The Bible is Subjective
Perspective is an illusion. When you saw the black camels, you found out they were only shadows. That you saw camels was an illusion caused by perspective. The way your brain interprets data—whether that is something you see, hear, read, or perceive in some other way—the way your brain interprets data can cause you to “leap to false conclusions.”
Artists know this. Perspective cloaks reality, arguably creating an alternate reality; a subjective reality. And that’s how the artists from the video tricked our minds with the gradated bubbles. Authors do the same thing all the time to insight emotion and even belief in their readers.
But, it’s not really subjective.
When an artist draws, the drawing is really a piece of paper with graphite from a pencil spread all over it. It is real substance.
That we have a different perspective of it than what it is, speaks to the creativity of humankind. But, our creativity also points to our fallibility, since our creative minds are so good at creating alternate perspectives, alternate realities, perceptions that are not in fact real.
The way that we look at a thing determines what we see.
Is it a six or a nine?
Well, it depends on where you are standing. It depends on how you see it.
This one is more complicated.
Did you first see a saxophone player or a face?
Psychologists and neuroscientists have studied perspective pretty extensively and found that your unique personality traits and your unique life circumstances effect the way your brain interprets drawings—and the world around you—and consequently, the way that you interpret the image. I saw the sax player first; maybe you saw the face first.
Here’s an example of photographic distortion. Placing the dinosaur very close to the camera distorts reality by making a 3” plastic dinosaur look like it’s going to eat these full grown people. Perspective distorts reality. Your unique place within the world of humankind effects your perception of what really is.
Humans, by design, see real objective facts, subjectively. We look at the same facts and perceive them differently than each other.
These are simple examples. There are things in this world that are very true, but very hard to grasp. There are truths that God knows, that are hard for us to wrap our minds around because they are distorted by our own perspectives.
So, as we approach the Bible, if we want to know what God is teaching us through it, we need to try to set aside our subjectivity—our unique reading of scripture—in search of…
What God Means—Objectivity
So, let’s go back to school and have a quick grammar lesson. A verb can have an object and a subject. A verb is an action word like run or kick. The object is the one acting and the subject is the one being acted upon.
So if I say that Frank kicked the ball, Frank is the object and the ball is the subject, because the ball is being acted upon.
Now, let’s approach the Bible.
When you read the Bible which is the object and which is the subject?
In scenario A, we could say, Anthony reads the Bible. In this case, Anthony is the object and the Bible is the subject.
We could say, scenario B, The Bible reads Anthony. This is an awkward way to approach the reading of a book. But, if we were to word the sentence this way, the Bible becomes the object and the subject becomes Anthony. I become the subject.
In scenario A, the Bible is subject to my reading of it.
In scenario B, I become subject to the Bible. Maybe you see where I’m going with this.
In scenario A, my reading, my interpretation, and my living out of that interpretation are subject to the way I perceive it. This is what we call a subjective approach to reading because the meaning is determined by the subject. It doesn’t matter so much what God wrote as much as how I understand it. And that means that every unique person who reads the Bible with this approach will come away with a different understanding of it; their own subjective reading.
In scenario B, my reading, my interpretation, and my living out of that interpretation are subject—not to the way I perceive it—but to what God is communicating to me through it. This is what we call an objective approach to scripture. In this approach it doesn’t matter if I like it. It’s still true. It doesn’t matter if I obey it. It’s still true. It doesn’t even matter if I understand the Bible. The Bible is still true, because it’s truthfulness doesn’t hinge on whether or not I know what to do with it. The meaning isn’t influenced by me at all. It is determined by the unchanging object; the Bible.
And this is the dilemma.
Which scenario is right?
Do we do scenario A—the Bible’s meaning is determined by what it means to me?
Or do we do scenario B—the Bible’s meaning is determined by what God wants to communicate through it?
Here’s some stats on what people think about Bible reading.
50% of Christians believe the Bible was written for each person to interpret as he or she chooses.
38% of Christians do not believe the Bible is the highest authority for what they believe.
47% of Christians do not believe the Bible alone is the written word of God.
51% of Christians do not believe the Bible is 100% accurate in all that it teaches.
~ State of Theology Survey, 2016
In other words, roughly half of all Christians think scenario A is correct and everyone has the right to make the Bible mean whatever they feel it should mean based on their perception of reality. And this is what is meant by subjectivity: that every person has a different interpretation of the Bible based on their own circumstances—and that’s OK for many people.
But, is that what the Bible teaches?
And I realize the circular logic here. If you don’t believe the Bible is the ultimate authority, then it doesn’t matter what the Bible teaches. But, let’s see what the Bible says anyway, since I believe the Bible is God’s word and our authority on truth and reality.
Hebrews 4:12 says, “God’s word discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” That sounds like the Bible acting upon man, not man acting upon the Bible.
2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is breathed out by God.” That sounds like the scriptures—aka the Bible—are God’s objective truth.
Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” That sounds like the Bible is authoritative, not just for belief, but for guiding our actions.
Isaiah 40:8 says, “The word of God will stand forever.” That sounds like the Bible will never age, never change, never need an update, never become outdated. If you missed last week, I won’t address the issues here, but you can go to the website and see how the Bible can seem outdated, but in fact is not — actually, when the Bible seems outdated, it could be a sign you are reading it subjectively not objectively.
John 1:1 tells us that the truth of the Bible is as eternal as God himself is eternal.
Proverbs 2:6 says that wisdom, knowledge and understanding come from God.
God is the object of truth. God is unchanging. Truth is unchanging as long as the object of truth never changes. If we are to believe that the Bible is authoritative, then there is no way we can ever say, ‘This is what it means to me,’ because we ought rather be concerned with, ‘This is what it means to God.’ ‘This is what God meant.’
But, there’s an elephant in the room. You may be thinking that people who claim to believe in the authority of the Bible still disagree with each other.
What do we do with Bible believing Christians who disagree? What do we do when two Bible believing Christians approach the Bible, praying for the Holy Spirit to enlighten them to the mysteries of God and they wank away with two different meanings?
Well look at this verse. When Jesus was preparing to go to the cross, he told his disciples that he must die and rise to the right hand of the Father so that he could send the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth. And then he says,
John 16:13 ESV
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.
Look closely at the grammar.
Did Jesus say he would enlighten you to all truth? Is this immediate receipt of all truth?
I don’t fish. I really don’t like fishing. I often say the only thing worse than fishing is catching a fish. It’s just not my thing. But, I’ve been fishing. And I know enough fishermen to know this.
Have you ever hired a fishing guide?
I haven’t, but I’ve watched those shows at my in-laws house about fishing and they hire fishing guides and charter boats and all that.
So, when you hire a fishing guide, they don’t take you to a hatchery and tell you to throw your line in. You would probably be really mad if they did. You don’t need a guide for that.
No, when you hire a guide, they are going to take you from creek to creek, river bend to river bend, lake to lake. They are going to walk you through the process, guiding you to find the fish you want to catch.
And sometimes, you don’t find all the fish you want.
We make a grave error when we assume that professing to follow Jesus means you have ‘all truth.’ People misinterpret this all the time to mean that since they believe in Jesus, everything they believe about the Bible must be right. That’s an immense error.
The reality is, we are working with a limited data set. We don’t have the capacity to understand God according to our own understanding. We need to be guided by the Spirit of God, through the Word of God, especially the Bible, in the direction of truth. The Spirit guides us in the direction of all truth, and the longer we submit to the Spirit, the closer we get to ‘all truth.’ But, ‘all truth’ is not something we accomplish in this life.
And I’m not saying that everything you believe is untruth because you don’t yet have ‘all truth.’ It’s kind of like this:
What is likely is that we have a partial truth and another person has a partial truth. And it can seem like those truths contradict or disagree with each other, but that’s not always the case. I’ll give you an example.
There’s this controversy within Christianity where one person says, “You have to obey God’s commands to be a Christian.” And another person says, “No, you don’t have to do anything to be a Christian. Jesus’ gift of salvation is free.”
Which is it? Do I obey God to be saved? Or is salvation free?
Those statements seem to disagree, but both of those actually have biblical warrant.
John 15:14 ESV
You are my friends if you do what I command you.
But, Paul said,
Ephesians 2:8 ESV
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,
So, do we keep laws or believe in a free gift? Which is it?
Well…in a sense…both. Jesus said,
John 14:15 ESV
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
When you love God because of His free gift, the natural response is to keep the commandments of God. Authentic Christians are those who both received the free gift of salvation AND are characterized by obedience.
I show you this so that you will see that objective truth transcends our limited understanding. We are moving towards ‘all truth,’ but it is not yet in our grasp.
That reality has been so life giving to me. I have so much more patience for people who disagree with me because of this understanding. It’s really helped me to be able to listen to other people and understand their perspective. And I often find that the beliefs of others have a strain of thought that I’m missing.
I have Lutheran and Reformed friends who have inspired me with classic liturgies. I have charismatic friends who have helped me desire deeper spirituality. And my focus on the Bible and interpretation has been an inspiration to many of my friends from other circles.
When we come together with other Christians under the reality of Jesus Christ in the Word of God, I believe we come closer to ‘all truth.’
So, our reading of scripture needs to be focused on what God means in the scripture. It’s not what we want it to say or what we believe it should say, but what God says. Objectivity, though, takes on different forms when it interacts with uniquely formed people. So once we know What God meant, we are at liberty to ask…
What it Means for Me—Subjectivity
Notice I’m not contradicting myself. It’s not what it means to you. God determines what it means. But, what it means for you.
What happens when Frank kicks the ball? Right, it flies through the air, at least as long as he did it right.
But, what happens when we change the subject? What if Frank kicks a brick? … That brick isn’t probably going to move at all.
When you change the subject, the effect on the subject changes.
So, when we talk about the truths of scripture molding, shaping and changing people, it is inevitably going to look a little different for each of us. The word of God doesn’t change, but it’s imprint on the life of the individual is going to be unique.
Here’s a comic I found.
After being stranded on the island for so long, the man is excited about the boat. But, the other man, after floating at sea for so long is excited to find the island. The boat is a boat. The island is an island. But, their perception of each is different because of where they stand, because of their perspective. They both see the island and the boat in a different light.
It’s not that the boat is any less a boat or that the land is any less land. It’s that the starting point of the individual determines the way the truth is perceived.
So, let’s have an exercise here. In Philippians 2:4, the Apostle Paul writes,
Philippians 2:4 ESV
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Now, it’s pretty clear what God means. He means that we should not be self-centered, but be concerned with others. That’s the unchanging, God given meaning of the text.
But, what imprint does this verse have on your life? How do you live your life in light of this verse?
I want everyone to do this. Think about your life. Think about someone in your life that God wants you to be concerned with.
What does that look like to lift their interests above your own? What are you doing because of this verse for that person in order to care for their interest?
• Many of you, when you read this verse, thought of someone who was in need—hungry, in need of clothes or shelter. And you were thinking of ways that you can give up some of your own interests, your own assets, in order to care for the interests of hungry or needy people.
• Others of you thought of people that you interact with—coworkers, friends, family members—and felt that maybe you hold your interests above others in this way. Maybe you like to control the remote when your family gets before the TV. Maybe you always pick the restaurant when you go out to eat. Maybe you only play certain games. Some of you may have realized that you are so self-focused, you force the people around you to take interest in your interests and as a result you were challenged to figure out what is interesting to others and begin to give up your interests to play their game, watch their show, do their thing.
• And I’ll tell you where my mind goes. I live life in my head. So, I immediately take this verse to mean that I need to consider the thoughts and feelings of others, even above my own; that I need to take a genuine interest in what other people think and feel. And I need to have genuine concern for the truths that they believe and the lies they believe. And I need to speak, write, and act in a manner of gentleness and patience that will move them in the direction of truth.
What I want to be clear I’m saying is this: The meaning of the Bible never changes. What God says is true will always be true for everyone forever. We don’t get our own unique perspectives on reality. What God calls sin, is sin. Always. It never changes.
But, the way we live our those truths can take different forms depending on who you are, when you live, where you live, who you encounter on a day-to-day basis, and so on.
So, how can you know how to live out the objective truths of the scriptures in a unique way?
The answer is by…
We often use the word ‘devotional’ in the church to mean a short message or reading. We use it to mean a message or sermon that is shorter than a message usually is. Or a short reading in a book or email. But, that’s not what it really means.
A devotion is a message or reading that has the explicit purpose of helping you express your devotion to God. A lot of devotional books that are out there will have a scripted prayer after the teaching, because they want you to have a language to express your devotion to God as much as they want you to have the ability to live out your devotion to God.
But, we don’t always read the Bible, devotionally, do we?
There are lots of reasons that we read the Bible.
• Some people read the Bible academically. This is reading for knowledge and understanding, but not for actual life change.
• Some people read the Bible religiously. This is reading the Bible out of obedience. And often this kind of reading produces little fruit in the life of the reader, because they aren’t reading to be changed by the Word; they are reading the word to prove they have been changed. And that’s different. It’s more about getting to the end of the chapter than getting to the truth of it.
• Many people read the Bible scarcely. That is to say, not very often, if ever at all.
• I often read the Bible to teach. And that’s not a bad thing but it a different reason.
• And there are other reasons.
But, I’ll let you in on a little secret. There is no direct command in the Bible to read the Bible. I’ve heard preachers all but condemn their listener to hell for not reading their Bible’s every single day.
And I know why they do that. They don’t preach these messages condemning people for not reading their Bibles because they’re mean or bigots or self-righteous. It’s not that at all.
They preach this way, because they have found in the Christian life that a time of reading the Bible on a daily basis makes immense change in their lives—so much so, that they can’t imagine a Christian who doesn’t read the Bible. After years, probably decades reading the scriptures, they just can’t fathom why someone would call themselves a Christian and then not bathe daily in the truths of God in the Bible. It’s a disconnect.
It’s like saying Spielberg is your favorite movie director, but you never watched the Jurassic Park movies…or any of his other movies.
So, sure there’s no command in scripture to read the Bible, but it’s pretty much assumed that a Christian is going to read the Bible. And even the Biblical authors assume that God’s people will read the Bible.
• In Ephesians 5:1, Paul says to imitate God. That requires you know what he is like and how he acts. That requires the Bible.
• Psalm 119:105, the Psalmist says that the Bible guides our steps. We don’t express our devotion to God by wandering aimlessly through life; no, through the Bible, we learn to follow God’s ways. God directs our path.
• Psalm 119:11, the Bible keeps us from evil deeds, sin.
• John 17:17, the Bible teaches truth—in a world where there are so many competing truths, the Bible leads us into truth.
• Joshua 1:8-9, the Bible gives us courage to persevere in the Christian life.
• Psalm 1:2-3, the Bible produces joy and prosperity.
If all of time and reality were a play written by the divine playwright, then our devotion to God is played out in the reading of the script that God has written.
The Apostle Paul writes this about the scriptures. He says,
1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
In other words, people don’t naturally understand how to live spiritually. We don’t naturally know how to live like God wants us to live. It’s not that a person can’t read the Bible and understand it’s meaning. It’s that a person will not want to live as God calls us to live unless the Spirit of God moves that person to do so.
Paul says, by nature, God’s ways are foolish to people. We see the wisdom of God when we pursue Him according to the Spirit.
Another way to say this would be to say that we cannot be devoted to God unless the Spirit of God stirs in our hearts to desire God and to desire God’s ways.
So when we come to the reading of the scripture, I think prayer is important, because prayer involves the Spirit of God in the reading. I think there are three ways we pray.
One is that we pray before we read. We ask God to reveal the truth of the scripture to us and show us how to live it out. Second, we pray while we read. When the Bible’s authors praise God, praise God with their words. When the Bible’s authors lament sin, lament sin to God using their words. Pray through the scriptures as you read. And third, pray after you read. Once you have read a passage and considered how to live according to its truth, pray that God would help you desire to live it out and that the Spirit would empower you to live it out.
Prayer involves God in reading the book He wrote. We will never understand it better than when we read it side-by-side with its author.
Our devotional reading of scripture starts with prayer and everything flows from there. When you pray, ASK God specifically to help you in the areas that you struggle. ASK God specifically to empower you in your areas of weakness. ASK God to make you love specific things that He loves, but you find unlovable. ASKing God specifically in prayer will result in the changing of your heart and mind to be more like His.
READ Prayerfully, ASK Specifically, and then LIVE Intentionally.
God is not a puppeteer who forces Christians to do His bidding.
When God sent the Israelites into the Promised Land to drive out all the Pagan people. He gave them a promise. He said, ‘I will be with you.’ But, that didn’t mean that God drove the evil out of the land all on his own. The Israelites were real people, that had to take real swords and stab real people to drive them out of a very real land. God empowers us to act. But, if you want God to work in your life you must act. You must take the promises of God—the objective truths and realities of God—in the Bible and live intentionally by them.
James 4:17 ESV
So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
He says this because God will not force you to do the work you are called to do. He won’t force you to do what is right and good. But, if you are devoted to Him and you are pursuing God and God’s ways, then He will reveal truth to you, he will show you the right ways and the right things. But then, lest you sin, you must live intentionally to accomplish all that He has offered to you.
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