My friend Kevin McClure told our young adult group, “I don’t just want to read the Word. I want it to read me!” More important than scrutinizing the Scripture is letting it scrutinize us. “Search me, O God,” says the psalmist, “and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts” (Ps. 139:23). We need to come away from encounters changed, not just inspired. We won’t always enjoy devotions; maybe we’ll feel unsettled.
It is of value to search the Scriptures. We also need the Scriptures to search us. They judge “the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). They dig below the surface to where we really live, into hidden outlooks that must be awakened and confessed.
Jesus once asked would-be followers, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” Their lives did not match their words, and the appearance of living under Christ’s lordship proved a pretense.
The Great Commission does not call us to know more but to obey better. We err when we invite people to hear but not to heed. We settle for a faith that stops at intellectual assent rather than radical obedience. James mocks such head knowledge, calling it “useless” (Js. 2:20). He also says that we are living in self-deception.
When Mary and the siblings of Jesus came to see Him, He said, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice” (Luke 8:21). Simply put, Jesus considered those careful to do what God’s Word tells them to do as closer than His family of origin.
Luke places this incident just after the parable of the sower, where Jesus again told the importance of doing the Word. The fourth kind of soil stood for those “who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” Good intentions do not make it for the farmer or for the faithful. Follow-through is what counts! Every time we praise the Lord in the midst of difficulty, stop our tongue when insulted, or deny ourselves to help a brother in need, we are strengthening our foundation and fertilizing the crop.
Easier said than lived out. How do we apply the Scripture when we read a different passage each day and hear a new sermon every Sunday? Answer: “We can’t.” When a voice teacher said to me, “Keep your shoulders low, your gut firm, your chin in, your arms relaxed, and don’t sing from your throat. And….” I interrupted her: “I can learn only one thing at a time.” So we may need to pick one passage for a while, praying that the Spirit translates it into our habits.
Jesus persisted with this theme of doing the Word. When a woman tried to praise Him by shouting in a crowd, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth,” Jesus responded with, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:28). I would have at least acknowledged the affirmation. The Son of God deflected it toward a higher priority.
To know and not to do is not to know. To study the Scriptures and not to do what they say puts us potentially in more dangerous territory than not studying at all! (Suggestion: try praying them into your life. If you read about worry, pray, “Forgive me for worrying about finances. Please help me to live without this anxiety.”)
Later in His ministry, Jesus told a parable of two sons. When the father asked the first son to work in the field, he refused but later changed his mind. The second son said he would but did not. Obedience trumps profession—every time. Simple obedience does not always follow easy assent. Words come naturally for religious types who want to look good, and sometimes I can be religious. The first son proved more in touch with his own independence, and God changed his heart.
Just days before the crucifixion, Jesus told three stories, all of which ended with horrendous judgment. The verdict came not on the basis of belief but of behavior. Five virgins missed the Party because they forgot oil. A servant missed the celebration because he didn’t invest his master’s money. The goats were separated from the eternal kingdom because of the compassion they failed to extend. These examples tamper with our theology that assumes believing suffices. Apparently, believing without responding invalidates the belief. Or in the words of Jesus’ brother, “Faith without works is dead.”
Are you reading the Word of God on a regular basis? If yes, good. Are you letting the Word of God read you? Even better. I once said to a pastor friend, “I want to study more about repentance,” to which he responded, “I want to repent.” Or like the new Chinese believer said, “I am now reading the Bible and behaving it.”