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Jul 20, 2015

How Not to Read the Scriptures

Sonja Corbitt

The first time I picked up a Bible and started to read, I was irritated by the time I got to the third chapter of Genesis. Still in my teens as a denominational Christian, I found trying to understand it arduous and intimidating. Why were Adam and Eve suddenly ashamed after they sinned? Why exactly?


I traced the references in my basic Bible but still didn’t feel satisfied. I finally skipped it but ran immediately into another difficulty. The first book of Samuel in my Bible translation was full of the word emerods. I wondered what the heck an emerod could be and couldn’t tell from the context.

In a frustrated pout, I told God I wasn’t picking up my Bible again unless I got an answer. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of girl.

Have I mentioned that I’ve never had a question for God that he did not somehow answer?

Never Give Up – Exciting but Confused Beginnings

My mother was an avid reader, and the only bookshelf in our house was the one in my bedroom that ran half the length of one wall. As I was leaving the room one day, my eye caught the title on the spine of one of hundreds of books: Bible Dictionary. Hmmm. I checked to see if emerod was there: “an infected, malignant boil; a hemorrhoid.” For real? I was stunned.

This question-and-answer episode launched me headlong into the most exciting journey of my life: the effort to seek God’s face in the Scriptures. At first, I only read the Bible when I needed an answer for something. I used the Bible like a Magic 8 Ball: ask a question, let the Bible fall open where it may, and start reading.

I asked God where we should buy or build a house. The gospel included a city named Bethpage. Hey, I concluded, that’s just up the road. I located land up for sale at auction and was sure God had told me we should buy land there. We were outbid, and I was shocked and mortified by how wrong I’d been. I learned not to depend solely on my own hunches when reading and discerning God’s voice.

I began a broken practice of talking to God about my life, loves, observations, and problems and reading the Bible for guidance and answers. The Scriptures came alive for me; they spoke to me; had hands that took hold of me; they had feet that ran after me. I read through one book, then another, in no particular order at all.

Then I started a faithful, daily prayer time with the Scriptures. I read until I felt my attention drawn to a word or sentence or passage; I would stop and write it in my prayer journal and ask God what He was trying to say to me. Then I would sit and wait and listen, and write down whatever I thought I was hearing.

Not long after I began the practice, a mentor asked me to help her teach a Bible study. I agreed, but a couple of weeks into the study, she told me she felt like I was supposed to teach it myself. Oddly, I had begun to feel the same way, but figured it was a prideful thought. At that time I had never been in a single seminary class; I knew exactly nothing about anything; I was barely twenty years old. But I tried it and was hooked, and I never looked back.

I settled into a regular routine of prayer and study with the Scriptures, and eventually got some formal theological training. As I learned who God was, I began writing my own Bible study materials. The Holy Spirit seemed to be speaking at every turn as I discovered more about what God was like, His purposes, and his ways.

How Do I Know If My Interpretation is Right?

Although I was insatiable when it came to the Bible, I began to have serious questions about some of the theology I had grown up under – the Rapture, for instance – a curious, unbiblical teaching in which all Christians skip the worst end times sufferings and persecutions.

What made the end-time Christians so special that they could simply abdicate the hard parts that Christians had endured and suffered throughout history? Additionally, denominationalism itself is condemned by the Bible. Where’s the truth? How can we trust what we’re learning is actually true?

“First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation” (2 Pt 1:20). All Scripture is prophecy, because it all witnesses to Christ (Rv 19:10), so I cannot simply trust my conscience or my parents or my feelings on an interpretation of Scripture if it’s never an individual matter (Tweet this).

And thank goodness, because my insistent, probing questions and dissatisfaction with pat, incomplete, and not-very-well-thought-out denominational answers were beginning to alienate me from my teachers and those I attempted to teach!

God Speaks Through the Church

Eventually, God led me to full communion with the Church, and I discovered 2000 years of the richest, most soaring Bible teaching on earth. The first time I picked up a Catechism I felt as though I had stepped off a cliff into an abyss of Truth.

Our “believe what you want to believe” culture attempts to minimize and marginalize the Church, but the Holy Spirit speaks most definitively through the teaching office of the Magisterium and the history and Tradition of the Church (which includes but is not limited to Scripture). We must study and read Scripture with the Church throughout history in order stay united to the Holy Spirit by whom they were written.

“The pillar and foundation of truth” St. Paul describes is not my Bible, not my experiences in prayer, my denomination or parish, nor my opinions (1 Tm 3:15). This pillar and foundation is the Church. The Church is my measuring stick when discerning what the Holy Spirit is saying to me in the Bible. The Holy Spirit is the very air the Church breathes in order to stay alive. What the Church says on an issue is what the Holy Spirit says about it. Apart from the Church I cannot fully know God’s will for my life in the Bible.

I have heard people say they sensed in prayer with the Scriptures that God was telling them to do something that the Bible or the Church, or both, say is illicit. The Bible does not speak specifically or comprehensively on every circumstance—contraception or stem cell research, for instance—and the Church will never contradict the Bible when it’s interpreted and understood properly.

Certainly, then, the Holy Spirit, who gave birth to both the Church and the Scriptures, would never contradict himself when speaking to an individual. I can never determine the truth of a passage or interpretation of the Scriptures by looking solely at what I think God is or was saying through them. I must know God’s perspective, his wisdom, through the Scriptures and the Church.

God is “Not the Author of Confusion”

The Holy Spirit is not schizophrenic; he will never tell me or another individual something that contradicts the Church. I don’t mean one person in the Church, I mean the Deposit of Faith as handed down to us through the last two thousand years by the Church. If I need direction or confirmation in an area where I sense God speaking in the Bible, I should always search out what the Church has said on the subject.

I can obey the Church, and therefore obey God, but if I disobey the Church, I have disobeyed God himself. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment” (Rom 13:1–2).

Within the Church, I can hear God speak through the Scriptures. The sacraments are powerful sources of strength and healing, but they are only half the equation.

The Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God’s Word and Christ’s Body. In Sacred Scripture, the Church constantly finds her nourishment and her strength, for she welcomes it not as a human word, but as what it really is, the word of God. In the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven comes lovingly to meet his children, and talks with them (CCC 103–104, emphasis added).

I function in relationship to the Church, so I can hear God speak in, with, and through the Church. In the Church, I have everything I need to confidently experience God in the Bible. Otherwise, am I really studying the Bible at all, or am I hearing what I want to hear and being misled?

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  • Thanks, Sonja!! Thanks for verifying my journey…this has been my experience over a long period of time, my story is as yours is, but stops after the Bible Study group that I lead…LOL Otherwise this could’ve been written by me!!

  • I was raised pre Vatican II. There were statues, crucifixes, and many rosaries several for each child. There were countless prayer books and lives of the saints and a missal for each member of the family (age appropriate). But there was NO Bible. The family did have a set of the “Great Books” which did have a King James Bible (which we were forbidden to read) I grew up believing that only religious were allowed to read the Bible. At that time only the Epistles and Gospels were read at Mass and catechism class seemed centered around memorizing the Baltimore Catechism. Even after Vatican II the churches in my part of the country were slow to adapt. When the new liturgy was implemented that was my first exposure to the Old Testament. Still there was little opportunity for the laity to explore the Bible once past high school. There was little adult catechesis. The Newman Club at the college I attended was most interested in matchmaking. After Graduation the parishes seemed to ignore single professionals. There was the K of C for men, and the Alter Society for women both of these groups were rather exclusive. And there was a group for single adults. It was more a matchmaking group.
    I don’t think there was any real interest in adult catechesis until the introduction of small faith groups. Unfortunately by that time, I was a single mother. I had had to leave a toxic marriage for the safety of myself and my two small children. I was delighted when this “fallen woman” was asked to help with the Children’s Liturgy even though my role was mostly to maintain order . But I became aware of what the church offered in adult formation. Unfortunately, I was too busy supporting my children and raising them I could not avail myself of the opening resources. (I did continue to serve as an assistant for the catechism classes for the youngest children. Bible was still a low priority here. It was only after my children had graduated from high school that I had the time to attend small faith groups The first real Bible Study that I was able to attend was the Bible Timeline Study by Ascension Press. Unfortunately a few weeks into the study the pastor who was directing the study became ill and after recovery he asked for a smaller parish. The parish was without a pastor. for several months. By the time the pastor had settled in I had been diagnosed with stage IV esophageal cancer and given four to nine months to live. I then decided to go to stay with my daughter. Quite miraculously, my nephew (a physician) found a Dr. doing a new kind of surgery. And I recovered. I was in a new parish which was very active in Bible Study, As soon as I was strong enough I signed up for Bible Study. I found that going to Bible Study actually helped me recover from lingering chemo brain. For the next two years I was happy to just attend ‘Bible Study” , Then in the middle of the study of First Corinthians cancer struck again. This time it was uterine cancer stage II grade 3 . I was told it was likely to return within six months. And they would “Make me comfortable”. Also there were esophageal tumors present in the ovaries and Fallopian tubes. I had a less than 3% chance of living three years. At that point I made up my mind I would read a chapter of the Bible a day for the rest of my life. So I prayed to the Holy Spirit and made my “Bible Bucket List” By the “List” was on my Calendar for a Year. Genesis was on my Calendar for January. Well up popped Ascension Presses Ninety Day Challenge well that was reading three or four chapters of the Bible each day with wonderful feedback. Well that is pretty much my journey to the Bible. Last chapter is that both of my cancers have inexplicably (miraculously) disappeared. I am continuing with the “Bible Bucket List but I am finding that I need to spend more than just one day on some of the chapters in the Bible .

  • Neither Sonja nor the commenters thus far have mentioned a key factor (for me( in coming to a new and deeper love of Holy Scripture. I’ve gone through the Life in the Spirit seminar (program) multiple times. At some point, I believe I was baptized in the Holy Spirit and one of His gifts to me was a new intensity and hunger for God’s holy word. If anyone sees my comments here and they don’t yet have a desire or hunger to know more of Christ through the Scriptures, seek out a group or buy a book on the topic that I’ve raised. Blessings. dt

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