Jason and I had a rare date night recently, and when we ended up with a little time before our dinner reservations, we popped in to a local Christian bookstore to look around. As a reader, I love browsing bookstores. On this particular occasion, I spotted several books I wanted to add to my reading list.
But I also spotted a lot of books that (based on the titles) seemed to me to be missing the point. Jason and I have often wondered what a foreigner or alien would think the church believed if they simply judged us on the books we buy and sell. As I walked through the aisles, I started to worry that they would perceive a church that is weak and powerless, so consumed with our own needs and self-esteem that we constantly battle the same issues, and never become effective agents of God’s mission in the world.
The writer of the book of Hebrews had the same concerns for the people of Israel who had turned to Christ:
“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Hebrews 5:12-14
Are you an infant? Or are you a mature Christian?
Sadly, may of us in America are “grown up,” in that we’ve been serving Christ a long time, but we have not yet reached maturity. Like it says in Hebrews, we should be teachers, but we need someone to teach us the basics over and over again. In his book, Cultivating a Life for God, Neil Cole says this about the current state of the church:
“We are the most biblically privileged generation in all of human history! We have more Bible translations, helpful study tools and mountains of scholarly information than any previous generation in all of human history. Nevertheless, we are also the most biblically illiterate generation this nation has ever seen. In other parts of the world and in other [times], people willingly gave their lives for free access to God’s word, yet her in the Western world many of us have several unread volumes in a variety of translations collecting dust on the shelf” (p. 64).
“Most of us would be ashamed if compared the amount of books, magazines and newspaper articles we have poured into our minds with the amount of God’s word we have invested into our souls. Doesn’t that tell us that we really value the world’s philosophies more than God’s?” (p. 87).
That’s the heart of the issue right there. How we spend our time reveals our priorities. And I’m not exempting myself from this scrutiny, either. I am appalled at my own heart’s willingness to set aside God’s word for the words of the most popular Christian author, or even for a few hours of reading a bestselling novel or watching television. I don’t have a lot of solutions, other than to say that we need to set those things aside and pick up our Bibles instead.
Practically speaking, for my own life, what this has looked like recently is to camp out in a single passage of Scripture, instead of taking in more and more and more without actually applying it to my life. I have read Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) nine times this week, and I am still so far from really truly grasping what Jesus is asking of me. The Bible is comprised of 66 books, and these three short chapters are such a small fraction of that. And yet, look at all the many things Jesus commands in this sermon:
- Let your light shine before men. (5:16)
- Teach God’s commandments to others. (5:19)
- Be more righteous than the Pharisees. (5:20)
- Devote yourself to reconciliation with fellow believers, to the point that you would be willing to interrupt a worship service at church to make things right with someone who was upset with you. (5:23)
- Cut anything out your life if it causes you to sin. (5:29)
- Be so true to your word that it is unnecessary for you to make promises or swear oaths. (5:37)
- Be overly generous to people who seek to take advantage of you. (5:40)
- Love and pray for people you do not like. (5:44)
- Give to the needy, but not so as to be recognized for your generosity. (6:2)
- Pray faithfully, but not so that people will think you are very spiritual. (6:5)
- Fast, but don’t draw attention to yourself while you’re fasting. (6:17)
- Store up treasures in heaven, not on earth. (6:20)
- Don’t worry about your food or clothes. (6:25)
- Judge other people with the same standard you would use for yourself. (7:2)
- Treat others the way you want to be treated. (7:12)
I don’t know about you, but I could strive for the rest of my life just to live out the truths listed here. And it’s important to remember that these truths are meant to literally change our lives. Jesus shares this right at the very end of the Sermon on the Mount:
“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against the house, yet it did not fall because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27)
I want to be wise. I want the things I build during this life to stand. I want them to be built on a firm foundation. And after taking an honest look at these three chapters, I recognize that I have a long way to go. I wondered last night – what if I just kept reading these three chapters until my life started to look a little more like what Jesus is describing here? What if I continued to meditate on this passage alone until I saw fruit of it in my life?
I’m not saying I would ever get it perfectly, and it’s only by God’s grace and through His work in us that we are able to become more like Him. And of course, I want my study of God’s word to be balanced and comprehensive. But neither do I want to glibly assume that I am already being obedient to everything Jesus asks of me here, because I know that is not the case. So I’m going to keep hanging out with the crowds who gathered to hear Jesus speak on the mountainside. I’m going to lean in close, and let his words change me.
And I challenge you to do the same. Spend some time next week reading and rereading a single passage of Scripture. It doesn’t have to be the Sermon on the Mount. It could be the book of James. Or Hebrews 10-12. Or the letters to the churches in Asia in Revelation 2-3. All Scripture is God-breathed. But whatever you pick, don’t just read it once and let it go in one ear and out the other. Dwell in the words of God, covering yourself in their truth, and reminding yourself over and over again what He says.
Let’s not be a church of immature believers. Instead, let’s really read God’s Word, aiming not to acquire knowledge, but to transform our minds and conform ourselves to the image of Christ.