Years ago, before we moved to Chicago and were still living in Durham, my pastor used a sermon illustration that I’ve never forgotten. He compared the average Christian’s faith to a balloon, one filled not with helium but with air. He said that each week, many Christians come to church expecting their pastor to bat their balloon high into the sky. Then, throughout the week, their balloon slowly sinks back down to earth, until Sunday when Whack! The pastor bats the balloon back up again.
I like that illustration because it has always challenged me to examine the consistency of my faith: is my faith dependent on Sunday for a spiritual high, or is Sunday only one expression of a life defined by worship? As I have grown in my faith, I’ve tried to embody the latter.
However, that illustration is about more than Sunday mornings. It can describe multiple aspects of the Christian life, including my approach to Scripture. As I take a hard look at my life, and the role the Bible has played in it, my faith looks a lot like that sinking balloon: whenever I’m feeling down, scared, angry, or insecure, I can always turn to Scripture for encouragement. There are plenty of verses about who I am in Christ and the promises I have in God, and they bat my spirit back into the air real high.
But here’s the thing: the high doesn’t last. Inevitably, my spirit starts to sink again.
I’ve been trying to figure out why Scripture hasn’t set me free the way I know it should. Why is it that I turn to Scripture again and again, without any sign of change?
After a lot of prayer and searching, I finally figured it out: I’ve been reading the Bible the wrong way.
I came to this realization with the help of Jen Wilkin’s new book Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both our Hearts and Our Minds. In it, Wilkin articulates a common mistake women make in reading the Bible. Wilkin recalls that she used to approach the Bible asking questions like “Who am I?” and “How can God help me?” Although the Bible does answer these questions, she admits the real motives behind her questions:
“…a subtle misunderstanding about the very nature of the Bible: I believed that the Bible was a book about me.”
Wilkin goes on to explain that Moses made the same mistake. When God instructed him to speak to Pharaoh, Moses was filled with self-doubt. He asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharoah?” By posing the question that way, Moses placed himself at the center of the narrative. God responded by gently correcting Moses and placing Himself back at the center: “I will be with you.”
Wilkin summarizes their interaction in this powerful way:
“[God] answers Moses’s self-focused question of ‘Who am I?’ with the only answer that matters: ‘I am.'”
With these words, Wilkin helped me to hone in on something I wrote about earlier this summer: there is a way of practicing the Christian faith that is not really about God, but us. This human-centeredness can be so subtle and so deceptive that it shapes the way we read the Bible, and why.
This approach is also rampant among resources for women, and while it is a logical approach to human problems, it cannot set us free. In fact, there is a way of reading Scripture that can feed our self-focus more.
Interestingly, Wilkin isn’t the first one to sound this alarm, because this isn’t a new problem. Within the first few hundred years of the church, Augustine described the human soul as being turned in on itself. He depicted a soul that was essentially bent away from God. Only by God’s grace is the human soul un-bent, straightened out, and oriented toward Him.
Apart from God, our default mode is self-ward.
So, what does all of this mean for the freedom that has alluded me? How can I escape the sinking-balloon-cycle?
In the book of Lamentations, the author spends the first two and a half chapters cataloging his enormous grief. He has suffered every possible loss, and his world is falling apart.
But then in the middle of chapter 3, out of nowhere, the author says this:
Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
That right there–that shift–that is the answer. The answer to the author’s pain–the answer to ours–is the character of God. The source of his hope is, quite simply, who God is.
This God-ward refrain is all over Scripture. When faced with struggle and despair, Scripture writers practically SHOUT the attributes of God: He is a rock, a refuge, a strong tower. He is slow to anger and abounding in love. He is merciful, He is just. He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. He is faithful, holy, steadfast, and true. He is the Savior. He is love.
When Job questioned God’s goodness about his sweeping loss, God Himself echoed that refrain. God’s answer was, in short, I am.
Because that is THE answer. I am. Knowing who God is and rehearsing His character is what draws us out of the paralysis of our bent souls. It straightens us out and fixes our eyes on the only one who sets us free.
And so that is what I’ve been doing. For the last couple months I have focused specifically on God’s character and His ways. Rather than open my Bible looking for what it says about me and my situation, I have focused on what I can learn about God.
And slowly, my soul is becoming un-bent. My mind isn’t dwelling on myself, my fears, my doubts, or my shame, because it’s dwelling on Him.
I know that sounds so basic. I should have learned that a long time ago, right? But for the first time in my life I’ve really understood why it matters for the health of my soul: It’s is the difference between self-doubt and God-confidence. It’s the difference between temporary change and total transformation. It’s the difference between batting my balloon into the air and soaring on wings like eagles.
So I invite you to join me in studying God’s character. This week, and in the weeks that follow, open your Bible looking for who He is. What is God like? What does He love? How does He work? What has He done?
Get to know I am. Though it is fine and fitting to ask “Who am I?”, His character is the only answer to that question that really matters.