Reading the Bible as Guilt Management

Barth      Will Willimon, in his book Conversations with Barth on Preachingmakes some jarring assertions that certainly forces one to think. Willimon reminds us that God is UNKNOWABLE. Such a statement makes me squirm a bit. But, just to sit down with it for a moment is a good exercise. Because what it does is make the fact of revelation all the more powerful. God discloses Himself… makes Himself known… otherwise we would have no access to Him whatsoever. That says something immensely beautiful about our God. However, here’s the kicker (according to Willimon and Barth): revelation is an event, not a possession. Revelation is what happens to you while reading the Bible. Revelation is not what you hold in your hands. Revelation is surprising, not predictable. We don’t own revelation; we are only to receive it as an uncontrollable event.
      I like this, but I don’t know how far I want to take it. I’m all for revelation being a spontaneous event. In an ongoing sense, revelation ought to to be fresh, not canned. Relationship seems to imply that God will continue to disclose Himself on a personal level to us. We shouldn’t ever be so haughty as to think that we can control our knowledge of God with a knob. But, in another sense the Bible certainly is revelation. He has disclosed Himself through redemptive history. And to claim we don’t possess/own revelation in that regard is taking things too far. But if we take revelation only to be words on paper, words to be analyzed, and parsed, factoids to be mined as we don our white lab coats then we have really missed it. Revelation is a sovereign event that cannot be contained in a test tube. And I love what Willimon says in the book:

The eventful, sovereign, disruptive quality of this grace is an attack upon much of the current enthusiasm for “spiritual practices.” Too often “spiritual disciplines” and “practices” are what we cultivate when we no longer have encounter by the Risen Christ (230).

My goodness… what an indictment. But, something about this rings true. Willimon continues in this vein:

[This focus on spiritual disciplines] may be inherent in any account of the Christian life that begins with what we ought to do rather than with what God has done and is doing in Christ. We must find a way to keep… life as miraculous, a work of God rather than our work (310).

     bible reading He’s hitting on some implications I’ve long wondered about. I think, sometimes, we reduce the Christian life to the activity of Bible reading as guilt management. What I mean is that Bible reading becomes an “ought to do” and when we fail to do it we feel guilty. We feel like we’re not being good Christians. And while operating under this faulty assumption, any delight of Scripture becomes smothered by a sense of duty. So we go to the Bible to alleviate the pressure. That’s called guilt relief and, in such a state, Scripture only becomes a place of human striving, not typically a place we encounter God.
     That’s why I think we need to be careful with the check-off-list approach to Bible reading. It can certainly provide structure to our devotional time, but there can also be a fine line to such an approach. We can be so impeccable in our diligence that a spiritual pride can result (see John 5:39-40). Or, conversely, we can look at our check-off list and castigate ourselves for our lack of godliness. Both of these outcomes operate under the notion that knowing God can be operated, even manipulated, “from below,” through human achievement. But, the knowledge and experience of God should continue to be considered a miraculous gift “from above,” bestowed by a sovereign God. With this “from-above” perspective our approach to Scripture can be liberated from human performance to an exciting place of expectation, in spite of our imperfect check-off lists.
      You can see that Barth’s theology can challenge a person in the idea that life with God is really on His terms and not so much about our performance. Of course, I could push back on much of this thinking. But, sometimes it’s good to just stay put and ponder something from a different point of view. And especially in regards to our attitude towards Bible reading, I think we can stand to gain from this perspective. Let’s stay in Scripture, but understand that the power of that venture does not rely on my diligent performance. Life with God is too dynamic for that.


  1. Great blog. Its easy to fall back in the pattern of doing rather than becoming and being. Taking that heavy yoke of the law on our backs, instead of walking in grace and reading Gods word to have an encounter with our creator, and our savior, in lieu of a task master. “Striving rather than encountering”. Well Put…..

  2. Yes, this takes some of the onus of our spiritual walk off our own shoulders. I like what Hebrews 12:2 says, “Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” That to me is exciting!

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