Tackling Tough Texts
Reading the Word of God is not always easy. And I'm not talking about making the time to do so in the midst of our busy schedules. Echoing the words of the Apostle Peter found in 2 Peter 3:16, "There are some things in them that are hard to understand." The 'them' Peter is referring to are Paul's letters (which account for roughly 75% of the New Testament's content). Peter is acknowledging that some Biblical content is difficult to understand, apply, and comprehend. How should we approach a Biblical text that we are having difficulties with? Do we simply dismiss it? Below are some helpful practices that will assist you in tackling tough Biblical texts.
I am an unashamed advocate of reading the Bible 'literally'. This means you interpret the Bible using literal guidelines. What is written actually happened and the Bible is actually asking you to do what is being talked about. In other words, the Bible is meaning exactly what it says. It's not saying something simply as an illustration or to point to something else. I think this is the safest way to approach the Word of God.
But it is not the only way.
Why? Because sometimes the Bible is not speaking literally. It is using metaphor, hyperbole, or exaggeration. Sometimes a literal understanding just doesn't make sense or may even contradict other texts. When we are wrestling with tough texts, we need to discern and consider if the writer is speaking literally or if another writing style is being employed. We should start with a literal reading and see if it makes sense and fits with the main message of the Bible--the gospel of Jesus Christ. If not, we should consider if the writer is speaking in metaphor, using exaggeration to make a point, or perhaps speaking poetically to add some beauty and depth to their words. Sometimes the Bible even uses a physical reality to bring clarity to a spiritual truth. The seen world is being used to help us understand the unseen world. It's important to discern how the writer is intending for their words to be read.
Before we go any further, let's address why it is important to wrestle with and tackle tough texts. When we arrive at something in the Bible that we don't understand or can't comprehend, the easy thing would be to skip ahead and forget about it. But we do ourselves a disservice when we take that approach. Some of the greatest revelations and dearest truths will get deposited in our souls as we wrestle with particular texts. It may be more difficult and require more effort, but life-changing and eternal work can come from our wrestling. So, just how do we wrestle with a text we are having trouble with?
Use all of the Bible. If the text you are having trouble with addresses anger, study what the Bible says about anger from Genesis to Revelation. Understanding what the Bible says about a particular subject in other texts will help you understand what it is saying about that subject in the text you are having trouble with.
Different translations. There are many different translations of the Bible and reading a different version than the one you are accustomed to can prove to be helpful when you are having trouble understanding a certain text.
Be patient. God has designed the maturation process of a Christian as something that happens slowly and steadily throughout the duration of our lives. There will be some texts and truths that we will wrestle with for an extended period of time before we glean understanding or receive revelation. God makes some truths easy to understand; we get it after one reading. For others, he requires some 'digging' from us. Be patient and do the digging. There is treasure to be found.
Ask the right questions. Who is speaking? Is it Jesus, his disciples, a Pharisee, a Gentile, a Jewish writer, etc. Knowing who is speaking can help us understand what they are meaning. Who is the audience? Is it the disciples, Jews, Gentiles, believers, or unbelievers? Again, knowing who the original audience or recipients were will help us understand what the writer/speaker is intending to say.
Contextual clues. When you come to a tough text, don't focus on that verse alone. Look for clues all around it. What is being talked about in the verses before it? The verses after? Are there any words (like 'therefore', 'so', or 'but') that tie multiple truths/thoughts together?
Fitting it into the gospel message. The gospel message has four primary parts: (1) creation, (2) fall, (3) redemption, and (4) restoration. Consider where the text you are wrestling with fits into the gospel message. Doing so may help you fully understand what is being said.
Glass dimly lit. It's important to understand that, despite our wrestling and digging, some truths will not be fully understood on this side of eternity. This does not mean that we have room to doubt truths the Bible speaks clearly about--such as Jesus being the only way to salvation--but it does mean that some things will be left unanswered until we see Jesus face to face.
The "Real" Tough Texts
Yes, sometimes the Bible is difficult to understand. We must wrestle to intellectually understand what is being said. But we must remember that God doesn't simply call us to intellectually understand the Bible.
He calls us to live it out; to put action behind our understanding.
If we are honest, the real tough texts are the ones we struggle to apply and practice in our daily lives. The texts that direct us to forgive others, be kind, love those who are difficult to love, pray for our enemy, and tell ourselves 'no'. These are the real tough texts. Easy to understand but tough to live out. For these tough texts, we need our hearts to be engaged just as much as our heads are. We need the help of the Holy Spirit. He can make the toughest texts our greatest joys as we walk in humble obedience and submission.