Let the Bible shape you
Isaiah 55:1-11, John 5:36b-end
Who or what is the greatest influence on your life?
Who or what has most shaped the way you live or the way you make decisions?
Your parents, an individual, a group you belonged to? The culture around you at a particular time of your life? A thinker or book that shaped the way you see the world?
Who or what has most shaped your life?
We’ve talked a lot recently about ‘going deeper’ - so what is it that has shaped the deep down places in your life?
Because we are all shaped at a deep level by these kinds of influences. And these influences have a massive impact on our lives. Psychologists have learnt a lot in recent years about how we make decisions. And they suggest that we make more intuitive, instinctive decisions than we do rational, logical ones. We can make the rational kind of decisions; the ones where we deliberately think an issue or question through, - and when we really let our brain focus in that way, it is incredibly powerful - but it’s hard work, and that part of our brain can only really do one thing at a time, and so we don’t use it all that often. Instead, we rely on our intuitive brain for most of our decisions.
And our intuitive brain makes intuitive decisions - it makes decisions that we don’t think about and, much of the time, aren’t really aware of. And our intuitive brain makes all sorts of decisions - including really big ones; the kind that have a major impact on us and those around us.
So the influences on this intuitive brain - this deep brain - really matter. It’s this part of us that runs much of our life. And there are times of life - particularly when we are very young and as older teenagers, when our brains are particularly malleable, and are therefore open to being changed and shaped. Which is why, for many of us, the answer to ‘who or what has influenced you most’, will either be your parents and family - i.e. those who were most important when you were very small, or someone, or a group, or an idea, that was important to you as a teenager or young adult - when the way you see the world was particularly being shaped and moulded.
Those most important influences on our lives, to a large extent, shape the way our intuitive brain works, and it’s that part of our brain that determines of we interact with the world. So our influences really, really matter.
The good news for anyone over 25 is that our brains can still change. The bad news for anyone over 25 is that it’s likely to be hard work.
And that means, if we want to influence the way that we do the instinctive thinking stuff, we need to use our ability to think deeply. We need to engage our rational brain to shape our intuitive brain - which is what runs much of our life.
So, today is Bible Sunday, when we give particular thanks for God’s great gift of Scripture, and the question I want to ask next is - what place does the bible play in those great influences on your life? Where does the bible come in the list of things that have influenced you?
Because, as Christians, it should be on the list.
The bible is the great story of God’s interaction with His people. The Anglican church teaches that it contains ‘everything necessary for salvation’. Within it, says Isaiah, are the words that accomplish God’s own purposes. The gospel we just heard tells us that it points inexorably and consistently, to Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.
We cannot truly know God without the Scriptures; we cannot truly know how to live well without the Scriptures; we cannot go deep without the Scriptures.
Tom Wright is one of the most important theologians of our time and was previously Bishop of Durham. He has a great metaphor for the bible. He says the bible is like a 5-Act play. The first Act is Creation, the second is the Fall, the third act is told in the history of Israel, the fourth covers the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the fifth is the history of the church, starting with the book of Acts. But, Wright says, it’s as if the author of this great 5-Act play stopped writing half way through the final Act. And it’s as if we - all those of us who are followers of Jesus - are actors, and we’ve been given this ‘not quite finished’ 5-Act play and told to improvise the next part; the unwritten part. Our job is to get to know the story told in the four and a half acts that have been written, so that we can improvise the next part in a way that is faithful to what has gone before and which brings it to life today.
We should, says Wright, see the Bible as a script that we need to learn, not parrot fashion so we can try to live in the 2nd century BC, but so we can act out the next part of the story today.
So, going back to the things that have influenced us, the bible should be on the list. The bible is given to shape the way that we live in the world.
Now if that’s the case, if we want to let the bible shape the way we live in the world, then we are going to need to let our rational, thinking brain, do some hard work, so that our deep down, intuitive brain can be shaped and changed, so that the decisions we make - all those intuitive, instinctive decisions - are genuinely shaped by the bible.
How do we do that?
Here is a very practical suggestion. It might be called ‘deep reading’.
We have a thousand things to do every day, and we live in a distracted and distracting world. It is very easy for bible reading to be just one thing among many - perhaps not to bother at all, or perhaps to skim a verse of two over our cereal and to tick that off the list.
And of course, there’s a place for that - it’s like a quick bible snack to keep us going. But we can’t live on snacks alone, we also need a proper meal. And that means reading deeply.
Here’s a way to do that. First, make some time - 15 minutes minimum, 30 minutes or more are better. It doesn’t need to be every day - once a week is fine - but it must be a decent block of time and it needs to be undistracted. Door closed, phone away, kids busy elsewhere.
Second, pray; ask God - using whatever words you want - to show himself to you through the words of life that you are about to read.
Third, take a verse or passage of the bible. And it’s good to do this in a consistent way, so pick a book and work your way through it. If you’re not sure where to start, try Mark’s gospel or the Psalms.
Fourth, read the passage, and as you do so, ask yourself three questions:
What does it say?
What does it mean?
What must I do as a result?
To answer those, you are going to have to really read it. Slowly, repeatedly, deeply.
What does it actually say? Pay attention to the passage - not what you think it says, not what bits of it say - but what it really says. Read it carefully and deeply. What does it actually say?
What does it really mean? Tease out the writer’s chain of thought. Perhaps try to summarise it in your own words. It can help to capture the meaning in a single sentence. Notice the words that are repeated. See how the writer begins and ends. Check if there are words that you’ve come across before in your reading. And if you’ve got questions, note them down somewhere and find an answer later on. What does it really mean?
And then, what must I do? Is there anything that this tells me about how I need to live my life, or about a decision that I need to make, or about the way the world works? Are there things I agree with? Are there things that challenge me? What will I do about that challenge? Is there anything I need to learn more about, or discuss with someone, or pray with? Remember, the point of Scripture is that we want it to shape our lives on a day to day basis - we want it to shape the way we make decisions, and especially those deep down intuitive decisions. So, what must I do as a result of what I have read?
And then, as you finish, give it all back to God, thanking him for the gift of his Word and asking him to continue changing and shaping you at the deepest level.
And then you’re done.
It’s not easy to find the time. It’s not easy to stay focused. But it’s what life is really about. It’s how we get to the deep down places. It’s how we let God shape us and change us. It’s how we let Scripture become a genuine influence on our life.
What or who has most shaped your life?
What is your experience of reading the bible? What do you enjoy most? What do you struggle with most
What helps you to read the bible deeply?
Do you have an experience of a way in which the bible has shaped your life?
Could you imagine reading the bible in the way suggested using the pattern; What does it say? What does it mean? What must you do as a result?