You are a major character in the Bible.
You may not have walked through the Red Sea or waited in the upper room at Pentecost, but the Word still speaks of you. It does so when we read it through the lens of self-suspicion. Here’s what I mean: whenever we come across a biblical commandment, don’t just view it as God’s instruction for us believers. Treat it also as a description of human nature and its inner rebelliousness.
For example, “Rejoice with those who rejoice. Mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15) is a commandment that also says that we have a tendency to actually rejoice in others’ sufferings, and mourn in others’ successes. Think that’s a bit cynical or harsh? That we aren’t quite that cruel or bitter towards each other? Proverbs 24:17 warns us even more clearly, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles”. Scripture speaks that directly because we naturally tend towards the opposite behavior. Consider also the historical example of Edom during Babylon’s invasion of Judah—Edom sinfully “gloat[ed] over” Judah’s misfortune (Obadiah 12) instead of coming to her aid.
Our bias towards rebellion is described further by Paul in Romans 7. In verse 19, Paul mourns, “For I do not do the good I want”. He falls short of his sanctified desires, i.e. God’s commandments for him. But not only that, he ends up doing the exact reverse of them: “the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing”. If the Apostle Paul, our early church father, sees this trend in himself, how much more wretched are we. We ought respond with humility and self-suspicion in all that we do, including how we read God’s word.
Two advantages emerge as we practice this mindset. First, reading with self-suspicion helps liven seemingly-dry moralistic passages. “But you shall meditate on it [the law] day and night” (Joshua 1:8) might initially sound like a legalistic drill, but now this verse implies that we tend to forget about God’s law in our daily life. Furthermore, it encourages us to reflect on what we regularly think about instead.
Secondly, self-suspicion pushes us out of our complacency. Every moral commandment becomes not just a call to action but also a critique. When God calls Israel to repent for her Baal worship, we too must consider our inclination to idolize. When Jesus exhorts the religious leaders to practice justice and mercy instead of only tithing spices (Matthew 23:23), we too ought to reflect on our hypocrisy. We may think that we don’t really need to hear such commandments over and over or that if we had lived back then, we wouldn’t have committed such evil. But remember that the Pharisees thought the same thing (Matthew 23:30), and they nailed Jesus to the cross.
Reading with self-suspicion isn’t just restricted to explicit commandments. It can also help us learn from the positive examples set by others. For example, in the Psalms, “I will make known your faithfulness to all generations” now forces us to grapple with whether we do the same sharing. “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Psalm 56:3) now questions how we handle fear.
Ultimately, God seeks to transform our hearts and as we join him in that mission, this lens of self-suspicion can be another tool in our toolbox. Reading with this lens humbles us and creates more opportunities to meditate on our individual motivations, behaviors, anxieties and doubts. As we do that, we’ll discover lessons and applications that are more personal and targeted.
We shouldn’t try to force ourselves and our sinfulness into every verse of the Bible. But when God does communicate his will for us, let us tune in to the entirety of what He’s saying.
Victor Luu lives in New York, New York and is a graduate of Princeton University. Outside of work, he enjoys rock climbing and trying exotic cuisines.