In the midst of my (still relatively new) theological studies I am learning so many things. I am experiencing the Bible in ways that I never have. I am reshaping my thoughts on things that were long taught to me as “Gospel truth” and reimagining what the Word of God is capable of doing in the life of the believer. While I am still in the throes of figuring out what I believe about a lot of things (and I hope that I always am), there are a few things that have become glaringly clear to me about God and about his word. One of them is this: when it comes right down two it, each of us reads the Bible through one of two filters. We pour the words into these filters and what comes out the other side depends on which filter we pulled out of the cabinet. Few people interchange filters. We are brand loyal. We likely only own one brand. And you can’t buy the other brand on Amazon Prime. Because the one we have wasn’t a quick, thoughtless purchase. We didn’t buy it on a whim. More realistically, we built it. We created the filter with the materials given to us throughout the journey of our lives. We pieced it together intricately from the fabric of our life experiences and the lessons learned from those we trusted along the way. I know that each life is beautifully unique, and each one faces different challenges and victories. But, while it may seem unfair to insist that only two kinds of filters are at play, I am convinced this is true. The materials that built them may vary, but we all read the Bible through one of two filters: LOVE or FEAR.
Now our immediate reaction here is to say, “Love! I read it through love!” (And then join hands and sing “A Common Love” in four-part harmony.) And that may be true. But if we dig a little deeper into our understanding of the word, we may find that even our reaction to this question comes from the fear that we might be doing it wrong. So, we need to ask ourselves a couple of questions. Here is the first one. Do I leave room for God to be God? Have I spent my life assembling my doctrines and theology so neatly that there is no room for eraser marks? Is it so important to me that I have it right that I could confidently put into a one-page (or 50-page) outline everything that is true about God and the Bible and what is allowed and what is not allowed? Do I recite that outline to anyone who asks and make it top priority that my life in no way contradicts the outline? Have I put God into such a small box in order to make him familiar, that I have actually made him unrecognizable? If so, I am reading through fear. Fear that I might get something wrong and therefore lose it all. Fear that if I don’t cross every “t” and dot every “i,” I may anger the God that I revere. Maybe I say I believe in salvation through Jesus, but I live as though I believe I could lose it if I read from the “wrong” translation or worship in the “wrong” way. So, I make my thesis, and I decide that I will defend it until the day I die. And I view anyone who would question it as an enemy. My thesis and my identity are so thickly intertwined that if I let anyone take a red pen to it, I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror. The fear of what would happen if I admit that my outline may be flawed keeps me from ever reexamining it – even when new information and life experiences would prompt such an examination. All of these things keep me from interacting with the word in a fresh and active way. The Bible can no longer do a work in me. The work was done, the time card punched, and from here on out I read everything through the lens of that earlier work.
A deeply learned lesson for me is that any time we in our human minds believe that we have figured out the infinite God of the universe and everything that he desires, we can be sure that we are wrong. And our fear of being wrong leads us to the worst kind of wrongness – the kind that clusters and alienates. Which brings me to the second question. Am I willing to listen to people who disagree with me? And not only am I willing to listen, am I willing to struggle with what they have to say? Am I willing to accept that someone who practices their faith in a way that is different than my way may actually have something to offer? Instead of listening to other Christian sects and even to other religious groups and determining what good I can glean from their perspective, do I immediately shut them down out of fear that I might find out I was wrong about something? If I read the Apocrypha or attend an Ash Wednesday service does that mean I am disparaging the importance of the Protestant movement? If I eat dinner with a Muslim am I turning my back on Jesus? If I let the homosexual couple come to my church am I condoning their lifestyle? If I let a woman preach am I saying that 1 Timothy wasn’t inspired? Where does this line of questioning end? Are we so insecure in our salvation that we cannot discuss even minor doctrinal issues? Are we so afraid of other interpretations of Scripture that we cannot even bring ourselves to read a different view than the one we’ve been taught? If I say that I love Jesus, but I cannot sit down at the table with someone whose beliefs scare me, I might not know the Jesus I love very well. I am reading the Bible through fear. The fear that whispers, “Life is about protecting myself.”
If I read the Bible through the filter of love, the entire story takes on a whole new life. When I read it through love I see the undying affection of a Father for his children. I see a deep and abiding love for the people in the world that I would most quickly avoid. I see room for everyone to use their God-given gifts in a spirit of cooperation rather than in competition and hierarchy. I see that God loves me enough to hold me through my questions and the things that I don’t yet understand. I no longer see God at a chalkboard giving tally marks to my failings. Instead, I see him in my bathroom floor holding me through my tears. I no longer see the “other” as a threat to the validity of who I am. I see them as a different and beautiful expression of the image of God. And this kind of love – this sets the world on fire. This is the kind of love that Jesus came and gave. And the religious people hated him for it. He terrified them. This is the kind of love that our faith hinges on. When you experience a believer who reads the Bible through love, it is a far cry from experiencing one who reads it through fear. And the world can see the difference in a second. Fear and arrogance reek of insecurity. Love, well, love reeks of love. So, I’m renovating my filter. I’m pulling out the strands that left me feeling insecure and competitive and afraid. And I’m weaving in the truth of what the Bible shows me about the heart of Jesus. The good news is that no matter how calcified our filters may be, we CAN rewire them. But we can only do it if we stop living in fear. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18).
Tara Petty is a children’s minister at Pegram Church of Christ near Nashville, TN. She is currently pursuing her M.Div. at Lipscomb University. She is a mother to four young children and enjoys reading, writing, loving and laughing. She is passionate about discipling a generation of youth who love Jesus and live fully in the freedom of knowing him.