We Should Expect Frustration When Reading the Bible

No Crying

Seventh grade was the year the crying began. With the oldest child, we were caught a little off guard—school had never caused this level of upset before. But with the introduction of pre-algebra, all four children adopted a nightly ritual of frustration and tears. Jeff and I developed a mantra, borrowed from a favorite baseball movie: “There is no crying in math.”1 It became the opening salvo in a nightly tutorial in which we would untangle the confusion that had wrapped itself around the day’s homework assignment, reassuring the children that they had what it took to complete the work and gently guiding them to patiently press on through the material.

The first time we invoked “There is no crying in math,” spoken with complete calm to an irrational subject, the subject cried even harder: You don’t understand! I’m completely lost. My teacher did a bad job explaining the concept. The class is too hard. Why didn’t you let me enroll in “Outdoor Trails” instead?

But by the time our youngest entered seventh grade, this scene played out differently. As the baby of the family sat at the table wiping away the first tears of math-induced frustration, I invoked the time-honored mantra: “Calvin. There is no crying in math.” And before he could hide it, a smile began to tug at the corners of his mouth. Calvin had the advantage of knowing how seventh grade ended. Having watched his siblings go from tears to smiles during their own seventh grade math adventure, he knew that frustration was a natural part of the learning process. Was there crying in math? Truth to tell, there was plenty of it.

Women of the Word

Jen Wilkin

This best-selling book offers practical guidance and helpful tips for women who want to go deeper in their study of the Bible and learn how to teach others to do the same.

But ultimately, Calvin had witnessed diligence and patience do their work as each of his siblings acquired the skills necessary to conquer math—seventh grade and otherwise. Calvin might feel lost now, but the feeling will not last. To feel the frustration of the learning process was to take his place among the siblings who had gone before. Yes, weeping might last for the night, but the joy of understanding would no doubt come with time and effort.

I wish more women understood this perspective when it comes to learning the Bible. Being a student of any subject requires effort—the process of gaining understanding is not easy and can often be frustrating. Depending on the subject, learning may be enjoyable, but it will not be effortless. Learning requires work. This is as true of learning the Bible as it is of learning algebra. We think that learning the Bible should be as natural as breathing in and out; if knowing God’s Word is so good for us, surely he would not make it difficult for us to do so. But learning the Bible requires discipline, and discipline is something we don’t naturally embrace. Because learning the Bible is a discipline, patience will play a much-needed role in our progress.

Many classes at my children’s schools would never cause them to cry tears of frustration. Classes like Outdoor Trails are fun; they deliver new knowledge to a student, but they may not stretch his understanding. Arriving at understanding is much harder than simply taking in new facts. When we read a newspaper, we do not feel frustrated in our ability to understand it. This is because a newspaper does not intend to stretch our understanding—it is a delivery system for information. Learning the Bible is a quest for knowledge, but it is ultimately a quest for understanding. Unlike a newspaper, the Bible is far more than a delivery system for information—it aims to shape the way we think. This means that, more often than not, we should expect to experience frustration when we sit down to read it.

Two Reactions

Do you expect to be met with frustration when you study the Bible? How do you react to the dissonance you feel when your understanding is not equal to a passage? As adults, we no longer must stick to a course of study because a teacher or parent is holding us accountable. If we give in to impatience with the learning process, we tend to react in one of two ways.

We give up. Finding studying the Bible to be too confusing, many of us think “this must not be my area of gifting,” and we move on to aspects of our faith that come more naturally. We allow sermons, podcasts, books, or blogs to be our sole source of intake for the Bible. We may read the Bible devotionally, but we assume that we are just not wired to learn it in any sort of structured way.

Feeling lost or confused is not a bad sign for a student.

We look for a shortcut. Wanting to remove as quickly as possible our sense of feeling lost in a text, we run to the notes in our study Bible immediately after reading it. Or we keep a commentary handy so we can consult it at the first signs of confusion. And thanks to the Internet, help is never far away. If we read something confusing, there is no need for tears of frustration—we can simply read what the note in our study Bible says or look up an answer to our question online. But is having interpretive help readily available as helpful as it seems? Or do we end up like those kids in high school English who never actually read a book because the CliffsNotes or the movie was easily available? In reality, using a shortcut is only marginally better than giving up because it does not honor the learning process. By hurrying to eliminate the dissonance of the “I don’t know” moment, it actually diminishes the effectiveness of the “aha moment” of discovery.

How Patience Promotes Learning

We love “aha moments”—those moments when something that has confused us suddenly makes sense. What we sometimes overlook about “aha moments” is that they occur after a significant period of feeling lost. Could it be that those periods of feeling lost were actually preparing us for the understanding that was eventually going to come? Could it be that feeling lost is one way God humbles us when we come to his Word, knowing that in due time he will exalt our understanding?

Contrary to our gut reaction, feeling lost or confused is not a bad sign for a student. It is actually a sign that our understanding is being challenged and that learning is about to take place. Embracing the dissonance of feeling lost, rather than avoiding it (giving up) or dulling it (looking for a shortcut), will actually place us in the best possible position to learn. We must extend ourselves permission to get lost and patience to find our way to understanding.

Several years ago I moved from Houston to Dallas. Having lived in Houston for thirteen years, I could drive its streets with ease. I had no idea how to navigate Dallas, so I used a GPS to get everywhere I needed to go. It was a great feeling—knowing almost nothing of the city, I could map a route to my destination instantaneously. I never had to feel lost or waste time wandering around on the wrong roads.

But three years later, I still didn’t know my way around Dallas without that GPS. If its battery died or if I left home without it, I was in big trouble. And then another strange thing happened: I took a trip back to Houston. In a city I knew well, I found that my GPS didn’t always pick the route that made the most sense. It still spoke with the same tone of authority it used in Dallas, but I could tell that it was choosing a route other than the most direct one.

When I got back to Dallas, I knew what I had to do: I had to allow myself to get lost. I had to wander around a bit, plan extra travel time, miss some exits, and make wrong turns in order to learn for myself the routes my GPS had spoon-fed me. Guess what? I learned better routes.

This is the same lesson I have learned about the readily available help of commentaries and study Bibles. If I am not careful, they can mask my ignorance of Scripture and give me a false sense that I know my way around its pages. I do not labor for understanding, because the moment I hit a hard passage, I immediately resolve my discomfort of feeling lost by glancing down at the notes or searching a commentary for an answer. And hearing their authoritative tone, I can grow forgetful that they are, in fact, only man’s words—an educated opinion, profitable but not infallible.

In short, if I never allow myself to get lost, I never allow the learning process to take its proper course. If I never fight for interpretation on my own, I might accept whatever interpretation I am given at face value. And that’s a dangerous route to drive. My intent is not to question the value of commentary. Sound commentary is invaluable to the Bible student.

My intent is to question its place in the learning process. Unless we consult it after we attempt to comprehend and interpret on our own, we tend to defer completely to its reasoning. The problem is not with our study Bibles or commentaries; the problem is with our need for instant gratification and our dislike of feeling lost. Commentaries hold a valid place in the learning process. But that place is not at the beginning of the learning process, where they can diminish our sense of feeling lost—a feeling that is actually our friend.


  1. A League of Their Own, 1992. “There’s no crying in baseball!”

This article is adapted from Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds by Jen Wilkin.

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