“ryan, i feel like a bad christian when…” two university students used that phrase with me within the same week last spring. both confessing christians in berkeley, each confessed to me that their actions make them feel less than christian, somehow.
i was so struck by this language: ‘bad’ christian. who is shaping our image of a ‘good’ christian? i wondered. who’s telling us what it looks like to be a ‘bad’ christian? are either valid?
i’m exploring this question with our community in berkeley this fall. the following words are the response i shared with our community after hearing from a student who told me they felt like a bad christian when they don’t read the bible—shared here at a friend’s request.
• • •
so i want tonight to feel especially conversational. rather than telling you why you should read the bible, i want to share with you how some people i respect very deeply replied to this question, why do you read scripture? and then i want to share with you a few reasons why i do.
my hope is that you’ll hear your own reasons in some of these responses. i also hope you’ll be introduced to some new reasons.
why do you read scripture? polling friends
i want to be more like Jesus
doug is a dear friend and a mentor, a couple decades ahead of me in life. he is a stanford grad—don’t hold it against him—and he served in my position years before i got here. he’s now pastoring a church in washington state.
doug’s a sharp guy, well read, but he’s also as approachable as anyone i know. in many ways, he’s the kind of person i would like to be. so i was curious to know, when he doesn’t have to, why he reads scripture.
“i read the bible for the same reason you read c. s. lewis,” doug told me over the phone. “for the same reason i read most things—because i love a good story. and because the bible is, before anything else, a good story.
“a good story that claims itself to be true,” i added. “that it actually happened once.”
“right,” he said.
“i also read the bible because it is a way of hearing from God. it’s not the only way, but it’s a way that people across time, across cultures, and across great distances have found to be a reliable way of hearing from God.”
taking the spotlight off himself for a moment, doug went on to tell me about a friend we have in common, penny.
“if you’d ask her, she’d tell you she reads scripture at the start of the day because it points her to true north. it’s orienting, in a dis-orienting world.”
before we wrapped up our phone call, doug had one more thing to say.
“but mostly, ryan, i read the bible because I want to be more like Jesus. and because Jesus was saturated in Scripture.”
it provokes me
i also reached out to my friend susan. some of you know susan. she has a phd in sociology from cal, she is a professor and a spiritual director. she has joined us here as a guest speaker before.
susan has a great sense of humor, very dry—the best kind. she is one of the wisest people i know. but, most important to me, she has one of the most peaceful presences of anyone i have ever met.
she radiates God’s presence in a way that i hope to catch by spending time with her, in a way that i want others to feel in me, in a contagious way.
so i asked susan the same question: not why should you read the bible, but why she chooses to.
“for me,” she said, “these days reading scripture is mostly a matter of prayer.”
“it helps me pray without the kind of repetitive self-concern that can overtake me. it brings me deep into what matters most to me, but by connecting me with the communion of saints throughout history and around the world who have prayed with the same words.”
i told you she’s wise.
‘I’m also challenged by scripture,” she continued. “and made to think that God is more than the God I conjure up in my mind (who mostly sees things the way I see them!).”
i appreciate this point most. it reminded me of a favorite quote by a favorite writer of mine from just across the bay in marin, anne lamott:
“you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
“so i feel accompanied,” susan told me. “i feel comforted, and also provoked by praying with scripture each day.”
i like that word, “provoked.” it reminds me of when the author of the letter to the hebrews writes:
“let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds” (hebrews 10:24).
susan went on to point out that she reads with a lectionary.
“i let a lectionary pick the passages, which also makes the experience less self-driven and more communal.”
it changes how i think and interact with the world
my friend michael is a biblical studies professor, but he seemed, of all i asked, most reluctant to answer.
“i have to confess,” he began. “i don’t always enjoy reading the bible.”
“i was raised to think good christians read the bible, which has often led me to feel like a bad christian.”
“i am still shocked that this is what i ended up doing.”
before sharing why he reads scripture, michael shared with me several common reasons people read scripture that he’s come across, which he feels are deeply unhealthy.
“in the same way that only going to the gym when i discover i am five pounds overweight is unhealthy, so is reading the bible because you’ve done something wrong.”
“also, reading the bible can become a sort of one-upsmanship, which is deeply unhealthy!”
after confessing that he doesn’t read the bible every day, and after i had assured him that this didn’t exclude him from the conversation, michael went on to tell me a little bit more about his relationship with scripture…
“i don’t read the bible all day, or even everyday, but because the bible has so shaped the way i think, when i encounter the world, i’m encountering it through the story of the bible.”
“the bible is not primarily a set of solutions,” he went on to say, “but a set of questions that we don’t often ask on our own. until you’ve found yourself wrestling with the kind of questions you can’t wrap your mind around—beyond just the afterlife—you probably haven’t come to terms with what the bible is.”
“and it’s not that i have to make the bible relevant,” he clarified. “when the world is threatening to blow itself up, when people are starving and being discarded, when foreigners are being mistreated, the world reveals the bible’s relevance.”
“ultimately, michael said at the end of our conversation, “the bible changes how i think and interact with the world.”
• • •
there are other reasons people read the bible, of course.
some come to scripture purely for historical reasons: to learn more about an ancient culture and its way of life.
some read the bible for literary analysis. others for anthropological and sociological reasons.
still others read the bible primarily as a resource for morality and right living.
these are all reasons people open the bible, but i think my friends’ reasons were especially helpful.
i want to wrap up by sharing a few reasons why i read the bible—not why i think i should, but why i actually do.
3 reasons why i read scripture
i. to feel less alone
my friend doug was right, in a way: i read the bible for the same reason i read other books. but not, as he thought, for the same reason i read c. s. lewis.
my favorite genre to read is christian memoir. i like reading how other christians experience and think about the world. i want to know how it feels for them to move around the world.
when i read the best memoirists (in my opinion: frederick buechner, lauren winner, anne lamott), i feel less alone.
and that’s the same reason I read scripture.
which is, by the way, the same reason i received from a friend, luke, who serves as dean of duke university chapel:
“to listen for a word from another world.
to learn about my humanity and God’s divinity.
to know that i am not alone.”
when i read scripture, i find people who are just like me.
like adam, i need God to remind me that it’s not good for me to always be alone. left to my own devices, i’d spend most of my time on my own, getting lost in my own thoughts. but like adam, God reminds me that i was created for relationships, for community.
like moses, i often feel completely inadequate for what i believe God is calling me to say or do.
“i think you’ve got the wrong guy,” i often want to tell God, echoing moses. “have you tried anyone else? i can give you a list of at least 10 people with more charisma than me…”
like the community of ancient israel, time after time i turn my back on the same God who has committed Himself to me.
like the woman who encounters Jesus at the well in the fourth chapter of john’s gospel, i find myself so ashamed by some of my choices, some of my actions, that i go out of my way to avoid others… there are days when i don’t want to catch the eyes of my own reflection in the mirror, let alone others—and in her story, i realize i’m not alone.
like the crippled man lying by the pool of bethesda in the fifth chapter of john’s gospel, those waters of rumored healing powers, i, too, find myself approached by the One who asks, “do you want to be well, ryan? really?…”
in scripture, i see myself as the religious type who completely misses the point. the one who passes by on the opposite side of the road of those in need, out of concern at times for my own safety. or, on other occasions, merely to avoid an inconvenience or the pains of a guilty conscience.
like paul in his letter to those early christians in rome, too often i find myself saying, “i don’t understand what I do. for what I want to do i do not do, but what i hate i do” (romans 7:15).
i find that’s one of the truest lines that has ever been written, in scripture or anywhere else.
when i read scripture—these and others—i find i’m not so alone as i often feel.
it’s also in scripture that I find my loved ones. there’s a story in mark’s gospel, which we studied together in small groups last year, about Jesus encountering a man in a cemetery. which is, of course, precisely the kind of place Jesus shouldn’t be, if he were a “good” jew.
this man is described as out of his mind, as hearing voices, as self-destructive. in most translations, we’re told that this man used rocks to bruise himself. a more accurate read of the account is that he used rocks to cut himself.
maybe like me, you, too, have loved people who have suffered in such ways that they have turned to the sharpest things they could get their hands on to try and find relief.
they’re not alone.
in now and then, one of his memoirs, frederick buechner writes:
“until you can read the story of Adam and Eve, of Abraham and Sarah, of David and Bathsheba, as your own story…you have not really understood it.
the Bible…is a book finally about ourselves, our own apostasies, our own battles and blessings.”
the bible is a story about our story. it’s not just about people back then, but about us, today, here. it’s a story of our own battles, as well as our own blessings, buechner points out.
and that’s another reason I read scripture: to be reminded of the good that God promises.
ii. a recipient of God’s promises
in scripture, it’s not just that I see myself as the religious type who is more concerned about himself than the oppressed, the one who is too self-conscious to think God could actually use me, or the one who turns away from the very God who is actively pursuing him.
in scripture, i see myself how i wouldn’t otherwise: as God’s beloved, who God continues to pursue even as i look everywhere but toward God for help.
it’s in scripture that i realize I’m not only the religious one crossing on the opposite side of the road, i’m also the man in the ditch, bloodied and bruised, who Jesus draws near to help—at great risk to Himself.
in the bible, i read that the one who was lost to his own choices is not lost in the end, but found.
i’m reminded in scripture that God uses me not in spite of my weaknesses, but precisely because of them—so that others can know that it’s God who’s working through me.
“This is, I believe, why we call the Bible God’s ‘living’ word,” barbara brown taylor writes.
“When I recognize my life in its pages—when I am convinced that this story is my story—then I am lifted out of my own time and space and set free, liberated by the knowledge that my oddly shaped piece of life is not a fluke but fits into a much larger and more reliable puzzle.”
“In other words, I am not an orphan. I have a community, a history, a future, a God” (the preaching life).
iii. scripture transforms me
which brings me to the final reason i read scripture. in seeing myself in scripture, as scripture sees me, the bible actually begins to transform me.
it moves me from a posture of self-enclosed interests toward others who i would not otherwise care for.
it turns me from an almost constant, relentless posture of desperation to genuine hope.
at some point, the bible became for me not just a set of stories to be read and memorized, but a narrative of hope to be performed—to borrow a phrase from my new testament professor, kavin rowe.
“you are the beloved,” scripture reminds me. “you are the beloved, ryan.”
even when you don’t feel like it. even when you struggle to believe it. and here’s what it looks like to live like it.
scripture doesn’t merely want to tell us that God exists, or that heaven exists—and that we should really, really want to go there.
scripture wants to shape us into a certain way of life, to transform us into citizens of God’s in-breaking Kingdom, where we live as one people, under one King, and where our life together begins to take on a certain shape: the shape of the One we call the Christ.
in scripture, i find a story that I want to be true, shaping me into its truth, and inviting me to help make it a reality.
• • •
so to all of those who feel like they’re not a “good” christian if they don’t read their bible, i want to encourage you to stop it. cut it out.
if you look at reading the bible as one more thing to do, you will feel guilty if you don’t, and you will be reading it for the wrong reason if you do.
it’s not that i think those who claim to follow Christ and don’t read their bible are “bad” christians. i see it more as counterproductive. it’s a bit like putting a plant in the closet, shutting the door, and hoping it grows.
we need God’s word to shine in our present darkness, and it’s hard—not impossible, but hard—when our bibles remain shut and hidden away.
let’s open up the door and let some light in, friends.
the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (john 1:5).