What is the Bible? It’s an encounter. It’s food. Yet it’s possible to read the Bible with a hard outer shell, missing its power and missing its sustenance.

I had once read the gospels as literature, as something to criticize. I read them selectively, glossing over challenging passages and deciding according to my own reaction which of the details of the text were probably wrong.

More recently, I let my heart be changed. The decision was a little more nuanced than that, but not much. My heart changed and my mind followed, its reach expanding to take account of the influence of the world that is larger than the one I see. Recognizing Jesus as that world meeting this one, I wanted to understand afresh what he had said and done. I started to read the gospels again.

This time, instead of glossing over what I didn't understand, I faced the passages that made me uncomfortable or sad. There was plenty of sadness. There were passages that made little sense, whether at the first, second, or tenth reading. There were passages that I wanted to be richer in possibility than they seemed to be. I prayed about what I didn’t understand, confessing my ignorance in those cases where the ignorance was all I had. Not long after I read Jesus say, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62), I came to realize that there were things I was holding onto that I ought to discard and be rid of forever. When I read Jesus tell the rich young ruler to “go, sell your belongings and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21), I was sad for days. I wanted to love this text and be lifted by it, but I knew that I would never sell and give away all I owned.

The reading went slowly like this. I got up early and read for about an hour every morning, jotting ideas in a notebook. Getting through four gospels this way took about six months.

During that time, I was being fed. I was being healed from being malnourished. The sadness was just lowlands in the journeys between peaks. The process involved discovery. I might find an insight in the text so new to my thinking that the joy of possessing it could change the quality of the entire day. The process also involved relief, because here at last was a pursuit that could hold the weight of all the reverence I had always wanted to give to something. From the nourishment of this text, I was growing in a kind of strength. When I speak of the periodic sadness of studying scripture or otherwise pursuing what transcends us, understand the sadness this way: To grow is to face the pain of transition. To grow is to be remade.

Eventually, something new began to happen. Ideas out of scripture came to mind just as they were needed to address a challenge or question. One moment stands out. Being treated dismissively, I was fully prepared to become angry before I remembered Luke 6:27, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Rather than fuming and seeking a way to lay the person low, I focused my attention on what it might look like to forgive, and spent quiet moments on lifting the person up. Ten words of scripture snatched me out of a pit of resentment that might have held me a long time.

The Bible says this will happen. According to John 14:26, the Spirit counsels us in part by recalling to memory what the Lord has said. The Bible thus has this other nature as well. That is, the Bible is a language—a language the Spirit speaks. Rather than a language of phonics and letters, it is a language of attitudes and concepts. Scripture is text in which the mode of thinking of the divine has been reliably captured in sentences that a human mind can hold.

Of course, a person does not need the Bible to turn to God or recognize him. A baby does not need spoken language to recognize the mood of its mother. But you and I are looking for something more: a more finely graded understanding, an understanding that avoids our getting waylaid by the constructs of our own confusion and vanity.

Here, then, is part of the answer. It took me about six months to take hold of it. To obtain a better understanding of the speaker, pursue greater fluency in the language the speaker has chosen.