An Exchange of Two Words
By JIM NICHOLS
The preacher was clearly saying it on purpose. At first, those of us in the congregation did not notice it. Perhaps we attributed it to the fact that he was young (as was I) and new. Soon, like something blurry becoming clearer, it came into focus.
Some churches, including this one, take the Bible quite seriously. In truth, all churches take the Bible seriously, but some take a more literal, word by word approach. You have perhaps seen a bumper sticker reading “The Bible; it says what it means and means what it says.” End of story.
There are, of course, deep problems with this approach, but it stirs some people negatively to have that pointed out. Perhaps you will feel that way as you read this.
Because of some scripture interpretations that have been problematic for me, I have searched for remedies. Since I do, in fact, believe we should take the Bible seriously, I have asked this question: “What is the Bible and what is it not?”
As the sermon time was approaching, the preacher said this: “I will be preaching from the text in Matthew chapter 25. Listen for the Word of God.” Then, he would read that scripture, whatever it was, and use that as the basis for his sermon. The next Sunday he would say, “I will be preaching from the text in John chapter six. Listen for the Word of God.” He would read it and preach on it.
Unless you are tuned in to this seemingly trivial point, you might not notice that he was saying “listen for the Word of God.” He was not saying “listen to the Word of God.” He had exchanged one word for another.
When I probed him on this, he explained that he was trying to give the Holy Spirit some space to work. He suggested that words from the Bible were used by the Spirit to speak specifically to us. What was alarming about this approach was that he was suggesting that some Bible passage might say something different to you than it does to me. That is, at least in some cases, the Bible words and message are specialized. That seemed to be truth to me, but I realized trouble brewing also.
What if I hear something different from what you hear? He said, “That’s just the way it is.” Indeed, each of us has had the experience of reading a Bible passage today that we have read all our lives. Only, this time, we see something different in that passage. The words speak to us in a deeper way or, perhaps, a completely different way. What does that mean? When we read that passage and heard one thing ten years ago, were we ignorant then? Being misled by Satan? Or are we today in a different spiritual position and fertile ground for the Spirit to speak to us in a new way? It made sense to me since that has been my experience.
There is an admittedly mystical flavor to this suggestion. Unfortunately, most of us have been overly trained to trust authority, tradition, and experimentation; we depend on the experts or precedent. I say this even as a scientist. The trap there is that, although God works from authority, God also works through love and compassion. Have we put too much weight on a God of pronouncements rather than a God of grace and encouragement and forgiveness for stupid deeds and beliefs?
Clearly, misinterpretations are always possible. We must develop filters that attempt to remove our own agendas. I am just suggesting that it is freeing to me to allow the Holy Spirit some room to speak to me through those written words. Furthermore, I am reminded that my positions and decisions need to be held lightly; God is attempting to speak to others also. Let us hold our positions not like a bulldog, but like a retriever that willingly yields when it hears its Master’s voice.
Even the apostle Paul noted that “Now we know only in part and prophesy only in part.”
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain