(Cartoon courtesy of Reverend Fun, copyright (C) 2006 by Gospel Communications International and used with permission.)(1)
When influential Christians(2) become known for declaring that world leaders are standing in the way of God's plan, or that God has struck public figures with disease to avenge wrongs against His people, rather than for ministries of love and reconciliation, it is time to look at how we do Biblical interpretation. We hold in our hands the single most important book in the world, yes. With that knowledge comes a great responsibility: to use the book faithfully to God's intention, as best as He has revealed it to us.
There are a few important points to remember even before we approach the Bible. First, it is a book of God's power and plan, and not ours. Frequently, God marches his plan forward in spite of powerful people trying to stop it, and in spite of God's faithful people declining to follow it. Second, we need to accept that not everything will become crystal-clear when we read Scripture, and that's okay. Some things need to remain mysterious. If we can completely understand God, then He is too small to be believed. Third, we must realize that each of us brings a unique lens of understanding to the Bible. This lens is made up of our experiences, circumstances, prejudices, education and how we look at God to begin with. Thus, passages in the Bible will reach every person in a slightly different way. "Love your neighbor" as a command is pretty clear, but I have been in any number of conversations about how it should be done.
When we open the Bible, it's very important to know the context in which each passage was written. In Psalm 93, for example, the author refers to God as "mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea." This verse not only refers to the physical waters, but also the pagan god of water, whose nickname translates to "the pounder" or "the thunderer." In the original language, it's a pun.(3) The psalm is more than a song to God; it's also a carefully crafted pep talk to God's people. During the Exile, psalms like this remind them that even though all they hear is the "pounding of the waters" (ie the praises of foreigners to false gods and pressure to serve them) God is still ultimately in charge.
After reading, stop and pray for understanding, and then apply the tools at hand to the text. There is great value in using several translations of the Bible, including paraphrases and story-based manuscripts, as well as a concordance(4) and a commentary(5) to expand your knowledge of what you've read. Take the whole text and your questions about it to other Christians, or even non-believers, and find out what they think about it. Proverbs puts it very clearly: "For lack of guidance a nation falls, but victory is won through many advisers." (Prov. 11:14) Lots of views may seem to bring confusion at first, but the entire group's ideas will evolve each person's understanding. (Click here to report a Christian for saying the "e" word.)
Above all we need to lose our fear of the Bible; to jump into reading and studying it. Bring along a highlighter marker and a thick black pen for writing in the margins; when the Gospel gets to you, you'll need them both!
(1) www.reverendfun.com, Copyright GCI
(2) Google-search "Pat Robertson Comments" for a few examples
(3)Sourced from "The Anchor Bible" volume 17 (C) 1968 Doubleday ISBN 0385037597
(4)Strong's Concise Concordance of the Bible, (C) 1985 Thomas Nelson ISBN 0785211667
(5) The Matthew Henry Commentary in One Volume, (C) 1992 Zondervan ISBN 031026040X