Q & R: Discernment

Here’s the Q:

I have just finished reading ‘A new kind of Christianity’ and as with your previous books I am very grateful for your insights and warm conversational style!
I am however left with a glaring question that troubles me and I wonder if you have any thoughts.
The main thrust of your argument is that we should not read the bible as a Constitution and we should avoid the Greco-Roman straight line world-view.
OK. I hear you, but in light of that, can we take any of the well loved passages of the bible as certain promises to us from God? Without a straight-line view, how can I find assurance that God is speaking to me without requiring much wiser interpretation than I myself can muster up? I fear that if its meaning is veiled beneath too much cultural baggage, I could never really feel qualified to discern God’s voice in it at all. Do you think it is possible to hear God’s voice through the bible speaking into our particular circumstances?
Oops sorry, that’s turned into more than one question!

R: The danger you’re concerned about – of losing confidence in our ability to receive guidance and comfort from God, or in God’s ability to get guidance and comfort through to us – is real. But as you know, dangers often come in two’s. The opposite danger is real as well: of “claiming a promise” presumptively, treating the Bible as a kind of “magic 8 ball” (remember those?) or horoscope …
Certainty, it turns out, can be about what’s real to us, not what’s real “out there” … the person suffering from hallucinations is quite certain they’re real, and before Copernicus, nearly everyone was “absolutely” certain that the sun earth around the earth. Believing something with certainty “in here” doesn’t make it so “out there,” although I’m sure there is a kind of emotional comfort in feeling certain … In between (or above the line between) an excessive confidence and an insufficient confidence, there’s a realm of proper confidence, and I think that’s what we all are aiming for.
I should add that I think there’s a mystical/experiential dimension to your question, and a more literary and interpretive dimension. On the mystical/experiential side, I think you would find assurance that God is speaking to you through the same processes of discernment you would use in any setting. This kind of spiritual discernment isn’t based so much on textual knowledge about cultural background, narrative context, and other interpretive knowledge … but (as I see it) it is based on humility, faith, openness to God, thirst for truth, desire for wisdom, and similar spiritual qualities. This kind of assurance carries with it, I think, a kind of self-correction – the same humility that is required to receive it makes you open to correction. Without that humility, you can easily move into self-delusion, wishful thinking, stubbornness, arrogance, and so on.
On the interpretive side, I think you’re right that the approach I’m suggesting in the book doesn’t lend itself to the “name it and claim it” approach to the Bible. But if I can speak personally, it has brought me deeper into the Bible and I believe deeper into fellowship with God than the approach I previously took. I suppose there are losses and gains in everything … including when we move from less mature to more mature understandings of the Bible. But I think the gains outweigh the losses … when we’re ready to cross into new territory. These things can’t be rushed, you know? (I’m thinking of Jesus telling the disciples in John’s gospel that he had things to teach them that they weren’t at that moment ready to bear …)
If you’d like to get more experience with reading the Bible in the way I’m proposing in the book, you might be interested in the “Bible Overview” podcast series you can purchase at the store section on this website. It’s only $19.95 for 51 podcasts …