Jesus’ disciples did not always understand what he was saying. Perhaps this is how you feel sometimes after you read the Bible. As Peter said about Paul’s writings, the Bible can be hard to understand! While the gospel is gloriously clear, not every passage in the Bible is equally clear.
So, I thought it might be helpful to think about what you should do when you encounter a text that is difficult to understand. In this instance, I am focusing on passages difficult to understand rather than ones difficult to accept. In other words, you are not sure what it means as opposed to whether you like it or believe it. How, then, do you faithfully respond in light of hard passages?
1. Relax: you are not the only one. Sometimes you may get frustrated and discouraged because you think you are the only one struggling to understand. Well, you’re not. Why do you think David prays repeatedly as he writes about God’s Word in Psalm 119 for God to give him understanding? Probably because he was having a hard time understanding God’s Word! The Bible contains hard texts.
2. Remember who God is and worship. One of the first things hard texts should lead you to do is pause, meditate on how great God is, and worship him. He is infinite, all-wise, and incomprehensible. When you think you have it all figured out, you can think too much of yourself and too little of God. Hard texts are a nice reality check and should lead you to worship.
3. Remember who you are and humble yourself before God and others. This is the other side of the coin. Hard texts remind you that you are finite and limited in wisdom and comprehension. This should lead you to read God’s Word in humble dependence upon him. If you are reading your Bible without praying, you are not reading it well. Hard texts remind you to pray, which you should be doing with the “easy” texts, too. You will no longer try to think and live in your own strength, and you will learn to better trust in his grace for everything you need, including understanding. Also humble yourself before others. Admit you do not know everything, and do not expect others to know everything. This will help you be patient when other Christians likewise struggle to understand and faithfully live out the gospel. Hard texts make you humble. Humility helps you love God and others better.
4. Hope: God sovereignly inspired the hard texts, too. All Scripture is God-breathed. He inspired it all for a reason, which means he inspired the hard texts for a reason, too. And not only did he inspire them, but he inspired them to be hard. So persevere with hope that you will understand what you need to and even the process of faith seeking understanding will be for your good. God has good reasons for inspiring hard texts.
5. Work hard and don’t give up. Paul tells Timothy to think about what he has written, and the Lord will give him understanding. The Lord gives the understanding, but not apart from your thinking. Paul also tells the Colossians to work at whatever they do with all their heart, working for the Lord. That includes reading the Bible. So, read the passage again and again in its greater context. Read commentaries. Ask questions. Be like Jacob and refuse to let go of the text until it yields.
6. Interpret Scripture in light of Scripture. Seek to understand what is dim in relation to what is bright. Not all texts are equally hard, and God will never contradict himself. So look at the passages that appear dim to you in light of the ones that appear much brighter. In other words, use what you know for sure to help you work through what you are less certain about.
7. Look for the main point. Even when a particular passage remains unclear, you can still get the main point. You may not know exactly what Paul is referring to when he speaks about baptizing the dead, but you can still see how it supports his greater argument. You may not know exactly what to do with Jephthah and his vow, but you can still understand the main thrust of the book of Judges. So, keep the big picture in view at all times.
God does not make everything equally clear, but he has clearly proven his wisdom and trustworthiness. So, as you persevere in faith seeking understanding, you can trust the One who spoke. God’s Word is a wondrous river which the weak can safely walk across, and the strong can dive in deep.
Reverend Neil Quinn is the Senior Pastor (and Church Planter) of Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, MI. He is married to Leandra and has three children – Brielle, Corin, and Talitha. Neil received his M.Div from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.