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?