I’m about to talk about a somewhat supernatural experience from 1995 that had a powerful effect on me. This post is a follow-up to my previous post entitled “Bad Religion.” Both posts are adapted from Chapter One of my first book, Heaven’s Muscle.

I once adhered to a false religion. I call it bibliolatry.  That’s “Bible” plus “idolatry,” from the Greek latreuo, meaning “I worship.” I’m talking about worshipping the Bible.

I’m not blaming my parents or the church I grew up in for my own descent into bibliolatry. I’m not throwing anybody under the bus aside from my old self and the Devil.

One of the devil’s tricks is to get people who think they’re Christians to pour their attention and adoration and energy into something that isn’t God, but is kind of close to God. Some people do this with political and social causes. Some people do it with their families or friends. Others become devoted to defending their favorite theological system. I watch so many Christian writers on the internet who spend their days arguing over pet doctrines and interpretations. Yes, God’s truth must be defended. However, when a writer is always hammering a specific doctrine one could be forgiven for concluding that the writer has started worshiping and serving the belief system itself.

I think I knew in the back of my mind, growing up in the church environment that I did, that I was at risk of worshiping the Bible rather than Jesus. Many members of my natal church (by natal, I mean the church I grew up in) did not believe that God worked directly in the world today—apart from invisible nudges called Providence. We did not believe that God would personally guide, teach, or empower us. To us, the Bible was our only source of information about God. Spirituality meant following the Bible as closely as possible—both in your lifestyle and in your doctrinal beliefs.  There was little tolerance for doctrinal disagreement because we believed the Bible was unified and clear.

Because the Bible, to us, was the only way to hear God’s voice, we tended to fuss over it quite a bit. I personally was obsessed with knowing everything about it. It hurt my heart that some passages in the Bible were difficult to understand. As a young adult, I was determined to learn the biblical languages because I thought that in doing so I could uncover the one true meaning to every verse in the Bible. To me, knowing the Bible was the key to salvation.

***

Of course, this was wrong. The Bible doesn’t save people. God does it in Christ. I was like the people Christ addressed in John 5:39-40:

You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.  Yet you refuse to come to me and have life.

God doesn’t expect us to understand everything the prophets ever wrote.  In fact, the prophets themselves sometimes didn’t understand their own messages (1 Pet. 1:10-12).  My salvation does not depend on my intellectual knowledge of the contents of the Bible, but on my existential knowledge of the person of Jesus Christ.

Knowing Christ and resting in his love is greater than all the religion in the world.

I think the Lord tried to teach me this through an experience I had during summer school at the end of my first year in college.

***

I was taking a short course on the Gospel of John, and for each class session we were assigned certain passages to memorize. I was alone in my dorm room one evening, memorizing a passage from John, Chapter 6. My Bible was spread open on my bed and I paced the floor in our little wood-paneled room, repeating the passage so it would be ingrained on my brain.

John 6 is the chapter where Jesus feeds the multitude with five loaves and two fish. The crowd picks up on the similarity between this miracle and the miracle of manna with Moses in the wilderness. Jesus uses the bread and fish to make the point that becoming spiritually united to him is the key to obtaining freedom and wholeness. Jesus says,

I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me shall never hunger, and the one who believes in me shall never thirst  (Jn. 6:35).

As I said this line aloud, something about it hooked me. I felt driven to say it over and over again. I kept pacing back and forth across the room, repeating:

I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me shall never hunger, and the one who believes in me shall never thirst.

I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me shall never hunger, and the one who believes in me shall never thirst.

I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.

At that moment, I intuitively comprehended the power of that Scripture in ways I’d never be able to express. It was moving me. It was becoming a mantra. I felt that Christ and I were drawing closer and closer with each utterance. Never hunger, never thirst. I had been so hungry for the Lord, so hungry for love, so thirsty for answers. A light was shining through the cracks in my mind.

And then it hit me. Literally. Whump! It felt like something invisible punched me hard in the chest. I fell backward onto my bed with a heavy thump. In an instant, I was lying on my back with the wind knocked out of me. I just lay there for a while, startled, my eyes wide, struggling to regain my breath. I was in shock.

I did not believe an experience like that was possible. But there it was. Somebody knocked the wind out of me and sent me flying backward.

***

I kept that passage in John close to my heart. In the coming months, I tried several times to preach from that passage at small group campus devotionals and little county churches. I wanted to convey the full power and beauty of Christ’s words, but I always ended up frustrated. I was never able to recapture that feeling and translate it into words for others. That passage had hit me in the heart, but I lacked the communicative talent to convey the same effect to others.

The way I’ve interpreted that unusual event is that God was trying to drive home the point that it was Jesus himself who could fulfill my spiritual longings. He knew I was on the path to bibliolatry. Socking me in the chest while I was fixating on John 6:35 was his way of telling me to keep my eyes on Jesus. Focus on the Son, he was saying, and don’t get lost in the endless wars over words and translations and doctrines. My salvation from frustration would not come from the text or from the church. It could only be found in the living person of Jesus Christ. The one who comes to him shall never hunger, and the one who trusts in him will never thirst.

***

For a while after that I lived on a spiritual high. I felt Christ was close at hand, walking with me as I enjoyed the trees and the sunshine and the sounds around campus. I felt he was real, and that he was my companion and friend.

But those feelings faded. I delved deeper and deeper into Greek. I became fixated on translation philosophies and textual criticism. The religio-academic environment of the university kept my attention focused on doctrinal issues and theological minutiae. God taught me a lesson, and gave me a feeling. But the feeling slipped away and I forgot the lesson. By the time I’d finished my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, God felt far away again. Even the Bible brought me no comfort anymore. When I tried to read Scripture, my mind would do everything but allow the text to speak to me with a living voice. I would automatically back-translate everything I read, or else think about how each Scripture I encountered related to different doctrinal arguments. In my hands, the Bible felt like a cadaver on a dissection table, not a “living and active” spiritual organism.

I had fallen back into worshiping an idol, a man-made object, rather than the God that the object was meant to glorify. My theological education had birthed my spiritual nadir.

A few months after I graduated with a master’s degree in New Testament studies and biblical languages, I no longer believed in God at all. For almost three years I remained an atheist and agnostic. My training in ministry, at the time, seemed to have been for naught.

But I was not truly lost. I still had love in my heart. I was still on a quest for truth. God was actually leading me on a journey that would take me places I could never imagine. But he had to break my intellect first. He had to sandblast away the chains that the spirit of religion and legalism and bibliolatry had wrapped around me. My loss of faith would ultimately prove to be a step toward freedom.

***

This has been part of my story, and part of my first book. May everyone who reads this come to know Jesus and truly ingest the bread that satiates our spiritual hunger.