It’s no secret that the Bible has some difficult passages in it. This should be expected since it was written thousands of years ago. Some of these difficulties arise because of cultural differences, others because we simply don’t read the Bible enough. There are passages, however, that are difficult for us to understand because they don’t seem to fit with who we understand God to be (loving, merciful, gracious, etc.)
With the first two - cultural differences and unfamiliarity with the Bible - there are easy solutions. You could purchase a good study Bible or commentary, and you can start reading the Bible more. By reading the interpretations of those who've studied the scriptures intensely and making yourself more and more familiar with the whole of the Bible, these two difficulties begin to fade.
It’s the other category, though, which offends our modern sensibilities. These morally difficult passages can leave us frustrated and even disappointed after reading. Many times, we simply ignore those texts - or we breeze through them - so we don’t have to worry about why they’re in the Bible, what they mean, or why God - our loving, merciful, gracious God - would do that.
Aside from studying apologetics (defending your faith) for the rest of your life - which is a worthwhile pursuit - what can we do with these texts?
In his word, God tells us,
This particular verse is essential in our dealings with a problematic biblical passage. Solomon, here, isn't only writing about understanding the Bible, but about leaning on God in every area of our life. This should be our approach to understanding the Bible.
Another passage that we'd do well to remember is,
So, we need to remember to lean on God for our understanding and also remember that his ways are always higher than ours.
Over the years, I've realized that in studying and attempting to understand difficult passages, I've used a formula. This formula centers around God's wisdom and goodness instead of our own. It is not a perfect method in interpreting tough passages, but it has been helpful in clearing them up.
It's quite simple:
Pray, reread, pray, seek, and know.
I believe that if we put this formula into practice for all texts, let alone the difficult ones, our understanding of the Bible - and God - will grow deeper.
Let's walk through the steps together.
It is - as with any biblical text - so important that our minds are set on the Spirit of God and knowing him more. Though we can gain knowledge of God through simply reading his word, if it is intimacy with him we desire, we must do more than read. His word should be to us as sweet as honey (Psalm 119:103), which is why prayer is an essential part of your daily Bible reading. When we come across a problematic passage we can't understand, our first step should not be to use a study bible or commentary; instead, it should be to approach the Author: God. This prayer can be simple and straightforward, like,
God, please help me with this text. I don't understand it, and I need your spirit for understanding.
Or, it can be longer and more drawn-out. The point isn't, necessarily, the length or even the words used, but instead, the heart behind the prayer.
After you pray about the text, you should reread it in a more careful, slow manner. Let each word on the page speak to you. There's no real secret to this step; it is merely a more careful read of the passage. Reading the texts surrounding and similar to it is also helpful.
If the text is still too complicated - in that it still makes you uncomfortable - ask God for answers.
Why would you do/command this, God? Isn't this against who you are? Don't you tell us not to...? I don't understand, God. Help me understand.
This prayer, in my experience, can be anywhere from 20 seconds to several minutes. The point, again, isn't the length, but the sincerity in your seeking God's wisdom and clarity.
After having prayed for clarity, rereading the passage, and praying for answers, you should seek out what others have said on the topic. Of course, this shouldn't be what anyone has said on the issue. It's important that those whose knowledge you seek understand the Bible and know how to interpret it. This is not to say that the individual in question must have a graduate degree in some biblical field before you trust their thoughts on the Bible (though that is typically preferred). Instead, you should know the person's background, if they're trustworthy if they hold to orthodox Christian theology, etc. It's also important to note that we seek trusted and informed opinions on scripture not so that we instantly accept their viewpoint as truth, but when it is one of a few (or many) trusted opinions that generally agree about what the text is saying. Another danger here is when we look to the same voice over and over and trust whatever he or she says. If we allow only one person to speak into our lives, we run the risk of missing out on varying perspectives and potentially, the correct interpretation of the text (even the most trusted biblical scholars can err in their thinking).
Finally - and this is one of the more critical steps - we need to know that God is not a god we could've dreamed up. We can't expect him to act the way we would have in a given circumstance. After all, his thoughts are always greater than ours. So, when you come across a text that is especially difficult to understand, know that God is the perfect moral being and that we can trust that whatever he does is perfect morally. Imagine, for instance, that you were in place of God. The movie Bruce Almighty, though not wholly accurate theologically, illustrates the absurdity of God acting as we would in any circumstance. The main character, Bruce, is given the opportunity to "play God" for his city. He does what he would do, and complete chaos eventually breaks out. You don't have to watch the movie to know this: we would make awful gods. Not only would we poorly play the part of God, but if we could, the god of our creation would be a pretty horrendous god. Instead, our God is morally perfect, infinitely wise, amazingly loving, and perfectly just.
I believe that if we utilize these steps in our reading, we can find clarity in difficult passages, and even clarity in our knowledge of God. The more we understand the character of God, the more we know him, and the more joy we will experience. We must remember that God's ways are higher than our ways and that we have to lean on him for understanding.
If you would like a small printout of these steps to slip into your Bible, click the button below.
Do you have a different way in which you approach complicated biblical texts? Let us know in the comments below!