Have you ever been in a Bible study in which the leader asks this question?

There is much to be commended in this approach to reading the Bible. We should indeed read with the expectation that God will speak to us. We should expect to encounter the living Word through the written word. And we should expect that the same Spirit who inspired the text all those years ago will work in our hearts through the same text today.

But there are problems with posing that particular question.

First, it invites individualistic responses. The assumption is that God might be saying one thing to me, but something completely different to the person sitting next to me, even though we are hearing exactly the same words. There is no sense that God might want to say something to us collectively, or that we might need to help each other to hear what God is saying.

Second, it invites no critique. When someone has given their honest answer to that question, it is impossible to ask whether they might be mistaken. ‘As I was listening to the passage, the word “light” leapt out at me, and I really felt God saying to me that I need to lose weight.’ Only the most insensitive person would respond by saying, ‘Are you sure that’s what the passage really means?’ It is much easier just to say, ‘Thank you for that, John. Now how about you, Jane? What is God saying to you?’

Third, it elevates (present) experience over (past) events. If this is our bread-and-butter approach to reading the Scriptures, the effect will be that it becomes all about what God is doing in my life now, rather than what God has done in his mighty acts of salvation in the past, or what he will do in the future. The Bible ceases to be an authoritative revelation of God that comes at me from the outside, and becomes a mere catalyst for me to experience God directly on the inside.

Is there a better approach?

How about asking this question:

What do you think God is saying to us through this passage?

Phrasing it in this way seems to address the three problems I have highlighted.

First, us invites God to speak to us collectively. We are looking to hear what God is saying, not just to the people in the room, but to all of God’s covenant community throughout the world and throughout history. We are invited to seek the help of the universal church as we attempt to discern the message God has for us, together. We use tradition to help us to hear what God is saying to us through the Bible.

Second, think invites questioning. When someone says, ‘I think God might be saying…’, rather than, ‘I really feel God saying to me…’ it is much easier to subject that suggestion to some gentle scrutiny. ‘Which verse makes you say that?’ ‘I wonder whether the previous verse gives us a clue?’ We use reason to help us to hear what God is saying to us through the Bible.

Third, think invites us to look outside of ourselves, away from our inner experiences, and towards the events described in the passage. Even if we have a deep experience as we hear the Bible read, we subject those experiences to the authority of Scripture in order to know what to make of them.

In practice, I don’t think I would begin a Bible study by asking that question. I’d be more likely to start with some basic observations about the passage, looking (for example) at key words or phrases, turning points in the narrative, connecting words, context, and other clues about the author’s (or Author’s) purpose.