READING FOR LIFE
June 1, 1986 Issue
by Raymond Fox
There are surely many reasons why Christian's read God's word. For the Christian, God's word is the truth, the only truth he has any confidence or faith in, the only word he is willing to stand for and risk all for. Too, God's word intrigues us, it fascinates us, and so we read because we are held in awe by it. And, we think of God's word as information we must learn, study, and retain, so we read for this knowledge we want to acquire. Many have also made a daily discipline of reading God's word and thus they read because it is their daily diet to read. But, after meditating on these reasons, some have said, "Yes, I read, I even read a lot, but I don't ever seem to get anything out of it." There are others who have never said this, and who read a lot, but whose lives betray the fact that they do not get anything out of reading either. Why is this the case?
There must be something more to reading God's word than being fascinated by it or just learning it as information, or making the reading of it a discipline. These all are necessary, but our reading must go beyond these reasons. We read because God's word is life. Jesus said, "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life" (John 6:63). What does Jesus mean in saying his words are spirit and life? In contrast to the nature of man's fleshly body, it is his spirit that is the animating principle of his existence. The spirit of man gives life to his body. In the same way Jesus' word is the animating principle of our Christian existence. His word is spirit and life for Christians. It is written "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). What we want to know is how to read so that we may receive life. How does one read for life?
YIELDING TO GOD'S WORD
What does one, who is living in sin, think when he reads God's word or hears it taught and refuses at the same time to change? What is one thinking in his mind when he reads? What does someone who has hatred and bitterness think when he reads that Paul said to put away bitterness? What does an apathetic Christian think when he or she reads of the self-sacrificing commitment of the early Christians? We may have said about certain people, "How can they just sit there and listen, yet not do anything?" But we sit in front of the Bible and read and come away, time after time, without having changed.
What do we think when we read? If we come away unchanged, it will be because we have successfully convinced ourselves that we do not need to change. We have defended ourselves against the conviction of God's word. "After all, I have very good reasons for being bitter. And, mind you, I am a lot more committed than most people. As far as temptation, there are just some things that are harder for me to overcome." Our immediate reaction to most occasions of correction is to defend ourselves. Unfortunately this self-defense is easier when we read God's word because it does not talk to us. If we simply are not willing to hear it then it cannot tell us again by yelling louder at us.
God designed his word to examine us, accuse us, and lay us open for who we really are. He wants us to change. "Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." Through its probing, prodding and correction comes life. The hope, the joy, the peace are all there in the life that comes from the word. Yet, to have these blessings of life, first our heart must change. Our attitude towards the word must change. Ironically one of the ways in which we defend ourselves against the correction of God's word is to unconsciously make our religion a formality. Christianity may merely be a formality to us because, if we allowed it to be anything more, then we would have to change.
The point is simply this, that reading for life means deciding to yield to God's word. It is no doubt the common experience of Christians who read God's word that there are passages in the word that have been gnawing at us to repent, to change, to become more like Jesus. There must come a time in our life when we simply decide to give in and give up in our battle to fight against what it is trying to tell us. Only then can life come.
Accepting the Challenge of God's Word
Not only does the word of God correct us, it challenges us. Once we stop justifying ourselves we stand a chance of hearing that challenge. Understanding and accepting the challenge of God's word brings life.
On one occasion Jesus challenged his disciples with the words, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you" (John 6:53). Jesus was not talking here about the communion at this early point in his ministry. He was using a Hebrew Idiom to say that unless they were willing to totally consume him, that is, be absolutely committed to following him, they would have no life. They under stood precisely what he was asking of them. Their response was, ‘This is hard saying; who can hear it? In other words, what he is asking is very difficult, who can follow it? Some of them in fact were not willing to follow him with that degree of commitment, so they turned back and walked no longer with him.
The words of Jesus still challenge us. Will we answer, "This is a hard saying, who can hear it?" If we turn from the challenge, then we surely will have no life. His word challenges us to obey, period, without excuse, without defensiveness. Just simply obey because it is God's word. His word challenges us to take the Christian life seriously, following in the steps of Jesus without distraction or inhibition. God's word challenges us to grow up, to mature as his children. His word challenges us to stand up for the truth, with compassion and love proclaiming it and defending it. There are of course many challenges but what is important to our reading of God's word is to remember that it is challenging us to be different. Reading with this in mind means that life will come from reading.
Practicing God's Word
Jesus said, "Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: and the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock" (Matthew 7:24-25). These are powerful words for they are capable of bringing us life. Jesus wants us to practice his words. Life will come only when we go beyond a simple intellectual knowledge of his words and, instead, act on them.
As we read we must constantly ask ourselves how this passage we are reading can change us today, how it can make me a different person today, how can I apply this passage today. When we read we must look for life and if we look for life we will find life. Even if we read just one verse a day, if we read for life, then we have genuinely read as Jesus wants us to read.
When we read that Jesus said we cannot serve God and mammon, we had better go out and serve God. When we read that Jesus said we ought to lay up treasures in heaven, we need to decide specifically how we intend to follow this teaching. When we read that Jesus said we must go the second mile, we must think about who, today, we will go the second mile with.
The early Christians are our example. Jesus changed them and this meant that Jesus changed how they lived. Luke is not wasting words when he tells us of the early Christians in the book of Acts: that they went everywhere spreading the word of God, that they were willing to suffer for God's cause, that they obeyed God rather than man, that they searched the Scriptures daily. We are reading for life if we understand that, after we read the book of Acts, there is something we must do.
In the same way the letters of the New Testament are intended to be read for us. Paul tells us we ought to pray without ceasing so we had better start giving our selves to prayer. He warns us we must "stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel." These words are not platitudes; they are injunctions to act in a certain way. James admonishes us to control our tongues. If we read this, agree that it is true we just control our tongue and then set the book down, only to go right out and demean, ridicule, or gossip, we have missed the point of reading.
Practicing the Scriptures does not mean simply sitting back and thinking about them. It does not mean teaching someone else what they ought to do. It does not mean beating someone else over the head with it. It means you act, you change, you apply the Scriptures today, now. Life will only come when you act. And the beauty of God's word is just this: that as you act and receive life from acting, you will then be filled with genuine awe and gratitude for God's wonderful word.
Peter said to Jesus, "Thou hast the words of eternal life." We cannot think that the words of Jesus will bring us eternal life if we are not willing to think that his words are intended to change us now, in this life
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