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Failing to Feel: Mistake #2 in Teaching the Bible

Failing to Feel: Mistake #2 in Teaching the Bible

Delving into the Emotional Tapestry of Biblical Characters

Shannon Popkin

Author & Podcast Host

Live Like It's True Podcast

Published On:

January 18, 2024

Hey, fellow leaders. Do you ever have the vague sense that you’re making avoidable mistakes while teaching the Bible—yet you can’t put your finger on what they are? 

A while back, I got to attend a workshop where Jeff Manion, who has preached for over thirty years, pointed to three common mistakes Bible teachers make. As I listened, I thought, “Check. Check. Check. Yep, I do all of those things!” Jeff has graciously agreed to let me share these most common mistakes. (Here’s the first one LINK, if you missed it.) 

Mistake #2: We Fail to Feel 

Perhaps because we think of the Bible characters as “saints” or as some select group of people who are totally unlike us, we sometimes forget to consider their emotions. We lift the bare facts from the pages of our Bibles and fail to feel the pain jealousy regret or boredom that these people experienced—just like we would if we walked in their shoes. 

Jeff said that he received hermeneutics training on studying the culture, context, and grammatical structure of Biblical text, but he wasn’t often taught to do emotional analysis. Yet to fully understand any text of the Bible, we have to ask, “What’s it like to be them?” This question is key for applying passages of Scripture that involve people—which is all of them, actually. (See my post from last time about “Killing the Characters.”) 

Emotional Archeology 

After visiting the Middle East last fall, the land of the Bible became three-dimensional to me. I can picture the distance between Jerusalem and Caesarea. I have a mental image of the Sea of Galilee. Of course, I always knew it was a real place, but somehow climbing the actual steps of the temple made it feel more real. 

As Bible teachers and study leaders, we need to not only help make the places of the Bible feel real; we need to let the Bible’s people be real also. Abel and Abraham and Benjamin and Hagar were real people. So were Mary and Matthew and Silas and Lydia. They had reputations. They had families. They had history. They had expectations. To truly understand the Bible’s message, we must try to understand the Bible’s people. We have to do “emotional archaeology.” 

If we carefully dig beneath the surface story recorded in our Bibles and brush past the centuries that separate us from the people we’re reading about, we will find carefully preserved emotions that make sense to us today. We’ll hear their emotions rising naturally in their words and responsive actions. These emotions help us connect. They help us find ourselves in the Bible. 

It’s true that the Bible is a story about God, and when we open its pages to teach, our main objective is for listeners to learn about Him. But God was pleased to reveal His character through the stories of three-dimensional Bible people. We learn about God as we see Him interacting with them. And by doing the work of understanding how these characters must feel, we help our people—who have the same feelings—learn about God in a way that engages their hearts. 

Here are two examples. 

Example 1: Our God is a shame-lifter (Luke 1:5–25). 

Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful, godly people who had served God for decades. If something went missing in the neighborhood, Zechariah and Elizabeth were the last ones you’d suspect. They had character. They had honor. But they had no child. 

The Bible teaches that God will bless faithful people (Prov. 28:20), yet God had not blessed Zechariah and Elizabeth. In the early years of their marriage, they had endured monthly disappointments. As the couples around them added baby after baby to their family count, Zechariah and Elizabeth remained a two-person family. Why, God? they surely wondered. Why have you given children to others but not us? But these doubts did not deter Zechariah and Elizabeth from serving God or observing His commands blamelessly (vv. 5–6). 

They could choose their own response, but they couldn’t choose the response of their community. In a culture that equated God’s blessing with a full nest, Elizabeth especially bore the shame of not being able to bear a child. For years, she silently endured the disgrace of her watching community. 

How do we know that Elizabeth experienced shame? Because of the words we find in her mouth. When she “who was called barren” (v. 36), learns that she is expecting a baby, she says, “The Lord has done this for me. . . . In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people” (Luke 1:25 NIV). Listen carefully to what she’s saying. Everyone had considered her barren, which was disgraceful in the eyes of her community. Yet those days are over. “In these days,” she was certain of God’s favor—which was there all along! And that means that the shame she felt earlier was unfounded. 

Are there any in your group who, like Elizabeth, is feeling undue shame? As you teach the Bible, there may be someone asking, God, are you punishing me? I’ve served You faithfully! I don’t understand. Encourage them to persist in waiting on the Lord and faithfully observing His commands. Through the emotions of Elizabeth, let this listener encounter the God who takes away disgrace. 

Example 2: Our God is the one who sees (Genesis 16:1–14). 

Hagar was pregnant and a long way from home. She was an Egyptian slave—the property of Abraham and Sarah, who were living in Canaan. They’re likely the ones who told her about the Lord, but they didn’t represent Him very well. Sarah made the faithless suggestion that they involve Hagar to make God’s promise of a son come true. And Abraham went along with it. 

The plan worked; a baby was on the way. But the emotional aftermath was complex. Hagar’s new position as mama to the coming heir had gone to her head, and she allowed her contempt for Sarah to show. As a result, Sarah went nuclear and started beating Hagar, while Abraham stood by and let it happen. So Hagar ran for her life. 

Hagar, who was forced to leave her home and family in Egypt, had spent the last decade serving the family of Abraham and Sarah. She had become pregnant to make their dreams for their family come true. Did they even see her? Hagar had been treated so poorly. In Sarah’s eyes, she was small and deserved no dignity or respect. Hagar's life was consumed by what Sarah needed and wanted. Yet, where had her reaction of rising in contempt taken her? To the wilderness of desperation. 

It’s one thing to cry out to God as a completely innocent victim. But what if you’ve contributed to the brokenness of the situation? What about when you’ve also done wrong? Hagar had. Yet even so, when Hagar cried out to God in the wilderness, He met her there. Finally—after so much pain—she felt seen. She felt cared for. She knew she was being looked after by God. How do we know that Hagar felt this way? Consider her own words. “You are a God of seeing. . . . Truly here I have seen him who looks after me” (Gen. 16:13). 

Are there any in your group who, like Hagar, are in “the wilderness”? As you teach the Bible, is there someone facing consequences they helped to create? Is anyone asking, “God, do you see me? Do you care about me? Encourage that person to cry out to the Lord for help. Help them, through the emotions of Hagar, to encounter the God who sees. 

Digging Up the Emotions 

In both of these examples, we could tell our people the stories of God providing and God seeing, without spending much time on the embedded emotions. We could skip right past Elizabeth’s decades of childlessness and cut right to this verse: “After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived” (Luke 1:24). Or we could skip right over Hagar’s degradation or her contempt and just offer the facts: “He went into Hagar and she conceived” (Gen. 16:4). 

Our listeners would still be hearing the inspired words of God, and they could still make applications. But by considering the emotional implications, we help our people to connect with these Bible characters—and to God. 

Here are a few more tips for you, as you work to dig up the emotions of Bible characters in your message prep: 

  • Consider each fact.  Facts offer possible clues about emotions. For instance, Luke 1:6 says, “[Zechariah and Elizabeth] were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” When the Bible describes you as someone who’s kept all the commands, that’s saying something! So how does it feel to do what is right, yet not receive the blessing you hope for? Righteous living is the fact. Disillusionment is the natural emotion that accompanies the fact.   

  • Consider timelines.   Genesis 16:3 tells us that after ten years in Canaan, Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham as a second wife. So Hagar—who is obviously in childbearing years—has been their slave for at least ten years. She’s likely grown up in this household, performing tasks like taking out Sarah’s trash and brushing out her hair. So what happens in a household when a low-standing youngster suddenly gets catapulted to high-profile surrogacy? When over a period of one month, the ten-year “bearer of the trash” becomes the “bearer of the heir”? The timeline helps us consider how the characters were feeling.   

  • Be careful about balance.   Yes, we can draw connections between what happened and what the characters felt, but let’s not get carried away. For instance, perhaps Hagar was homesick and running toward Egypt. But do we know this is true? No. Or perhaps Elizabeth stayed hidden away for the first five months of her pregnancy because she knew that losing this baby would be exponentially more devastating if her community was aware. But do we know this is true? No. It’s fine to make suggestions and to imagine; it’s not okay to state our assumptions as facts.   

  • Give special weight to the character’s words.   Jesus taught us that, “Out of the abundance of the heart [the] mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). This means that we can listen to someone’s words and know how they were feeling. Their lips offer a mirror to their heart. So direct quotes—like the ones we considered from Elizabeth and Hagar—are an emotional archaeologist’s gold mine.   

  • Look at songs and poetry.   The Psalms, along with other songs and poetry in our Bibles, are particularly packed with emotions. Psalms are songs; they’re the ballads of the heart. When we consider the introductory ascriptions of the Psalms, we can often come to understand the circumstances prompting the songwriter’s emotion. Tying these together as we consider the emotional component of the song can provide powerful instruction. 

So are you ready to get back to your Bible study prep? Wherever you turn in God’s Word, remember that it’s written about real people with real emotions. Learning how it felt to be them offers insights about God when we’re feeling the same way. 

Read Mistake #1 in Teaching the Bible: Killing the Characters

Read Mistake #3 in Teaching the Bible: We Villainize the Villains

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