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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reading the Bible and Friendship with God

Imagine you have a friend who is friends with a really important, famous person.  When you first become aware of this connection, you enjoy hearing details about the VIP's off-camera life from your friend, because they make you feel closer to this person that you've seen in the media but never met.  After a while your friend might say, "This VIP friend of mine is coming through town next week.  Come with me and I'll introduce you."  When your friend makes the introduction you and the VIP have a brief, cordial chat, but if the three of you are standing around for much longer you soon become a spectator as your friend and the VIP carry on a more substantial conversation suitable to the intimacy of their relationship.

Some time later your friend says, "Hey, my VIP friend is coming to town again, and I thought it would be cool if I got some friends together to hang out."  So you go, and because recreational activities can mix people together and level the relationships, you have some more genuine interaction with the VIP yourself in the small group.  When the activity is over, though, the VIP takes an interest in you individually.  You get coffee with the VIP and your friend, but this time the VIP is asking you questions, and most of the interaction is between the two of you with only occasional insertions by your friend.  A week later you get a call from the VIP, and you set up a time to hang out one-on-one.  Your relationship has now evolved to the point that it stands on its own without the friend who brokered it even being around.

I think that the development of the time that we spend with God follows the same path as this parable that I just told.  We start just by hearing about God from someone who knows him well by listening to sermons in person or in recordings or by reading books or blogs.  Then we have a conversation with God himself by reading the Bible, but it's cursory, just a verse or two before we spend the great bulk of our time reading what someone else says about God, as in "daily devotionals" like Our Daily Bread (or as Zach Bartels calls it, Our Daily Crouton).  From there we move to a Bible study workbook that requires us to engage with God in Scripture more deeply, reading longer passages and answering questions about them, but that time is still in a setting contrived by someone else and consists mostly of that author's commentary.  If we seek greater closeness with God, we move on to some means—a particular Bible or book or mentorship by a trusted friend—by which we read God's Word ourselves, but there's still some orienting material that gives us a clue of what to look for and how to go about it before we dig in.  Finally, we graduate to reading the Bible alone, spending unmediated, one-on-one time with God with no director but the Holy Spirit.

There are two lessons we can draw from this pattern.  First, each of us has developed to a particular degree of intimacy with God in our hearing and reading of Scripture.  We can still enjoy and be nourished by less intimate interactions with God mediated more by other people, just like if we have a close friend we can still enjoy sharing that friend with others in a group setting.  But if we're used to a particular degree of intimacy with God, and then for a period of time all of our time with him is in a less intimate setting—like if we're used to reading the Bible with little guidance and then spend several weeks in a daily devotional—we starve for God and our relationship with him suffers.  That's true even if the same level of intimacy that starves us is a rich banquet to someone who isn't as far along.

Second, our development in spending intimate time with God progresses through stages.  Unfortunately, many people stick, satisfied, at one stage, and fail to mature.  A person who has been a Christian for forty years but has never moved beyond listening to sermons or reading Our Daily Bread has as close a relationship with God as someone who makes occasional small-talk with a friend of a friend, regardless of how long they've been doing it (and their life shows it).  So it is good for us to consider what stage we're in and how we can meet the challenge of going to the next one.  If you're used to listening to others talk about God but never read the Bible yourself, why not practice reading a daily devotional?  If you're used to those, invest time in a Sunday School class or Bible study that requires moderate homework in a workbook based on the Bible.  If that kind of thing is familiar to you, pick up a book like How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, Developing Intimacy with God, by Alex B. Aronis, or The International Inductive Study Bible to guide you into substantial time in the Scriptures directly.  And if you're accustomed to those kind of things, isn't it time to take the training wheels off and read on your own?

For whatever stage you're in, God wants to be an intimate friend to you.  How close are you willing to be to him?  What are the consequences of holding back?

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