June 20, 2024

Is it God or just my imagination?

In grade school, my friends and I would use the Bible like a Magic 8-Ball sitting in Chapel in the mornings.  We would ask a question and then point to a verse as the Bible fell open to get an answer.  On the other hand, God describes the Bible as valuable and beneficial (2 Tim. 3:16), and scholars describe it as comprehensive for answering questions of daily living.  The Bible instructs us to read it (1 Tim. 4:13), study it (Acts 17:11), and contemplate it constantly (Joshua 1:8) for insight and wisdom.  However, the phenomenon I am interested in studying is the times when the Bible seems to be speaking directly to us in our circumstances.  I hear preachers saying that God gave them a message for the congregation in childhood and even now.  To what extent can we trust such statements, and what preachers claim about their source?  Are they direct messages from God?  A friend of mine recently told me of confusion about responding to commandments in Deuteronomy about observing the Sabbath.  When he read Deuteronomy 5:14, was this a message that he needed to avoid all work on Sundays?

How do we know if something we read in the Bible is a direct message to us about how to live?  After all, the Bible is suitable for instruction and training, but the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) alone contains hundreds of commandments (over 600 by some counts).  Also, serious Christians generally believe that the Bible is more than a list of suggestions and not a formula for a prosperous and easy life (Luke 9:23).  So how do we know if we get a word from God (which does happen) in what we read? 

My unequivocal answer to this question is to read the Bible more.  Read more of it and read it more often.  Read and re-read the Bible.  I will explain later why I think this is effective for answering the question, but first, a short case for the virtue of reading the Bible more.

The Bible on the Bible

Meditate on the Bible.  I looked up the word “meditate” because when writers of the Bible wrote, there weren’t a lot of copies around to read, even if a person was literate.  So people listened to the reading of Scripture, usually by professionals, and then thought and talked (meditated) about it.

Joshua 1:8 This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it.

Psalm 1:2 …but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.

Psalm 63:6 …when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;

Psalm 119:48 I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes.

Psalm 119:78 Let the insolent be put to shame, because they have wronged me with falsehood; as for me, I will meditate on your precepts.

Scripture.  The Bible is the Word of God and also a book. So when people in the Bible talked about the written Word of God, they called it Scripture.

Acts 17:11 Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

2 Timothy 4:13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

In the New Testament, people who read the Scriptures eagerly and daily were considered noble.  When asking Timothy to bring things that helped and comforted him, Paul asked for his books and parchments.  This request probably included some copies of Scripture, that we now call the Old Testament, that he could read.

The primary place for evidence about the nature of the Bible is in the Bible itself.  This topic is fascinating, and you should investigate if you have not already.  Still, the short explanation is that if the Bible is the Word of God, there is nothing outside the Bible that can affirm its veracity because God (and thus, His Word) is the only independent thing in the universe.  Indeed, God says he counsels Himself (Eph 1:11) when he needs advice.  The Bible thus has extensive references and statements that reading the Bible is good.  In many places, it talks about why this is good (e.g., learning and instruction), but that is beyond the current topic.  How about people who have read the Bible?  What do they say about reading the Bible?  I chose the starting point of Martin Luther since one of his accomplishments was translating the Bible to make it accessible to laypeople.

Those who examined the Scriptures

Martin Luther (b. 1483) was a leader of the Reformation in the 16th century and, among other things, translated the Bible from Latin to German.  He said, “In truth you cannot read too much in Scripture; and what you read you cannot read too carefully, and what you read carefully you cannot understand too well, and what you understand well you cannot teach too well, and what you teach well you cannot live too well.”

Charles Spurgeon (b. 1834) said of John Bunyan (b. 1628), “If you cut him, he’d bleed Scripture.”  Bunyan, himself said of the Bible, “Read and read again, and do not despair of help to understand the will and mind of God though you think they are fast locked up from you. Neither trouble your heads though you have not commentaries and exposition. Pray and read, read and pray; for a little from God is better than a great deal from men.”

It is not hard to find leaders in the Christian church that expound on the joy and importance of reading the Bible. In addition, you will likely note that many Christians tend to read the Bible more the older they get.  Also, the focus is not just on reading the Bible but also on thinking about it constantly.  This advice may sound strange for how to treat a book, but the direction is explicit in the Bible itself, and its experience is consistent throughout history.

How might it work?

There is significant support for reading the Bible at a great clip, at all times, and over and over, accompanied with deep thought.  But how does more reading of the Bible help us decide if what we are reading is a direct answer to the original question (Is it God or just my imagination)?  After all, if I open the Bible and point to a passage that has even minimal application to my problem, wouldn’t I just compound that effect the more I read?  How does this not turn into an ever-increasing list of things to do and ways to live?

The Bible is Overwhelming

When I let the Bible fall open and my childish finger fall on a verse, it felt magical because it had at least minor, if not a primary application to the question I asked.  The reality is that the Bible, as the very Word of God, is powerful and authoritative.  It is the final authority and is the absolute standard for everything.  It is a light to those that believe (Ps 119:105) and nonsense to those who do not (1 Cor 1:18). As Martyn Lloyd Jones (b. 1899) puts it, the core doctrine of the Bible is, “What God has done to reconcile us to Himself?”  Sin is the root of man’s problems, and in this way, the Bible answers all of humanity’s problems.  It indeed contained the message I was seeking as a child.

The problem I had was that I was not thinking like the redeemed person I was.  I was thinking more like a moralist because I rarely intentionally read the Bible.  Failing to read the Bible meant the Bible was not forming and renewing my mind.  Despite being saved, I sadly wasn’t motivated to read, so I didn’t know the Bible beyond its reputation as a big and sophisticated book.  When I let it fall open, it fell open to the best news in all of the universe every time: Jesus Christ crucified and raised.  It would make sense that a person that has a new heart but does not read the word of God would be perpetually confronted with the majesty of the best news in all the world each time the Bible merely fell open.  In a sense, every verse I read was, in fact, a direct message from God to His child.  It was a message of hope (2 Cor 3:4-5) and peace (Rom 5:1).  When I read the Bible more, my mind does get renewed and changed, and that message of hope is in me (John 15:7) even when I’m not actively reading the Bible.  I don’t feel desperate for a word like I once did because the word is abiding in me more and more as I read.  I have, in a sense, become accustomed to the majesty of God’s word, which can be both a trap and also a glorious thing.  It’s a trap because I must remind myself that it is the Word of God, a truly remarkable thing in itself.  It’s magnificent because the significance of this work has taken root in my heart, which is becoming a well-watered garden (Is. 58:11) planted with trees whose roots go deep (Ez. 47:12) and do not go thirsty.

It’s similar to the experience of walking from a movie theater into the afternoon sun.  At first, you are blind, but your eyes adjust, and you can see more clearly over time.  The sun doesn’t necessarily become less bright-our eyes adjust to the brightness so we can take in more of our surroundings.  In the same way, if we just open the Bible occasionally, or whenever we need a quick fix, the glory of the Word of God overwhelms the Christian.  It seems there are messages to us everywhere we read.  If we stay in the Bible, though, the eyes of our hearts (Eph. 1:18) adjust, and we are less overwhelmed and can move about better.

Messages in Relief

A great way to know if something “is” is to see examples of something being “not” or absent.  There is a place in my regular running route where, if I’m going to have a so-called revelation, I often have it in this particular half-mile stretch of sidewalk.  Is that sidewalk particularly blessed or holy?  I almost always listen to a sermon by a preacher who structures his sermons in the same way.  He tends to make his main point in sermons all in the same place in his notes.  Based on our collective pacing (his preaching, my running), my running meets up with his main point in this half-mile stretch of the sidewalk, like clockwork.  I noticed the other day that I was in this stretch of the sidewalk but not feeling especially inspired by the sermon of the day.  This experience made me feel good because it’s evidence that my inspiration doesn’t come from this preacher, my endorphins, or even this stretch of sidewalk.  Not having an inspiration was evidence that it’s from something outside the current setting when I have it.  In other words, it’s not the setting that is conjuring the inspiration.

Reading the Bible more can lead to assurance of a direct word from God.  The more you read, the more times you will recall uninspired reading, even if the reading is good.  As much as we want every word from God’s mouth to be sweet to me like honey (Prov. 16:24), I cannot invoke or otherwise make that experience happen by reading.  I cannot conjure God by my whims or sacrifice.  Only gods crafted by man behave like that.  The Word is sweet when God causes it to be sweet, and when the reading is somewhat mundane, it is likely a method God uses to intensify the sweetness when He causes that experience.  Why would He do it this way?  To the hungry, even bitter things taste sweet (Prov 27:7).  More Bible reading will cause the Word of God to pop out in relief against the regular, virtuous, obedient, disciplined Bible reading that one does.  I read daily, hoping for a revelation each day, and am overjoyed and filled to the brim to overflowing (2 Cor 7:4) when I have that experience.  This relationship seems good to me because of the anticipation (SoS. 5:8) and also the satisfaction of the sweetness of God’s Word.  I can tell the direct word because I am daily in the Good Word.

Reading the Bible more will do many things for a Christian.  After all, it is the very Word of God, your Creator.  One thing more reading will do, however, is provide insight into those so-called words from God professed from pulpits and discerned from conjuring events.  After all, His sheep know which voice to listen to (John 10:16) and which to ignore (John 10:8).

AJ Switzer

This name is a moniker so that the text can speak for itself. I am developing what I can write about more than how I write. I use AI to edit my stuff.

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