Help! What Do I Do When I Don’t Understand the Bible?

thumb_41rJJE82O7L_1024Anybody who’s ever read the Bible for any length of time has experienced it. You’re reading along, understanding things well enough. But then, like Han Solo getting hit with a tractor beam aboard the Millennium Falcon, you come across a verse or passage that pulls you up short. “Wait, what did that say?” you ask yourself. Did someone interrupt your regularly scheduled English programming with an alien language? Or maybe it’s an image or metaphor that you simply don’t understand. Or it could be that you comprehend the words just fine, but you can hardly believe that they say what you think they say. In any case, confusion sets in, often soon followed by frustration. And you walk away, less confident in your ability to read the Bible, and less motivated to do so.

Of course all this is understandable. The Bible was written over a period of many centuries, by several different human authors, in three different ancient languages and in a host of different historical contexts. There’s bound to be a few things that trip us up. So what to do when you find yourself in this situation? Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Remember that you don’t need to understand everything to learn something.

There are many passages in the Bible that will appear strange or difficult to us for on reason or another. But the vast majority of it can be understood readily enough. And, as with any book of substance, just because you don’t readily grasp everything doesn’t mean you won’t benefit a good deal from what you can understand. Give yourself permission to set a verse or passage aside, at least temporarily. Believe me, you won’t run out of material to think about.

2. Difficulties are part of the process, and the process takes time.

Most things that are worth doing are worth overcoming obstacles to accomplish. You don’t just quit projects at work when they hit a snag, or just give into the weeds in your garden when they threaten your vegetables. The same principle holds true in reading your Bible.

Similarly, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your biblical understanding dawn all at once. The more you read, the more you’ll understand. Passages that once tripped you up may present fewer problems some time later as you grow in maturity and get more familiar with the world and language of the Bible.

3. Context, context, context.

This is one of the most important principles in biblical interpretation. In our normal conversation and reading, we know that the immediate context is crucial in determining meaning. And again, the same is true for reading the Bible. That means attempting to understand a difficult passage in light of the sentences and paragraphs immediately surrounding it, as well as the content of a biblical book as a whole. And in fact the ultimate context for every passage is the entire Bible. This is helpful not only for difficult language and grammar, but also for concepts. For example, to better understand in the New Testament why Jesus is called the “Lamb of God” or why he refers to himself as a temple, it’s helpful to look at the significance of lambs and temples in the Old Testament. Likewise, our concept of something like God’s love needs to be informed by his justice and holiness, and vice versa.

4. Interpret difficult passages in light of clear passages.

This is closely related to the previous point. Because God stands as the ultimate author behind the every passage and book within the Bible, we can be confident that each of its parts sits in harmony with the others—even if that’s not always immediately. That means clearly stated truths and concepts, particularly when we find them repeatedly, can and should inform us when we find ourselves wrestling with a particular passage that we find difficult.

5. Read in community and ask for help.

This is yet another way in which reading the Bible is like a lot of other things that you do. We often get more out of reading books and articles if we do so in conversation with others, even if they share a similar amount of knowledge of the material going in. And what do you often do if you’ve got a computer issue, home improvement project, etc., that you’re not sure how to tackle? You ask someone who knows more than you do, either a friend who knows he’s doing or a professional. Talking to someone who may be a bit further down the path in his or her faith—a friend, a small group leader, a pastor—can be a very helpful way to get perspective on a tough passage.

6. Use good resources.

There’s never been a better time in history to read the Bible. Not only is it more available than ever before, but we also have more resources to help us read than any generation that’s gone before us. One of the easiest and best things you can do along these lines is invest in a good study Bible. Study Bibles feature brief, verse-by-verse explanatory notes, along with introductory and background information for each biblical book, maps, and other resources. The ESV Study Bible is excellent, and coincidently, the new NIV Study Bible was just released today.

If you’d like to go a bit further, you should consider picking up a good Bible dictionary (see a good example here), which will give you articles on key Biblical words, concepts, characters, and so on. You can also look into Bible commentaries, which are able to provide more in-depth information than is normally feasible in a study Bible. Not all commentaries are created equal, however. They vary according to the theological commitments (or lack thereof) of their authors, as well as to their particular emphases and target audience. Some are meant more for the layperson, some for pastors and scholars. When in doubt, ask a pastor you trust for a recommendation.

*Originally Aug. 25, 2015

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