For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intents of the heart. -Heb. 4:12, NASB
Taken in the context of the passage, this verse really seems to be talking about how the word of God tests and proves our obedience and trust, challenging us with truth–thus, the judging of thoughts and intents, and so on. But I am thinking in particular about the idea at the beginning of the verse–that the word of God is living and active.
I am not one who believes that the Bible is the only way God speaks, but I do believe the Bible to be the Word of God, and a plumbline by which other words are measured. Even so, I think it’s a difficult thing to get our minds around sometimes, the idea that this book could be more than just a historical document, but is a living and active document–something that didn’t just speak one time, but still speaks today. If it is alive…what does that mean, exactly? How is the word of God living and active?
For me, that idea has multiple layers. On one layer, to give an analogy, I think of our United States Constitution, which is often talked about as a “living document.” What it means for the Constitution is that it was written for longevity, and that it can be amended and adapted to deal with circumstances our Founding Fathers couldn’t even have conceived of over 200 years ago. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the meaning of the Constitution can be reinterpreted and changed, and that’s a can of worms that’s gonna stay shut for now. 🙂 But that’s the idea behind a living document, that it can adapt and speak a fresh word generation after generation. I see the Bible as sort of like that–although not as something we are allowed to reinterpret for our own convenience. Rather, I think that God in His wisdom has spoken multiple layers of meaning into His own Word, so that it somehow has the ability to speak relevant things across generations and cultures. A great example of this is the fact that so many Scripture texts addressing the nation of Israel thousands of years ago carry fresh meaning for the church today, and read as though God spoke them directly to us, and for us.
Another layer of the Bible being alive and active lies in the way that God sometimes personalizes Scripture for us. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but I have had times when as I read a passage of Scripture, in its words I will hear something clearly spoken to my immediate circumstances, as if God just prophesied directly to me through the Bible. There are even a couple of passages that I might call “lifetime” passages for me–where God has woven it deeply into my own narrative, as if to say, “This passage is for you; this describes what I’m doing in your life. You are living out these verses.” It isn’t something where I think we ought to get all mystical and start imagining that God is personalizing every verse somehow–that can get flaky really quickly. But if Christ is real, if we are following a real Person on this journey, it stands to reason that there ought to be times when He will speak back to us specifically, and often He uses His own “living word” to do it. That, to me, is a very real way in which the word of God is alive and active.
If you’ll indulge me, I’ll share an example of one passage that I believe God has personalized for me. Realize that what I’m about to share is highly subjective, not a doctrinal kind of thing. It is the first three verses of Psalm 40:
(1) I waited patiently for the Lord; and He inclined to me and heard my cry.
(2) He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay, and He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm.
(3) He put a new son in my mouth, a song of praise to our God; many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord. (Ps. 40:1-3, NASB)
I had read these words before, but one day over a decade ago, I read them, and had a deep inner knowing that God was going to play these verses out in my life, and that it was going to take place progressively over an extended period of time. I heard God speak into my spirit, “You are in the season of verse 1.” I was in a time of need, and I had been seeking God about it for awhile; I knew by through this experience that He had heard my cries, and that this would be my comfort while I continued to wait for the process to unfold.
A few years later–yes, years later–at a time when I was revisiting these verses, I heard in the same manner, “You are now in the season of verse 2.” I knew that I was now beyond just the waiting, and that I was to anticipate movement and change as God fulfilled this verse in my life. As is the case most times when God says something to us, I had no idea how painful the process would be, how much deep re-shaping would be done in my life–how much transformation was about to take place. We think we know what God means when He says something. Then we find out. 🙂
What’s interesting is that even through the process, there was a time when I thought verse 2 was already fulfilled in my life. After a long time of trial, I came into a period of rest, and I reasoned that this was God “making my footsteps firm.” Then I went through another major period of transition and upheaval, which led to our family moving from Tulsa to Denver. I have to admit, by this time I wasn’t even thinking about Psalm 40, or wherer I might be in the process. It had now been five or six years since I had heard, “You are now in the season of verse 2.” In fact, I was in such a time of transition that I was no longer sure of anything I’d heard or hadn’t heard. All I knew was to lean on God and do my best to trust Him, and hope it would all make sense eventually.
Then a couple of weeks ago, just on a glance, I happened upon Psalm 40 once again. As I read the words, they shook my insides with a whole new sense of meaning. “He set my feet upon a rock, making my footsteps firm.” I instantly tied it in with other psalms which speak of how God’s rescue is described as “setting our feet on high places.” And I thought of Denver, the Mile-High City. A high place, which I felt I had arrived at almost by chance. And it was all I could do not to double over and weep right there in the coffee shop. And the Voice came: “You are coming to the end of verse 2.”
Trust me. This thing is alive.
I have not yet heard that I am in the season of verse 3, although I expect that is coming. What I can say is that in the days following this experience, my world has continued to be rocked as I have watched God make our footsteps firm in more ways than I can describe. I am watching it happen right in front of me. It is breaking me and humbling me and reminding me that Someone is in control who is much greater than I.
And this brings me to another layer of meaning about the word of God being alive and active: It has the creative power to bring transformation. For many of us believers, we see that as being God transforming our circumstances; what we fail to realize is that the Bible isn’t really meant for transforming our circumstances as much as it is for transforming us. Before Psalm 40 could change my circumstances–it had to change me. Deeply. This is the power of a living word.
The practice of lectio divina is an ancient practice that Catholics in particular have preserved, but more people are starting to recover. Lectio divina involves reading a passage of Scripture slowly, several times, pondering it for meaning, and asking God to personalize its meaning for our lives. I haven’t practiced this regularly (although I’ve always done it rather loosely, not even knowing what it was); but I really like the heart behind it. For in our modern times we have a tendency to place demands on Scripture, drilling it and analyzing it and questioning it for its meaning. Lectio divina, however, does the opposite: it allows the Scripture to drill into us, and ask questions of us. Where so many of us have reduced the Scripture to a passive mystery-document to be mined for the truth it contains, this ancient practice values the Scripture as an active, living document that works change into our lives. Whether or not we practice lectio divina specifically, I think it holds great merit for us to hold the word of God in this manner, and with this kind of respect. The Bible isn’t something we have the right to use and exploit to get what we want; it is something that works in us to bring forth what God wants.
It is, after all, His word; and it is alive. Can you think of any ways it is tranforming you?