Pray and read the Bible.
This mantra echoes in our collective consciousness. As Christians, we absolutely, positively know that we should pray and read our Bibles. In Junior High, people told me to have a "quiet time." In High school, they told me to spend time "hanging out with God." In college, they told me to have "personal devotions." In grad school, they told me to practice, "lectio divina," or, "spiritual dialogue," or to become conversant in "the art of spiritual reading." But in spite of all this reiteration and reinforcement (not to mention jargon), I still found it difficult to consistently pray and read my Bible. I'm guessing some of you have had a similar experience.
Why? Why is this so hard? Why do we struggle to set aside time for these basic spiritual disciplines? I've been chewing on these questions for most of my life. Today, I want to talk about Bible reading (I'll table the subject of prayer for another time). As I reflect on my experience, here are some conclusions I've reached. My hope is that these will help you develop more consistency in your personal Bible reading.
- Your Problem Isn't Time, It's Desire: Why do we struggle to read the Bible consistently? The number one excuse I hear is time. "If I only had more time..." "If only there were more hours in the day..." "If only I didn't have to be at work so early..." I have used this excuse on occasion. But I question whether time is really the issue. We do what we want to do. We may feel enslaved to our schedules, but such enslavement is - by and large - self-imposed. Schedules reflect priorities. We schedule everything around what we prioritize. And priorities are a byproduct of affections. We prioritize the things we love. I don't miss meals. I don't miss date nights. I don't miss Niners games. I don't miss family vacations. And I rarely miss sleep. There are things I need (food and rest) and there are things I love (sports, my family). I don't miss these things. We should yearn for the Word (see Psalm 119). It is in our regenerate nature to do so (see 1 Peter 2:1-3). And even if we don't want it, we still need it (see Matthew 4;4). So if you're not in the Word, don't pull out your day planner. Instead, get on your knees and repent. Only repentance will get to the root of the problem. Confess your unbelief. Ask God to rekindle your desire for his Word. And then pull out your day planner, and set aside time.
- Focus on Obedience: The Bible is a massive, ancient and incredibly complex document. For these reasons, we may view the Bible as a giant riddle, or code book. This is a dangerous misperception. The Bible is not a problem to be solved. Rather it's a truth we must confess, a message we must believe, and a story we must inhabit. Scripture is not simply for knowing, but for obeying. I think it's vitally important that we understand Scripture (see point 5). But if comprehensive understanding was a prerequisite for obedience, then all of us (seminary professors included) would be sunk. All of us know far more of the Bible than we obey. Don't get bogged down by questions. You probably understand more than you think you do. Focus on what's clear, and what you're going to do in response. What is God teaching you? What are you going to do about it? Where do you fall short? What habit are you going to develop? How will your life look different? As you read, ask yourself these kinds of questions.
- Focus on Faith: This point counterbalances the previous one. We must obey Scripture. But true obedience flows from faith. And faith comes from hearing God's Word (Romans 10:17; Galatians 3:2; 2 Timothy 3:15). What are you learning about God? Is your confidence in Jesus' person and work increasing? Are you resting in the sufficiency of his death and resurrection? Do you see your need for his grace, forgiveness, healing and power? Is Jesus attractive to you? What areas of unbelief are you discovering? As you read, ask yourself these kinds of questions.
- Not All Study Tools Are Created Equal: There are resources that will help you understand and apply Scripture. But not all resources are of equal value. For instance, I think study Bibles are overrated. They provide scant information, and little argumentation to back up assertions. Additionally, one may be tempted to treat the notes in a study Bible as an extended answer key; a place to get the definitive answer to every interpretative problem. Treating your study Bible in this manner breeds laziness, and bad reading habits. Be wary too of word studies. There are times when studying a word's etymology, semantic range, and usage can be extremely helpful. However, word studies can also be tremendously misleading. It's a basic axiom of interpretation that meaning comes from the top down, not from the bottom up. In other words, we determine what words mean based on their usage in sentences. And we figure out what sentences mean based on their function in paragraphs. And we figure out what paragraphs mean based on their function in larger thought-units, and so on. One of the worst ways to interpret is to "figure out" the meaning of every particular word in a sentence, and then construct the meaning of said sentence based on our findings. Try doing this in English, and you'll see what I mean. Other study tools are underrated. For example, reading multiple translations can be quite helpful. Try reading a literal translation (e.g. NASB), a thought-for-thought translation (e.g. NIV) and a free translation (e.g. NLT) side by side. You'll have a better sense of the original meaning, because you'll see the various ways translators are attempting to convey it. And truthfully, there is no "best" translation (other than the ESV; wink, wink). Why not reap the benefits of reading multiple translations? Also, don't discount the value of a good, one volume commentary, such as this one or this one. Such commentaries can help answer questions, but provide better information than the average study Bible.
- Develop Good Reading Habits: If you want to improve your understanding of Scripture, focus on developing good reading habits. The most basic principle to remember is this: context is everything. Just as Real Estate is about three things (Location! Location! Location!), so is interpretation (Context! Context! Context!). So before asking, "what does this mean to me?" ask, "what did this mean to the original hearers?" If you're stuck on a verse, start asking questions. "Why does this come before that?" "Why would he say this after that?" Try to determine the "big idea" of a passage, and then summarize it in a short sentence. If you can, try to disregard chapter and verse markings (the Bible wasn't originally versified, and many of the chapter and verse markings in English Bibles are arbitrary or misleading). If you can, try to learn more about the various genres of Scripture. Fee and Stuart's textbook will help you tremendously in this regard. Try reading less some days, and more others. If you're reading a narrative, try reading it in larger chunks, so you can get a sense of how the plot develops. If you're studying a letter, begin by reading it in one sitting. After all, it's a letter! When you want to focus on application, read very slowly. Repeat words, meditate, pray and think.
- Stop Having a Quiet Time: Personal Bible reading is important. But don't discount the value of reading Scripture with others. What if more of our normal interactions with other believers were Bible-centric? Maybe you could read a chapter from Psalms or Proverbs during your lunch break with someone in the small group. Maybe you could set up a Bible reading group online. Maybe you could listen to Scripture as you carpool to work in the morning. I'm currently reading through the New Testament with some guys I'm discipling. Each day we read a chapter and post answers to two questions; "What did you learn?" "What don't you understand?" It's been such a blessing to connect over the word with these guys on a daily basis. We know and obey the Bible better when we know and obey it together.