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Reading the Bible as if for the first time

January 2017 | by Alfred Thompson

One of the blessings of being part of the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators is that we get to hear many thrilling and exciting stories about the reactions of people around the world when they encounter the Bible for the first time in their own language.

As God speaks to people through his Word, people come away changed, or even transformed. A woman called Ndeere, in a village in Mali, recalls the impact on her actions of Romans 12:20, which says: ‘If you do good to your enemy, it is as though you are placing burning coals on their head’.

‘Burning coals’

‘I thought hard about this passage’, Ndeere says, ‘and then I applied it to the case of a woman who lives in the same courtyard as me, who doesn’t like me at all. She used to say to her friends that she didn’t even want to see me.

‘It is our custom that, if women are heading out to work in the fields, for younger women to carry the baskets of the older ones. But this woman, such a nasty person as she is, nobody would carry her basket for her.

‘When I heard this in Romans, I started to carry her basket each time we went to the fields and we came back from the fields. Some of my friends told me not to do that, because she doesn’t like me. But still I carried on.

‘At last, the nasty lady said to me she was afraid of me because I respect her so much. And in the end she stopped hating me. What is more, I have to say that the Bible has made me more patient. There was a time when, if someone would criticise me, I wouldn’t feel at ease unless I attacked them back. Now everyone is surprised at the change in my behaviour’.

That is what God can do through his Word: change behaviour, change lives and change communities. This is why all of us at Wycliffe are so passionate about translating the Bible, so that everyone, no matter where they are from or what language they speak, will be able to experience its transforming power.

Reading afresh

In the UK, we have many translations of the Bible to choose from (especially in English), and we may have been reading the Bible for many years. But stories like Ndeere’s cause us to ask, ‘How often does reading the Bible change our behaviour?’ If you are at all like me, the answer is, unfortunately, not often enough.

There may be many reasons for this. We don’t have, or make, the time to read it frequently enough, or deeply enough; over-familiarity seems to blunt its impact; we don’t allow the Holy Spirit to enable the Bible to become ‘alive and active’ (Hebrews 4:12) in our lives.

Savour itYet I think most Christians do want the Bible to have the same kind of effect on their lives as it did on Ndeere’s life. So let’s briefly look at three ways we can go about reading the Bible so that it impacts our lives afresh:

Taking the time to read a passage slowly and prayerfully, considering each word and phrase thoughtfully — or even reading a verse over and over, so that it sinks into us deeply — can help us engage more deeply with what God is teaching us through his inspired Word.

Nalla, a woman from another part of Mali, talks about how savouring 1 Timothy 2:1-4 in this way changed how she prayed. Previously, she says, ‘I thought it was unfair that I should pray for the authorities, since they are not doing what is right! But one day, I was reading the passage in Timothy that tells us to pray for everyone, even the authorities. Since then I do not make a distinction in my prayers: because this is God’s will’.

Engage with the story

Approximately 70 per cent of the Bible is written in a story-telling style, and, as God knew when he inspired the writing of the Bible, stories often impact us more deeply than more intellectual forms of writing. This is why Jesus often taught using parables.

We tend to remember stories more easily and they can become part of us and shape how we live, for good or ill. So reading the stories of the Bible, getting to know them deeply, allowing them to become part of us, and then to shape how we respond to situations we find ourselves in, can be a very fruitful way for us to engage with the Bible.

A man called Abed, who is also from Mali, testifies to the power of the stories in the Bible to change us. ‘Forgiveness is not easy, especially if you think you are right’, Abed explains. ‘My daughter left home to marry a non-Christian, and I could not handle that. My wife and I resolved to shun her forever. Many brothers from church came to see me about it. I even said to the pastor that, if he ever spoke to me again about it, I would leave the church.

‘In reply, the pastor said that he would no longer speak about it, but that God himself would speak to me. One night I couldn’t sleep, so I turned on my audio Bible at 2.00am. It was the parable of the Prodigal Son. As I listened, I put myself in the place of the father. That morning I asked my son to go and call my daughter to come to the house. I am her father, yet I offended her and tortured her by depriving her of her mother and father for three years’.

Listen out for surprises

Psychologists talk about our human tendency towards ‘confirmation bias’, which means, for example, that we prefer to read newspapers whose political viewpoints we agree with.

This can affect how we read the Bible. If we think we already know what a passage means as we read it, we may be less open to what else God could be saying to us through it. God doesn’t change Scripture, of course, but God’s Word is living and the Holy Spirit may choose to bring out different things at different times. God can change, and deepen, our understanding of it.

This happened to a man called Simon, also from Mali, who, because he was the richest person in his village and church, thought his riches would help him gain favour with God. Then he heard about the rich young man in Mark 10 and realised instead, that ‘God does not look at our riches in order to make us a man or woman of value, but he looks instead at what we do with our riches for him. One day I will go to be with him and that’s where my riches should be’.

Transformational reading

As these stories all demonstrate, reading God’s Word can renew our minds and transform us. That is why at Wycliffe we are so passionate about translating the Bible, so that everyone can experience its transformational impact in their lives.

But the Bible doesn’t only have that impact on people who are reading it for the first time. For, if we make the effort to read it afresh, reading the Bible can be just as transformational for those of us who have read it many times before.

(To find out more about the work of Wycliffe Bible Translators, go to www.wycliffe.org.uk).

Alfred Thompson

Wycliffe Bible Translators