A year ago I went to see my dentist and he said to me, "Doug, you have great teeth. They are solid, the gums are good, everything looks great!"
This year I went back for my checkup and he said, "Oh, Doug, you have two big cavities, right between the teeth." Long pause... "Have you been flossing?"
Ouch. Of course -- that task I know I'm supposed to do every day, but I don't. Flossing helps to clean out the food particles between the teeth, so they don't cause the teeth to start decaying.
Do you floss? Every day? I didn't floss at all, until I had to have two fillings this spring. Now I do.
I started thinking, though, that Bible reading is a lot like flossing -- it's one of those tasks that everyone knows you should do on a regular basis, but we often say, "Oh, I don't have time for that today," or "Maybe tomorrow."
And reading your Bible is a lot like flossing in another way -- it's a way of cleaning out the garbage that your brain picks up on a daily basis, just from living in a messed up world. Every day, just from living in this world, you daily come in contact with bad attitudes, bad actions, and bad ideas (and this happens even when you're just hanging out with other Christians, because -- let's face it -- Christians aren't perfect either!). And these bad attitudes, actions, and ideas can get lodged in your brain, where they do not belong.
Reading God's word is a way of dislodging some of that stuff that can cause spiritual decay. Romans 12:2 says to renew your mind, and so in a sense, we could think of a regimen of regular scripture reading as your "mental floss."
A couple more thoughts about the idea of scripture reading as your spiritual floss or mental floss:
1. Just as you should never say, "Oh, I've already flossed 500 times, I don't need to do it again," you should never say, "Oh, I've already read God's word 500 times -- why should I bother reading it again?" The answer should be obvious; the fact that you've flossed in the past doesn't do any good when it comes to cleaning out the garbage you've accumulated now. In the same way, since you're continually collecting spiritual garbage in this world, the spiritual flossing needs to be ongoing as well -- no matter how many times you've already read it!
2. If I hadn't told you that I had two cavities, you never would have known it. In the same way, if you allow spiritual decay in your life, you can probably hide it from people for a long time. But if you hide it, and don't do anything about it -- if you pretend it doesn't exist -- sooner or later, everything will collapse in spiritual decay, and you (and everyone else) will be saying, "What in the world just happened?"
Just for fun, let's begin today with a short test of your eye-brain coordination. Ready?
Take a look at the image shown here, which is just a tiny snippet of a photograph I took recently. What do you think it is?
Keep thinking (and no fair scrolling down too far while you think!)
Okay. Did you guess that this is a close-up of a bit of sky? Or maybe the ocean? If you guessed either of those things, you were wrong.
Actually, that is a close-up of a snowy field. Amazing, isn't it? Who knew that snow was so dark, and so blue! A little bit later on I'll show you the actual photograph, so you can see it in context.
And really, context is the issue I wanted to talk about today. This year I picked up an old hobby that I left behind years ago...painting. (You can view some of my artwork here: Glimpses of Eden.) Because of that, I've been paying a lot more attention to light and color than I normally do. I've found that there's an interesting difference between what your eyes see, and what your brain interprets.
Here's the picture, so you'll have something to look at while you read:
When your eyes view the bottom of the picture, they see dark blue, but somehow between what your eyes are seeing, and what your brain interprets, you don't consciously think that you're looking at something that's grayish-blue; your brain says, "Oh! A white, snowy field!"
In fact, if you compare the color of the field (even the part that's not shadowed by a tree) to the color of the house, you will realize that there is nothing white about what you're seeing!
What a difference context makes. And context makes a huge difference in the way we read and understand scripture as well. This is why, as I've been traveling to churches this year, I've been encouraging people to read God's Word in such a way that they get the big picture -- the full context of what God is saying to us. When we only read it one verse at a time, we can easily be deceived into thinking it says something that it really doesn't, just as you might have been deceived by the little snippet of a photo at the top of the page.
When I start out painting, I need to understand the full context of the scene first, and then, after fully understanding what I'm looking at, I can then focus on the details of the colors and the shadows and the highlights.
In the same way, if you plan to study a book of the Bible verse by verse, be sure to take the time to read the whole book first -- maybe even a few times. Getting the big picture will help you understand what you're looking at, and it will help prevent you from misunderstanding and misinterpreting the smaller bits.
Every morning when I get up I go through all my morning rituals: a cup of coffee, a shower and (occasionally) shave, and maybe a bowl of cereal or a couple slices of toast. And before I set foot out of my house, I've looked at my mirror once or twice to make sure everything looks okay (or, at least, as well as can be expected!).
I suspect we all have similar rituals. I wonder, though, how often we think about the fact that we have a spiritual mirror as well! James tells us:
So how much time do you spend in front of the spiritual mirror, the word of God? After all, if we wouldn't leave the house without checking our physical appearance, should we leave without checking out how we're doing spiritually?
Understanding God's word as a mirror changes how we view it in several ways.
First, we cease to read God's word thinking, "Oh, so-and-so needs to hear that." Because what we are really doing is looking in a mirror expecting to see someone else's reflection there. No, when we look into God's word we see our own reflection; that is how God designed His word.
Second, we stop reading God's word with the thought "yawn...I've read this before." Just as a mirror is unchanging, but gives us a different reflection every time we look in it, so God's word is utterly unchanging, yet still reflects back to us something different depending on our spiritual need. It is no wonder Hebrews calls the word "living and active"!
Finally, when we read something in God's word, we do something about what we see there. We would not look into the mirror, find a hair out of place, and do nothing about it. So we shouldn't ignore what we see in God's word. James says if we ignore what the mirror tells us, and do nothing about it, we are simply fooling ourselves.
In the corner of the mirror in my bathroom there is a little slip of paper, which reminds me every morning: "This mirror only shows my physical appearance!" To deal with my spiritual appearance, I need a different mirror altogether.
Imagine that you are not feeling well, so you schedule a visit with your doctor. After your checkup he tells you, "You've got a heart problem. We need to perform open-heart surgery."
So there you are, on the operating table, and the doctor is pulling out his tools of the trade...including, of course, his scalpel.
"Oh, Doctor," you say, "that looks very sharp, very painful. Do you think you could use something different?"
"What did you have in mind?"
After a moment's thought, you reply, "Maybe a feather-duster? That wouldn't hurt so much."
The doctor smiles, pulls a feather-duster out of his cabinet, brushes it several times over your heart, and then says, "There you go! Good as new!"
What would you think of this doctor? Surely you would think he was a quack? Although the scalpel may hurt, it's necessary for the healing of your heart.
It seems absurd to imagine asking a doctor to perform surgery on your heart without cutting you, and probably causing some pain. And though we would never expect this kind of painless treatment in the physical world, we often expect it in the spiritual world. We want God to perform healing on our hearts without causing us pain.
This is exactly the mentality Paul is talking about in 2 Timothy, where he writes:
The word of God is sharp and piercing, and is necessary for our spiritual well-being. Yet how often we say, "I'd rather hear something that entertains me, that tickles my ears!" But God's word is like that doctor's scalpel; its purpose is not to entertain or tickle; its purpose is to wound, and in wounding, bring healing to our wayward hearts.
Are you willing to come "under the knife" of the word of God, allowing it to injure you so that you can be healed? Or do you merely want to be entertained?
Wounding or tickling? One way is painless, but it leads to spiritual weakness and disease. The other way may be painful, but it is the only way to spiritual health and strength.