In my pastoral ministry work, one of the biggest problems I deal with is individuals who have had the Bible used in a way that hurt them.
One young man my wife and I have come to know will not step foot in a church right now because of how a pastor, claiming to speak for God, used the Bible to condemn him at a difficult point in his life, because of his sexual identity. When life had dropped out from underneath and he had no supports, he turned to the church to find help and support and was told it was all his fault and God had no place for the likes of him, the pastor picking out Bible verses the whole time.
Have you ever seen anyone misuse the Bible in a way that hurt others? Often times when this happens, many people go along with the people that do it. This is not the Bible’s purpose. Jesus tells us, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. ” (John 10:10) and that “the Scriptures … testify about me” (John 5:39). So if someone is using the Bible in a way that robs others of life, that brings destruction in their life, and turns them away from Jesus like the examples above, more than likely they are misusing the Holy Scriptures.
Many people fail to realize that the Bible is a tool and like any tool has both good and bad uses. Sometime look over the tools in your everyday life, say around your house or around your workplace, and ask yourself “what are they for?” and “what would happen if they were misused”?
Let’s take for instance the tools of a hairbrush, a hammer, a shovel, and a spoon. Each of these are wonderful when used for what they were intended. The hammer drives nails like nobody’s business – how could you put together a wood frame without it. The hairbrush can fix your bad hair day more often than not. But a lot of pain can come if you misuse them. If you try to get a hammer to, say, do what a hairbrush is supposed to do, you may get a concussion along the process. You can use a plastic spoon as a shovel… but the 10-minute hole digging in the front yard may take all day.
The Bible likewise is also a tool. Usually when someone causes hurt or oppression with the Bible they are mis-using it. This is called “Bible abuse.” The best way to guard yourself against being its victim is to learn how to read the Bible for yourselves.
Since I want you all to be able to do this and to use the Bible to develop a relationship with God for yourselves, I think that the best place to start with our Bible studies is by discussing how to use the tool of the Bible. That way, you can decide for yourselves what to believe and can begin connect to God personally, without needing me or someone else other than the Lord as a go-between.
Like all tools, the Bible has a purpose. The best place to start learning to use the Bible is to look at the Bible’s purpose. The Scripture provides a purpose statement in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (New International Reader’s Version) Notice what it says: “16 God has breathed life into all of Scripture. It is useful for teaching us what is true. It is useful for correcting our mistakes. It is useful for making our lives whole again. It is useful for training us to do what is right. 17 By using Scripture, a man of God can be completely prepared to do every good thing.”
What makes Scripture different than other books? A number of things.
By promising that God breathed a part of His life into it, God promises that in the Bible’s pages we are given an opportunity to experience God personally for ourselves. The Bible is not just human words, though it includes those. It is a place God has poured Himself into, a record of God speaking to and acting among people like you and me. The main purpose of the Bible is to help each of us experience God, to learn how to experience God, hear from God, and do as God wills for us. It does this in part through explaining how to connect with God and find God in our lives and world. But since God’s very life is in it, you can’t read it without brushing up against God in some way, any more than you can step in a river without getting wet.
Before we discuss what the Bible says its purpose is, let’s focus on what it does not say about itself. This is where many Christians often get off track and begin to misuse the Bible.
The Bible here does not say it is going to answer all of our questions about every topic. For instance it does not say anything about the Bible answering questions about science or history. There may be parts with some good science and history in it (and there are), but its purpose statement doesn’t promise it will settle those types of question. It does not promise to settle the debate about evolution, the age of the earth. It does not promise to give us detailed history. If someone is using it for their purpose, they are misusing it – using it for their own purpose, not the purpose it gave. It also does not promise to give us specific answers telling us directly what to do with every situation in life. That is why using it to create a “list of rules” that are always applicable is often a misuse of Scripture.
What does God say the Bible can do for us then?
Well, since God has breathed God’s life into it, through using it we can come to experience God for ourselves. Like I said, if you dip into its pages with an open heart God will touch you whether you realize it or not, just like if you dip in the ocean you will get wet. Also God tells us it can teach us the truths we need to live our lives right. It can show us how to correct the mistakes we have made in our life’s direction. It can show us how to make our lives whole again when we are spiritually shattered. We are told it prepares us to do every good thing, in other words to do the things we need to do to be in a right relationship with God, with each other, and to find out God’s individual plan for our life.
The Bible does not directly answer every individual question we have. It isn’t a rule-book telling what to do in every situation. It will not tell you for instance who you should marry by name or list the name of what school to attend or job to take. We would each need a different Bible for each person if that is what the Bible was meant to do. What the Bible does is lay down general principles all of us can use to determine these answers for ourselves. It shows us what to do and where to turn to find the answers we are looking for. So the Bible outlines for us what a good spouse would be like and how we can go about finding one, as well as how to determine whether God has put marriage in our plan. The Bible shows us principles that will help us get in touch with God so God can personally guide us into discovering what God’s plan for us is and whether that includes a particular school or job or not. This is what is meant by God saying that the Scripture gets the man or woman of God ready for every good work God has planned for us. Scripture will not tell you every step you have to take but instead it shows you how to begin the journey, to develop a relationship with God. And in that relationship God shows you the plan He has for you which He alone can reveal to you.
Some people have called the Bible “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” I like to think of it as “Basic Instructions for Living on Earth.” Yes, knowing you will die well is a good thing. As a pastor I have seen people die – and there is a big difference in someone who dies knowing that they are ready to go and be with God and one who dies uncertain of that. But Christ, who Scripture testifies to, came to give us a full and meaningful life now, before we die, which continues on when we go to be with God in glory after this life. The Bible it is sort of a manual for how to live out your life so that you are close to God and living out the purpose God made for your life now, so that when you die you not only know you will be with God in heaven but also will know your life here and now on earth was well-spent.
Now that we have defined the purpose of the Bible, next time we will be looking at how to use it for yourself.
Rev. Micah Royal serves as Pastor of Life’s Journey UCC in Burlington, N.C. Having earned his Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling from Campbell Divinity School, he has served in ordained ministry in various contexts throughout the Carolinas and southern California, including on the board of the Eastern NC Association of the United Church of Christ.