How to shut the Bible #1 – sacks and magnets (part two)

Have you ever tried to use a live octopus to push a large polished glass boulder up a hill? (This is a rhetorical question, but if the answer is “yes”, then I have so many more questions for you… please get in touch.)

I ask, because this is how I often feel when I’m reading the Bible. It’s one thing to open it up, read a few verses, clutch at something familiar or obvious, and then close it again. But to grapple with it – to say “what does this actually mean?”, or “why are we being told this?” – in short, to really listen – that’s a whole lot harder. And my temptation is to give up, put the octopus down, leave the glass boulder where it is, and do something else.

Next Olympic sport?
In real life, it’s not always easy to put the octopus down, either.

There are many reasons for this, but one of them is common to us all – our basic, sinful human opposition to God. On some level, we don’t actually want to listen to him.

Which means we’re always going to be tempted to shut the Bible. And, cunning creatures that we are, we’re good at finding ways to do this. Last week we discussed one potential technique – the sack of knowledge. The sack of knowledge is a good thing, and can be an excellent thing, as I hope I made clear here – but it can also be abused, and used as an excuse to shut our ears.

To summarise part one:

  • We have a sack of knowledge, in which we store the things we learn.
  • The Bible is our primary source; the sack is (at best) a secondary source.
  • The primary source is clearly better, but it’s easier to reach into our sacks than to wrestle the octopus.
  • This Bible/sack swap can be obvious or subtle, motivated by pride or by kindness, done consciously or subconsciously.
  • Johnny Depp.

Okay, so… what? Is this just nit-picking? Does it really matter?

The short answer is “Yes, it matters.” The long answer is “Yes, it matters, and here is a seven hundred page summary of the chaos this has caused in the last two thousand years of church history.”

What we’re plumping for here is the medium answer: five brief reasons to guard against the Bible/sack swap. Here goes.

1: Our sacks are leaky

We forget things. Unless your memory is a lot better than mine (not hard), the knowledge in your sack probably has an expiration date. It will go off over time. The words in the Bible, on the other hand, never go off. (The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand for ever – Isaiah 40:8). The Bible is more trustworthy than our memories.

Leaky sack of knowledge
Leaky sacks… “I’m sure Philippians said something about taking it easy and letting my wife do all the work…”

2: Our sacks are lumpy

At my current job, every employee is forced to undergo training on “subconscious bias”. Did it work? Dunno. Ask my subconscious. Anyway, my point is this: we have biases. Which means we’re not impartial curators of information. We have a filter on what goes into our sack, and we have a filter on what comes out of our sack. The Bible speaks the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; our sacks speak a subset of the truth – the subset that we (perhaps subconsciously) find the most palatable.

Lumpy sacks of knowledge
Lumpy sacks… “Jesus’s teaching basically boils down to ‘be nice to each other’ and ‘do your recycling'”

3: Our sacks aren’t worthy of cloning

How should Christian teaching work? Let’s say we’ve built ourselves an impressive sack of knowledge by diligently studying the Bible. This is a good thing. We’ve got a good secondary source of information at our fingertips. Now we start discipling someone. What do we do? Do we open up our sack, and hand them some of our favourite nuggets? Now they have a growing sack of their own, but it’s a tertiary source. It’s stuff they got from you, that you got from the primary source. So… because you are a great teacher, they now have:

  • a lovely big sack of third-hand information
  • first-hand experience of how to disciple other Christians (the way you discipled them)

So off they go, to disciple others… who will also end up with first-hand experience of how-to-open-a-sack, but now fourth-hand knowledge about God.

Passing on our sacks of knowledge
Sack cloning… “My youth minister once told me that his pastor had told him that their vicar used to say that the Bible in fact says that it’s the cheese makers who are blessed.”

Do you see the way this goes? Keeping in mind our innate sinful desire to shy away from the Bible anyway, what’s to stop this turning into a deadly game of Chinese whispers? What inconvenient truths will have leaked or lumped away by the fifth, sixth or seventh generation of disciples? If we’ve not taught anyone to listen to the primary source, then we’re just playing Jenga with the foundations of faith.

Don’t give people your sack, give them the Bible.

If we’re not sending people to the primary source, we’re playing Jenga with the foundations of their faith.

4: Our sacks can end up defining our pecking order

As it saith in the Bible, “in the land of the sack carriers, he who hath the biggest sack shall be King, yeah, and unto him shall the lesser sack carriers pay tribute.”

Fooled you – it doesn’t say that in the Bible. Or does it? No, it doesn’t. But take a group of people with big sacks and put them in a small room together. What’s going to happen? Maybe you’ll get a lot of lovely conversations where people use their sacks to help and encourage one another. That certainly happens. But another thing which can happen, sadly, is the macho I-know-more-than-you sack fight.

The biggest sack gets the loudest voice
Sack fights… “I’ll see your obscure reference to Exodus and I’ll raise you a reference to Zephaniah.”

Think about what it’s like for a young or timid Christian in a sack-based Bible study. If the normal means of contributing to the discussion is to brandish something from your sack, then the biggest sack gets the loudest voice. What can the baby Christian contribute? And what can Captain Big-Sack learn?

On the other hand, if your Bible study is – wait for it – a Bible study – then you have a much more level playing field. Anyone with a Bible, and the ability to read, can contribute. And everyone can learn.

Here’s are some good diagnostic questions to ask yourself before piping up in a Bible study:

  • am I saying this so people will be impressed by my sack size?
  • is what I’m saying actually in the passage we are meant to be studying?
  • if I’m reaching into my sack, is it with the aim of helping people to get deeper into the primary source?

We need to fight this perceived correlation between sack size and superiority. It’s helpful for a Bible study to have a leader. But does the leader need to have the biggest sack? No, actually. Why? Because their role isn’t that of a zookeeper, walking into the penguin enclosure with a big old sack of fish and tossing out crumbs to the hungry animals. They are not the food source. Hopefully they will have prepared for the study by doing their own hard, careful listening – but the fruits of that preparation shouldn’t be a bounty of nuggets to throw out to the crowd; it should be a deeper understanding of the terrain of the passage, so that they can lead the group to do their own foraging. The size of their sack should be largely irrelevant, beyond what they need to keep our attention focused on the primary source.

It’s ugly to see sack-based power plays in a Bible study. Who is the real authority in the room? The person with the biggest sack? No – it’s the Bible! Let the primary source be the primary authority. Again: not rocket science.

Let the primary source be the primary authority.

Okay, final reason – and it’s actually the main reason:

5: Sack regurgitation isn’t really listening

Or, at least, it’s not listening now. Owning a sack at all is a sign of having listened at some point. And, arguably, part of listening involves consulting and re-evaluating our sacks. Forgetting everything you already know about someone each time they start talking to you is not a great way to run a relationship.

But there is a danger of disappearing into our sacks and stopping our ears. We named this blog “Simply Listen” for a reason: the Bible is God speaking; reading the Bible is simply listening. As we explained here, good “Bible handling” is very much the same as good listening. Or, in other words, if you wouldn’t do it while listening to to a person, don’t do it while listening to God.

In this case, don’t disappear into your sack of knowledge and ignore the person speaking.

It's dark in here
Sack ears… “Quick, Johnny Depp is at the window! Hello? Are you stuck?”

In other words, keep the Bibles open!

If you wouldn’t do it while listening to to a person, don’t do it while listening to God.

So there you go. What have we learned? Listen to the primary source. The primary source trumps everything else. Fill your sack, and tend it well, but don’t let it take the top spot.

The great news is this: finding a Bible is really easy. How often in life do we have such easy access to our primary source? Why settle for anything less?

Happy listening.

If any of this has been useful, or if you think it might be useful to others, please consider passing it on, either verbally or by sharing the link. Let’s get those Bibles open!

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