Reading the Bible for Transformation

George Fox once wrote:

I saw also how people read the Scriptures
without a right sense of them, and without
duly applying them to their own state. ( QuakerPsalms p. 13)

This past week I was at a group called GodPub and in conversation we started talking about the bible, what it is, and how we should approach it. I realized that there is a split between what we might think of as ‘uniformity’ and ‘solidarity’ readings of the bible. Consider that many groups use the bible as a means to justify their acts. If it is a tool for justification we often already have our pre-existing ideas in mind and then go to the bible to find how it fits with what we need it to fit.

But this is, at least in my opinion, an absolutely terrible way to read the bible. Our approach to the bible needs to be completely different. It needs to be not in searching for justification for prior ideas mind, but rather as a means of transformation of ourselves as Fox hints at above. Those stories in the bible that invite transformation (and not all the stories will do this all the time for everyone) will actually challenge those very things that we might otherwise try use the bible to justify. The bible is to be read  in a way that actually invites us to be changed, to see the world and humanity in a new light, to draw us closer to the Holy One and to humanity. It should help us to become better people. In a word it is a book meant for transformation.

7 responses to “Reading the Bible for Transformation”

  1. This is really an insight-ful piece, and I thank you for that emphasis. I have just been re-reading Henry Cadbury’s pamphlet “A Quaker Approach To The Bible” who cautions on the overuse of Biblical themes. I especially like his focus on the “how” and “why” rather than the “what” of biblical revelations:

    Men talk about the Bible as revelation. It is much more important to know from the Bible how God reveals than what God reveals, if we want to share its experiences and not merely its expressions. In the same way, one might rather aim to understand how Jesus thought than what he thought, if our wish is to learn to think for ourselves as he did.

    The full text can be found at

  2. I keep wrestling this question, and losing: What should we read the Bible for, anyway.

    If “God is here to teach His people Himself,” then sitting in Meeting (and occasionally meeting God elsewhere!) ought to be enough. But considering the [perfectly nice] people in my own Meeting, I’ve come to doubt that it is enough. (Or been forced to conclude that God is in no hurry, despite the darkness of these times, to get people to see more clearly.)

    But if the Bible is for the purpose of “transforming” people, it suffers from a severe disadvantage: Nobody who finds the secular world sufficient… has much reason to read it.

    What I think it provides… is a sort of orientation material: ‘This is what God has been doing with the human race, as it has seemed to some of us most closely involved.’ You can get some notion of how God operates, of what God has in mind… and also see how many “authoritative” people have been so sure what God intended, while being evidently mistaken.

    Not at all the sort of fable that can be summed up in “a moral”.

    But a great conversation starter: “What on Earth did You have in mind when you let them write that?!” A very large koan.

    • Forrest, generally one has to be open to transformation to be transformed. The Bible is useful in transformation, but the early Quaker insight that the Bible can only be truly understood if one is in the Spirit that gave forth the Bible is important. What one should learn from a passage is not always obvious – in fact, more often than not it is not obvious.

      We must first step back from our tendency to act like we are God. If I am God, I can understand scripture in my own power. But I am not, and I can’t. I have to allow it to be opened to me by the Holy Spirit. Any number of times I have come across a passage that had always been troublesome for me, and this time it becomes meaningful.

      The Spirit can direct us to scripture when we need it, and use it in our transformation. We have to allow this to happen. We can’t make it happen.

      And here’s where the spiritual disciplines come in. The basic purpose of the disciplines is to help us learn to recognize God’s voice and how to be attentive to it.

      God uses a variety of means in our transformation – scripture, other believers, prayer, our experiences, inspired writing other than scripture, nature, etc. There isn’t a means or a canned way. Each journey of transformation is unique, and a variety of means contribute to it. Praise God!

      • Amen! (Although I tend to praise God mostly for the sneaky humor: “What one should learn from a passage is not always obvious”! Indeed!)

        “Getting transformed” isn’t a typical desire; at least I apparently need to suffer awhile from being untransformed before I see much point to it. Wishing I were more admirable… looks to be a snare in itself!

        The Spirit directs me to all sorts of things when I need them, and thumps me a little more into shape now & then.

        I still don’t see the Bible as being any more directed to “our transformation” than anything else in the Creation. Get caught out of alignment in any of it, and it lets you know.

        The Bible shows me lots of people getting caught that way, over & over, not having a clue why, any more than my contemporaries. Evidently it is not at all obvious… until one realizes: “The doorknob always falls off because I’ve been turning it counterclockwise!”

        I didn’t say scripture wasn’t “meaningful”; I give it all the ‘own power’ I’ve got– and that is part of the process; it ain’t passive. And then I start having that ‘conversation’. Mostly waiting for some insight to percolate through my habitual blather. But asking, first: “Huh?”

  3. Thank you for this message. I have been re-reading Matthew 1 – 3 lately in this light. I have been trying to separate the message that I have been taught from the message I sense the spirit is imparting as I read it. They are quite different! What I had been taught was very much a justification for what I already thought, as you put it. It is challenging and deeply rewarding to consider each word anew, deliberately,in the light.

  4. This is one of the greatest benefit of the bible. It convicts us of how short we are of perfection and it enables us to come closer. Many times I have known it was time to take action to remedy a defect in my behaviour but attempts at doing so would fail. Then while reading the bible I would sense that God’s grace was now available to me so that I could accomplish what I had previously failed to do. It has also quickened my spirit to expect a healing that I had been praying for but had not received and shortly thereafter I received the healing. It’s not the only way God speaks to me in such things but in the beginning of my walk it was the major means God used.