There’s an old story about a sincere Christian who wanted to be sure he was doing the Lord’s will. He asked God to guide him through his Word, the Bible. He prayed, “Lord, lead me to the right verse.” Then he shut his eyes, opened his Bible randomly and pointed his finger to a spot on the page. He thought that when he opened his eyes, he would have a clear message from God. He lifted his finger and read what was beneath it, from Matthew 27:5, “Judas hanged himself.” Something must have gone wrong. He quickly closed the Bible and tried again. This time his finger rested on Luke 10:37, specifically on the words, “Go and do likewise.” Now he was really shaken. One more try; he read from John 13:27, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” At that point, he decided to look for another way of discovering God’s will for him.

On the surface, his approached seemed sound: open-minded, no presuppositions. He wanted to let the Lord speak to him directly from the Bible. Turns out, that’s not the way to read the Bible. Here are some approaches to Bible-reading that I don’t recommend.

(1) Don’t read the Bible Superficially. As a story book; half-heartedly, casually, flippantly.

(2) Don’t read the Bible Egocentrically. As if it’s all about you; stretching teachings to fit your life experiences.

(3) Don’t read the Bible Selectively. Emphasizing only teachings that support your views, your politics, your denomination.

(4) Don’t read the Bible Manipulatively. As a way of controlling others; maybe even as a weapon.

(5) Don’t use the Bible Superstitiously. As if its words are a magic formula or incantation.

(6) Don’t use the Bible Literally. Especially in areas that are meant symbolically or poetically.

(7) Don’t use the Bible Legalistically. As a list of do’s and don’ts that is your absolute guide in day-to-day decisions.

(8) Don’t use the Bible Authoritatively. “Thus says the Lord!” Without room to discuss its meaning and applicability in given life situations.

(9) Don’t use the Bible Privately. As if you should be able to understand it without help. Take advantage of commentaries, blogs, devotional guides.

(10) Don’t use the Bible Only. Don’t expect the Bible to answer all of life’s questions: e.g. medical, psychological, legal, cultural.

When you take the time to understand how the Bible originated and the nearly 2,000 years of struggle to preserve it and apply its message to all sorts of real-life situations, you’ll experience God speaking to you through its words and pages. But if you let preachers, teachers and popular Christian books (combined with your own laziness) mislead you into following any of the ten patterns of misuse mentioned above, you’ll get into their habits of following shortcuts to understanding. You’ll end up with a caricature of Christianity somewhat like the first guy’s “Judas-hanged-himself-Go-and-do-likewise-and-Do-it-quickly” kind of gospel.

— Pastor George Van Alstine

Footnote:  If my meaning in any of the listed areas of misuse of the Bible is unclear to you, please call or email me. I’d be happy to discuss them further.