9 Things To Do When You Don’t Understand Something in the Bible
First published 14 September 2010
One of the reasons I have lapsed in my blogging over the last couple of months is that I stumbled on a verse I read in my daily Bible reading. When I say I stumbled, I mean that I met a mental block and my faith was tested.
Ok, the verse was James 5:15, “And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.”
For those who followed my blog over the last 8 months, and for those who know me well, the reason for my stumbling will be immediately apparent. I have been very sick, suffering with cancer. And obviously I have prayed quite a bit for healing and help. Reading that verse again made me shiver, because in reading it that morning it seemed as if James was saying that there is no need for a Christian to suffer with illness. If we suffer with illness all we need to do is call the elders, have them pray for us, and we’ll get better. Simple as that!! And I started to argue in my mind – not only did this not seem to hold true, but it also seemed to contradict other parts of the Bible.
I will write more about my conclusions with regard to that particular issue next time. For now I just wanted to reflect on the process that I went through to resolve the issue in my mind.
All Christians hit these difficult issues either practically in life or when we read the Bible. How do we resolve them? I’ll list what I did. I’m not saying this is definitive, or that I did everything right. I probably could have done things differently, or done different things. You may have other things that you do in these situations, and if so please share in the comments box. But what I did helped in this case, so there is probably some merit in sharing. It’s also worth saying that I didn’t do these things in a strict order. I’ll talk about them in a logical order, but in reality I went back and forth between all of them throughout the whole investigation. It’s more of an iterative process than a linear process.
1. See if someone else has found the answer
The first thing I normally do, and I did in this case, was to see if I have any books on the issue in question. I looked through my bookcase for a book on prayer. Unfortunately I didn’t have one! I would have liked to look in Tim Chester’s book, The Message of Prayer, but I cannot afford to buy lots of books at the moment. If I’d had the time I could have asked my local library to get it in, but I didn’t.
So the next thing I did was to go searching the internet. There are positives and negatives to this. It is true that you can find advice on just about anything on the internet, but not everything you find is reliable. So you have to be discerning. In fact, if you don’t read much Christian stuff, or you don’t know who the most reliable and doctrinally sound writers are, then I would advise against searching the internet. Ask your pastor/vicar, or friends who are Christians, which websites they find helpful and bookmark them.
One of my personal favourites is www.desiringgod.org. It contains just about everything that John Piper has ever written or said in a sermon, and he is one of the most helpful writers I have found over the last few years. He takes the Bible seriously and his teaching always leads you to God, rather than glorifying himself as a writer or speaker. So I looked at that website.
Sometimes you will find a satisfactory answer at this stage, and you need go no further. However in my case I wasn’t satisfied with the answer I initially found in John Piper’s sermons on James 5. On the other hand I did get some further clues, and this is something to watch out for too. He referred to difficult passages on prayer in Mark 11, amongst other things. So I looked those up and it highlighted to me that I had a bigger issue than just James 5. There appear to be a number of passages that give a similarly broad and certain promise of answered prayer.
2. Share the burden
Having done some initial investigation I had at least clarified what I had a problem with. So I started to ask other Christians what they thought about the issue.
Now I should advise you to normally speak to your pastor, or someone in your church with teaching responsibilities, such as a housegroup leader. They are the ones who have been given the responsibility to teach us, so we should go to them to help us. I have to admit that in my case I didn’t do this. Instead I chatted with a few of the more experienced Christians that I know – friends and family.
I think that part of the reason we are often reluctant to go to pastors and leaders is that we don’t want to appear stupid. We want to appear as those who have avidly lapped up their teaching and now know everything. We don’t want to appear weak and doubtful. But this is wrong. It may be the church has an intimidating ethos, where most people act in public as if they have everything sewn up. But there is normally more than a small element of sinful pride within ourselves, which worries about what people think about us. In fact it’s the aggregation of the sinful pride of many individuals within a church that gives rise to the intimidating ethos within the group.
Whoever you go to for help with your questions, just be honest with them. Our purpose within the body of Christ is to help each other. No-one is perfect. All believers in this life are on a journey of faith, and we all experience ups and downs along the way. We should share our experiences and learnings honestly, and share our questions and doubts honestly too.
3. Find all the relevant passages
In my case the people I spoke to did not have all the answers I wanted. They sympathised and agreed that it is a difficult question. They also affirmed some of the ideas I had, so I knew that they were worthy of further investigation. However, I needed to do a bit more work, investigating for myself in the Bible.
So I assembled a list of all the passages that appeared to speak about the same subject – the success of faithful prayer. I also assembled a list of passages that give background information on the subject and put the subject in a wider context. So, for instance, I made sure that I thought about the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6. I also had another list of passages that gave practical examples of prayer in the New Testament (I skipped the Old Testament partly because the Psalms would have kept me occupied for months (!), and partly because my problem was in New Testament teaching and therefore I most needed New Testament background).
I found those passages using a concordance. A concordance, for those who have never used one, is a book that lists all the references to particular words in the Bible. You will normally find a short concordance in the back of a “study Bible”. An “exhaustive concordance” is one that goes through every single word mentioned in the Bible (except words like “the”, “a”, “and”, and “but”) and gives lists of all the instances of those words, with chapter and verse references.
In fact, in this case I wasn’t actually using my concordance. I used a great internet resource: www.biblegateway.com. On this website you can search for words and get the list of verses, or you can search for specific verses, out of many different translations of the Bible (and in several languages). It’s really useful, especially if you do most things on a computer, as I seem to do nowadays.
You have to use your brain here, though. The concordance will only tell you instances of words. You have to edit that list to only include passages that are relevant to your investigation. And you have to think of synonyms and alternative ways of expressing the ideas you want to investigate, so you may need to do several searches to make sure you have covered everything.
4. Look at the context of each passage
Now comes the time consuming part! Each of the verses you identified needs to be read in context. We’ve all seen on TV where “sound bites” taken out of someone’s conversation can give a completely incorrect impression of what they were actually trying to say. The same is true of the Bible, where we can read a verse out of context and miss the whole point of what the passage is trying to say.
So in my case I had assembled about 10 or 12 verses, and I went through each one, looking at the surrounding context. What I mean by the surrounding context is the verses before and after. How far you go back before the verse in question, and how far you follow on after the verse, is subjective. I tended to try and identify a “major section”, which in some cases was the whole of a sermon or discourse, or a particular section of an argument in a letter. In the case of the verses in James’ letter, I took the whole letter as the context. It’s only five chapters, so I might miss something if I divide it down into sections too small.
In looking at the context you really have to paraphrase the argument that the writer is trying to present, or the thing that the writer wants us to understand from a narrative. The question is, “what’s the point?” It’s looking at the big picture and asking what the major points are. By doing that you get a better feel for things like hyperbole (exaggeration!) or irony.
5. Study each passage
Studying each passage is an art rather than a science, but there are various tools you can use. One of those tools I will mention below. Basically the purpose is to get clear on the meaning of a small section within the context of the big section.
One of the hardest things, I find, is sometimes actually trying to understand the flow of a passage or an argument. Sometimes different bits of teaching will be put next to each other by an author, or even narratives involving completely different events, without the author explicitly telling us how they link together. Is there a chronological link between events? Or is there a thematic link? And if there is a thematic link, what’s the theme? Are they steps in an argument?
Looking at parallel passages, or allusions, can help too. For instance, Mark 11:24 was one of the verses I was investigating. Matthew also records the same incident in Matthew 21:21. But Matthew tells it slightly differently, which leads you to ask why. And then the answer to that explains what they are each trying to emphasise by including the incident in their accounts.
Ask questions, think laterally, look at patterns within the passage. Do everything you need to do to really understand what the author is trying to get across.
6. Do word studies if necessary
One way that you can get some light on a particular passage is to analyse the use of a particular key word or phrase that you may have picked up. If you are up for it you can investigate the Greek or Hebrew original languages even if you don’t know any Greek or Hebrew – you just need a concordance that has Greek and Hebrew references. That highlights where the particular word in the original language is translated in different ways in the English version.
By looking at other passages that use the same word or phrase, you can often get a lot of insight into what the writers meant by it. For instance, when I was looking at John 14:13 and John 16:24 I noticed the use of the phrase “in my name”. In John 14:13, Jesus says, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.” What did he mean by “in my name”? So I found a bunch of places, especially in the New Testament, and especially spoken by Jesus, that include that phrase. I looked to see what this meant in different contexts, so that I could build up a picture of what it meant when Jesus said it in the passage I was primarily looking at.
7. Read commentaries
Commentaries are books written by Bible scholars to go through and explain books of the Bible verse by verse. Each commentator will have their own style and emphasis, as well as unique insights and way of looking at things. But their aim is to go verse by verse through particular books and give a deep insight into what we should get from them.
Commentaries are very useful when you have found the Bible passages that you need more light on. But I find that they are most useful when you have first done a lot of the studying outlined above. That way I find that I will have more specific questions and issues that I would like to find the answers to.
But sometimes you find that the commentaries don’t comment on the particular questions you have. That’s frustrating. But their lack of comment on your questions may, in fact, be telling in itself, especially if you have scoured two or three different commentaries on the same book. You may be asking the wrong questions. That happened to me on several occasions while I was studying the passages on prayer recently.
As a word of caution, remember that commentaries are not the Bible, and they are written by fallible, sinful, human beings, just like you and me. Many commentators are very knowledgeable and give great insights, but they are still not exempt from making mistakes. Read these books with discernment, and do not just accept what they say.
8. Summarise your findings
After you have amassed all this study material, you have to see whether it is leading in a consistent direction to a conclusion. Weigh the different pieces of information carefully, and decide what you believe.
9. Ask the ultimate author
Above all things, throughout the whole process, pray. James 1:5 says, “If anyone lacks wisdom, he should ask God.” We get our guidance from God’s Word, and He lives within us in His Holy Spirit. We rely on Him. Without Him we cannot understand anything. So we should acknowledge that and pray often, humbly and earnestly for understanding.
Well, those are a few thoughts. You will have to wait for a future article to judge how successful I was in the study on prayer. It took me about two months altogether. So sometimes it does take a bit of wrestling and hard work.
I would also recommend these kinds of methods when you have a practical issue for which you need Biblical guidance (e.g. you want to find out if it is right for a Christian to date a non-Christian, or whether it is acceptable for Christians to drink alcohol, etc.).
Perhaps there will be another opportunity to write more on this, but for now I’ll just finish by recommending a book that helped me. It’s What to do on Thursday by Jay E. Adams (Timeless Texts, 1995). The subtitle is A Layman’s Guide to the Practical Use of the Scriptures, and that just about sums it up. It’s premise is that it’s all very well reading the Bible and hearing it preached on a Sunday, but what do you do on a Thursday when you have a practical issue to resolve and want to know the right thing to do? How do you get the Bible’s guidance? So what Adams does is give you a process like the steps I outlined above, but much more detailed (and from the perspective of an experienced pastor and counsellor).
All the best with your own studies!