Unless you’re a pastor, you’ll probably never break down the various nuances of meaning contained in some Hebrew word found in the authoritative Masoretic text of the Old Testament. And that’s okay. On my day off, I rarely want to read another commentary or listen to another homiletic dissertation unless I’m looking for a new idea or sermon illustration to use. What I want is to experience God, either for myself or through others – everyday Christian experiences of God’s dynamic presence. A forty-year-old wife, Kathy, after years of infertility and several miscarriages, prayerfully, tearfully, successfully giving birth to a son while being supported by the prayers of fellow Christians – that is a pure shot of adrenaline to me, even when I’ve been immersed all day in the latest church leadership strategies and all the bits of ministry we do to stimulate an individual’s spiritual growth. Occasionally one church member, Janet, would say to me before sharing how God has answered a need in her life, ‘This must seem pretty ordinary for you, Pastor Terry . . .’ She had no idea how magical, how reassuring, how pleasurable her simple ‘God gave me the strength to finish my twenty-six mile marathon’ anecdote was for me, what a delight that an ordinary event became a testimony – being, as it was, blessedly devoid of advanced preparation and rehearsal.
But you want to know how these experiences happen. Where do they begin? What you’d like to know is how to make your study of God as dynamic as having the apostle Paul living in your guest room. Maybe you’re curious about the helps, the techniques, the few simple tools that can make your Bible study experiences seem as if you were sitting in the boat next to John, the disciple, during the calming of the Sea of Galilee.
Let’s talk about the tools first. What do you absolutely need?
You need, for heaven’s sake, a decent version of the Bible. No con foisted on the general, church-going public is so atrocious, so wrongheaded, or so widely believed as the one that tells you that you need various versions of the Bible to keep it fresh and relevant. How would you feel if, as a landlord, your tenants were constantly and unilaterally toying with the language of the lease because the existing version ‘just doesn’t speak to us, man’? I doubt you’d find it reassuring. Yet so many well-intentioned publishers treat God’s Covenant with the same reckless subjectivity. And many of these mongrel tarts have now become cultural favorites. I wish sometimes I could go through the libraries of believers throughout America just throwing these adaptations off the shelf – all those contemporary-language Bibles, those free paraphrases with lengthy insertions and omissions, advertised as ’Bible-as-novel’ – not one of them is any more than, at best, devotional literature. For instance, in the well known Beatitudes of Matthew chapter five there is a world of difference between the Good News Bible’s ‘Happy are those who know they are spiritually poor;’ and the NASB’s ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. The word ‘happy’ is generally understood as being pleased over a particular situation. ‘Blessed’ is a pregnant theological term meaning internal fulfillment regardless of external circumstances. So while winning a million dollars may make you happy, it is a far cry from experiencing blessing.
Please believe me, here’s all you will ever need in the Bible department: ONE good Bible translation, taken from the original languages with the intent of preserving the syntax of the ancient text. Which version? Okay, most serious Bible students find that buying the New International Version (NIV) provides the best ease-of-understanding to accuracy ratio, and it is a fine translation. It is the most popular modern translation in history for a reason. The use of English makes it slightly easier to memorize, and helps in the understanding of passages that have been traditionally difficult to translate.
Most of the Bible scholars I know have for years used what is widely regarded as the most literal translation of the 20th century – the New American Standard Bible (NASB). It is, admittedly, a little more confusing to read, but its reliability and fidelity to the original languages is unmatched.
But there are so many Bible publishers, which one is the best? As long as it’s a reliable translation, the publisher’s printed comments in the margins of the page are simply a matter of personal preference. Just keep in mind that the comments you find there are not a part of the original text and, therefore, not divinely inspired. That being said, I like Zondervan’s NIV Study Bible for its conveniently located background information at the beginning of every book. And it has – in addition to many of its other fine helps – the added attraction of sending the message to your peers that you take your Bible study seriously.
Okay, there are a couple of other helps you might find useful. I employ the use of a Bible atlas, also published by the fine folks at Zondervan, because if you are ever going to fully appreciate things like the severity of Jonah’s rebellion against God, you are going to have to understand the relative distances between Joppa, Nineveh, and Tarshish. An encyclopedia of the Bible comes in handy once in a while, if, for example, you find yourself wondering about the significance of raisin cakes. But how often do you do that?
Study helps are obvious. What else is necessary for the serious student of God’s Word? Numero uno – the indispensable ingredient for illumination and enlightenment – is an understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit. Maybe you have heard John MacArthur on the radio reviewing Romans 8:28 and bringing listeners to tears as he explains the value of suffering in the life of the believer – the man’s been unleashing the Word of God for years. Sure, it’s just one phrase, ‘And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God,’ but his commentary hits so close to home it sounds like . . . well . . . powerful, man!!! Acquiring this kind of insight from the Spirit can only be achieved when you understand that God’s Word is just as much about a relationship as it is about the content. As you approach the Word of God, you do so prayerfully seeking more than just facts about His existence. To be transformed by God’s Word, to be moved by His Spirit, is more than simply having a raised awareness of God. It’s more than an academic exercise, more than a religious ritual. It is to enter into a relationship with God, so that who He is influences who you are. It’s not a big deal to go to church and to find an awareness of God, to accumulate information about God, or even to feel God. What makes God’s Word dynamic in your life is when – and pay attention here, folks – the Holy Spirit takes the information and awakens it within you so that you understand how it applies to your situation. When Moses prayed, ‘let me know your ways’, he was not asking for additional revelation from God, he was asking for clarity about how to use the information he had already been given in order to lead the people of Israel through the wilderness. Illumination requires that you, like Moses, cultivate intimacy with God. And the key to achieving intimacy in any relationship is trust. Only in the context of trust and fidelity can there be an open exchange of private thoughts and ideas. You, yourself, would never share your most intimate thoughts with someone you considered out-of-favor. So the question is: Can God trust you? Will you follow His direction once He gives you the insight? If your answer is something like, ‘It depends on whether or not it’s to my liking’ – don’t expect much in return.
Your journey of personal enlightenment all comes down to relationship. Beware of shortcuts and cheap substitutes. As you navigate your way, there are some things you must keep clear. Participation in church programs, however noble, is no replacement for relationship. Worship services, service projects, Bible studies all have their place, but these things should be the by-product of God’s presence in your life not an alternative to personal fellowship. If what you are doing for God replaces the time you spend nurturing communication with God, you have exchanged God’s presence for something less.
What about prosperity? Many people have turned the church into a lottery. For them, the motivation to spend time with God revolves around the desire to acquire blessing – which is to say, a financial blessing. Intimacy with God is measured by the gilded comforts found in material possessions. Don’t get me wrong, God blesses us – there is nothing wrong with a new car or a new house. But something has gone seriously wrong when God’s favor can be demonstrated by a Lexus.
Some define their connection with God by popular experience. Perhaps you have seen it on television; wild, drawn-out, ecstatic services punctuated by people barking like dogs, laughing like hyenas, and running up and down the aisle – all in the name of Jesus. Emotional experiences often imitate, but never duplicate, the powerful realities of being closely associated with the Creator of the universe. I don’t want to overstate my case. I am not against emotional experiences, or feeling God’s Spirit. There are times when God will bring tears to your eyes or a spring to your step, but I am against anything that compromises objective truth.
Example: Here’s a process I have used countless times while helping others discover God’s direction for their lives. It has worked time and time again. Take an issue – career choice, potential mate, parenting decision – document every general principle found in Scripture about the subject – you know, using your brand new NASB Bible? – and pray, asking for God’s guidance. Assess even the tiniest details about your current circumstances and ask, ‘God, is there a point here?’ God often speaks through circumstances, accidents, opportunities, and misfortunes. These things are designed to take you to the next step. God uses everything. Nothing is luck. Next, use some common sense by including the input of other spiritual people besides yourself – say your minister or an objective, mature, Christian friend. The Bible says there is safety in the counsel of others and let’s be honest, if you come up with a plan that no one else buys into – you may be the spiritual problem. Finally, once you arrive at a biblically sound, reasonable resolution that is confirmed by the senses of other spiritual people outside of yourself, sprinkle in a little faith, garnish with expectancy and move forward in confidence . . . See?