Lavish Affection

I don’t remember the exact moment I decided to stop regularly reading the Bible. Ironically, I think it was around the time I finished a “read the Bible in a year” plan, faithfully executed out of a sense of duty. This time through, something shifted for me, and I began to realize that scripture was a place of peril for my fragile faith.

Writing the above admission, I’m aware it goes against all orthodox wisdom. It’s not something I’ve ever revealed to anyone in my church for fear of being misunderstood, maybe even rejected. God’s Word is the foundation of our faith, the cure for spiritual and cultural ills, the very vehicle for God’s voice.

But here’s the truth: even the very best things can be fashioned into weapons.

For a believer with a healthy background in the church, I have no doubt that scripture is an unqualified blessing. But for me, who spent my early years steeped in a controlling, legalistic church culture? It’s complicated.

Some of my earliest memories have the Bible embedded at the center: winning the prize at Bible Bowl; Awana badges with their little plastic jewels; scripture memory systems with cards on a key ring; and sermon after exegetical sermon, Sunday morning and night. The problem was never a lack of regard for scripture. To the contrary, it was practically worshiped, treated like a book of magic spells. Doubting? Meditate on the promises of God. Anxious? The Bible says, “Be anxious for nothing,” so get a grip. Confused? The answer awaits if you’ll dig deep enough. In the faith environment of my youth, the answer always went back to the Bible, no matter the question.

The problems with this approach are complex, rooted in historical and scholarly strands of evangelical thought. But the personal angle for me is this: the God of the Bible, revealed in my early encounters with scripture, was not the God who I now long to love and worship. That former God of fundamentalism was angry, and deeply displeased with me. I may have been technically saved from his wrath by Jesus’ sacrifice, but his overall posture was all about my unworthiness. Through the years I’ve learned about the miracle of grace.

I’ve tasted the unqualified and lavish affection of a God who loves like a Father. Overall, I’ve made so much progress picking apart the twisted view of a Heavenly Taskmaster whose favor rests on my performance.

But like so many other habits of mind, our early years imprint us deeply. Decades into the process, scripture was still a landmine. Instead of offering comfort, it sometimes transported me back to spiritual leaders who used those same words to guilt and manipulate. Some of those leaders, men who had known the Bible intimately, have since been revealed as abusers and charlatans. Mastery of the Bible, instead of producing the fruit of the Spirit, had emboldened them to gain power over well-meaning people. If knowing scripture inside-out means knowing God, how could this have happened?

Author Rebecca Reynolds writes: “The urge to shift our theology after people abuse application makes sense. That’s a natural pain response. But not everything that has gone bad has done so because the foundations were errant. Sometimes bad people build a gallows on a frame that’s intended to become a greenhouse.” My struggle with scripture is all about that pain response, not about my theology. And I’ve longed for the greenhouse, instead of the gallows, to be slowly reconstructed in my heart.

For years now, I’ve been using a prayer book that weaves scripture into daily prayers, leaning heavily on the Psalms. Sometimes I’ll read a verse and tears will suddenly fill my eyes. Instead of pain, they are tears of recognition: here’s a God I want to love! Every so often, his tender voice revealed there calls to me patiently. I see hopeful signs that I can learn to treasure the Bible again, this time less as a weapon and more as a balm, less as a to-do list and more as a love letter.

“Jesus loves me, this I know.” I’m starting to believe it again, but not just because the Bible told me. I’m hearing it straight from the source Himself.

Joy Wooddell lives in the Northwest Georgia mountains with her musician husband and three teenagers who always keep her laughing. Currently she’s winding up many years as a home educator and piano teacher and thinking about what’s next. She loves cultivating plants and relationships, listening to music her kids recommend, and getting outside as much as possible.