People who work out have always told me that when muscles shake, it means they’re getting stronger. Usually I categorize such thinking as “propaganda,” such as when runners tell us that running doesn’t hurt after the third mile. (To all the runners out there: I know you are making this up! Of course I can’t prove it since I am unwilling to fall for your trick of running three miles first.)
However, in a series of unexpected events, my husband has been recently helping me learn how to do weight stuff at the gym. (Perhaps I will soon learn a better term than “weight stuff.”) About four seconds into our first workout, that shaky, failure feeling in my muscles tempted me toward discouragement. But my husband wasn’t discouraged. “That’s good!” he said. “You’re getting stronger!” Is he right, or just cute?
The next week, I already noticed a difference.
Although pushing through that shaky, failure feeling at the gym is new for me, it actually is a familiar process for me in another area: Bible study. On the other side, there is always growth.
Think about it: When Bible reading is a regular thing, so is confusion. As we engage with this ancient text, penned in varying genres by men of other cultures and times under the influence of the Holy Spirit, it makes sense that from time to time, we’d feel discombobulated, maybe even dumb.
But listen: that’s just the muscles shaking. Confusion is not a sign to abandon ship—it’s a sign to press in. If Bible reading is going to be a sustainable practice, engaging with discomfort and that “Oh no, I’m dumb!” feeling needs to be part of our daily rhythm. Over time, you will notice a difference. Your belief in God’s truth, your hunger for God’s Word, your love for God’s character—all of it will grow stronger.
So how do we engage with confusion and discomfort?
Have you suddenly realized you’re checking social media when you could’ve sworn you were just reading Daniel? Do you suddenly feel compelled to snack? Are you lacing up your Nikes to run to the nearest commentary? Sister, you might have gotten confused by something and instinctively jumped ship. Noticing is the first step.
When you notice you’ve become confused or uncomfortable with something you encounter in Scripture, take a moment to tell God. The prayer can be as fancy as this: “Dear God, What?? Amen.” I like to commemorate such prayers by writing a question mark in the margin of my Bible. It goes without saying that there are lots of question marks in the margins of my Bible. (I think I learned this trick from Jen Wilkin somewhere along the way!)
Gauge, then Engage.
Confusing and uncomfortable parts of scripture are a powerful opportunity of us to engage! But first, because we want our Bible reading to be sustainable, we have to gauge what we have.
- If you have space to dig in: Settle into the question, pulling out your best observation and interpretation tools, and see if anything offers a flicker of understanding. Is another passage coming to mind that may offer clarity? Are there vague words you need to define? Are there cross references listed in your Bible? Would a quick flip through the book you’re reading help you root yourself in the context a little better? If you pulled out every tool in your tool box and still can’t figure it out, you don’t have to hit the “delete” key in your brain. Commentaries are a gift, especially when we use them after we’ve engaged with the discomfort on our own.
- If you don’t have time to actively engage, that’s fine (and often likely)! The question mark will be there, ready for active engagement another time—maybe tomorrow! For today, this question offers you an opportunity for meditation. These three “Ps” may help: ponder, pray, process.
- Ponder: You have a great place to “send” your mind during your mindless moments. Rather than scrolling, ponder the question.
- Pray: Pray about it as it comes to mind. Ask God questions you have. Share about your discomfort. Recount God’s character in praise.
- Process: If you find yourself in the presence of a fellow Christian, you may want to present your question to him or her. Perhaps he or she has some wisdom. Processing together is a great way to engage.
Surrender It in Faith.
Of course, despite how we engage, clear answers can still evade us. But this is still an opportunity for worship. Let me prove it to you:
When we take communion, most of us don’t fuss much about the language of Jesus’s body and Jesus’s blood. We’ve come to understand what God’s Word was getting at. But the first time anyone heard about this, all they could hear was Jesus talking about eating his flesh, cannibal style—and Jesus didn’t clarify what He meant! In discomfort and overwhelm, many of Jesus’s followers left. But Peter pressed in, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). These are powerful words we can borrow when we’re confused.
Later on—while Peter’s belly was full of the bread that Jesus had called His body at the Last Supper—Jesus’s very flesh was broken on the cross. Can you imagine the connections Peter’s brain and heart might’ve been making as he pondered it all, how confusion eventually gave birth to worship? When answers evade us, this is an opportunity to worship, to look ahead to the day when all will be revealed.
Of course, sometimes, we don’t have to wait for The Day but just a few days later. Many times I’ve pressed on in confusion, only to realize that God’s Word offered me an answer to a previously scribbled question mark! This is one of my favorite parts of studying the Bible: Asking questions, and letting God engage with me through His Word.
Whether God reveals the truth of His Word now or later, we can rejoice in confusion and discomfort in our day-to-day Bible reading. Words that initially seem to be a dead end are, in fact, words of eternal life. Our muscles shake, but He is growing us, and it’s a delight. Thank you, God!
Caroline Saunders is a writer, Bible teacher, pastor's wife, and mother of three who believes in taking Jesus seriously and being un-serious about nearly everything else. She's written two Bible studies for teen girls (Good News: How to Know the Gospel and Live It and Better Than Life: How to Study the Bible and Like It, LifeWay Girls), two picture books for ages 4-8 (The Story of Water and The Story of Home, B&H Kids), and a retelling of the books of Joel, Amos, and Jonah for elementary readers called Sound the Alarm. Find her writing, resources, and ridiculousness at WriterCaroline.com and on Instagram @writercaroline.