On average, I manage to consume at least two books, usually three or four, every week. I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember. It started when my mom began taking me to the library when I was very young. My reading fixation has never wavered since, even through college and graduate school.
Though I spend an inordinate amount of time reading science fiction novels, there’s another sort of book that I read through every year. Given that I’m a theologian, college professor, and author of several religious books, it’s no surprise that it’s the Bible. But why do I read it cover to cover every year? Did I lose a bet? Do I do it out of a sense of religious duty?
I read it regularly for the same reason I read anything: entertainment and knowledge. At sixteen, I had never read through the entire Bible even once. All I knew of it were a few bits and pieces, mostly from what I’d heard in Sunday School and church. I decided I needed to learn the book for myself.
Reading through it the first time was eye opening: I discovered stories I’d never heard before. And the ones I had heard before? Sometimes what was written in the Bible was not exactly the way I’d learned it in Sunday School.
When I first started reading the Bible I tended to treat it like the man in the old story who wanted to know what God’s will for his life was each day. One morning he pointed at a spot on the page with his eyes closed. Opening his eyes, he read “Judas hanged himself.” Finding no comfort there, he tried again, only to have his finger land on the phrase, “Go and do thou likewise.” In a panic, he tried a third time, only to read “Whatsoever thou doest, do quickly.” Of course, the Bible is not designed to be used like a Ouija board or Magic Eight Ball. It is not a fortune cookie.
I eventually learned the importance of context: understanding what was happening on the page, as well as taking into consideration the cultural and historical setting. The comfort I could gain from the Bible moved from seeking what mattered to me, to seeking what mattered to God.
As I saw how God worked with the characters in the Bible, learned about their struggles and concerns, I discovered that these ancient individuals faced the same doubts, confusions, and problems that I did. They were just as flawed as me, just as troubled. And God stayed with them regardless. I learned that they didn’t always get the answers they wanted. I learned that they weren’t always comforted. But through it all, they stayed with God anyway.
The stories in the Bible have helped me in times when I couldn’t make sense of my world, when everything was going wrong, and when there seemed to be no hope. I found no guarantees that I’d always get out of my problems, but I did find out that even if I couldn’t understand why, God’s love remained—and He hadn’t left me just because I was hurting.
One day most of the followers of Jesus left him. Jesus turned to the twelve apostles and asked, “Are you also going to leave?” Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:66-68). During those times that I get so low that I wonder what’s the point, why go on, why not just give up on God, I remember Peter’s words.
During the reign of king Jehoshaphat, the people of Judah faced an overwhelming invasion. There seemed to be no way out. They saw no hope. So king Jehoshaphat prayed to God: “For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (2 Chronicles 20:12). If nothing else, we can always keep our focus on Him.
The prophet Habakkuk asked God to do something about the misbehaving people of Israel. God answered that he’d send the Babylonians to punish them. This puzzled the prophet, since he knew the Babylonians were far more deserving of God’s judgment than the Israelites. How could God use a greater evil to judge a lesser evil? God gave him no satisfactory answer. But the prophet decided to trust God anyway:
I heard and my heart pounded,
my lips quivered at the sound;
decay crept into my bones,
and my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
to come on the nation invading us.
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:16-19)
Sometimes life just doesn’t make sense. But that’s no reason to give up on God. If you give up on God, has your problem gone away? Does it make you feel better?