John Calvin, Obedience, Knowledge of God

How to Read the Bible without Dealing with God

If you want to live well and to share wisdom with your children and your neighbors about how they can also live well, the Bible will chart a sound course.

If you are looking for inspiration or comfort or if you are preparing a speech, you will certainly want to lift some of the soaring phrases from the Psalms or a stirring descriptive passage from Isaiah to adorn your thinking.

If you are curious about the future or have strong ideas about politics, you’ll find gasoline-words in the Bible to support your position and to throw on any conversation to keep the flames dancing high.

It’s clear that we can add the Bible to our rhetorical tool-belt and never once be singed by its fiery truth. However, this is not the reason the Word has been given, and in Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, Eugene Peterson has written a practical guide for those who want to approach Scripture in the manner suggested to the Apostle John in his Revelation:

The voice out of Heaven spoke to me again: “Go, take the book held open in the hand of the Angel astride sea and earth.” I went up to the Angel and said, “Give me the little book.” He said, “Take it, then eat it.”

Ingesting the Truth

John was not the first man in history to eat a book. Apparently, Jeremiah and Ezekiel also ingested truth, and like John, their words reveal the metabolized essence of having been in the presence of God.

In an era in which English-speaking people can select from a menu of Scripture texts, the challenge is for us to begin reading them–and then, to take the next step and begin “reading the Scriptures formatively, reading in order to live.” (xi) To illustrate the kind of reading he’s advocating, Peterson employs the delightful imagery of a dog working with fortitude on a bone superimposed upon an image from the book of Isaiah of a “lion growling over its prey.” Apparently, that Hebrew word for “growling” is usually rendered as “meditate,” as in Psalm 1 where the righteous meditate on the Law of the Lord “day and night.”

As readers of Truth, we are called to take the Word into our being in a way that changes us. In John’s case, we can see from the text that eating the Bible was not an entirely pleasant experience. His stomachache is an important reminder that we may not find everything to our liking as we try to digest the hard truths of Scripture or the parts that seem strange to us.

Scripture in Service to My Needs, Wants, and Feelings

This full-bodied entering into a text, essentially chewing on it, is the kind of reading that takes time and a lot more thought and focused attention than most of us are currently investing in our spiritual reading, and yet it is the words of Scripture, the sentences and paragraphs and trains of thought through which God has chosen to communicate His holiness, His wisdom, and His love to mankind.

Peterson floats a very plausible theory that readers of Scripture have replaced the inspired text with a new text of “the sovereign self.” Rather than taking the Truth of God’s Word into our jaws, and ultimately into “the tissues of our lives,” (20) we have replaced Father, Son, and Spirit with a new Holy Trinity.

The New Holy Trinity, Eugene Peterson, Eat This BookIf my needs become non-negotiable, if my wants have taken on the weight and urgency of a need, and if my feelings have become the sum total of who I am, then the Real Trinity and their communication to me through the Bible become nothing more than a tool in “service of [those] needs, wants, and feelings.” (33)

Rather than “privatizing” (46) Scripture by controlling and fragmenting its message, the believer is called to personalize its words and then to submit to their revelation of God’s character and will. The truth is that we are gathered into the narrative of Scripture; our story is enfolded into the overarching story of God’s people; and the “stories” that we share to illustrate a point are best seen as elements of one huge and coherent narrative.

Approaching the Bible with this in mind effects the way we read, teach, and apply its truth. I appreciated the clarity Peterson brought to five specific topics:

1.  The Reader as Exegete

Exegesis is a pretty intense term for “the discipline of attending to the text and listening to it rightly and well.” (50) In her role as exegete, the reader will pay rigorous attention to the words and their intent, proceeding with caution in order to get it right.

“Exegesis is loving God enough to stop and listen carefully to what He says.” (55)

2.  The Obedient Reader

Peterson compares his reading of Scripture to his reading of a running magazine. When he was actively involved in running as a habit, he never tired of reading about it. However, when a pulled muscle interrupted his running routine, he noticed that his reading came to a halt. In the same way, spiritual reading is “participatory reading.” If we are not participating in the reality of the Bible, we will not have as much interest in reading.  Our reading should be formed around this question:  “What can I obey?” (71)

“All right knowledge of God is born of obedience.”    ~John Calvin (69)

3.  Let the Reader Beware!

As the residents of Narnia warned that Aslan is “not like a tame lion,” Peterson warns that the Word of God will not be tamed by the reader. It is a living Word, and it was first spoken into a particular context, a specific time and place and language. It was not given to make our lives more convenient or more manageable.

“We want to get in on the great invisibles of the Trinity, the soaring adorations of the angels, the quirky cragginess of the prophets, and . . . Jesus.”  (87)

4.  Reading as a Way of Living

Peterson’s thoughts about lectio divina with its four components (reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating) rescue the concept from the ethereal and impractical by acknowledging that “they are not four discrete items that we engage in one after another in stair-step fashion. Rather than linear, the process is more like a looping spiral in which all four elements are repeated, but in various sequences and configurations.”  Tying all our spiritual disciplines back to the Truth of Scripture grounds us in a true living out of their essence rather than a self-conscious performance mentality.

5.  Reading in the Company of Translators

The story behind Eugene Peterson’s translation of The Message Bible links every teacher, preacher, and student of the Word to the role of translator. Against the backdrop of historical translations from Hebrew into Aramaic, Greek, and all the various English translations, Peterson found himself having to translate again, from the pulpit, into “American English.” The formal process that resulted in The Message Bible took ten years and formed his thinking about the importance of remembering the humble origins of the Bible in its original writing. Since the days of Tyndale’s translation which was intended for “the boy that driveth the plough,” many traditional and more modern translations left Tyndale’s plow boy in a cloud of dust with a kind of language that obscured the Spirit-given perspicuity of the text.

Dealing with God is Not Optional

God intends to speak with clarity to His people through a written Word. Therefore, in reading His Word in the way He intends, dealing with God is not optional. Participatory reading, reading that is formative, hands over all preconceived ideas about God and eats, chews, gnaws and receives, with humble delight the wild and untamed words of Scripture so that reading and living become one offering and one way of being with God in this world.

Many thanks to William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, simply click on the title (or the image) within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Thank you for taking part in this conversation in the art of spiritual reading,

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for nearly 30 years, and together they have four sons, two daughters-in-love, two grandchildren, and one lazy St. Bernard. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

47 thoughts on “How to Read the Bible without Dealing with God”

    1. Eugene Peterson writes about the spiritual disciplines in a way that challenges me and at the same time encourages me to work harder and to trust more. So thankful for his long and faithful ministry!

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  1. Such good and important truths, Michele. If it was just up to me to interpret the Scriptures, I would twist it to my own fleshly liking. In fact, I have done so on occasion. But fortunately the Spirit of God is at work in me and always leading me to repentance and a deeper knowledge of who He is through His Word.

    It’s a very painful and humbling experience. These words rung especially true for me:

    “His stomachache is an important reminder that we may not find everything to our liking as we try to digest the hard truths of Scripture or the parts that seem strange to us.”

    It’s where we go with that stomach ache that makes all the difference. So often, I have run away from it or tried to numb it away – but my God is a jealous burning fire, intent upon burning off the dross and revealing His pure Son in me. He hasn’t given up on me. Praise Him!

    Oh how painful it can be, but ever so slowly He is teaching me to take joy in the process by fixing my eyes back on HIM – my all-sufficient sacrifice waiting to receive me with open arms if I’d only just admit how badly I need Him.

    My life began to change after I did the Community Bible Experience (reading through the whole New Testament) with my first church as a returned Prodigal. Oh how it went to work on my heart. It’s then I began to lay aside devotionals and dug into the Word myself. Reading through the whole Bible – and I haven’t stopped. Interestingly right after the Community Bible Experience and writing my own Biblically-based Lament, I began to experience the first symptoms of PTSD. God was about to start tilling my heart to receive the Word He had been speaking to me. I couldn’t start receiving it until I died to myself and understood that without Him I am nothing.

    It’s been a dying to myself and being birthed in Christ process ever since. I’ve had a mirror put up to me that’s revealed some nasty things about my character, but reflected in that mirror God has revealed His Son covering me. It’s not a pretty experience this sanctification- but oh how thankful I am that He doesn’t give up on us and just keeps moulding us to His glory.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. So interesting that the PTSD appeared only after you had begun to do the work. May we find grace to follow you on that journey back to “nothing.”
      I read somewhere recently that God wants us to come to Him with nothing, and that’s the one thing we don’t have!
      Getting there can be messy, for sure. Thanks for this hopeful message that He will help us in the dying process.

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      1. Oh Michele I can’t claim the credit for that at all. The yearning for the Word grew out of the grace and love He’d shown me as a returning Prodigal. I just found it so amazing that He loved and accepted me. This was a God I didn’t know, so I hungered and thirsted after Him – anything anyone had on offer to do with the Word I wanted to jump for.

        I actually think He allowed the PTSD to return again to bless me – I was falling back into my old patterns of behavior that led to me turning my back as a kid – thirsting after human approval and love (in the church) and when I didn’t get it, I tilted between fighting and fleeing, rather than surrendering. The PTSD helped me to bring it all to God and not numb my way through the pain again as I did as a preteen and teen – leading me to SO much repentance and such beautiful insight into why I fled as a kid.

        Sorry, this is turning into a book. All this to say – I could never take any credit for something that is all a gift of grace.

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  2. This one is meaty, Michele! I like it! I was just talking with a friend about the way we often check Bible reading off the daily list but never encounter our loving Father in the process. My friend is earning her certification to be a spiritual director, and one of the things they focus on is using spiritual disciplines in a way that actually allows us to encounter God himself. Her words were a good reminder, and I think of them every day. This book might be an excellent tool to help me go deeper in that process!

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    1. Peterson does invite readers to go deeper. Another author I’ve just discovered is Ruth Haley Barton. Wow–she’s challenging me in the practices of silence and solitude. Even though those are pretty hard to come upon in this particular home (yours, too, right?), I’m seeing the way they impacted the life of Moses and am challenged to make room for as much of both as I can manage.
      Blessings to you, Stacey!

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      1. Blessed to see a book encouraging Biblical meditation. It is a much needed balance to current emphases on Silence and Solitude which I find to be utterly devoid of the Word of God and lacking Biblical basis except only in the shallowest and most conjectural ways. If you foray into a prescribed silence, take the Word of God with you! God has chosen to reveal Himself in Words. We seek Him in mindless silence at peril of great deception. Even the pagans do this and with acclaimed result! Yes, take time to sit still, take time to be quiet, take time to be alone with only God’s voice. But do not do it mindlessly and do not leave behind meditation on the Word of God in the process. This is the missing link that separates pagan practice from truly Spiritual practice.

        “God intends to speak with clarity to His people through a written Word.”
        Love this emphasis on the value of the Word in truly coming to know and surrender to God! We will know we have encountered God when our lives are transformed by obedience and reflect what we see in His Word.
        Thank you for this review, Michele. You’ve touched a nerve ( :

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      2. Amazingly, you have grabbed a point that helps me in framing the book review I was just about to begin. Yes to silence and solitude, but yes also to filling our minds with Scripture. I know in my own case, that regular doses of Truth are what keep me on the rails, and that word: “clarity” is what I lack without it.
        Always good to hear your insights, Linda, but today’s were especially timely, and, I believe, a gift from God.

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    1. It’s great that you are having that conversation! I think that looking at our wrong thinking and giving it a name is one of the best ways to guard our minds and hearts against the slippage of error.

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  3. Dying to self is not popular these days. Sadly, I know many people who think the Bible is outdated, or a myth. It’s difficult to pray for family members that have no desire for God.

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  4. I have long felt the holy trinity of my wants, my needs, my feelings has been destroying the church. With that way of thinking we have been turning ourselves into God, making Him in our image. What a problem that is.

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  5. I feel like so many Christians miss the feast that they can have in diving into God’s word in a deeply thoughtful ways, Michele. It’s like we are content to only eat appetizers or desserts and never a main meal. I for one want to digest so much more than what is tasty and easy to swallow–digging deep every day. Thanks for this reminder and I’ll be pinning to my Book Review board!

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  6. What a well-written, powerful and enticing book review. Michele, thanks to you my “To Read” list grows and grows. This one will go to the top. I love the image of ingesting the bible in order to make it part of you. I definitely appreciate #5 on his list too (reading in the company of translators).

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  7. Hi Michele, Wow! This looks like an excellent subject matter to deal with in a book. This looks sooo very interesting and very practical, but most especially it looks like it would aid in our walk of obedience with the Lord by truly understanding the Bible as it is intended and to truly apply what we learn to our lives.

    Thanks for sharing.

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  8. Love this review and powerful reminder of the truth about how we read scripture and intentionally have it woven into the fabric of our lives. Petersen is so right and the reminders in this review are always needed in this “hurry up/short cut” society.😊

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  9. This is so convicting (in the best way!) We so often consume the Bible the way we consume other books, but it was never meant to be another book. It is THE BOOK, and I often forget that it is alive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We forget the gift of it, don’t we! Every single “good reading habit” we’ve learned for other literature needs to be applied alongside the knowledge that we are hearing the voice of God.

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  10. I’m fascinated by how this book prepares and shows us how to eat the Word. The diagram of the triangle is something I see often in the discipleship work I’ve been involved in. It points the learner to knowing that we gain our identity from God and from that we walk in obedience. Instead of the opposite which is thinking we must obey first to please God.

    Love this and how well you always provide a summary of a new book.

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    1. There’s usually such a gap between our reading and our application when it comes to Scripture. If we walk away with one tiny change we want to make in our lives as a result of our reading each day, think of all the goodness that would result!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. This is so good. Thank you for writing. I am so interested in this book. I’ve been such a fan of Peterson for years (even if The Message is pretty dated by now -haha), and he’s such a faithful student of the Word. As we all ought to be.

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  12. I’m not a religious person so don’t read the Bible at all. There was a time in my life where I was Bahai but then question began and there are parts that make no sense so I had to just be comfortable with my own feelings and thoughts.
    #ThatFridayLinky

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  13. This is such an important topic! Just weeks ago my husband and I were reading the book of Judges in the Bible. It’s a bit of a challenging book! There are a lot of strange things that happen and it is difficult to understand.
    We discussed how it would be easier to skip it or twist around what it says so it is gentler or less intense, but this isn’t how we should approach the Bible. This book sounds like a nice continuation of that conversation!

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    1. Yes, Judges is definitely one of the more Uncomfortable chapters. And so we feel the tension and have to face head on into the Truth that God is not going to act according to our expectations. Somehow, we forget this when He throws us a curve in real life!

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  14. There is so much truth here. We have become a society that wants to make the Bible serve us: our needs, our politics, and our opinions. And even when we want to understand, we have forgotten how to think, study and dig deeply. As I read this I’m convicted that it gets easy to skim over the Word with my preconceived understanding instead of continuing to mine more.

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    1. Especially true when we’re reading a passage we “already know.” This book really challenged me NOT to do what the title of my post suggests, but instead to do what the title of Eugene Peterson’s book suggests.

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  15. I love the passages in the Bible that talk about eating the Word. I get it. They are a delight when we take them in (by reading/studying/praying/meditating on them), and allow them to transform us. 🙂

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