Over the years, all kinds of issues have crept up in my life, issues which seemed to have a clear right and wrong answer, or which clearly did not have a right or wrong answer and were simply a matter of preference.
When I was younger, I navigated these by what I had learned from parents: lying — wrong. Hitting, stealing, cheating — wrong, wrong, wong. Smoking, drinking, swearing — right, right, right. But only for adults.
As I matured, the issues I faced became more subtle. Talking about someone behind her back–wrong, but everyone did it. Keeping my word–right, but hard when something better came along. Kissing boys Mdefinitely good. Divorce–wrong, I think. But what about my parents’ divorce? The older I got, the more I relied on what I knew from observation or what I had learned from friends. My beliefs about the issues I confronted each day became wobbly. Almost everyday, I saw them contradicted in the lives of friends, family members, and even myself.
When I became a Christian, I started getting a new source of information about not only what to believe in, but what to believe about these issues. And more than ever, what I saw happening around me and what I now believed to be true stood in stark contrast.
Thankfully, from very early on in my life as a Christian, I had pastors, youth group leaders, and mentors who instilled in me a deep love and high view of the Bible. With some basic information about the Holy Scriptures, what I believe to be the inspired, infallible, authoritative word of God, I was able to begin a biblical inquiry into the issues that flummoxed me.
Of course my first forays into biblical study were limited by how little I knew in about the history of the church and Christianity or even about life in general. I had encountered such a small subset of all the kinds of people who are in the world. I knew “church” to be just one thing. And for the matter, I understood “Christian” as just one thing, too. With knowledge comes more knowledge. Not that truth changed, or even exactly what I believed changed. But as I read books and listened to sermons and encountered life and met more people whose core beliefs matched mine … or didn’t … yet still called themselves Christians, I had more tools to work with as I brought my whole self to scripture.
At the same time, from very early on I understood the dynamic, living nature of Scripture and the Holy Spirit’s role in helping me understand. I could read and learn and grow on my own right from the very beginning, even if only with baby steps. This same belief that God brings his truth to bear on our lives differently as our circumstances change continues to shape what I believe and how I form those beliefs even now. As I read scripture each day, suddenly I’m struck anew with some truth of the Gospel or God’s plan of redemption, as if I’d never read that passage before, even though I’m sure I have. When revisit passages I have memorized and reread them in their larger context or seek out verses on certain issues I’m wrestling with or speaking on, I’m astonished by a word or a phrase that I had never noticed.
A few weeks ago, I spoke at a women’s retreat about spiritual friendship. When I typed the word “friend” into a Bible search app, I couldn’t believe how often a phrase, “dear friends,” was written by the Apostles, and how the verses where those words were written contained some of the best counsel on how to develop meaningful friendships. Some of these are favorite verses of mines, ones I’ve read over and over during my life. But when I saw all of these verses in aggregate, their meaning took on a new richness and gave me a new understanding.
We’ve been talking about changing lives and changing faith, which often means a change in what we believe about the issues we’re facing, even if not a change in what we believe in. For some of us, issues we’ve had the luxury of having no belief about … or beliefs which we’ve formulated quickly or loosely … suddenly confront us head on. In a recent interview with Krista Tippett of On Being, author, professor, and editor Junot Diaz says, “One always returns to that Lenin formulation that there are contradictions in society, and the same contradiction for some people is not antagonistic, and for others, it’s antagonistic.” So we could even say that when our contradictions suddenly become antagonistic to us, we have a source we can go to to help us find our way. We can make a biblical inquiry.
I like the word “inquiry” here much more than “study” or “reading” because the latter two imply the kind of passive work we do when we allow scripture to wash over us on a daily or at least regular basis. We come to it as an open vessel, waiting to be filled. But an inquiry implies so much more of an active role. Using the words from Merriam Webster’s definitions, in an inquiry we examine, research, request, and investigate. We go to the Bible looking for something, and whether the information is straightforward or not (I’ve actually stopped saying “the Bible clearly says” because I’ve learned how very often things are not clear in Scripture), we can come away with information, principles, wisdom, and sometimes even facts that the Holy Spirit can use to help shape our beliefs.
I think it’s also helpful to understand that there’s not a single way to come to Scripture to make an inquiry. In his book All Roads Lead to the Text, Dean Deppe, recently retired Professor of New Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary, suggests eight methods of biblical inquiry that Bible scholars use in their study. I’ve listed them below in the order which I feel are most accessible to the everyday reader of scripture.
- The use of spiritual disciplines to apply a text in practical ways to contemporary life
- Analysis of a text’s surrounding context
- Investigation of historical and cultural background
- Literary study of genre and style
- Detailed grammatical study of words, phrases, and clauses
- Structural analysis of entire passages
- Exploration into the history of interpretation
- Theological exegesis of themes and content
Whatever issues you are confronting in this new season of life, whether you are struggling to believe what you always have or just need a reminder of why you believe the way you do, a biblical inquiry will reacquaint you with the heart and mind of God on the issues that are so pressing to you. Run to him in his word, and listen to his voice.