In last week’s post, “Call to Worship,” I wrote about how God had powerfully spoken to me as I was reading a short passage in Joshua 5. His message to me was clear, compelling, and intensely personal to my life situation right now—and it came as a complete surprise. I’d not even intended to talk to Him about the subject He brought up.
How do such meaningful conversations between God and me take place? God speaks to me in various ways, but the primary one has always been through Scripture.
There are many helpful ways to approach Scripture. For the purposes of opening up conversation with God, however, I have found one in particular to be most beneficial. I call it “entering into the story.” It’s not difficult to do, and yet the results—an encounter with God—can be life-changing.
Basically, it involves putting aside the approach to reading that many of us have been taught in our western educations. That approach tells us to master the text—which is an appropriate goal for learning biology or history. But God’s Word is not a biology or history textbook. It is the His living word; it contains words of life, God’s very heart and soul. I am not to “master” it—it is to master me!
So, to enter the story, the first thing I try to do is to lay down my tendency to dissect and analyze what is being said. I don’t have to figure it out. I don’t have to put what I read into neat theological boxes. My aim is to engage with God, to let Him meet me and talk to me about what He wants to discuss. There is a very important place for systematic Bible study. But I separate that kind of study from what I’m describing here.
Once I’ve laid aside my need to figure out the text, I ask God to sanctify my imagination. He gave me my imagination, after all. With my imagination I can set my heart and mind “on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1). I can fix my eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:2). I can think about “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8). All of these require using my wonderful, God-given imagination.
“But I don’t have any imagination!” I can hear some of you protesting. I understand. I used to think that, too. However, as my friend Jan Johnson says, “If you can worry, you have an imagination.” She’s right. If, in my mind’s eye, I can picture all sort of dismal possibilities for myself, my family, my friends, my work, or my house—well then I certainly can, by God’s grace, use my imagination to think about the truthful, good, and lovely things that God wants me to hear and know.
Some of us just need some training in learning to use our imaginations positively. So let me make some suggestions. When you wish to enter into a Scripture passage, consider your senses of sight, smell, hearing, and so on. For instance, if you are reading a passage that describes Jesus walking by the sea, imagine the sound of waves and seagulls, the smell of fish, the feel of sand on your feet and sun on your face, the taste of salt on your tongue. See yourself there with Jesus, observing or participating in whatever He is doing. You might like to put yourself into the story as one of the disciples or a servant, or a bystander. But get yourself into the scene as deeply as you can. This often requires multiple readings of the text with long pauses in the reading or between readings. This is a leisurely reading, so don’t rush it.
Let yourself soak in the scene as if you were actually there. Notice what you are feeling. Are you happy? Apprehensive? Perplexed? Afraid? Joyful? Peaceful? Ashamed? Notice what you are thinking, too. Are there questions you want to ask? Objections you want to raise? Praise you’d like to express? When you have thoroughly saturated yourself in the passage, feel free to speak to God or Jesus. Be as honest as you possibly can be. Then wait for His response. Notice not only His words, but also His facial expressions and body language.
Would you like to try it? John 8:1-11 is a great story to practice on. When I meditated on this passage a while ago, I asked the following questions to help me enter into the story. Then I had a conversation with God about the things that stirred in me. Here are the questions I used:
• How does it feel to stand in that circle of accusers? What do I see? Smell? Hear? What’s the atmosphere or mood of the group like?
• How do I feel as the Pharisees and teachers of the law pronounce their sentence on me?
• What are my thoughts when they asked Jesus for His opinion? What do I expect Him to say? What do I hope?
• When Jesus goes between me and my accusers to spare my life, what thoughts and feelings do I have?
Why is reading Scripture this way so helpful? For me, entering into Scripture like this opens up my heart in ways typical Bible study doesn’t. I’m often surprised by what happens when I enter into Scripture this way. Feelings bubble up, new ideas come, longings surface—I discover things about myself, God, and my world that I never would have known if I had approached Scripture in my usual, linear approach. And then, when I talk to Jesus about these things I’m feeling and noticing, He meets me there and talks with me. And that’s always the best part of prayer for me.