Why the Bible is Hard, Confusing and Frustrating (and other thoughts from my “Post-It Note Bible”…)

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This week, my sermon was from a part of the Bible that talks about how awesome the Bible is. The author of this particular text raves about how God’s word is their source of light and their foundation.  When I saw the passage (Psalm 119: 129-134, for those of you wondering), I groaned.  Why? Because I knew that when you preach from Psalm 119, which I’ve done before, there’s really no way around getting to the part where you say: “So, all of you, read your Bible more.  It’s great!  You’ll love it!”  

And to be frank, after 12 years of preaching and having said some version of that countless times, I’ve grown a little skeptical of the value of saying that anymore. It’s not because I don’t think people should read the Bible, especially followers of God. It’s that even those who love God very dearly don’t always find that an easy thing to do.

Let’s be blunt:  The Bible can be hard to read.  It is a dense book, with lots of unusual and ancient concepts.  It is not always chronological.  It doesn’t give a lot of explanation of some of the things that it is addressing.  There are some weird, bizarre and even gruesome stories, that make people ask: “Was God okay with THAT?”  Frankly, if I had a quarter for every time someone said to me: “I tried to read the Bible and I got as far as Leviticus before I gave up,” well…I would probably have $10.  People ask: Why read what I don’t understand? (Even if I wished I did!).

The Bible can feel big and intimidating.  The one sitting closest to me as I write this is 900 pages of VERY small print, in two columns.  My guess is that it would be more like reading 3000 pages if the same words were printed like a regular novel is today.  “Where should I even start?”  someone might ask.  In fact, to pick up the Bible and just start reading where you open the page can be completely jarring.  

I think of the scene from the television show “30 Rock” where the character Liz Lemon tries to distract a crowd at church by Bible reading and opens to the verse:  “But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it.”  Now, as someone who has spent a lot of time studying the Bible, that is completely hilarious to me (plus, “30 Rock” – I mean, it’s genius!). I can explain the exact context of that story, what it means, and why it even teaches us about God.  But really – what would that sound like to the average person reading it for the first time? Well, it sounds pretty disgusting and disturbing.  I would love it if people who first opened the Bible turned to the lines that said: “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” “I will never leave you or forsake you,” or “I praise you that I am wonderfully made and all your works are wonderful.”  I have not found this happens so often…

And on top of all that, there’s the fact that the Bible doesn’t have the best reputation anymore.  For some people, the most exposure they have to the Bible are the signs quoting Bible verses held by extremists at Pride Marches or messages typed with hate on a Facebook message board. For others, even those who grew up as people of faith, the Bible was often quoted to explain why they were bad people, going to hell, or not allowed to do things that they thought would be fun.

Sadly, instead of experiencing the Bible as a message of love, many people have experienced the Bible like a shotgun that someone used to shoot them in their places of deepest pain.  

Who can blame anyone who wouldn’t jump at the chance to read it who has experienced that?

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So what do I do when I’m slated to preach from Psalm 119, that sings the joy of God’s Word?  What to do when I KNOW I need to share the message that we should read this book, because of all the things it actual is – light and life and hope and direction – when the mere mention of reading the Bible makes so many noticeably start to squirm??

Well, here’s what I did. I remembered that while many people may be hesitant about the Bible, that does not mean they are not eager to know and find God, and that the Bible helps people to do that.  I also remembered that as hard as the Bible is, that it is worth it. Then, remembering that, I did indeed tell people they should read it (or listen to it, or watch videos of it). And then I told them it was okay to have a “post-it note Bible.”

That’s what I call my own Bible that I read when I was nineteen and began to really read the Bible for myself.  Like many a good Christian girl, I had read my one-chapter-a-night since I was a young teenager.  When I had hard days I would turn to the list of topics and see if there was a good answer (funny, there was never a “don’t have a boyfriend” category…).  But it wasn’t really alive to me, until the summer that I worked as a laundress at a summer camp. I had a lot of time alone in the laundry room that summer, moving loads of sopping kitchen towels from washer to dryer and folding staff uniforms day after day, and I decided: I’m going to use this time to read my Bible.  And I did.

And, like so many other people, I had questions.  So many questions, even for someone who had gone to church her whole life.  I’d get to a part and say “This is crazy!!  I don’t get it!  I can’t read anymore!”  This was when I started my post-it note system.  At first, I would just underline or put question marks by the things I wondered about.  But the margins in Bibles are small and I started running out of room.  So, I would take a post-it, write out my confusion and my questions and stick it in there.  I still have this Bible 20 years later, still packed full of the questions of my 19 year old self. I love to flip through it and read the notes again.  It’s fun to see how I understand a lot of what I didn’t then. It reminds me that God has taught me so much.  But many of my questions still have no answers.  In fact,  I have lots of new questions to stick in there… like about why some people get healed and others don’t and whether Jesus knew anyone with cancer and whether my support of universal health care IS what Jesus would have done.

I don’t literally stick a post-it note in my Bible with all my questions anymore, but I still ask questions all the time. I still say: “God I don’t understand this.” Then, I keep reading (or listening, or watching…). I keep going because for all those questions, I can resonate with all the Psalm writer says in Psalm 119: God’s word, when you read it and hear it and let it shape you day after day and year after year, gives life.  

What I’m trying to say is that engaging with the Bible may not always be easy, certainly not at first, so when you begin, you may have a “post-it note Bible” – literally or figuratively.  You may have more questions than answers.  You may get confused, annoyed or even angry.  That’s normal and that’s okay.  As you keep reading (or listening, or watching) though, you will also find the message of love and hope and redemption.  (You may even find yourself late for lunch because you didn’t realize the timer on the dryer went off because you were so engrossed in the book of Exodus).  You may be listening online and hear something that will speak so deeply to your soul that you will never forget it.  You may discover that with every answered question, you are actually eager to learn more.  

So here’s the pitch: Give it a try!  Ask questions.  Start with a part that makes sense (I recommend the book of Mark).  Get a translation that you find easiest to read (a Christian book store or your friendly neighbourhood pastor or ME can help you with this!), or use another method (like listening or watching videos) if you don’t like reading.  Talk to others and join groups that will teach you more.   Also, buy some post-it notes.  They can be super helpful.

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