"Reading for Relationship" – Ruth Haley Barton

I recently began reading Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton. Today I was reading her chapter on Scripture. Having learned the Inductive Bible Study in seminary, I have a tremendous respect for the method of Observation, Interpretation, and Application. In this chapter I appreciate how Barton challenges us to go a bit further than a strictly cognitive approach to Scripture. Listen and be challenged …

“When we engage the Scriptures for spiritual transformation … we engage not only our mind but also our heart, our emotions, our body, our curiosity, our imagination and our will. We open ourselves to a deeper level of understanding and insight that grows out of and leads us to deeper into our personal relationship with the One behind the text. And it is in the context of relational intimacy that real life change takes place.

“This is a fundamentally different kind of engagement than what we are normally accustomed to with the things we read. When we engage the Scriptures for spiritual transformation, we make it our top priority to listen to God relationally rather than seeking only to learn more about God cognitively. Our approach is driven by the longing of a lover. We read slowly so that we can savor each word and let its meaning sink in. Rather than rushing on to the next chapter so that we can complete a reading or study assignment, we stay in the place where God is speaking to us, contemplating its meaning for our life and for our relationship. We receive it as it is given without judgement, wanting only to hear the heart of this One we love. Like the little boy Samuel, we approach the Scripture with utter openness and availability to God: ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening’ (1 Samuel 3:9).

“In this listening stance, Scripture becomes an instrument of God’s control rather than a tool that we control to our own ends. Then, as God speaks to us through Scripture, we respond to what we read with our heart and soul rather than just our intellect. When we are falling in love with someone, we want to know everything about them. We are fascinated by every detail, every relationship and every event that has shaped them. But the desire for intimacy moves us beyond fact finding to seeking understanding, connecting with that person emotionally and sensing our own response. Thus when we read Scripture for relationship we pay attention to our own inner dynamics and allow our response to take place in the deeper levels of our beings. We are open to a whole different set of questions – questions that help us to risk greater levels of truth telling with ourselves and with God. In addition to asking, What does it say? What does it mean? How do I apply it to my life? – all questions that promote primarily cognitive activity and allow us to remain firmly in control of the whole experience – we might ask:

  • How do I feel about what is being said? Where do I find myself resonating deeply? Where do I find myself resisting, pulling back, wrestling with what Scripture might be saying? (Note: It is important to notice these inner dynamics without judging them, because they have much to tell us. You may even notice that you feel resonance and resistance at the same time. For instance, you may have a deep sense of rightness of what the text is saying but on another level have the feeling There is no way I can do that! This is a particularly important dynamic to notice, because it indicates a place where God is at work beyond your own cognition.)
  • Why do I feel this way? What aspect of my life or my inner being is being touched or spoken to through this Scripture?
  • What do my reactions tell me about myself – my attitudes, my relating patterns, my perspectives, my behaviors? Am I willing to look at that in God’s presence?”
You can order the book here.

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