Picture this scene and imagine how many millions of times it has happened – after an extended conversation between a married couple, one of them with shoulders dropping and the pitch of their voice falling says, “but you’re not listening to me.” Without batting an eye, a retort is heard, “I certainly have, I’ve presented numerous practical and workable solutions to your problem.” The other responds with a hopelessly resigned shrug, “but you’re not listening to me…”
I have heard it said that understanding the Bible is not an end in itself, as if you don’t apply or experience the things in the Bible, it is pointless. However, in relationships, understanding what the other is saying is indeed an end in itself, and is not merely functional. Ask people about the quality of their marriage when a person only listens to their spouse for some other end, perhaps to solve their problem or to get some kind of “intimate experience,” rather than primarily to understand them as an end in itself. The problem in these relationships is that understanding is seen as only a means to an end rather than also possessing its own immense inherent value. The consequences of such an approach to the relationship are frequently disastrous.
What is at stake here in the process of listening and understanding is the ability to know and be known. When hearing another, we can opt to be primarily in problem-solving mode — I will listen in order to solve your problem — or I will listen to solve my problem. When listening is only functional towards some other concrete end, it demeans the value of the person speaking simply to be known. Understanding for its own sake is to know another. To be sure, there are times to be functional. But when understanding, namely knowing the other person, is constantly crowded out by a flood of other intentions, we may sense that the person speaking is being devalued by the one listening — that they are not worthy of being known.
Likewise, in our relationship with God, understanding God is an end in itself. If we believe that the Bible is indeed the Word of God, and by it God is talking to us, then we must pursue understanding it as an end in itself, as understanding it is to understand God. Furthermore, in the absence of such a pursuit, we must conclude that our relationship with God suffers the same state as the marriage described earlier.
To say pursuing understanding the Bible is pointless without applying it, is like saying a husband listening to his wife is pointless unless he solves her problems. Additionally, to say understanding the Bible is meaningless apart from experiencing it, is analogous to saying that understanding one’s wife is pointless unless you also have “an experience” afterwards. All of this, especially with the language of “pointless” or “meaningless,” communicates that the process of understanding and knowing God is of minimal, if any, significance.
My concern with such ideas is that they may represent a subtle denigration and devaluation of the Scriptures and their significance in the life of the people of God. Though perhaps that is not the intent of people who say them, it nevertheless seems to have that effect on people. They also introduce a false dichotomy between the Scripture and experience which is not present in the Bible and the early church (not even in John 5:37-40!). It seems inescapable to me that this will result in negative consequences in peoples’ relationships with God.
We need a new vision of what the Scriptures are to us and to the Church that can overcome our discouragement and confusion when dealing with them. If our life experience tells us anything, it is that the process of communication and understanding others can indeed be challenging. This is normal. Therefore we can forgo villanizing ourselves for struggling with understanding the Bible. We can also be free from the compulsions to subtly devalue the Scripture in order to relieve us of such discouragement. It is normal for people to read books, take classes, join small groups and get counseling primarily to enhance communication in their most important relationships. This is all very normal.
The Bible is the Word of God. This means God is not just speaking to us through the Bible, but in the words of the Scripture itself we are hearing God speak. This hearing occurs whether we “experience” it or not. If we believe that the Bible is thus the Word of God, by seeking to understand it we have the ability to radically improve the quality of our relationship with God. And this process of understanding God through the Scripture is a most beautiful and precious end in itself.