Too often, our study of the Bible focuses on searching for specific information or some formula that will solve our pressing needs of the moment. But what if we approached the Bible differently, and instead of transforming the text to meet our needs, allowed it to transform us?
That's exactly the idea behind Life with God, Richard J. Foster's much-anticipated book on the Bible. Foster, bestselling author of Celebration of Discipline and general editor of The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible, claims that God has superintended the writing of Scripture so that it serves as the most reliable guide for Christian spiritual formation. According to Foster, the Bible is all about human life "with God." As we read Scripture, we should consider how exactly God is with us in each story and allow ourselves to be spiritually transformed. By opening our whole selves—mind, body, spirit, thoughts, behavior, and will—to the page before us, we begin to grasp all the Bible has to teach about prayer, obedience, compassion, virtue, and grace and apply it to our everyday lives to achieve a deeper relationship with God.
With a wealth of examples and simple yet crucial insights, Life with God is an indispensable guide to approaching the Bible through the lens of Christian spiritual formation, revealing that reading the Bible for interior transformation is a far different endeavor than reading the Bible for historical knowledge, literary appreciation, or religious instruction.
Seeing the Bible Afresh
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
God has given us a written revelation of who God is and of what God's purposes are for humanity. And God has chosen to accomplish this great work through the People of God on earth. This written revelation now resides as a massive fact at the heart of human history. There is, simply, no book that is remotely close to achieving the significance and influence of the Bible. It is truly The Book (hay Biblos).
But the intrinsic power and greatness of the Bible does not make it easy for us to receive the life it offers. The average "Bible consumer," publishing research tells us, owns nine Bibles and is looking for more. This is mute but powerful testimony to a deep and abiding sense of lack—a sense that we have not really achieved a grasp of the Bible that is adequate to our needs.
In point of fact, we can often use the Bible in ways that stifle spiritual life or even destroy the soul. This happened to any number of people who walked with Jesus, heard him teach, and saw him exercise the power of the kingdom of God. For many, their very study of the Scriptures prevented them from recognizing who he was and from putting their confidence in him ( John 5:39-47). And later, Peter speaks in very grim terms of how people can "twist" Scripture "to their own destruction" (2 Pet. 3:16).
Is it possible that this still happens today? Sadly, we must admit that it does. Think of the multiplied millions of people who say, sincerely, that the Bible is the guide to life but who still starve to death in the presence of its spiritual feast. This tragic situation is obvious from the usual effects (or lack of effects) that the study of the Bible has in the daily lives of people, even among those who speak most highly of it.
The source of the problem
The source of the problem is rooted in the two most common objectives people have for studying the Bible. The first is the practice of studying the Bible for information or knowledge alone. This may include information about particular facts or historical events, or knowledge of general truths or doctrines, or even knowledge of how others are mistaken in their religious views, beliefs, and practices.
We know from experience how knowledge can make people arrogant—even knowledge of the Bible and of God. It is not surprising, then, that study that focuses on knowledge alone does not lead to life transformation, which is the real human need. No wonder we who love the Bible keep buying more editions of it, hoping to obtain what we know in our hearts is there for us.
The second common objective people often have for studying the Bible is to find some formula that will solve the pressing need of the moment. Thus we seek out lists of specific passages that speak to particular needs rather than seeking whole-life discipleship to Jesus. To be sure, these needs are important, desperately so when we are trapped in the harsh realities of life. They can involve anything from needs for comfort or forgiveness, to physical healing, to conformity to a particular denominational or political persuasion, to special endowments or gifts of the Spirit, to works of social liberation. But in the end they always have to do with being "a good citizen," "a good spouse," or "a good something else"—perhaps even with being "a good Christian" by certain interpretations.
What we must face up to about these two common objectives for studying the Bible is that they always leave us or someone else in charge. They are, in fact, ways of trying to control what comes out of the Bible rather than entering the process of the transformation of our whole person and of our whole life into Christlikeness.
If we want to receive from the Bible the life "with God" that is portrayed in the Bible, we must be prepared to have our dearest and most fundamental assumptions about ourselves and our associations called into question. We must read humbly and in a constant attitude of repentance. Only in this way can we gain a thorough and practical grasp of the spiritual riches that God has made available to all humanity in his written Word. Only in this way can we keep from transforming The Book into a Catholic Bible, an Orthodox Bible, a Protestant Bible, an "Ours Is More Accurate than Yours" Bible.
What will enable us to avoid this soul-crushing result?
The supernatural power of love
Jesus founded on earth a new type of community, and in it and through him, love—God-given agape love—came down to live with power on earth. Now, it is this God-given agape love that transforms our lives and gives us true spiritual substance as persons. Suppose, then, we simply agreed that the proper outcome of studying the Bible is growth in the supernatural power of love: love of God and of all people?
We could call this The First Corinthians 13 Test: "If I . . . understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing" (verse 2). And so the test of whether or not we have really gotten the point of the Bible would then be the quality of love that we show.
Knowledge of the Bible and its teachings would, of course, continue to be of great value, but only insofar as it leads to greater love: to greater appropriation of God's love for us and for us to have greater love for God, others, and ourselves.