The prospect of opening your Bible to “hear from the Lord” may be daunting. Or frustrating. Or just a little too mystical for your 21st-century mind. If you’re not used to reading anything (including the Bible) for the purpose of life change, you may wonder how this works. How does God use the Bible to communicate with believers?
Well, let me demystify it for you.
- There are no audible voices.
- There are no typographical changes depending on my current situation.
- There is no verse in which I read, “You, sitting there reading this, go and…”
Instead, the histories, narratives, poems, and letters of advice in the Bible lay down a consistent standard of living. From that, the Holy Spirit guides us to personal changes in habit, thought, words, etc. Here are a few of the ways that might work.
The Holy Spirit highlights certain
aspects of a story in a way that’s
meaningful for each reader.
A certain person in the Bible behaved in a certain way, and as I read about him or her, I realize that I should act similarly…or, like that person, I should choose not to act in a certain way. This “act” might be as simple as a change in perspective that no one will even notice, or it may be something major. Don’t expect everyone who reads the same story to come to the same personal application here. (This means “what God wants me to do about what I’ve read.” It doesn’t mean, “what the Bible says here.”) The Holy Spirit highlights certain aspects of a character or situation in a way that’s meaningful for each reader. This is why we can return to the same stories over and over yet discover fresh Truth every time!
For example, when David pours out his heart to the Lord in confession (Psalm 51), we have a model for real contrition, and we are called to similar sorrow over our own sins. In a more specific example, some people have read Isaiah’s “Here am I. Send me,” (Isaiah 6:8) and understood God to be calling them to serve overseas.
Sometimes, the Biblical author urges his audience toward something. This happens often in the epistles (that’s the letters in the New Testament). Most of the time, that urging applies to us in a general way as well. It’s not that we’re doing something wrong, just that we could do it better. We may also read the Scriptures and realize we’re doing well in a certain area. (There’s always room for improvement, but you know what I mean.)
For example, Paul instructs Christian women to dress modestly (1 Timothy 2:9). While the details will certainly differ from first-century clothing standards, the encouragement to live in this way applies to Christian women throughout history and up to the present day. At times, we may test our present-day habits against this sort of encouragement and come away confident that our modesty fits the standards given in the Bible.
Sometimes we read the Bible, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and realize we have sin in our lives, either active sins or negative (not doing something) sins. But if we’re not open to the Holy Spirit’s prompting as we read, we’ll skim over this parallel.
The conviction may be explicit, as in “Do not worry” (Matthew 6:25) when we are prone to worry. It may instead be implicit; at a time when we haven’t been generous with our time or possessions, we may be convicted by this: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:44-45) .
Look for big picture ideas
and small details as you read
As we continue in Bible reading, we begin to see “big picture” ideas—the principles of Scripture that inhabit full stories, books, or testaments. The theme of a passage may lead us to fresh understanding. The consistency of a person over time—or God Himself—may reveal something new.
For example, the gospel writers describe many of Jesus’ interactions with oppressed people such as women, tax collectors, and children. Invariably, He is kind and respectful. That principle informs my own attitude toward oppressed people today such as immigrants and the differently-abled.
God creates us with interests and personal values that are different from other people’s. As we read the Bible, we discover those unique traits described in the text. What a joy to find this thing that is important to me and see how God cares about it too!
As a simple example, perhaps your heart burns for social justice in our modern culture. The Old Testament prophets felt the same way, which means God felt the same way. Amos said,
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts.
Hate evil, love good;
maintain justice in the courts.
Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy
on the remnant of Joseph. -Amos 5:12b, 15
I hope it’s clear to you that the guiding principle of Bible reading for life change is the Holy Spirit’s interaction. The Spirit of God guides us through the Word of God to know the heart and mind of God. As Paul said,
For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. -1 Corinthians 2:11
When we open our Bibles with a willing heart, the Spirit will show us more of God and more of our ourselves. This is the truest and best way to “hear” God and know Him better.
These are only a few of the ways God “speaks” to us through the Bible. In what other ways has the Spirit of God used the Word of God to transform your life? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. Maybe I’ll write a follow-up piece!