When I was but a lad, barely a sapling in the forest of humanity, my grandmother took me to the library and acquired on my behalf what, at the time, was seemingly my ticket to the world of learning – a library card. If you were to ask about the impact of such a rite of passage on my young mind, you might see it reflected now that I have grown into a man. I have no idea how many books I have actually read in my lifetime, and my reading habits are not likely to change, as the only list bigger than the books I’ve read is the list of books I desire to read but haven’t.
And today, like many a pastor before me, I own a library. It is relatively large, and I continue to build it; at some point we may have to reinforce the floor beneath my study. But, if you were to enter my study and see the books on my wall I could tell you, in all honesty, that I have not read them all… yet. One of my mentors, a pastor from my teenage years, once allowed me to help him organize his library which had taken up a large shed in his backyard. I asked, in the wonder of a bookish sixteen-year-old, if he had read all of his many books, to which he replied, “Have you read all of yours?” I felt strangely shamed, but I got the point.
Why am I taking you on this brief trek through my personal history? Let me explain.
Today, in what is often called “the internet age”, perhaps the most widely hailed “good” is the fact that, now more than ever, information is readily accessible. The massive world of human knowledge is virtually at your fingertips. Would you like to know the population of sheep in the Falkland Islands? Google it! Would you like to take a class in writing from Stephen King? You can do that too! Would you like to learn how to speak Mandarin? You can take your pick of the websites that will teach you how. The internet is like the new library card; if you have internet access, all human knowledge is yours…
Or is it?
One thing that often gets overlooked in the internet age is the difference between the access to information and true education. It is assumed by many that because we have access to so much information, we are the most knowledgeable human beings who have ever lived; reason and experience prove the opposite.
Reason itself would tell us that having access to something does not equal full possession. I may have access to lessons on Mandarin, but if I do not take those lessons, I do not know Mandarin. Likewise, even if I take those online Mandarin courses, if I do not put my knowledge into practice, before long it will be nothing more than “something I used to know.” It will come as a shock to many who know me, but I used to know the Merengue; I’m so out of practice that I am out of knowledge – I can’t even remember what the dance actually looks like.
Experience also teaches us that having access to information does not equal knowledge. If I were to ask you how many sheep there are in the Falkland Islands, the most likely answer you would give me would be – “Hold on just a second”, as you brazenly asked your smartphone the same question. In other words, you’re ignorant; you do not have this knowledge, and thus you must ask someone else. And, I’m certain that were I to ask you the same question two weeks later, I would acquire the same response, because you didn’t really learn the answer when you looked it up the first time.
Now, I’ve spoken about learning Mandarin and the Merengue and the wooled ovine population of the tiny islands off the coast of South America. Perhaps you believe these things to be unimportant; perhaps you are correct. I could live without ever speaking Mandarin (though learning foreign languages is helpful); I’m not a dance instructor, and so I can’t imagine why the Merengue is a piece of information I need to retain; and, quite frankly, I don’t care in the least how many sheep there are in the Falkland Islands (504,620).
But what about things that are important? Questions like: “Who is God?”; “What is the purpose of my life?”; “What is right and wrong (and is there such a dichotomy in the first place)?”; “Who should I marry?”; “What happens when I die?” In these cases, the difference between access to information and real education becomes much more serious. Sadly, this is also where we see people treat the Bible in the same manner they have been trained to treat the internet.
As Christians, we believe that the Bible answers all of these important questions. Evangelicals talk about the importance of the Bible, the inerrancy of the Bible, the infallibility of the Bible; their facebook statuses often relay Bible verses (with no context); their instagram is littered with their colorful “Bible art”, often word art drawn over the actual words of Scripture; their t-shirts and bumper stickers tout “John 3:16”. But, what has become abundantly clear in our culture is that many who call themselves “Bible-believing Christians”, don’t diligently study and know the Bible they claim to believe. They are not students in the school of God’s Word.
Practically every church-goer has a Bible at home. It might even sit in a special spot; it might even be the biggest book (or the only book) in your house. But having a Bible and being a student of the Bible are not the same thing; having access to the Scriptures and knowing the Scriptures are not the same thing. I don’t think any real Christian believer would claim that the Bible is not important; but there are many who by their practice reveal that being a student of the Scriptures is not important to them. They’ve fallen for the lie of the internet age that access to information and true knowledge are the same thing.
Often, it is the case that even when people do read the Bible, they read it through the lens of their own experience, rather than, as students who are being formed in the classroom of Christ, viewing their own experience through the lens of the whole of Scripture. Because of this, verses are taken out of context to suit the reader’s prejudice; for example, “God is love” (1 John 4:8) is divorced by many from the reality of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ in the next couple of verses, and the love of God is instead defined by their own experience of sentimental or even erotic love. Instead of being shaped by the context of all of Scripture, these readers shape the Scriptures to their own subjective contexts. They are more knowledgeable of the index than they are of the Book; the only time they go to the Word is to find a proof-text, and having found it, they go back out again, unchanged and as ignorant as they came. They have access to information, they even superficially access the information, but they do not truly learn because they do not truly submit as God’s pupils.
What I am suggesting is that if we believe that the Bible is God’s Word, we must diligently submit to the Holy Spirit speaking through the whole of Scripture as our Teacher. We must be students at Christ’s feet (Luke 10:39). We must take advantage of the means of grace in the preached and taught Word. We must not only be Bible-readers, but Bible-students. This means that we must no longer deem it acceptable to possess a Bible without being possessed by the Bible. Spurgeon once warned his people, “There is dust enough on some of your Bibles to write ‘damnation’ with your fingers.” Having access to Scripture and knowing Scripture (and through Scripture knowing the God Who has revealed Himself in His written Word) are not the same. The difference between the two is found in the hearing, the reading, the studying, the living, the praying, the learning, the submitting, the meditating, the inwardly digesting. The Bible on your shelf will do you no good until it is the Bible in your mind and heart, until it is the world in which you live.