mystically force my teenage desires upon the world… demanding healing and prosperity and secret spiritual knowledge some called prophecy.
The Baptists I know grew up (some of them) under the weight of the law without grace. They grew up hoisting the Bible on their shoulders and trying to carry it from one wasteland of works-based salvation to another. They walked around knowing scripture, but not really knowing God.
Until one day they did.
And now their mind is blown by the fact that the God of the Bible is real and my mind is blown by the fact that the Bible is a real book about my real God, and all of us are waking up to the freedom available in a Bible that both leads us to conviction and repentance and dowses us in reminders of a loving, merciful, and near-to-us Savior prophesied since the beginning of time.
Much of what we get out of the scriptures has to do with how we start out. Most of us in the south have thick, leather-bound study Bibles with tiny little reference notes and scholarly introductions we never read or—if we do—it’s because we are distracted during a sermon that lost us at “hello.”
Being an avid reader and a literary scholar, there is one thing I have learned about myself that is true for not all—but most. We don’t really retain what we read until we have to regurgitate it, and because most of us are not Bible teachers or scholars, this rarely applies to the content in those tiny print introductions inserted into our study Bibles (I feel like I just heard a hundred Bible scholars gasp… sorry guys).
I live in a seminary town. Like, there is literally a seminary in walking distance from my house where young Baptist scholars go to learn how to be older Baptist scholars, and so when I confess to the average Joe on the street that I do not know who wrote the book of Phillipians, for example, I am often headed with a quizzical look followed by a quick answer and a smirk of satisfaction… one Bible illiterate taught.
But despite the fact that the most famous disciple of all time—Paul—wrote Phillipians while he was in prison for sharing the gospel of Christ, I will likely not bring this to recollection if I am randomly directed to Phillipians 3:14 in a cheeky Hallmark card that tells me to keep at it and finish the race for [insert whatever activity I am being encouraged to complete here].
The Bible is an incredible, often intimidating literary work displaying the historical memoir of the greatest character of all time—our God. It is worth taking a few minutes to ensure that we are reading the passages in the Bible in the intended context of the work.
Although those few minutes of gathering context can feel like a timewarp to your fifth grade English class, it is worth it and it doesn’t take too much time to complete. Luckily for us, there are in fact many Bible scholars who have done the work for us… we just have to engage with it and I would argue that we must do so before we attempt to extract the applicable meaning of the scriptures to our lives (and, especially, to the lives of others).
Now, you might be thinking that the Bible is the living Word of God and there are times when we can open it to a passage and it speaks directly into our circumstances. So, you ask, are you saying that’s not true? No. I am not—I’ve experienced it. The Bible is the living Word of God and God can use it however He deems best, but here in America where we have access to multiple translations of scripture with built in scholarly context and Google resources galore, why would we choose to be lazy about the most impactful work to ever stand on our bookshelves?
So, yes, I sometimes flip open my Bible and read without looking up context. But I have reaped the deep-rooted benefits of examining the books of the Bible before I dig in, and the benefits are countless for my ability to extract deep truths regarding the character of God and His desires for my life—and it will be for you as well.
Here’s what I’m proposing:
I’ve created this simple little worksheet to help you establish a new type of behavior as you approach your Bible to feast on the Bread of Life. This worksheet is not revolutionary. There are many, many Bible study approaches that guide readers through the contextual questions I have provided. However, I never experienced one of those Bible studies before I was thirty years old and I grew up down the street from a seminary… so, I’m guessing there is a high probability that this might be new to you as well.
Give this a try. Pick a book of the Bible that’s not too intimidating or one you don’t really know much about (say, the book of Job or the letter of Jude) and using the Bible Reading Guide to Establish a Contextual Framework (provided below), take 15 minutes to learn the basic context of that book… and then read the first chapter. What about the context changes or informs your perspective?
Next week I will dive a little bit more into building basic Bible comprehension when reading the scriptures. If you get into the scriptures and you need a little guidance, give me a ping or reach out to your church leaders for assistance. Apart from prayer, I’m not sure there is a better use of our time… so, let’s get started.
Side-note: A lovely person (not from the bible belt) who read the first draft of this article asked how I reconcile the fact that I can meet an average Joe on the street who is a Bible scholar with my claim that the average person (and my reader) is more like me, a little more Bible illiterate. I think that it is one of the many oddities of living right next to a seminary campus. It seems that many people within a certain radius of the campus know a lot about the Bible, but most people a few blocks out know very little… and I will just leave that observation here for you to ponder.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
She sobbed into the phone, “It’s just so confusing. Does God heal people or not? Jesus healed everyone who asked him, so where is the healing I’m asking for?”
My heart ached for my friend, as she has found herself in a whirlwind of despair while also riding a fast train of newly devoted faith in Jesus.
“I feel like I’m on a roller coaster, and I just want to know how this all works.”
The issue of healing is confusing in the Bible Belt where main streets in every small town are dotted with Bible thumpers and prosperity preachers arguing about the rights and wrongs of healing faith. I know, I grew up here. I grew up confused.
As we talked, I prayed for wisdom. I’ve personally experienced very miraculous healing. I’ve also experienced long seasons of deep suffering. In some ways, I am still waiting on the Father. I sometimes catch myself observing that although Jesus has conquered sin and death, all things continue to die around me.
As I prayed I kept thinking about the Garden of Eden. Maybe you know the story, but maybe you don’t.
God creates a beautiful garden and then He places the first humans in that garden. We call those humans Adam and Eve. The Lord places two trees in the middle of the garden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil He deems off-limits––it is His one rule. He commands Adam (and Eve through Adam) not to eat of that tree with a warning that by doing so they will die. But a cunning serpent suggests to Eve that God is a liar and that if they eat from the fruit of the forbidden tree they will not die, but will be like God knowing both good and evil (Genesis 3:5). Eve disobeys God and takes the first step towards trusting her own understanding of what is good and what is evil by claiming the forbidden knowledge as her own. Adam also joins her and their eyes are opened to their nakedness. They feel shame for the first time. The Lord clothes them, curses them, and sends them out into the wilderness with a promise that the longer narrative would not end in tragedy.
Before they eat of the fruit, Adam and Eve live deferring to the God of Creation. When eating the fruit, they follow their own understanding of what is right and permissible for them. As a result, death and suffering enter the human story. The next generations recorded in the Old Testament prove that very real result of sin with a gradual, but drastic, decline in the life span of humanity.
And then another story from scripture came to my mind.
Job is a man who, although righteous before God, is allowed to endure great great suffering for a long time––great, great suffering. In his cries to the Lord he advocates for himself based on his righteousness (read: his faith) in the Lord. He is desperate to understand why he is being forced to endure great despair. His friends suggest all sorts of things, including that he might be suffering as a result of sin––but he’s not. When God finally responds to Job’s myriad of questions and pleas and laments, He says, “Who is this who questions my wisdom with such ignorant words? Brace yourself like a man, because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them,” and then He goes on to end in the most epic rap battle of all time showing Job a panoramic view of how great and mighty and sovereign He is. Summary: He is the Lord. Who are we to question His wisdom, even in our suffering?
In remembering this history, it occurs to me that the knowledge of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘evil’ belongs to the Lord, whether we have access to it or not. Living with Jesus as Lord means we follow His example and defer to the Father. The knowledge of what we should do and how the Lord should respond to us is His to determine completely––after all, He is infinitely greater in wisdom than our finite beings (Rom. 11:33).
Jesus understands this firsthand. He pleads, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42). He goes forward and endures the greatest suffering known to man to free us from our sins. The perfect Son of Man responds in obedience and endures His unrighteous suffering, but we––in our weakness––sometimes demand results, and if not results––an explanation, in exchange for our allegiance.
God is not formulaic. God is not transactional. He is relational. And He is beholden to no one.
Yes, not even to you––dearly loved Christian.
Does your skin crawl a little bit and your soul get defensive when you read that? Does something inside you proclaim it is your right to know and determine what the ‘good’ outcome to your suffering should be?
When we demand a formulaic approach to miraculous healing, it’s as if we are holding the bitten forbidden fruit demanding the God of the Universe conform to our understanding of the knowledge He first forbade.
I gently and humbly suggest that if our faith is shaken when God doesn’t respond the way we think He ought to, then perhaps we’ve sized God to our own limited definition of ‘good’ and that perhaps in doing so, we are missing out on the larger blessings––the epic wins––as a result.
“Where is my healing?” is a permissible question to ask the Lord, He can handle all of our questions. But it just might not be the best one. I think the question I am hearing from the cry of the heart of my suffering friend (and so many others) is
“Can I trust Him in my suffering?”
One sure way I know to offer comfort to a believer is to remind them who the God of the Bible is…
He is sovereign. (Colossians 1:16-17)
He is good. (Mark 10:18)
He is righteous. (Psalm 11:7)
He is wrathful. (Ezekiel 25:15-17)
He is loving. (1 John 4:19)
He is merciful. (Deuteronomy 4:31)
He is miraculous. (Acts 3:16)
He is present. (Zephaniah 3:17)
He is active. (Romans 8:38-39)
He is powerful. (Job 26:14)
He is gentle. (Matthew 11:29)
He is humble. (Philipians 2:8)
He is a restorer. (Acts 3:21)
He is trustworthy. (Psalm 9:10)
He moves towards the broken. (Psalm 34:18)
He is our refuge. (Psalm 46:1-3)
He sees you. (Genesis 16:13)
He is the perfect embodiment of ‘love’ (1 John 4:7-8). He is the very definition of ‘good’ (Psalm 100:5). He created those words and ordained their original meaning (John 1:3).
Knowing what we know about our God, can we defer to Him in all the other unknowns?
My limited view values this life too much. My ego sometimes demands immediate relief from my suffering. But His view stretches beyond the scope of time, eternity, life, and death––and He holds for my life and His glory the perfect plan. And, yes, although everything in this life does die, (who can deny this?) I know that the God of all Creation has promised a new life with no suffering in the end (Revelation 21:1-4). And if you are living under the loving mercy of our mighty Savior, Jesus, then this knowledge is for you as well.
Friend, asking the Lord for healing is in no way undermined by our submission to His sovereignty in all things. We fear an all-powerful God who is out for our ultimate good. He has given a spirit that intercedes for us according to the will of God. Be encouraged that, even when it’s so very hard and none of it makes sense, we have a God that works all things together for our good (Romans 8:26-29)
“We are made to exaggerate the importance of what work we do; and yet how much is not done by us!”
– Henry David Thoreau
Jesus says that everyone who hears His words and puts them into practice is like a man who builds his house on a rock. The rains come, the storm rages, and yet his house does not fall because it is built on the rock (paraphrase, Matthew 7:24-25).
If I’m honest, my Christian journey has not often felt like having my feet firmly planted.
Likely, this is because my Christian faith has not always been deeply rooted in obedience to the teachings of Jesus. Let’s be real, just because we say Jesus is Lord does not mean He has Lordship over our lives. I am still a work of redemption in progress. I am still handing it all over, even today.
My earlier years consisted of a series of events that continuously washed me off the foundation. I was caught in one monsoon after another that stirred up an identity crisis revealing deeper and deeper levels of egotistical mania within my human heart.
In early adulthood, I’ve enjoyed the view from a few plateaus providing glimpses of what it means to hold Jesus at the center of it all and have my feet firmly planted in His will. I’ve relished the view, but there have been times when my relish has slowly devolved to something self-righteous and cynical. I’ve been caught designing my life on the rock the way I’d like to see it, making my own plans. But the Lord—in His great mercy— will allow yet another wave of great suffering to crash upon me, sending all my hard self-righteous work flying across the sea.
In suffering, something embarrassing happens to me. I am not the type who suffers well. All self-righteousness implodes and I find I can do no more than display flourishing self-pity—a prime example of the opposite of prudence. The storms the Lord has allowed in my life reveal that I am not only egotistical—but, at my core, I am still tempted to become the very enemy of the One who created me.
But God uses the suffering in His miraculous way (miraculous, because it is un-human). He does what I—on my own—can not fathom possible…
He changes me, again.
The Narrator of Life sends the remains of my scaffolding to the bottom of the sea and then rips out my heart–replacing it with His own glorious, perfect, heroic, beating heart for humanity–and for His church.
And I, seasick and weak from the tumult, humbled by His grace, can feel the very hands of Jesus holding my feet firmly to the Rock.
My Christian walk has not often looked like a strong, steadfast person firmly standing on solid ground, but—rather— like a bloodied Savior holding the feet of a sometimes very tired person—suicidal in her tendencies toward egomania—to the very Truths found in His Word.
Jesus says that the poor in spirit are blessed. I am completely bankrupt. Everything I am depends fully on the Father’s love—I cannot even keep my feet on the Rock without His very hands holding me there.
“Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how deep that darkness is!”
There was a time in my life when my existence was characterized by darkness. My family was broken, I wrestled with addictions, and I walked around numb and disenchanted with the world around me. I saw every living thing move past me through a slow lens that revolved on a wheel of severe depression.
To prevent me from getting dizzy in the looking, I became a tenacious navel gazer. I wrote sentences, paragraphs, and lengthy pages reflecting my slow gaze at myself. I was detailed and methodical––in many ways I still am––but I was also dark and sarcastic. I focused on despair without hope. I scribbled from the vantage point of my own reality. I wrote life into characters that lived–—much like many people do–—without any real sense of purpose. For what do we have without hope, but the occasional fascination with navels?
Then, after years of trying to pick apart the details of my despair, my gaze shifted. I took my sarcastic, pessimistic, depressed gaze and I cast it on Jesus. At first, I looked with hesitation and a bit of spite. Having grown up in church in the southern United States, and having been sorely disappointed in the humanity in the church, I had come to suspect that Jesus was a household name that would disappoint. But the more I looked on, the sharper my focus became until a clear vision of Jesus––the man and Savior—became as real as my hand in front of me and I saw Him mighty to save.
Today I walk this life with Jesus planted firmly in my line of sight. From Him radiates a bright light of hope that illumines the color in the world around me. I’ve been given a new life and now live awake to the reality of His Lordship over myself and over all those who pass by, and I see them as He sees them––created on purpose, for purpose. My eyes are full of the light of Jesus. Discovering Him in scripture has only confirmed for me things about His character that I’ve come to know in my own daily interactions with Him. He moves in towards the outcast. He touches the unlovable. He invites those in despair to follow Him.
I now write with the upbeat passion of a woman on the move––in step behind Jesus with hope in my heart. And I am revisiting those characters––friends in fiction––from my past. I am molding them into vessels of hope. I am saying to the dead bones in my literary trash can of crumbled papers, “Arise!” because I believe that they, lost in the imaginary realm of this sinner’s shame, can also attest to the saving power of our Creator and be made known for His glory. Today, my writing radiates with the energy of revival in the direction of our loving Father.