Revive Our Hearts Podcast

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When You Don’t Understand the Bible

Dannah Gresh: Kelly Needham compares reading unfamiliar parts of the Bible to walking through a new house.

Kelly Needham: Learn the big sections and rooms, and give yourself permission to let that confusion or mystery stay over the years. As you grow deeper and deeper in your understanding, it will slowly become clearer and clearer.

Dannah: This is Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, co-author of Seeking Him, for January 13, 2021. I’m Dannah Gresh. 

Do you ever have questions about what the Bible says? Kelly Needham is here to talk about what to do when you’re confused or you have those questions pop into your mind.

We’re continuing in this series called “Loving God’s Word.”If you missed any episodes so far, be sure and go back and listen to theRevive Our Hearts app or at ReviveOurHearts.com. Nancy?

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth: This time last year, January of 2020, who could have imagined that just weeks later we would be facing a pandemic, riots, our economy falling apart—so many massive things that hit the United States and our world. Who was prepared for any of that?

Well, we have no idea what could be coming in 2021; only the Lord knows. He’s got the whole world in His hands. But one thing I know: whatever this year brings forth, in our world or in our personal lives, our hope is to be anchored in Christ. The way we do that is anchoring our hearts in His Word.

So that’s why here at the start of 2021, Dannah, we’re wanting to challenge our listeners to read God’s Word, to get to know God, but also to be prepared for whatever God may have ahead in this year.

Dannah: We’re challenging you just to really dig into the Word of God and commit to reading it every day, gleaning from it, and we think that will kickstart a wonderful new habit for you this year.

Nancy: And Kelly Needham, we’re so thankful to have you back here on Revive Our Hearts. You’ve been a longtime friend, you inspire me, and you’ve been a help to our ministry as we’ve talked about how to reach, not just women my age, but women in the generations coming behind me. How to help them experience freedom and fullness and fruitfulness in Christ.

You’re a good friend. You’ve written a book on friendship and how to be a good friend [Friend-Ish]. But more than anything, you love the Word of God. That’s what Dannah and I wanted to invite you to share this conversation with us and with our listeners here at the start of 2021. So welcome back to Revive Our Hearts.

Kelly: Thanks! It is so fun to talk about my favorite subject with you ladies; it’s a joy! 

Dannah: Now, as we’ve talked these past few days, all three of us have expressed a lot of passion for the Word of God and understanding about the Word of God and joy in the Word of God. But we’ve also hit some road bumps along the way, dry spells, and even times when it’s been confusing or difficult to understand something about or in the Bible.

Kelly, how do we handle it when we come to one of those places where we feel confused, and we’re not quite sure how to move forward?

Kelly: Well, I think the first thing to remember is that’s very normal, When that happens it’s not the right thought to go, “Well, I just can’t understand this!” or “I’m just clearly not a Bible person!” That happens to me still! I know we’ve talked about it. It happens to you guys as well. And so to know, that’s a normal experience. . .

To read something in the Scriptures that is confusing, it doesn’t make sense, it might be alarming, it might be something that you read and feel a little shocked by, that God would say something like that or do something like that.

Some examples of that in my own life have been reading different parts of the Old Testament, where that happens a lot. Maybe it’s the book of Leviticus that has all sorts of laws about menstruation and purity laws and cleansings. You read it and go, “Well . . . this is . . . [confused sigh], I don’t know what to do with this!”

Or even in some of the historical books like Joshua, where God has told Joshua to go into these cities and kill every man, woman, and child! There should be a right moment of going, “Lord, what’s happening here!? I don’t understand!”

In that moment, I think one of the most valuable things that we can do is not leave the moment, but to embrace the tension. I think the great temptation is to say, “That was weird, I don’t understand,” close our Bibles and walk away and just not come back to it. 

But to stay there and to read our Bibles relationally, to talk to God, to say, “Lord, this is what’s confusing to me, this is what’s alarming. Help me understand!” We’ve been given the Holy Spirit. If we are in Christ, we have the Holy Spirit. One of His jobs it says in the book of John is to lead us into all truth. And, to just stay in that tension.

Sometimes for me, that has been days of coming back to that same passage and rereading it and asking God, “Help me see, help me understand!” And I’ll be honest, I don’t always leave feeling like every bow has been tied and it all just makes perfect sense and I can explain it nice and comfortably.

But the Lord has met me in those moments and has oftentimes shown me things that I haven’t seen. Sometimes it’s years later that those passages that were confusing make more sense. When I’ve read, maybe, a book a few months or even years later. 

Dannah: Recently, I was hearing from a lot of young women, women in their twenties, maybe thirties, but mostly twenties. They were saying they were troubled by the treatment of women in the Old Testament. I was really trying to figure out, “How do I answer this question?” I was coming up dry.

So I called a theologian and I said, “Alright, you’re an Old Testament guy. There are some troubling stories in the Old Testament about women. What’s the answer, when these women ask me, ‘Why weren’t they treated well?’”

And he said, “Let’s look at a couple of things. First of all, context.” This is something we talked about yesterday. It’s so important. He said, “The context of those women being mistreated was always one symptom of many that that nation had gone far from God. Their hearts were not being obedient to Him, and the treatment of women was just one way that they weren’t being honored.”

And then he said, “Let’s look at the response to that. In almost all of those troubling stories, you see godly people rise up to make right the wrongs of evil people.” It was so good that I reached out to someone, because I myself was not able. I was troubled by the questions that I was being asked.

It’s so important that we don’t think we are the end-all to answering the questions and the confusion when we come to those troubling passages. It’s okay to ask for help.

Kelly: That’s right. It’s really important for us to read in community. We should be reading our Bibles on our own, to cultivate that intimate relationship with God, but we are meant to read it communally with other believers, with people in our local church.

That’s what our pastors have been trained for. They’ve done that hard work to dig into and be trained in the Scriptures. So when we come to those places of confusion and we sit with it for a while and we process with the Lord and we still don’t have an answer, we can call them up.

Our pastors have their email addresses on the website, and so we can write in and say, “I’m struggling with this. Can you help?” That for me is usually the first line of defense—to go to those in my life who are trained and say, “Help me understand what I don’t see, because I haven’t studied this like you have.” 

Nancy: And, hopefully, we can become those who can help others as they’re getting into God’s Word. As you’re both talking, I’m thinking about a couple who came to know Jesus about thirty years ago now, when he was building my home.

He was a building contractor, and God brought Terry and Susan to faith during that season. It was a beautiful thing! They were “churched,” but hadn’t known Jesus. One of the first things that happened was, they got this huge hunger for God’s Word.

I can remember, particularly Terry, was ravenous for God’s Word! We got him a Bible, and he wore that thing out. For quite a few months, the better part of a year, there was one night a week when they would have me over to their home for dinner. 

Then he would sit and pummel me with questions: “What does this mean? Why does God say this? What does this mean?” And to be honest, I was a little—no, a lot!—intimidated by all those questions, because they weren’t the kinds of questions that were troubling me or that I stopped to think about or answer.

I felt ill-equipped: “I don’t have a seminary degree.” I didn’t really know how to answer those questions, but I love God’s Word, and I wanted to dig in with him. So the three of us did. We would sit in their home for a whole evening—week after week after week—as I let him throw those questions my way. 

I said, “I’m not the answer woman here. But together we’ll seek the Lord and we’ll ask Him for understanding.” We all grew in our faith! They’ve now moved away from the area, and I had a phone call with them just recently. What I love is, they’re still asking questions! They’ve become, now, mentors and disciplers of others who have questions.

So, to do that with other believers, it doesn’t have to be just those who have graduate degrees in theology. (They can be really helpful, and I’ve gone to plenty of those people myself.) But we can grow and learn together as we’re acknowledging, “I don’t know all these answers!” (Because if we knew all the answers, we’d be God, right?) “But I’m growing with you, and I’m in a process of digging in and learning for myself what this means.” 

And realizing, too, some of the answers we may not have, this side of heaven. But the more you know the Author of the Book, the more you trust His heart and His character, the more you can be content to live with tensions and mystery that are not fully resolved.

Kelly: Yes, I think we have to be okay with mystery, and be willing to just let it linger. And that doesn’t mean stop seeking understanding, but I think some of that mystery will always be there when we’re first starting out reading our Bibles. It just comes with the territory. And so, if you’re a new reader to the Bible, you’re entering a new home, a new house.

If you were to walk into my house for the first time, it would all be new. So, it forces us to take in information. We’d get the big picture first: “Okay, this is the living room, this is the kitchen, this is where this goes. I’m learning that.”

In your second time in the house, you can add in more detail: “Oh, now I know where the cups are, now I know where the plates are. Okay, now I know where the bathroom is and I remember what the color of the wall was.” But there’s a lot of confusion in that first moment, and I think our first read-through of the Bible is full of a lot of that. 

It’s just good to remember in that first read-through, get the basics. Learn the big sections and rooms, and give yourself permission to let that confusion or mystery stay over the years. As you grow deeper and deeper in your understanding, it will become slowly clearer and clearer, even though not every answer will be resolved.

Nancy: That would be true, really, of any subject you set out to master. I’m not a math person at all, so a geometry textbook is way daunting to me! I would pick it up—it could be like just high school geometry—and I would feel overwhelmed by it, just opening that book! I’d say, “I have no clue what any of this is talking about!”

But I do believe that if I wanted to learn that subject, if I would take a geometry textbook and really dig into it and read it not just once but pore over it, and go back through it, and ask somebody for help with it, in time I could get familiar with those concepts and it wouldn’t seem so strange and foreign.

But there are no shortcuts to doing it. You’re not just going to put that geometry book under your pillow at night and wake up and be a math expert. It’s going to take some time and effort. When it comes to the Word of God, it is so worth it to be a student of the Word, and feel that in time this all becomes more familiar!

Dannah: I have a hard question. Do you know what is running through my head? I’m thinking of those Bible studies I’ve attended . . . I’ve been a believer since I was a very small girl, so this isn’t recent. But I’ve been to those studies where we all read it and we all say, “I think it means this.” “I think it means that.” “I think it means this.”

And none of us have really rolled up our sleeves to really do the hard work of knowing for sure what maybe better trained theologians . . . (To use Nancy’s analogy of math, every now and then you have to ask somebody who knows how to do geometry if you’re doing this right!) Are there some tools or some things that we should be using when we’re studying the Bible?

Kelly: Yes, I think that it’s important to get some of those tools in our belt, so that we don’t do that—we just don’t take it that, “I think it means this.” It’s a good reminder to us that we wouldn’t want anyone to do that with our words either. 

I’m not going to go, “I’m going to read your article or what you wrote,” and go, “Well, I think it means this!” and not take the time to try and really understand it. How do we actually come to understand what these things mean? One of my favorite tools that people often are surprised by, is an English dictionary!

Just download the dictionary app on your phone, and you would be amazed at how much insight that gives you! Because the people who translated our Bibles, they did their homework! They worked really hard to study those original Greek and Hebrew words and find the best English word that they could.

When you read words like, “propitiation,” or “supplication,” and you don’t really know what that means, looking it up in an English dictionary will immediately give a lot of insight. I actually did that this morning in my reading for a word that I was familiar with already.

I was reading about God and how He is a jealous God, in Exodus. He says that is His Name. And I thought, I’m just going to read what the English dictionary says about that. And of course, we have a few different definitions, but the one that applies to this context and this usage, it says, “to be intolerant of unfaithfulness or rivalry.”

And just remember, that’s what God is saying when He’s saying, “I’m jealous for you! I am intolerant of any rival that would rise up and be “god” in your life and not Me.” And so, the English dictionary is one of my favorite tools.

And then, a good study Bible is a great help. I actually prefer reading without study notes so I have more margins for my own note-taking, but we love the ESV Study Bible. I know there are a lot of other great ones. When we hit those moments of, “I don’t understand,” to just look at the notes that are in that Bible.

Look at the charts, the maps. Sometimes there are genealogies written out for you and really helpful things on those pages to just fill in the gaps for you. So those are a couple of really great helps that have been consistently used in my life.

Nancy: Dannah, are there any particular study Bibles or tools that you’ve found helpful in your study?

Dannah: Well, I’ve used a lot of online software. I’ve found that that just enables me to have it at my fingertips, no matter where I am. If I’m on vacation, I still have my study tools with me. So I use Logos; that’s probably my favorite. But online there are lots of free study tools—free commentaries, free lexicons—that you can access really easily.

I do have a really neat bunch of books in my library at home, but I really love those digital tools.

Nancy: Yes, there are a couple that I’ve used a lot. One is the John MacArthur Study Bible. Like the ESV Study Bible, it’s just got really good notes. I use both of those a lot. I like keeping them at my fingertips, so when I travel, I’m a little bit disadvantaged. But I also have them on apps on my phone. You can download a lot of these things as apps now.

When I’m just sitting in my quiet time chair, I like having the books actually there. You mentioned the dictionary, Kelly. The original Noah Webster’s dictionary came out in 1828. You can find that version online. If you look up a word like “jealous” or some other word that you’re wondering about, the original definitions in that 1828 dictionary are so rich, and they’re rooted in Scripture. They’ll often have Scripture references. If you look up, “jealous,” or “grace,” or “propitiation,” or some of these words, you’ll get what’s in the modern-day Webster’s dictionary plus a whole lot more of a really biblically-rooted worldview of that word.

Kelly, I know sometime ago I saw one of your Instagram stories where you did this wonderful tutorial of a resource that’s been a help and a blessing to you. Tell us a little bit about it, and then we’re going to link to a video tutorial of you telling more about it.

Kelly: Yes, it’s the New Inductive Study Bible; that’s the name of the particular study Bible, and you can get it in the ESV translation or the NASB translation. It’s been put together by Precept Ministries, if you’re familiar with them. 

It has no commentary in it, but what it does have are a lot of helpful tools to help you work through the Scripture for yourself. So, as you’re going through, say, the books of 1 and 2 Kings, there is a chart in the back of those books that has already been laid out for you, without the answers, of each king and who their father was, where they reigned from, and a place for you to write just some key notes about their life.

It gives you enough handlebars to know, “Oh, there was a king who was the son of Josiah, so I need to look for him and then come back here and write him in this little chart.” And it gave me something to do through my Bible reading that was incredibly helpful! It gave me a few handles to not get totally lost and confused, but still gave me room to work through it myself.

I remember the moment I realized this was such a helpful Bible! I was reading through the book of Leviticus. There was a chart in the back for you to keep track of all the different types of offerings and sacrifices. It was fascinating, the things that stuck out to me from this book, because I had to write it down.

I was touring (I had mentioned, that was part of our life) and my husband, Jimmy, and the band were going to play some game or do something fun. And I remember saying, “You know, I think I’m going to join in later. I want to keep reading the book of Leviticus.”

And Jimmy kind of laughed at me and gave me a hard time. But I was like, “I’m serious! It’s fascinating!” I mean, it really helped me see things I didn’t see before, and it’s very user-friendly. So I can’t recommend it highly enough! It’s been a great help for me!

Nancy: And you’ve used that one for years. Your copy looks pretty worn and used.

Kelly: Years and years. It was my first. I read through the whole thing in seven years, and then I bought the ESV translation, the one I didn’t have, and I’m reading through it again. I think we have four copies of this Bible in our house. My husband reads from it as well, so we really love it!

Nancy: Okay, that word “inductive” may be foreign to some people, so when we talk about “inductive” Bible study, what does that mean?

Kelly: Yes, it’s just a word to describe a process of studying the Bible that starts with observation—helping you observe or notice what you’re seeing. And then to interpret it—interpret those facts that you saw rightly. And then to apply it to your life. 

It’s using that principle to help you notice, see things, interpret it, and then walk it into your own life. So that’s what the word inductive means.

Nancy: So, we don’t want to just start with, “What does this mean for me? What am I supposed to do about this?” You want to get there, but you want to start by asking, “What does this passage say?” 

Kelly: That’s right.

Nancy: Make observations about it: 

  • what is repeated
  • what are the definitions
  • what are the meanings of these words
  • what kind of literature is this-—is this poetry, is this history? 

Just to understand the Bible as literature and the context in which these things were written. Observations.

And then, not only what does it say, but what does it mean; what’s the interpretation? And this is where people have started whole false religions and cults, because they didn’t properly observe and interpret the Scripture. They jumped to application, then they ended up with some crazy kinds of beliefs. 

If you want to be safeguarded from heresy, you want to make sure and go through this inductive process. Something like that New Inductive Study Bible is a great resource to help know how to do that with the Scripture.

And let me just say, this doesn’t have to be complicated. There’s an entry level. If you’re going to study geometry, but you’re seven, you’re going to study it differently than if you’re a post-grad mathematics major.

There are some simple ways to start. I’ve had friends who have spent much time just actually writing out the Scripture! There are resources today that are fun ones and beautiful ones to help you do that.

But just actually writing out Scripture . . . The exercise of doing that will make you think about what you’re reading in a way that you might not do if you were reading without a pen in your hand, especially for those of us who spend our lives on computers today. Sometimes just writing out the Scripture by hand can be a really helpful tool for meditation.

Summarizing the passage, the chapter. “What is this chapter about?” I have some friends who, when their kids were maybe preteen, I gave them a challenge. I said, “Between now and the time you go to college, if you will read through the Bible and write a sentence of summary about each chapter (‘What is this chapter about?) and write a sentence about something in this passage that speaks to me personally . . . If you’ll do that, two sentences for every chapter in the Bible . . .and then I bribed them! I told them there would be a reward when they got ready to go to college. 

Dannah: Carrot stick! I like that!

Nancy: But I wanted them to fall in love with God’s Word, so that was the simplest type of starting study: to paraphrase, to write a passage in your own words. Again, it just makes you think about it. 

Otherwise, sometimes, if I don’t have my pen in my hand or a journal or a laptop, something to make notes on, I will often read through a page or a chapter of Scripture—or pages!—and I realize at the end, I have no clue what I just read!

Dannah: You zoned out!

Nancy: I zoned out, or I was thinking about other things. I was distracted.

Dannah: Your to-do list. 

Nancy: I get this new burden for house cleaning sometimes when I’m supposed to be soaking in the Word! That’s where it helps to have a study Bible, or an inductive study Bible or a journal, something that keeps me engaged as I’m reading.

Kelly: I think you’re right, too, Nancy, to point out we all have different places we need to start out with this. If you’re listening, it’s like, “That’s so much. I can’t do it!” Then whatever will get you into the Word of God in a way that your mind is engaged, that’s what you should do. If it’s not doing that, then change.

I think, at a bare minimum, you can read it and keep a journal and write all your questions. I don’t know anybody who reads the Bible and doesn’t leave with some questions, something that feels unanswered. That even will keep you engaged.

So just read it, and every question you have, write it down in a journal or write down what you learn about God in that passage. But something that will keep you engaged, but feels manageable. If you set too big of a goal, you just won’t do it. It becomes not worth it, because our hope is to be meeting God in the Word.

Nancy: That’s the goal, and that’s what we’re going to continue talking about with Kelly Needham and Dannah Gresh here on Revive Our Hearts tomorrow.

Dannah: As Kelly said, our hope is to meet God in His Word. One way we want to help you do that is through our newest Women of the Biblestudy, on Ruth. It’s called Ruth: Experiencing a Life Restored. Don’t you just love that subtitle?

This six-week study will help you discover how Christ can meet you in your need through every season and circumstance of life. You’ll go deeper in the Word as you see how Ruth’s story transforms from one of desperation to one of hope for the future! As you look at this picture of God’s restoration, you’ll see how Christ is your Redeemer and came to set you free.

You can get a copy of Ruth: Experiencing a Life Restored with your gift of any amount to Revive Our Hearts. It’s just our way of saying “thank you” for giving. Your support makes it possible for us to provide you with resources like this one, and to help get you into God’s Word.

You can call us right now at 1–800–569–5959 to make a donation, and when you call, be sure to ask for your copy of the Ruth study. You can also make a donation and get your copy of Ruth when you visit ReviveOurHearts.com.

Revive Our Hearts with Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth wants to help you make a habit of reading your Bible. It’s an outreach of Life Action Ministries.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.

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About the Speakers

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth

Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth has touched the lives of millions of women through Revive Our Hearts and the True Woman movement, calling them to heart revival and biblical womanhood. Her love …

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Kelly Needham

Kelly Needham

Kelly Needham is married to singer/songwriter and speaker Jimmy Needham. She first began writing and speaking to his fan base in 2008 as they traveled together and has since garnered …

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