Friday, May 19, 2017

How to be (or not to be) women of the Word

So, I made a new best friend...well, kind of. I mean, I totally love her, and she definitely could be my best friend; she's probably one of the coolest people I have ever met. Well, not met per se. I mean, I basically met her - I saw her from afar - and I read her book. So that's kind of like meeting her.

She definitely has no idea who I am, though. 

But you guys, this book will forever change the way that I read the Bible, and if anything could qualify you for best friend status it would be that, right?

My new, one-way bestie is Jen Wilkin. She's a self-described advocate for women to love God with their minds through the faithful study of His Word. And luckily for us she's laid out a pretty awesome way to do that in her book, Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds. 

Honestly, I think this book sat unread on my bookshelf for about a year; then I heard Jen (see how we're on a first-name basis?) speak at The Gospel Coalition Conference. I quickly realized I needed her to teach me all the things, remembered I was using one of her books as a dust-collector, and promptly went home and opened it. 

What I'm writing today are primarily the words of this much wiser woman. They seemed too important to keep to myself. 

Jen starts her book with a description of two impactful realizations she had during her earlier forays into God's Word. She describes these realizations as "turnaround" truths. 

Turnaround 1: The Bible is a book about God. Ok, so this doesn't seem like an earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting truth; most of us would probably say we "know" that the Bible is a book about God. But are we reading it that way? 

Let me ask you, when you open your Bible, are you primarily asking questions like, "Who does the Bible say that I am?" and "What does the Bible say I should do?" That's certainly been true of me. But instead of asking "Who am I?" and "What should I do?" I should be asking, "Who is God?" and "What has He done?" The Bible most definitely answers questions about us, but it does so through the lens of who God is and what He has done. The Bible is first a book about God. 

Turnaround 2: Let the mind transform the heart. It's easy to let our hearts totally guide our time in the Word, rather than letting our knowledge of the comprehensive truth set forth in the Bible guide our feelings and emotions. 

This section of the book holds so much sweet truth and conviction for me that I could literally spend the rest of the post here. But, suffice it to say that I am guilty of going to the Bible, looking for it to make me feel something first. When and if it doesn't, I wonder, "What's wrong with me?" or "Why am I feeling so distant from God?" Could it be that my focus is off? 

For sure the Bible tells us to love God with all of our hearts (Mark 12:30), and that includes our emotions, but as Jen states:

"For some of us, the strength of our faith is guided by how close we feel to God at any given moment - by how a sermon made us feel, by how a worship chorus made us feel, by how our quiet time made us feel. Hidden in this thinking is an honest desire to share a deep relationship with a personal God, but sustaining our emotions can be exhausting and defeating"(29).

So let's not lead with our roller coaster emotions. Instead, let's strive to connect intellectually with our faith, and let our minds be in charge of our hearts. It's not only wise, it's Biblical. Check out any of the following verses to see what the Bible has to say about the relationship between our minds, our hearts and God's Word: 1 Kings 8:48-49; 1 Chronicles 22:19; Isaiah 26:3; 1 Corinthians 14:14-15; Luke 24:44-45; Romans 12:2-3.

Ok, I can already tell this is going to be a long post (I hope you'll stick with me!), so let's do a quick recap: As students of God's Word we should first be engaging the text with questions like, "Who is God?" and "What has He done?" AND we should be letting our minds lead our hearts. Any questions?

With those foundational truths in place, let's talk a minute about Bible literacy. Jen's book is basically one giant case for Bible literacy...but what does that mean? Being Bible literate means I am moving toward an increased knowledge and understanding of the Bible through patient and thoughtful study. Now, as any honor roll student will tell you, the key to excelling in your studies is developing good study habits (and being friends with people who are smarter than you). And as any nail-biter or nose-picker will tell you, you have to break bad habits to make room for the good ones. 

Here is where I really fell in love with this book. Apparently the amount of bad study habits I have picked up over the years is breathtaking (says the high school English teacher). In chapter two, Jen lays out a list of less-than-stellar approaches to studying the Bible, and I'm pretty sure that at some point I have utilized every single one. I'm curious if you can relate.

1) The Xanax Approach: 
"Feel anxious? Philippians 4:6 says be anxious for nothing. 

Feel ugly? Pslam 139 says you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Feel tired? Matthew 11:28 says Jesus will give rest to the weary.

The Xanax approach treats the Bible as if it exists to make us feel better. Whether aided by a devotional book or just the topical index of my Bible, I pronounce my time in the Word successful if I can say, 'Wow, that was really comforting'"(39).

Yeah....I'm definitely guilty of this. So what's the main problem with this approach? First of all, it makes the Bible a book about me, which, as we discussed earlier, is not the case. It asks how the Bible can serve us, rather than how we can serve the God of the Bible. 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with going to the Bible for comfort, and it would be ridiculous to say otherwise. But if we rely on this approach as our primary form of study, we will miss out on significant portions of the Bible that "fail to deliver an immediate dose of emotional satisfaction." (Lamentations anyone?) "A well-rounded approach to Bible study challenges us to navigate all areas of the Bible, even those that make us uncomfortable or that are difficult to understand"(40).

2) The Pinball Approach:
Have you ever opened your Bible on a whim, prayed for the Holy Spirit to speak through any verse you happened to turn to, and then "providentially" received whatever message you felt that passage was delivering? I have. 

That's basically the pinball approach and it's not exactly "best-practice" Bible study, if you know what I mean. 

The problem is, that's not the way the Bible was intended to be read. It "gives no thought to cultural, historical or textual context, authorship, or original intent of the passage in question"(40). This approach makes it nearly impossible to understand Scripture beyond our own immediate context, which is not fully understanding Scripture. 

As students of the Bible, we have to take into consideration "how any given passage fits in the bigger picture of what the Bible has to say, honoring context, authorship, style, and more"(41). That's pretty hard to do on a whim.

3) The Magic 8 Ball Approach:
I think my last couple years of college could best be categorized as a barrage of questions seeking to "find" God's will for my life. What job should I take? Where should I live? Should I marry so-and-so? Grab Bible, give it a shake, open it up, see if "signs point to yes."

The obvious problem here? The Bible is not a Magic 8 Ball. It's main purpose is not to magically answer every question I have. The Bible's main purpose is to teach me who God is, what He has done, and who I am in light of that; and it is significantly more concerned with the condition of my heart than with giving me the answers to every life-decision I need to make. "The Bible is way more concerned with the decision-maker than with the decision itself"(41).

4) The Personal Shopper Approach:
This is the approach Jen attributes to topical Bible studies. I love her description:

"I want to know about being a godly woman or how to deal with self-esteem issues, but I don't know where to find verses about that, so I let (insert famous Bible teacher here) do the legwork for me. She winsomely hand-selects relevant verses from all over the Bible and delivers them to my doorstep to be tried on for size"(42).

Yep, that's me again. 

Listen, topical studies can make great supplemental material to an already healthy and independent  Bible study routine. They can also be a convenient way to see what Scripture as a whole has to say on a given subject (plus, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Beth Moore - she just reminds me of my mom, ya'll). But, if I'm exclusively using topical studies to learn God's Word, I'm never going to develop a sense of ownership of the Scriptures. What I will develop, however, is a fragmented, rather than holistic, knowledge of the Bible.

"A well-rounded approach to Bible study addresses a topic as it arises in Scripture, rather than attaching Scripture to a topic. It asks students to labor at a process"(42). 

Doesn't she sound like an English teacher? <3 And as any good English teacher will tell you, Cliffs Notes may help you quickly understand the main plot line of a story, but in terms of comprehension, retention and application, there is no substitute for working through the book on your own. 

5) The Telephone Game Approach:
While it's no secret that I have dealt with all of these poor study habits at various times in my life, this one....oh this one, is my current struggle. 

Everybody knows how the telephone game works: someone starts with a secret, it gets passed around the circle in whispers and muffled giggles, finally emerging as a barely recognizable rendition of the original phrase. We run the risk of experiencing this same mind-muddling mix-up when we read books about the Bible more than we read the Bible itself.

Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad thing to read the writings of men and women who are much smarter and significantly more well-versed in the Scriptures - that can actually be super helpful and encouraging. But keep in mind, those men and women are probably also drawing from other men and women of the faith for wisdom. In reading a book about the Bible, I may actually be reading what someone says about what someone says about what someone says about the Bible.

Kind of how I'm writing about what Jen wrote about what she thinks about studying the Bible.

The irony is not lost on me.

But it doesn't mean I shouldn't read her book, or that you shouldn't read this blog post. It does mean that if I want to know the Bible, I definitely need to read the Bible - the original source - and see for myself what it says.

As Jen says, "We're called to love the Lord our God with all our mind, not John Piper's mind"(43). While helpful, the wise words of godly men and women are no substitute for Bible study on our own. 

And finally,

6) The Jack Spratt Approach:
"Jack Spratt could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean." I've always thought that was a really weird nursery rhyme, but it makes a great comparison for those of us who can be "picky eaters" when it come to studying the Bible. Here's how Jen describes the Jack Spratt approach:

"'I read the New Testament, but other than Psalms and Proverbs, I avoid the Old Testament; or I read books with characters, plots or topics I can easily identify with.' Women, in particular, seem drawn to this approach (anyone else a little worn out with Esther, Ruth, and Proverbs 31?), but everyone fights this temptation to a certain extent. 

All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. All of it. We need a balanced diet to grow in maturity -- it's time to move on to the rest of the meal. Women need both male and female examples to point us to godliness. We can't fully appreciate the sweetness of the New Testament without the savory of the Old Testament. We need historical narrative, poetry, wisdom literature, law, prophecy, and parables all showing us the character of God from different angles. And we need to see the gospel story from Genesis to Revelation. A well-rounded approach to Bible study challenges us to to learn the full counsel of God's Word. It helps us to build a collective understanding of how the Bible as a whole speaks of God"(44).

That was a crazy long quote, but I literally can't say it any better.

So, did any of those examples resonate with you? If you're like me, you've probably dabbled in each subpar method of study at various points in your life. And, if you're like me, you may have wondered if there wasn't a better way to study the Bible - for example, a way that actually helped you acquire and retain a holistic knowledge of the Scriptures, that changed the way you think about God, yourself, and the world around you.

Jen spends the rest of her book breaking down a healthy, comprehensive method of studying the Bible, and this is really the part that changed my day to day dealings with God's Word. It's the largest and most significant portion of the book, so I won't even attempt to summarize it here; but I will say, if you find yourself stuck in a Bible-reading rut, or unable to kick a bad habit, I recommend that you check out this book, find a friend and get to work studying God's Word together.

Like any good habit, this process is developed over time. John and I started with the tiny book of Titus, and we are still working our way through it a couple months later. It takes practice and patience, but I cannot think of a more worthy way to spend our time. Bible literacy is not only a way to know and foster a deeper love for God, it also protects us from false teachings and cultural hijackings of God's truth.

I know I've quoted Jen Wilkin here way more than I've presented my own original thoughts, but her's is a message worth relaying. And her book goes so much deeper and explains significantly more than what I was able to do in this post. I pray that, as women, we understand the importance of having a strong, working knowledge of the Word of God - that we hunger and thirst for it.

"Home, church, community, and country desperately need the influence of women who know why they believe what they believe, grounded in the Word of God. They desperately need the influence of women who love deeply and actively the God proclaimed in the Bible"(46).

Let's be women of the Word.