When Milk Faith Becomes a Feast

My transition from milk to food has been a thrilling one.

I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.

–1 Corinthians 3:2.

Thoughtful readers of Paul can’t help but wonder what food they’re missing out on. In the past, I read the verse and imagined a meager piece of bread. Now, though, it is a feast of the mind.

A too-smooth church upbringing.

For months, I wrestled with a ministry calling from God. It resulted in a desert of spiritual dissatisfaction and haunting questions. Alone and afraid, I sat up for nights wondering why I believe what I believe and thinking I can’t do ministry without answers.

A pitfall of growing up in the church is that the transition from childhood faith to adulthood faith can be a little too smooth; I accepted what I believed simply because it was all I knew. I scratched my head at teenaged church friends who doubted. Now I scratch my head at my past self for not questioning alongside them.

Recently, Mom reminded me that I was raised to think for myself. That’s true, but I didn’t apply critical thinking to my faith. I suppressed challenging questions because I didn’t want to lose my faith and feel out of place in my favorite community on earth — church.

An invitation to feast.

I didn’t really know God intimitely until I almost died in 2016. Other than that recent spiritual desert, I’ve since blown through life in His peace, my spirit experiencing Him in ways indescribable and overwhelming.

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.

1 Peter 2:2-3

For four years, I’ve craved more and more in my relationship with God. I’ve had a good idea of how Jesus wants me to live and I’ve been doing better at breaking sin patterns, but I realized I’ve only had elementary understanding of and faith in God — milk faith. I need to explore many questions if I am to mature in ministry. How do I teach if I have not learned wisdom?

Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

Hebrews 5:14

The mind-heart connection was murky until recently. When mentoring youth, I performed mental aerobics to explain what I had no grasp of, without really realizing I was doing so. I had scripts with classic “Gotcha!” answers but those “answers” morphed into the questions that buzzed through my mind in my aforementioned spiritual desert.

When I was a kid, others would ask hard questions at church camp about genocide or atonement and the response would often be a shrug and the implication that “that’s just how it is.” That’s not feeding milk or food, it’s uncomfortable avoidance. I don’t want to do ministry that way.

So, I began “deconstructing” my faith, prayerfully picking apart each idea that feeds into my ideas of God’s character and the Christian walk. My intensive faith examination has led me to more intimate communion with Christ. Doubt, for me, became catalyst to matured, intensified faith. 

Reconstructing my Christianity.

Solid food manifested through the metaphysical first: Asking God to help me understand Him. He answered, restoring in me an intense, unquenchable desire to read the Bible.

I’d read the New Testament in autumn but I didn’t feel ready to touch the Old. My beloved prayer partner said she feels God wants to “personally mentor” me in discernment. That sounded pretty … cool … so I opened up ol’ Genesis. And I read and read and read, first in horror and then in beautiful realization.

If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

James 1:5

During this time, I prayed for wisdom more than ever before, and I read analyses by linguists, and I studied anthropological articles, and I watched sermons by theologians of many views, and I listened to podcasts by Bible scholars, and I learned fancy words like Christus victor, and I practiced various methods of liturgy, and I examined how ancient Israelites and early church fathers read the Bible.

(I’ll take a break here to address people who have been wondering why I’ve disappeared from the face of the earth in the past months: I’ve been doing this!)

And I came to see the Bible as actually very, really exciting; in fact, it is the best book I’ve ever read. It’s also the most misunderstood and literarily complex book I’ve ever read.

I once received scripture as piece meal and through a modern-Western lens, but I am now seeing the greater narrative as something that must be read in its entirety.

I learned that contradicting verses are not questions begging justification aerobics but are instead invitations to wisdom-forming debate, that ancient idioms say one thing and mean another, that literary genre must be understood before interpreting a book, that linguists don’t always agree on translations, that ancient Israelite rhetoric is nothing like mine, that the Bible speaks in metaphor just as often as Jesus speaks in parables.

I learned that Jesus is the Word from the beginning, the ultimate teaching authority and lens through which to view the Old Testament. He corrected religious scholars’ interpretations, and would correct our interpretations, too.

I can’t get enough of this feast.

For months, I’ve been excitably digging through this feast and adding meat to my faith, praying for Christ to correct my discernment just as He guided many others who ate at His table. Sometimes, I find I simply cannot read a page or listen to a podcast. I can tell that what is being discussed is engaging, as is the language used, yet there’s a block on my mind preventing me from consuming the offered knowledge despite repeated attempts. Maybe my prayer partner was right and Abba really is mentoring me through this all.

I have found the courage to admit I don’t know many things and I have found the confidence to respond to questions once mystery to me. I have cast away some views and adopted others. At times, I’m afraid I will disappoint others with new views but other times I’ve found surprising solidarity. At times, I bemoan the divisions in the Church and other times I wipe away tears while reflecting on its unity.

I often hear the word “deconstruction” used negatively in church popular culture but I realize now that if I had never stripped down my faith and interrogated it, I could not have reconstructed it to be as beautiful as it is today.

Now, when mentored high schoolers tell me they’re doubting, I tell them I love that they admit that to me. I don’t want them to feel alone. I’m not happy they doubt, because it is a grueling and alienating experience. I know that because many “greats” — Job, Jeremiah, Abraham, others — in the Bible wrestled with God, too, and it tore at their hearts. But guess what? They left this earth even more intimate with Him.

I Love That I Love the Bible

My last post shared what I’d never confessed to my Sunday school teachers: I used to hate reading the Bible.

But then I prayed for God to help me desire His word. I realized I couldn’t love the Author of Life if I hated His writings. And simple as can be, He answered. By the next day, I craved the Bible. Driving down the highway, I’d suddenly give in to the urge to pull over at the next exit and read. I’d skip days hanging out with friends to read. I’d even spend services not listening but reading (oops). Many days, I study the Word for three to four hours, highlighting and noting like mad.

Here are my favorite revelations.

Not Really a “Drab, Dusty Narrative”

Ah, the humor, cleverness, wisdom, mystery, eloquence, tragedy! How did I not see all of this in the Bible before??

My April mission trip to Jordan continues to help me visualize the Biblical people, lands, and rituals. I see the Sea of Galilee while reading of Jesus walking down its shore, I feel the harshness of the sun beating upon his neck during His temptation, I taste the food of Bethlehem and know it was what Mary and Joseph once ate.

The cultural notes of my Bible help me realize how hilarious and even sassy Jesus was, how laughable the remarks of His disciples were (this emphasizes their future growth), and how mind-blowing the fulfilled prophecies were (and are).

A Misunderstood Text

The cultural notes also helped me approach the texts that most intimidated me. For example, I looked into the at-first-glance harsh words of Paul in the letters to the Corinthians and learned that they simply could not be read properly without

  • knowing the audience and their specific problems, without studying the linguistics of keywords
  • examining the difference between Gentiles and Jews
  • studying the societal expectations of sex/gender in those days and at those places 

I went from thinking of Paul as a misogynist to realizing how counter-culturally for women he was. Additionally, I went from seeing him as an arrogant scrub to seeing him as someone who struggled with the knowledge that he didn’t match up to Greek standards of rhetoric and popularity, yet he continued his mission. Like me, he was a decent writer and not-so-decent speaker.

It’s also been personally revolutionary to study the rhetorical traditions of rabbis in Jesus’s time, which helps me to know when He used sarcasm, hyperbole, irony, etc. Without that knowledge, it’s difficult to pick up on what is literal or not, what the meaning of certain parables are, why He told parables to begin with, and why He sometimes acted odd (by modern standards) in the way He discipled or corrected others.

I also gained a new appreciation for the words of the Bible, like the “wholeness” described by the word Shalom.

And prophecies? Wow. They’ve never been cooler. It feels almost impossible to track the myriad parallels between generations, Old Testament and New — prophecies and metaphor galore!

Yes, Even the Well-known Stories Give Me Joy

You can hear a story a million times and still be affected differently. It’s like watching Star Wars or Harry Potter. Sure, you know what’s gonna happen on your fiftieth watch-through, but you still find value.

I’m now reading the old Sunday school stories with the intention to learn something new. The Word is living, and one reason we can say that is because it produces different “tasting notes” each time it is read. New ingredients are detected; components hit differently.

  • As a child, I heard the story of Jesus feeding thousands with small baskets of bread and dish. I marveled. As an adult, I focus on Jesus telling His disciples to rest, but not before feeding those He demanded care for — but yes, rest. I felt conviction.
  • As a child, I saw Peter as pathetic and even treacherous. As an adult, I see his brokenness, confusion, redemption. I cry when Jesus pushes Peter to self-realization each time He tells him to feed His sheep: “See it, Peter. See it, hold it — you’re changing.” Where I once saw Peter with distaste, I now see Peter as … Brad.

(A question I often ask students in my youth group is: “Which Bible character do you most relate to?” I give them a few days to think before answering. It reveals much. Try it!)

It Moves Me

The Word is God’s love letter. It conveys His broken heart and jealousy at the turning of our backs. It identifies our connection with Abba by using intimate words like son or daughter and friend, and empowering words like heir and royalty; it contrasts those words with what we should be if not for liberation, like slaves and enemies. It chronicles the repeated offers of redemption and our repeated betrayals and the ultimate grace — check out Stephen’s address.

Scripture weaves its way into my every prayer. When the Spirit overwhelms me, I find His words drip from my tongue — words I didn’t try to memorize but somehow dug their way into my soul. A prayer injected with scripture is powerful. It’s imperative for any intercessor to know the Word; we are commanded to test what is said in prayer for alignment with Him.

As a sword, the Word pierces my spirit with chilling truth. As a honeyed law, I do now delight in it. As the words of a Father, it comforts me.

My Plan and Materials

  • The goal is to read the Bible through entirely … then start again. Reading random verses doesn’t do it for me. The Bible is wondrously rich when read as a single chronicle — the Author of Life compiled our story into a complete volume. How rad is that?
  • I’m doing machete style, so starting in the New Testament and then backtracking to the OG OT material. For me, reading in this order emphasizes the liberation under the New Covenant more so than the traditional chronology. My brain just works that way.
  • Most of the time, I use the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Sometimes I read an NLT apologetics edition. (NIV is not my favorite translation — I prefer ESV or NLT depending on the need — but the cultural notes make me drool.) I urge anyone studying the Word to get an edition containing cultural notes.
  • If anything confuses me, I don’t shrug and move on, but instead, I read commentary from trusted scholars and pastors. I super recommend the Bible Project videos.
  • Get some highlighters. This speaker I met had memorized the entire Bible and when asked how he did it, he said, “Just highlight everything you want to memorize.” I’d take it a step further and write notes on why you highlighted each bit.
  • Unless there’s something important going on, I leave my phone out of reach and on silence. I heave my hefty Bible around for five reasons:
    • The Bible app results in habitual switches to social media
    • It feels respectful to speakers/pastors to put away my phone
    • It encourages people in public to ask me about my faith (has happened!)
    • I love making notes by hand because they more deeply sink into my brain
    • I’m a writer … I love print
  • On weekends, I read at a beach or park. On workdays, I break up readings: Morning before work (often, Psalms and Proverbs), during lunch break, and at night by candlelight. This prevents reading too much without absorbing meanings.
  • I pray for God’s help in absorbing the readings because I have serious brain fog. I now get super stoked to share what I’ve learned each day with those around me. Teaching people is the best way for us to learn!

I Hated That I Hated the Bible

When I raised my hand to declare that I disliked — no, hated — the Law, I surprised even myself. It was at a retreat discussion about Pslam 19 which describes the Law as sweet like honey. To me, the Law tasted bitter.

I’d subconsciously suppressed that the Law and the entire Bible as an extension was something with which I wanted only a loose connection.

  • I found the stories dusty and drab in their straightforward narrative styles.
  • I feared reading the offensive Books of Law and conquest because they made me uncomfortable. Paul wrote stuff that seemed to conflict with my personal values regarding women.
  • I thought I knew all the important stuff because I grew up with Sunday school stories. I’d lived life by a moral compass manufactured from those base-level teachings, not bothering with evidence or details, nor the less-famous Bible passages.
  • I justified my inability to open my Bible by reading a dozen Facebook memes per day that contained one-liner verses about love (and certainly not wrath!).
  • My inability to faithfully and consistently read the Bible led to frustration and anger at myself. I felt like a failure as a Christian. It was a sore topic.

I don’t think I was alone. We speak openly in the church about how few Christians actually read their Bibles. It’s really no wonder why people outside the church question whether we even know our own scripture. It’s because many of us don’t.

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Found in an Arabic-speaking church.

 

Only 11% of Americans have read the entire Bible, according to a LifeWay survey. They follow this with, “Those with evangelical beliefs are more likely (49 percent) to read a little bit each day than those without evangelical beliefs (16 percent). Protestants (36 percent) are more likely to read every day than Catholics (17 percent).”

It’s not only about reading the verses; so many of us neglect to study the written, cultural, and theological contexts of the Word. Without studying the context of societal sex roles and privileges of the early church in Ephesus, one could say women shouldn’t hold leadership positions. Without taking prophecy fulfillment and surrounding scripture into consideration, one could say Jesus encouraged arming ourselves with weapons with the intention to “defend” Him. Without studying theology and the exile from Zion, we could say we are promised a materialistically prosperous life if we are faithful to God’s plan.

I began analyzing my broken, distant relationship with the Word when I went to Jordan and saw the profound effect the Bible stories and their lessons had on Muslim, Syrian refugees. They:

  • were hearing scripture for the first time, with fresh ears.
  • knew the cultural implications — the countercultural, radical messages — were shocking because Middle Eastern culture really hasn’t changed that much. They viewed scripture through its proper lens.
  • believed in the miraculous more than most Western Christians I’ve met.

Their eyes grew wide while we shared that Jesus said a man’s disabilities weren’t a punishment, that the Prodigal Son was warmly received in his homecoming, that a God-who-became-man wept over the death of a human and then sacrificed Himself for those who hated Him.

Honestly, I couldn’t think of a single time (until recently) that I was surprised by a Biblical story or teaching.

During our free time, the team in Jordan visited sites from the Bible like Mount Nebo and Umm Qais. From a distance, we viewed the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. I stared at these places, felt their ancient dust, and urged the old Sunday school stories to come to new life.

It didn’t work. I had no special connection to those stories.

That changed when, after a tough day of serving refugees, I finally opened my Bible to read Luke 3:3-6 which tells of Jesus bringing new life to the Jordan Valley. In a place of oppression where thousands streamed in to escape slaughter, Jesus continues walking and working. I saw proof in the gleeful laughter of the children refugees, in the Christian church that selflessly sacrificed for Muslim neighbors, in the sparked eyes of those who heard His stories. Finally, I looked over the Promised Land and felt my eyes water.

476C43EC-AE08-487F-AB87-7684B90B60E4.jpg
The Promised Land.

I’d like to say I returned home and began reading my Bible, but that took months. I’d pick up the book and set it down without bothering to open it. I’d open my Bible app and almost immediately switch to Instagram. I frustrated myself. I hated that I hated the Word.

Finally, I came to the realization I needed, painful as it was: I couldn’t love God properly while hating His words.

As someone who at least tries to love God, this distressed me. So, I prayed.

God, I want to love you. And I really don’t as much as I want to. Help me to not only accept your Word, but crave it. Help me to absorb it and need it and want it.

When we earnestly, selflessly, and faithfully ask for things that contribute to our spiritual growth, God will give the gift.

And so He did.

In my next post, I’ll tell you what changed.