Reading the Bible, reading myself

In a recent discussion someone raised the idea that personal experiences of God should not be treated with skepticism:

“When someone sees something beautiful in their life and recognizes it as the hand of God and through that experience moves an inch closer to intimacy with Him, woe is the man (or woman) who answers them with skepticism! There is a deeply in-grained skeptical attitude within the hearts of many of those who claim the name of God. Take the example about the eagle flying and someone seeing that as something God has given them as a demonstration of His love and attention, no one should take that from them. Did God put the eagle there in the first place? Maybe. Maybe not. But if He didn’t, He turned that person’s attention to the eagle and turned their thoughts to Him. And if that person relates this story to another person and they respond with a scoffing attitude, what they are in essence saying to that person is….’there is no way that God would go out of His way to do that for you…you really aren’t that important.’ ”

I very much agree with you that God desires good things for each person. More specifically, I believe that God does so such that the content of this goodness and the manner in which it is manifested or disseminated is situated within the broader context of furthering God’s kingdom. Thus in my view a Christian perspective contains a dual context for defining such important benefits as goodness, care, and love. On the one hand, goodness is only truly good if it is situated within the greater project of realizing God’s kingdom. On the other hand, goodness is only perceivable as good—it is only really “for me”—if it manifests and impacts me as beneficial, rejuvenating, etc.

This of course raises the matter of interpretation, but more broadly than we normally think. Typically we think of interpreting texts and, for many Christians, good interpretation is what permits us to understand the Bible correctly. I agree. However, another type of interpretation is also at play, though typically those interpreting in this way are unaware of doing so and unskilled in its use.

Specifically, all of us are engaged all the time in interpreting our own experiences. The vast majority of us do so without reflection or consideration, and certainly without special “training” (indeed most events require no great consideration or training to understand).  Now coming back to this comment: Christians explain God, to other Christians and to non-Christians, both through how they read (or interpret) the Bible and how the understand (or interpret) events in their lives that they believe have some bearing on God, such as having some form of encounter with God).

Now to some people the notion that we interpret the Bible (instead of simply “reading what’s there”) may seem surprising.  More so, to some it means that human beings are “in charge” of determining who God is, which can cause distress. For if God’s love (or perhaps worse, truth!) is a matter of my interpretation or that of others, then how can we be certain that we’re not misrepresenting God or characterizing God in any number of potentially conflicting —and even harmful—ways?  As such, Christians not only appeal to a source of information about God (the Bible) but many Christians also favour particular approaches to biblical interpretations, reading techniques such as proper exegetical method, historical and literary awareness, etc.

In other words, most Christians most of the time would not be content to “make of the Bible” whatever we pleased. Yet accepting experientially-based claims about God as authoritative without examining their interpretation is precisely what we would be doing if we agree that we cannot (indeed, must not) doubt the validity another person’s perspective about how God acted / communicated / was present in that person’s life in some special way.

A bit of a problem, I think. Yet the matter doesn’t end here. For considerations of accuracy and truthfulness in interpreting experiences have further similarities with interpreting Bible readings.

Interpretation needs not only to be viewed more broadly (as encompassing the interpretation of experience) but it also needs to be understood as a “skill,” which means that the individual’s skill as an interpreter of themselves is now also at issue.  In other words, if it’s reasonable to prefer N. T. Wright’s reading of a given biblical passage because I have good reason to think N. T. Wright is a more skillful interpreter of the Bible than another exegete, why is it not also reasonable to prefer my (or yours or John’s) interpretation of an event because I think I am (or you are or he is) a better interpreter of experience than another person?  Must it be the case that someone is always the best interpreter of their own experience?  I think not. 1

Stated differently—and I think this is crucial—I would characterize Christians as truth-seekers whose seeking is to be oriented by and toward loving God entirely, love themselves rightly, and love their fellows likewise. From this context Christians are called to act in in the service of both love (of God, myself and others) and truth (biblical and personal), and so are OBLIGED to engage not only with someone’s claims about God based on their interpretation of John’s gospel but also claims about God based on her / his interpretation of their experiences.

And when we do so, we not only prevent certain problems but acquire certain benefits. A willingness to investigate and question may keep us from falling prey to the common, North American orientation that Jesus died “for me,” to “save me from my sins.”  It would do so by promoting deeper engagement with the biblical text that may well lead us to seeking fuller explanations of who Jesus is (and so move us toward broader, more covenantal presentations of the gospel, such as N. T. Wright proposes).  I wager that this joint orientation toward love and truth also creates stronger and more vibrant communities, communities that love and listen while not losing the ability to speak (and where necessary, critique).

Show 1 footnote

  1. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur argues that the author of a text is not  necessarily that text’s best interpreter.  My notion here is similar.

4 thoughts on “Reading the Bible, reading myself

  1. I appreciate the thoroughness of your answer and we are in agreement on many things. I do believe that interpreting both the Scriptures and our own experiences wisely is crucially important, for as you indicated, if we do otherwise, we run the risk of inaccurately representing God through Biblical interpretation and through the interpretation of our own experiences and the experiences of others. I would go a step further, however, and say that a preoccupation (or even with some, an obsession) with being 100% sure of our own “correctness” can lead to shutting the door on the beautiful work of the Spirit in our lives and in the lives of others. The life of faith carries some sureties with it, yes, but there is also a great deal of mystery and a good deal of trust we must have. We can’t always be 100% sure about everything, can we?

    One thing we can be sure of is God’s goodness and His character, for these things are revealed in Scripture in many ways. When we come to see Him through Scripture and to know the beauty of who He is, we get to know a person. Just as in human relationships, the more time we spend with Him, the more we come to know His heart, His ways and His voice. The sheep know the voice of the Shepherd. But that doesn’t mean that we are always 100% sure. When a person receives something beautiful from the Lord, the enemy will move in quickly to cause them to doubt its authenticity (because his whole goal is to kill, steal and destroy) and if he can do this through the voice of other Christians, it is far more effective in shutting down moves of the Spirit than someone who does not claim faith. That is why it is crucially important for each and every one of us to be very, very careful with the hearts of our brothers and sisters. We will be held accountable for the choices we make and the words we speak into the lives of other people. That’s why I said woe to the person who tries to snatch the precious voice of God from another person’s life through undue skepticism, especially if this is done with the “authority” of someone with a lot of Biblical knowledge. These teachers carry a great deal of responsibility to handle that knowledge with humility and with the understanding that all things cannot be understood with the intellect. Some things must be felt with the heart because the intellect cannot adequately hold the entire mystery of God.

    Let’s clear something up really quick, though. Please give me some credit for understanding the need for healthy skepticism. Let’s say someone came to me and said they had a dream that they were the Queen of Sheba and were sitting on piles of gold (and it was coming out of their nose and armpits) and because of that dream, they decided that God wanted them to buy a lottery ticket because it meant He was telling this person that they would hit the jackpot! I’m sure that I would respond with a great deal of healthy skepticism. Perhaps that is an extreme example, but you get my point. The examples that I am referring to in this blog are quite different. The things I am speaking of are consistent with God’s character, the way He has worked through the ages and are infused with Him because His essence is Love.

    What I have found in my spiritual journey is that people often measure my experiences of God against their own, rather than anything else. In other words, if they do not experience God in the same way, then they will dismiss what I have experienced. This seems to driven (at least in part) either by ego or envy. People can become envious that they have not heard from God in the same way. The fact is that God interacts personally and uniquely with each individual according to the grace given them and to their specific purpose. No two people are exactly the same. That is Scriptural. Everyone’s journey doesn’t have to be the same. I have had people who claimed faith and love for me who have turned on a dime and attacked me when I suggested that God has interacted with me in ways they have not personally experienced. I just quit sharing things with people like that. It seems to make little difference if my experience of God’s love is consistent with how He has interacted with others in the Scripture. It seems to make little difference about the character I have demonstrated over the years either. This kind of skepticism is especially harmful. Even still, I trust God enough that if what I’ve experienced is false, that He will cause it to fall away. I actually believe the promises of Scripture that the Spirit leads into all truth. I may not understand it all (I certainly don’t) but I can only function in the capacity and under the influence of what I have received from the Spirit thus far. If people don’t believe it, too bad! I trust God enough to let Him be my guide. I have asked this of Christians many times. I’ve said…”Hey! If you don’t believe me, then fine! Let’s love each other anyway and let God work out the details. He is the Author of Truth and He is faithful to those who are His own.” Few Christians have extended me this grace. Very, very few.

    So then the question might be…why even share these things with others at all? Why take the risk of them responding in such a way? The answer is so simple. I need community. I was designed by God (as we all are) to be relational and to thrive within a body of believers. We are to encourage each other and build each other up, not tear each other down. We need to be vulnerable to others in order to keep growing as God designed us to. So, what I look for is people who are familiar with the way the Spirit works because they have stepped out in faith and responded with belief when they have experienced God in the details of their life. They are strong allies because they have trained their ear to God. I also highly value knowledge and understanding. But I try to avoid people who take too much pride in these things at the cost of the mysterious, beautiful uncertainty of a passionate God.

    • Hi Listener,

      Thanks for your detailed response. I’m saddened to hear that your interaction with others when sharing your experiences (particularly those experiences that you believe closely related to God) have been largely negative and hurtful. It should not be this way.

      In responding to your comment I saw that my reply was (at least) a blog post in length, so I have instead added it as a post.

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