Why the Bible is hard, confusing, frustrating, and beautiful

A few weeks ago my sermon was from a part of the Bible that talks about how awesome the Bible is. The author of this particular text raves about how God’s word is their source of light and their foundation.

When I saw the passage (Psalm 119: 129-134, for those of you wondering), I groaned.  Why? Because I knew that when you preach from Psalm 119, which I’ve done before, there’s really no way around getting to the part where you say: “So, all of you, read your Bible more.  It’s great!  You’ll love it!”

And to be frank, after 12 years of preaching and having said some version of that countless times, I’ve grown a little skeptical of the value of saying that anymore. It’s not because I don’t think people should read the Bible, especially followers of God. It’s that even those who love God very dearly don’t always find that an easy thing to do.

Let’s be blunt:  The Bible can be hard to read.  It is a dense book, with lots of unusual and ancient concepts. It is not always chronological.  It doesn’t give a lot of explanation of some of the things that it is addressing.

There are some weird, bizarre, and even gruesome stories, that make people ask: “Was God okay with THAT?”  Frankly, if I had a quarter for every time someone said to me: “I tried to read the Bible and I got as far as Leviticus before I gave up,” well…I would probably have $10.  People ask: Why read what I don’t understand? (Even if I wished I did!).

The Bible can feel big and intimidating.  The one sitting closest to me as I write this is 900 pages of VERY small print, in two columns.  My guess is that it would be more like reading 3000 pages if the same words were printed like a regular novel is today.  “Where should I even start?”  someone might ask.  In fact, to pick up the Bible and just start reading where you open the page can be completely jarring.

I think of the scene from the television show “30 Rock” where the character Liz Lemon tries to distract a crowd at church by Bible reading and opens to the verse: "But Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it.”

Now, as someone who has spent a lot of time studying the Bible, that is completely hilarious to me (plus, “30 Rock” – I mean, it’s genius!). I can explain the exact context of that story, what it means, and why it even teaches us about God. But really – what would that sound like to the average person reading it for the first time? Well, it sounds pretty disgusting and disturbing.

I would love it if people who first opened the Bible turned to the lines that said: “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” “I will never leave you or forsake you,” or “I praise you that I am wonderfully made and all your works are wonderful.”  I have not found this happens so often.

And on top of all that, there’s the fact that the Bible doesn’t have the best reputation anymore. For some people, the most exposure they have to the Bible are the signs quoting Bible verses held by extremists at Pride Marches or messages typed with hate on a Facebook message board.

For others, even those who grew up as people of faith, the Bible was often quoted to explain why they were bad people, going to hell, or not allowed to do things that they thought would be fun.

Sadly, instead of experiencing the Bible as a message of love, many people have experienced the Bible like a shotgun that someone used to shoot them in their places of deepest pain.

Who can blame anyone who wouldn’t jump at the chance to read it who has experienced that?

So what do I do when I’m slated to preach from Psalm 119, that sings the joy of God’s Word? What to do when I KNOW I need to share the message that we should read this book, because of all the things it actual is – light and life and hope and direction – when the mere mention of reading the Bible makes so many noticeably start to squirm?

Well, here’s what I did. I remembered that while many people may be hesitant about the Bible, that does not mean they are not eager to know and find God, and that the Bible helps people to do that.

I also remembered that as hard as the Bible is, it is worth it. Then, remembering that, I did indeed tell people they should read it (or listen to it, or watch videos of it). And then I told them it was okay to have a “post-it note Bible.”

That’s what I call my own Bible that I read when I was nineteen and began to really read the Bible for myself.  Like many a good Christian girl, I had read my one-chapter-a-night since I was a young teenager.

When I had hard days I would turn to the list of topics and see if there was a good answer (funny, there was never a “don’t have a boyfriend” category).

But it wasn’t really alive to me, until the summer that I worked as a laundress at a summer camp. I had a lot of time alone in the laundry room that summer, moving loads of sopping kitchen towels from washer to dryer and folding staff uniforms day after day, and I decided: I’m going to use this time to read my Bible.  And I did.

And, like so many other people, I had questions. So many questions, even for someone who had gone to church her whole life.  I’d get to a part and say “This is crazy!!  I don’t get it!  I can’t read anymore!”  This was when I started my post-it note system.

At first, I would just underline or put question marks by the things I wondered about. But the margins in Bibles are small and I started running out of room. So, I would take a post-it, write out my confusion and my questions and stick it in there.

I still have this Bible 20 years later, still packed full of the questions of my 19 year old self. I love to flip through it and read the notes again. It’s fun to see how I understand a lot of what I didn’t then. It reminds me that God has taught me so much.

But many of my questions still have no answers. In fact, I have lots of new questions to stick in there…like about why some people get healed and others don’t and whether Jesus knew anyone with cancer and whether my support of universal health care is what Jesus would have done.

I don’t literally stick a post-it note in my Bible with all my questions anymore, but I still ask questions all the time. I still say: “God I don’t understand this.” Then, I keep reading (or listening, or watching…). I keep going because for all those questions, I can resonate with all the Psalm writer says in Psalm 119: God’s word, when you read it and hear it and let it shape you day after day and year after year, gives life.  

What I’m trying to say is that engaging with the Bible may not always be easy, certainly not at first, so when you begin, you may have a “post-it note Bible” – literally or figuratively. You may have more questions than answers. You may get confused, annoyed or even angry. That’s normal and that’s okay.

As you keep reading (or listening, or watching) though, you will also find the message of love and hope and redemption. You may even find yourself late for lunch because you didn’t realize the timer on the dryer went off because you were so engrossed in the book of Exodus. You may be listening online and hear something that will speak so deeply to your soul that you will never forget it.  You may discover that with every answered question, you are actually eager to learn more.

So here’s the pitch: Give it a try! Ask questions. Start with a part that makes sense (I recommend the book of Mark). Get a translation that you find easiest to read (a Christian book store or your friendly neighbourhood pastor or ME can help you with this!), or use another method (like listening or watching videos) if you don’t like reading. Talk to others and join groups that will teach you more.  Also, buy some post-it notes. They can be super helpful.

Dear Readers:

If ChristianWeek has made a difference in your life, please take a minute and donate to help give voice to stories that inform, encourage and inspire.

Donations of $20 or more will receive a charitable receipt.
Thank you, from Christianweek.

About the author

Leanne is Lead Pastor of Mount Hamilton Baptist Church in Hamilton, Ontario, where she has served for the last 11 years. She blogs at leannefriesen.com

  • HpO

    This lesson learned of yours is simply wonderful, wonderful, sister Leanne Friesen! I’m hoping it’s contagious and everybody catches it – me first, me first! Especially these 2 contagions: (1) The one that gets you either to “just underline or put question marks by the things (you) wondered about”, next to the verses you were reading; or to “take a post-it, write out my confusion and my questions and stick it in there.” And (2) the other that makes you “ask questions all the time”, then “say: ‘God I don’t understand this’ … then … keep reading (or listening, or watching…)”, then “keep going” – until – lo & behold – TADA – “God’s word … gives life” and becomes “really alive to me”!

    On a more sombre note, but only because your writing skill does bring that kind of tone out of your readers’ reaction, and that’s a good thing: I’m not going to beg to differ when you claimed, “The Bible doesn’t have the best reputation anymore” – even among Bible Christians and Bible Churches (with whom I belong)! Well, guess what, experience tells me it’s the non-so-called-bible-believing churches’ turn now to restore that “reputation”. At one Catholic Men’s Breakfast Group, the bible is being read and discussed regularly. And folks over at a United Church spend their Saturday mornings together reading and discussing Scriptures in Q&A style. Good on them and way to go!

    • HpO, You are a diplomat! Thanks for your post and for defending the WOGod! Like I told Leanne in my post above… only non-believers see the Bible the way she is portraying it in her post. God Bless you! ♥

      • HpO

        Tragic is that the Bible has become the stumbling block for Bible Christians and Bible Churches and they’re no longer discussing the Bible. Yet these “non-believers” you call them, are subjecting the Bible to open discussion. So, no, what sister Leanne Friesen is doing is good on her and all the “non-believers”. It’s the “believers” I’d be more concerned about nowadays.

        I am reaching back out to you, sister ShariLee, but I’m damaged good who’s still “defending the WOGod!”, just so you know.

  • Dear Leanne, My heart breaks for you. That you are a lead pastor and feel this way about God’s Word generates sympathy for your congregation as well. First of all, God’s Word is the Power of God unto Salvation. It is Alive and more powerful than any two edged sword. Jesus Christ, our lord and savior; our messiah… IS THE WORD OF GOD. If you take the WOG seriously, and renew your mind to it faithfully, you will find that it effectually exercises superhuman power in your spirit. God has shed His love in your heart, and He has given us His Word that we may know Him and thereby have access to the Divine nature, since He has given us EVERYTHING we need for life and godliness…

    I could go on and on with this, elaborating on the endless gifts and provision offered up to Believers through the Word, but hopefully you get the message… I am wondering if you have ever actually realized that you cannot do ANYTHING without Jesus. He told us about this truth Himself. Get on your knees and ask Him to be Lord of your life, and you will find the wonder of Him opening up to you as your throw away your sticky notes and read the Bible from the perspective of a Born-Again Believer. It is amazing and wonderful. Ephesians 1 says that He chose you, Leanne Friesen, for Himself before the foundation of the world. Imagine that! 1Corinthians 1:18-31 is proof that the Bible is NOT for unbelievers, except as they come to the realization that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” and that He gave His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, that we might be forgiven and saved.

    The Bible is beautiful, as you say, but only in so far as it reveals the truth to Believers. As for the horror stories we read–especially in the old testament–they are no worse than those you can hear on any news program, or read about online. They are included in the Bible so that we can see that man is and HAS BEEN since Adam and Eve gave away the planet Earth. Since then, we are all unregenerate and lost–in need of a Savior–someone willing to die and pay the price for our sins. The wages of sin is DEATH. Jesus stepped up to the cross on Calvary and PAID THAT PRICE for you and for me.

    I want to encourage you to receive Him as your Lord and Savior, and then open your Bible to discover that though you may find areas where you still see through a glass darkly–there is more than enough for the spiritual eyes of Believers to see and for the spiritual ears of Believers to hear.

    The Bible is actually the instruction book that comes with each new life as they are born… It is just that many, like yourself, do not know the truth; therefore, you are not really free… YET! ♥