No one seems to like it. We all want both to be understood and fairly represented. We don’t like it when someone misunderstands us, misrepresents what we say, or only selectively references our words to make their own point. But many Bible-readers appear to think that this is perfectly OK when it comes to the Scriptures.
Where is this tendency seen? It is typically what drives the oft-heard explanation of a verse or a passage that starts with: “Well, what that means to me is . . .” That phrase prefaces a comment or an explanation that is only tangentially anchored in what the Biblical author wrote and is more about the speaker’s perspective or thoughts that were stirred by the passage.
It’s not that it is wrong to ultimately wrestle with the implications of a passage of Scripture we read–in fact, finding the right way to build a bridge from the Biblical text to our own lives is necessary. The problem arises when we privilege what we “are getting out of the text” rather than putting a premium on what “is in the text.” If what we think we are getting is not truly what is there, in the text, we are neither reading well nor making appropriate application.
Whether we are reading the Bible or reading other material or listening to a friend’s thoughts, there is a mental process that we must hold on to if we want to guard against misrepresenting what is being communicated. The steps to that process are simple . . . although we do, at times, forget them.
You must begin with what the author (whether written or spoken) said. That is, attention must be given to the actual words being used. Thoughts don’t magically drift from one mind to another; there is no mental “osmosis” where we somehow absorb another’s ideas without the benefit of the words used. Ideas do not float in space, detached from the words the author used to communicate such ideas. So we begin with the actual words.
But then we must give some thought to what the author meant by what was communicated. Since the goal of all communication is for the communicator to share something with others who may or may not think exactly like the one communicating, we’ll have to listen or read well and assess what the author meant by what was said.
It is only after that process that we can begin to make personal application of what was communicated. I know, it sounds complicated. But it’s really not. In all our good communication we do this everyday–we just don’t always do it when we read Scripture. Let me illustrate.
If you were in your office or in your home and someone commented, “It’s raining cats and dogs outside!” you would first have to listen to those words. But then, you would have to think–at least for a moment–about what that person meant by what was said. Is the implication of those words that if you wanted a new pet you could just run outside with a box and catch a kitty or a puppy for yourself? Of course not! We readily recognize what the speaker meant by what was said. But then making personal application of what was said still might take a moment or two of thought as well. You might pause and wonder: “Did I leave the windows down on the car? Is it in the garage? Did I leave the back door open? Do I have an umbrella . . . because I have to run out in just a few minutes?”
The process is very natural. It is the basis of all good communication.
- What was actually said?
- What did the speaker mean by what was said?
- What are the implications of that for me?
We only get ourselves in trouble in communication–and in reading Scripture–when we seek to answer the third question before we’ve honestly wrestled with the first two.