Why You Don’t Read Your Bible
posted by BRUCE BAUGUS; REFORMATION 21; February 24, 2017
According to Søren Kierkegaard’s analysis of spiritual despair in Sickness unto Death, in terms of faith (see the first post in this series) and consciousness (part 2 and part 3), despair is the universal condition of being without God and hope in the world (Eph. 2:12). It is crucial to note that this concept of despair is “psychological” in the older spiritual sense and having to do with one’s soul and not in the more contemporary sense of having to do only with one’s mental or emotional self-consciousness. One can be in spiritual despair, in other words, without presenting any of the symptoms we commonly associate with psychological despair.
Spiritual despair, he contends, just is the faithless posture of not resting oneself transparently in God. As such, despair is unbelief before God (coram Deo) which is both sinful in itself and integral to all other sinning insofar as “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23; cf. Heb. 11:6). Spiritual despair, then, is always present to some degree wherever faith is imperfect, no matter if one is conscious of being in despair or not. Since not even those under grace are perfect in faith, some degree of despair remains; what is more, in our weakness we continue to wrestle with a kind of false consciousness of despair insofar as we doubt the sufficiency of the saving grace of God for us in Jesus Christ. In other words, because Jesus Christ is an all-sufficient savior for us the believer’s despair is baseless, which only makes it all the more perverse, offensive, and pernicious.
So far Kierkegaard’s analysis of despair coram Deo; my point here and in the next post is that this same spiritual dynamic is at work before Scripture (coram Scriptura). Exegetical despair, if you will, is often just spiritual despair before God operative in the act of reading and handling his word. This is because whenever we come before this text we come before God, who is “speaking in the Scripture” (WCF 1.10): coram Scriptura, coram Deo. If we are in any degree of despair coram Deo, the spiritual dynamics of despair will certainly be intensely at work coram Scriptura.
Despair Coram Scriptura: Not to Read
For this reason, Kierkegaard muses, most people in Christendom never read the Bible at all (For Self-Examination, 33). This is not because they don’t have access to God’s word but because they willfully neglect it as it remains boxed up in the attic or sits on the shelf or end table or nightstand, or constantly loses out to the news or latest television program or novel, or whatever else people choose to do instead of ever taking up and actually reading God’s word. The excuses to put off reading the Bible are apparently endless–and often astonishingly pathetic–but the underlying reason is often spiritual despair.
Not reading the Bible may be the practice of one who is oblivious to being in despair. Perhaps they even reason that it’s only addressed to the despairing–those who need some kind of spiritual crutch to get along in life–which is not who they imagine themselves to be. They even imagine themselves to e happy enough for those who’ve found help in Scripture, but they don’t need help at the moment or at least the Bible, they tell themselves, doesn’t offer them the kind help they think they need. This, of course, is not just the ruminating of unbelievers, though it is certainly the ruminating unbelief; many believers also often think and act this way, only resorting to their Bibles when something seems amiss in life.
But not reading God’s word also may be the preferred strategy of others who are actively trying to suppress their consciousness of being in despair, as we all do but for the grace of God. Some are so disturbed by this word that they become militant about eliminating every display or reminder of it–or try to undermine the ministry of faithful preachers and teachers of it. As Kierkegaard confesses: “To be alone with Holy Scripture! I dare not!” (FSE, 31). That is the secret stance of many non-readers, and not reading the Bible is, to this way of thinking, the safest way to avoid the consciousness of despair. It should not surprise us if not reading the Bible is by far the most widely adopted strategy before Scripture; it’s a dangerous book to anyone who would be comfortable in sin.
While declining to read the Bible is hardly an exegetical strategy, it is still an act of despair before Scripture. Far more importantly, it is a temptation to every one of us–no matter how studied or long in the Bible-reading habit we may be. “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). God uses this word to strip away all our masks, pretensions, and illusions–all those ways we imagine ourselves to be or pretend to be but are not–and to show us our sin, our despair, all our faithless, hopeless, and joyless ways before him–how, despite the clarity of the gospel, we continue to live, study, and even minister as if we have no hope and are without Christ in this world. And when the Spirit does show us ourselves in the mirror of this “perfect law of liberty,” as James writes, we have just two options: to turn away offended and try to forget what we saw or to persevere in faith, laying hold of the benediction in Christ.