This is from a letter I wrote to my niece, my story of how I came to learn how to read between the lines and love our beautiful scriptures in a new and living way:
I first started trying to figure out my beliefs about what the scriptures meant to me when I started to reread the Old Testament again last year. I had already started to develop a picture of a loving and gracious God, and I was seeing him in both my memories of my past mistakes and also all around me every day. But when I started to read the Old Testament again, I didn’t get very far before I had a complete breakdown.
The God in the Old Testament was wrathful and vengeful and held his love as a reward for obedience. That was just not what I had experienced in my life. So what was I going to do? Do I change the narrative of my experiences to match scripture, or do I try to find a new way to read scripture that reveals my loving God?
Shiloh was doing his own thing during this time, and researching his own things on his journey towards understanding Christian nonviolence. He had purchased a book called Cross Vision by a minister named Gregory Boyd. I don’t remember why I chose to read it, but I did. And I only vaguely remember some of his points… but what stood out to me most was a story he told in the very beginning. It was just what I needed to hear to begin a path of discovery with God.
I’m probably going to butcher this because I haven’t looked it back up, but it’s what the story did for me that is important, so I’m just going to paraphrase it here. He told a story about his wife. They had been married for like 50 years and he knew her to be the most loving and selfless person he had ever met. 50 years of experiences told him that she was good and kind and could be trusted. Her heart was as pure as he’d ever witnessed and she was his rock. Then, one day, he had a little daydream of himself walking down the street on a busy sidewalk.
On the other side of the street, going the other direction, he saw his wife walking in the opposite direction. He stopped and smiled and watched her walk for a minute, when all of a sudden she pushes a homeless man down. He just stood there and stared. He was immediately tortured by a decision he knew he had to make. Either his wife was not who she had pretended to be these 50 years, or there was something about what he just witnessed that he doesn’t understand and is not reflective of the character of his wife that he had lived with for so long.
Greg’s takeaway from his daydream was that reading the scriptures is a lot like that. When we are honest with ourselves and seek the face of the Lord, we know his character to be eternally loving and gracious. If we encounter anything in scripture that seems contrary to that, there must be something going on that we don’t understand.
That was helpful as I tried to lower the walls I had built around my heart to keep the wrathful God out. Maybe I just didn’t understand what he was doing. But then I had another thought, a memory, come back to me. I remembered when I was doing this three day retreat thing a couple years ago and they were talking about how all of our problems are born out of stories of events and not the actual events themselves. We’re always assigning meaning to things and telling stories about things that might not be actually real because our brains just do that. Our brains want to protect our egos and it will lie to itself to do that.
Have you ever had an experience like that, when you swore something happened a certain way and it meant that so and so did such and such which meant something about you or them or someone else and it changed the way you saw them until you’d just avoid them and try to ignore that there was some sort of painful disconnection? We do it all the time. We make up stories to try to protect ourselves or make sense of something that doesn’t seem to make sense. And it was one line that my retreat coach said that really broke me open to this.
“We don’t fight wars for God, we fight wars for our stories about God.”
Ug. Dagger to the chest. Yep.
So now I’ve got that memory, and Greg’s daydream, bringing more and more walls down. I started asking a million questions. What if God isn’t wrathful? What if that was just a story, a meaning assigned to events, by people who didn’t understand because of their own egos and cultures? What if my loving God is in the Old Testament, I just have to read between the lines to find him? What if I need to let myself have compassion and grace for the authors of scripture so that I can see God’s love in their lives, regardless of how they wrote it down?
Meanwhile, Shiloh was having his own experiences with this. He had gone back to reread some of his journals and found that his own descriptions and meanings of events in his life had changed over the years. That the experience itself was true, but the lesson learned seemed to be totally adaptable. What if scriptures are like that?
What if that’s the reason we are supposed to read them over and over, because what we get from them one time will not be what we get the next time? And what if that very phenomenon is why we need to be careful that we don’t take everything that was written on paper or plates to be the literal and direct word of God? What if the word of God is what he writes on our hearts?
When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. (2 Nephi 9:28)
Now, I was determined to go back through the scriptures, starting with the Old Testament.
Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. (John 5:39)
I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. (John 14:6)
I was going to learn about God by reading the scriptures as if God and Jesus have the same character. The Sermon on the Mount must teach us about the nature of God, Jesus himself says it does when he describes those principles as the way to be perfect even as Father is perfect. I remembered that something Greg had mentioned in his book was called a “Christian, or Cruciform, Hermeneutic”. Apparently it’s a whole thing in theological studies, to read scripture through the lens of Christ’s life and teachings as a way of seeing and understanding what God has to say.
I also remembered one of my favorite scriptures. It’s Numbers 11:29. Moses takes his 70 appointed elders on a little retreat to the tabernacle to teach them some things, but meanwhile, back in camp, two other guys, Eldad and Medad, were prophesying and teaching about God to everyone else.
Joshua runs to tell Moses, and Moses simply replies, “Enviest thou for my sake? Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”
I love this story… gives me all the courage I need to dare to seek revelation from God directly from God through prayer and experience, and to share what I learn when it is good and helpful.
So, I dug into the Old Testament. I could go on and on about the experiences I’ve had with this experiment. All I know is that I can now say with surety that God has always been loving, gracious, allowing, willing, and participatory throughout all of scripture, sometimes we just have to read between the lines to find him.
In fact, he was loving and gracious even before scripture writing was a thing. From the very beginning it has always been love. All of creation, all of the universe, all of our experiences, and all of scripture point to that if we want to see it.
After a little while, I started wondering if maybe I was just letting myself sugar-coat God because it was more comfortable. But the more and more I delved into the type of life the Sermon requires in order to truly accept and live the love of God, I realized that there is nothing comfortable about it. In fact, it feels like mourning and emptying and uncertainty and persecution quite a bit of the time.
I believe this is why Jesus starts that Sermon with the Beatitudes, to remind us that those feelings of discomfort as we grow and live with love are not the real story being told, to remind us to not be deceived by how things appear, and to trust in Jesus’ Way.
Then I started wondering if maybe scriptures were just supposed to be read as is and not through a particular lens. I fought against this thought quite a bit, because it didn’t make sense to not apply Christ’s life to scriptures, but I wondered about it nonetheless, wondering if maybe I was letting myself be deceived. I read about Joseph Smith’s encounter with scripture, and how he interpreted and reinterpreted things all the time. When he started reading the Apocrypha, he became a little overwhelmed by the number of books that would need to be retranslated. The Lord reminded him that the spirit must be used to understand scripture, and that it was okay to not retranslate all of it because readers could rely upon God.
Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth. (Doctrine and Covenants 91:4)
I was going to trust the spirit. Maybe sometimes I would get things wrong, but I didn’t need to look for answers, I just needed to look for experiences that would help me grow.
As I shared some of my experiences here and there, inevitably there would be someone who would say, “You can’t just take what you want out of scripture and ignore what you don’t want.” I get it, that’s true. If I were just reading for my own satisfaction then I can totally understand the danger in reading between the lines the way I had been. But I wasn’t just reading to satisfy my own ego. I was reading to learn of Christ, like we’ve been told the scriptures are for, and trusting the spirit to show me. This means that what revealed itself wasn’t always the most comfortable or easy path, as I mentioned earlier. But still, it was hard to argue with their logic. Is it wrong to just take what points to Christ and ignore the parts that don’t sit quite right, dismissing them as the errors of men?
I remembered that sometimes Christ would read scriptures and apply them in his teachings. Sometimes he used them as examples of what people used to believe and what should be corrected, or in figurative illustrations of the path towards God, or even to illustrate the current narratives of the day. But there is one time that he used them to talk directly about himself. I went back and reread this story in Luke Chapter 4. Jesus had just finished with his desert fasting and had done enough teaching and healing in Galilee that his fame preceded him when he came to Nazareth. But the Nazarenes knew him as Joseph’s son, no one worth listening to, so they decided to test him. And he shocked them.
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.
And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.
And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.
And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth. (Luke 4:16–22)
The “acceptable year of the Lord” was the year of jubilee in Jewish tradition, the year when all debts are erased and all promises are restored and made whole. This claim by Jesus was huge, and it really ticked some people off. He had to eventually leave Nazareth because they refused to hear such blasphemy from a carpenter’s son.
There’s something really cool about this scripture from Isaiah that Christ read though. If you read it out of Isaiah 61, where Jesus read from, it goes like this:
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn; (Isaiah 61:1–2)
Jesus knew he couldn’t just skip over parts because these Pharisees knew the scriptures well and he wouldn’t have wanted to seem deceptive. But he did do something very clever. Right after “to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”, Jesus closes the book. He doesn’t even finish the verse! He gets right up to the part about a vengeful God and stops, closes the book, and sits down!
“And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth.”
I felt as if I had been there. And there it was. Divine permission to declare the glad tidings and great joy of the gospel without having to incorporate the retributive traditions of our fathers. If Jesus can read the scriptures like that, certainly I can too. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and felt joy and peace race through my body. I was finally free to let God be a loving God. I’d never read the scriptures the same again, and I don’t apologize for it.
Now, the scriptures serve one singular purpose for me. They bring me to Christ. I don’t use them to try to hash out doctrine or policy, because hanging too much on the words of men who may have been unknowingly in error feels like looking beyond the mark. The words of Christ will teach me all things that I must do. And the stories in the scriptures help me through the experiences of others, and my experiences with their experiences, how to taste the good fruit of the tree of life.
And I can read with compassion for those men who were trying so hard to learn and grow, just like I am. There is no position of power in the church or society that makes you infallible and insusceptible to your own biases and ways of seeing the world. That’s just life. And I really am grateful to all of them for trying. They’ve given us some truly remarkable stepping stones towards God. It doesn’t diminish their efforts to see where some of the things they said or did might fall a little short of the good news.
I also don’t feel like I need to know everything anymore. Honestly, needing to have answers all of the time, and taking things so seriously, really takes the fun out of life. I don’t believe God needs us to know about all the things (it was Satan that told us we needed to know things in the garden anyway, got us eating the wrong fruit), but God does want us to be brave enough to walk towards the tree of life, being willing to be refined by the fiery sword of cherubim, and learn about ourselves so that we can wash away the filth of our own biases and egos and enter into the joy and rest of the Lord by partaking of the fruit of the tree of life.
Behold, he sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Turn towards me, and I will receive you.
Yea, he saith: Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree of life; yea, ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely. (Alma 5:33–34)
When the scriptures are that invitation to take a look at ourselves and our thoughts and opinions and become new creatures through the love of Christ, they are beautiful. They can be difficult, but they can also be living waters.