One way is that we simply decode the English words. Nothing deeper is happening. We might be able to write significant scholarly commentary — and helpful, too — on the text. But it doesn’t penetrate to the heart. “The natural person . . . is not able to understand” at that level (1 Corinthians 2:14).
A second way is to read these words and believe them to be true, even true for oneself. We might not feel it to be true. It might be an effort to receive the promise, because our hearts are hesitant, divided, discouraged. But we make the effort, “taking it by faith,” on the authority of the One who gave the words. “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
A third way is to experience these words with self-authenticating power. They come across as a personal message from God himself. Yes, we think the verse through exegetically. We locate it within the larger narrative of the Bible, culminating in Jesus and the New Covenant. But something more is happening. We experience the promise “not only in word but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). It’s not as though the Bible becomes truer, but we are the ones who change. We realize a little of “The word of the Lord came to me,” as the prophets used to say. It is an event in our lives that leaves a lasting impression.
If we are reading the first way, the Bible will differ in no essential way from Shakespeare or even a comic book. We need God himself mercifully to take us deeper.
If we are reading the second way, we are in God’s good hands. We should take heart. But he has more blessing for us. And it probably isn’t far away, if we will pursue him.
If we are reading the third way, it is a visitation of God to our souls. There is nothing greater in this life. We can face anything, because the living Word imparts a taste of God’s presence and love, more real than everything that’s against us.
The remarkable thing to me is that we have little control over these three outcomes. But we can, and we must, stay humble, honest, open, with our eyes on God as all our hope.