Those of us who follow Jesus know that the Bible is God’s primary vehicle for communicating His will to us. We read it and study it because we want to live our lives in accordance with His will. But some of the stuff we come across in the Bible is really difficult in one of two ways: it’s either difficult to understand or difficult to accept.
So what do we do then?
I don’t have all of the answers, but here are a few things I have learned over the years from personal experience.
How to read the Bible when it’s difficult to understand
Don’t ignore difficult passages
It’s easy to skip over the hard stuff, but that isn’t a fair treatment of the Scriptures. Often we gain deeper and more life-changing understanding from the hard stuff than the easy stuff. A number of years ago I wrestled through a crazy passage in 1 Corinthians that seemed to command that women should always cover their heads when praying. My study of that passage yielded a much richer understanding of Jesus’s relationship with God the Father than I had going in. (You can watch me unpack that passage on the Riv website but I apologize in advance for my lack of beard and fashion sense.) If you are unwilling to face the harder parts of the Bible head on, you are treating some parts of the Bible as more important than others and missing some wonderful Gospel truths.
Start small and go big
A lot of verses make little to no sense all by themselves. Other verses have a completely unexpected meaning once you read the entire chapter (one of my favorite examples is Psalm 46:10 which has little or nothing to do with your personal devotional life). So when you hit a tricky verse, start by reading the entire paragraph the verse sits in. Then, read the whole chapter. Then, read the whole book. Just like single sentences in novels and research papers, Bible verses (especially the difficult ones) need context to be understood.
Use the clear to help you understand the unclear
Sometimes a single verse or passage will seem to contradict larger and more clear doctrines. When working through these difficult passages, allow the clearer stuff to create a roadmap for your understanding of the unclear stuff.
How to read the Bible when it’s difficult to accept
Don’t use difficult passages as evidence that the Bible can’t be trusted
A lot of people are tempted to start their Bible reading with controversial topics or things our culture or different denominations disagree about. The problem is those sections need a defining worldview to be understood! When we only focus on the quirky stuff, it keeps us from seeing how well all of the Bible fits together into an overarching narrative that we are a sinful people (worse than we can imagine) and that we are loved (more than we can ever hope for). Let’s be honest, if the big picture of the Bible is untrue, the rest of it doesn’t matter anyway. If the big picture is true, only then do we have to deal with the hard to accept stuff.
Be confused and offended
It is ok to say, “I don’t like what the Bible says about this issue.” This merely shows us that we are not God. Many of us think this is a rebellious posture, but it’s really a posture of humility that admits that we are not God. He’s a big boy. He can handle our dissent and he can (and will) work with us.
Believe the Bible is true even when you don’t feel like it is
The best way to approach an opposing viewpoint is to try to defend it. This is Debate 101! You should be able to argue your opponent’s position better than they can so approach the Bible that way. I met with a Muslim guy a couple years ago that knows more about the New Testament than most Christians do! He has studied it to try to understand if it holds water or not. Head right into the Bible with all of your tough questions (assuming it will give you answers) and you might be surprised at what you find.
But you might be surprised at what you don’t find and that’s OK, too. You may never get your explanation in this life. There are parts of the Bible that flummox and offend me every time I read them and it’s a great reminder that I am not God.