How to Read the Bible With Your Head (And Not Lose Your Heart)
Paul J. Pastor • February 6, 2020
Lev / Heart
Different cultures have different conceptions of the human heart, what it is and what it does, and the biblical authors are no exception. In this video we'll explore the ancient Hebrew words for "heart" as well as the different ideas of what our hearts represent. There is no biblical word that captures better the essence of human thought, feeling, and desire, than this rich and wonderful word.Video Details
Growing in our ability to read the Bible well means bringing our whole person to the project. In the previous post in this series, we considered a few simple ways to read the Bible with our hearts––our full emotive selves––without losing our “heads,” our more intellectual side. Now let’s flip that and ask how we can enter into the Bible brain-first (yes, quite a few of us are wired that way!) without sacrificing the full, human experience of emotive response.
From the beginning, readers of biblical literature have found themselves swept up by its depth of thought. Whether in the rhetorical complexity in the book of Job, the intricate case studies of Mosaic Law, or Paul’s maze-like logical arguments, there is food for rich thought in every book of the Bible. Preachers, teachers, rabbis, and theologians have lost––and found––themselves in the pages of the Bible, producing some of the most impressive works of scholarship in human history.
To see a mind wrestle with the deep thoughts of Scripture is a beautiful thing, but we all know that this rational connection with the Bible can have a shadow side. Some of us have been stung by someone’s intellectual arrogance about the Bible. It hurts when facts––maybe facts we never had a chance to study in depth or are unable to really argue with––get deployed to put us down. (I sometimes wonder how many evangelists it takes to counterbalance one lifelong biblical know-it-all.)
What’s more, there is the bizarre experience of being inside this hyper-rational approach to the Bible as well. We might find ourselves struggling to stay engaged with a heartfelt sermon from a pastor because we are so busy focusing on his butchery of a Greek word. We might check out of a long-term Bible study because they’re “reading it wrong.” We might even find our own feelings about the Bible changing as we read it on our own. The freshness and joy seem to get sucked out. The color seems to leave our experience of Scripture until only black and white are left. And we’re less happy for it, feeling colder in our spirits and wondering if there’s something wrong with us.
The good news? There’s nothing wrong with us, or nothing that others haven’t struggled with for millennia. While there are lots of passages that we could unpack to better understand the vital importance of our hearts in reading Scripture, the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the community of Christians in the city of Colossae is especially clear:
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” Colossian 3:16 (NRSV)
Notice the integration of “head” (teaching and admonishing in community discussion) and “heart” (heartfelt, emotive response of communal praise). Our whole person is in alignment, focused on taking the truth and beauty of Christ’s word into our being and returning it back in true thanksgiving. And isn’t it interesting that this entire passage is not phrased as a comment or a principle but as a command? Paul’s clear implication is that we can choose to let Christ’s word (a concept that can be fairly applied to all of the biblical literature) “dwell” in us “richly.”
The logical next question is how we find this rich balance, engaging with our head without losing our heart. It must be more than a lofty ideal. As a next step toward making this real, here are three practical things we can do.
Don't Go it Alone
Biblical literature is the product of communities of faith throughout history spread across the ancient world. And though we’re all encouraged to engage it personally, we were never meant to be “lone wolf” readers. In fact, one of the best ways to lose touch with a heartfelt Bible reading habit is to stop sharing Scripture with the people around us, especially those who read it through a different lens than we do. Don’t go it alone!
There’s not just one reason that reading Scripture in community so effectively connects head and heart. Sure, we’re likely to hear a new perspective or be reminded of a truth that we’d prefer to quietly forget. But there is something intangible too––the quality of love that often comes with watching others read, preach, teach, hear, study, and wrestle with the Bible. Engaging Scripture in community helps us remember why this book comes alive for every generation of readers. It’s hard to keep a cold heart when you’re engaging with the love others have for the Bible, whether in person or in media like good books, recorded sermons, or more (including BibleProject videos and other Bible Resources of course!)
Mix Things Up
If we spend long enough with any book––even one as complex and fascinating as the Bible––it’s bound to lose its luster a bit. While it usually comes back, a sense of dullness when you open Scripture is a clue that you might need to mix things up a bit. Try a new translation––one different in language from the one you’re used to reading. Try listening to an audio version while walking, gardening, painting, commuting, or as you fall asleep. Work on memorizing a favorite passage, complete with hand gestures to make it “stick.”
One of my favorite strategies during my college days was to read passages out loud over breakfast in the cafeteria with a dear friend. (I can still taste pancakes when I read Romans). Humans are built to enjoy change. The important thing is to find what helps you gain a new sense of intrigue and excitement.
How does this relate to the heart? Simple. It’s hard to get stuck in your head when you’re having fun. Reintroducing some element of surprise and wonder goes a long way toward having it feel natural to bring your whole person to your Bible reading.
Respond in Humble Wonder
We get into trouble when we begin to only think of the Bible as a text in which to root our intellectual theology. Do you pray Scripture––taking its words as your own heart’s expression? Do you sing it or read it as a response? If so, you have a head start here, but it’s not limited to these expressions.
The Bible’s work is not complete until God’s Spirit deploys its truth and beauty into our lives. In fact, the Bible harshly criticizes those who come to God’s word and leave with lives unchanged, comparing them (us?) to people who see themselves in a mirror then turn away and immediately forget what they look like (James 1:22-25). Because of this, responding to Scripture is not a “cherry on top.” It’s actually the sundae.
How this looks is as varied and individual as our lives, but there is an element of authenticity to it that proves itself genuine because we wouldn’t be doing it outside of a changed life. It’s more than mere religion. The response of a better reader of the Bible is to progressively surrender one’s life to the truth and grace revealed in this strange and remarkable book.
What will this response look like for you? The specific working is likely to be very personal, but it will always carry the hallmarks of humility and wonder.
Humility here means responding with an attitude of surrender and not as if we’re trying to control the Bible or use it for our own status or ends. We are to submit to it in confidence that there is something good going on here, whether we understand it fully yet or not.
And wonder. Wonder! That feeling of awe in the presence of something deep, wild, intricate, and familiar-yet-bizarre. As the world of the Bible influences our lives, we find ourselves thinking and loving in new ways. If it’s working, we find it easier to see the sacred around us, and it’s harder to put up with the many counterfeit spiritualities that we encounter. We begin to make “friends” with odd company, like Hagar, Joshua, David, Ezekiel, Barnabas, and John. Most of all, our sense of this world’s story (and our place in it) is slowly transformed in light of the message of Jesus.
The joy we find when we let intellectual pretensions drop away from our Bible reading (while still keeping our brains turned on) is a profound gift. Learning to read the Bible with our heads without losing our hearts is likely to be the work of a lifetime for some of us. But it’s worth it, in every way, as we find ourselves slowly transformed into not only better readers but better Christians and better human beings in this life and the next.
This piece is from the Becoming Better Readers series, focusing on bridging rich ideas from the Bible with the realities of spirituality today.