I was asked to talk today for a bit about the practice of personal Bible reading. I want to first make clear that this is more like calling in an eyewitness local off the street than calling in an expert. For one, I don’t want to Ananias and Saphira myself by putting on that I am more pious than I am. I’ve thought about this a fair amount because of my weakness, not because I’m really good at it. Two, I’m sure many of you have learned a good deal more than I have and out of your years of faithfulness could testify to even greater benefits than I could.
Bible reading is a large topic, so I thought I’d sort of reflect out loud on a few questions I’ve asked myself over the years. And fair warning, I firmly agree with one of my favorite teachers that, “the rabbit trail IS the point.” So, this may be a bit wandering and exploratory, but hopefully edifying and freedom giving along the way.
Principles and Methods
As we approach any undertaking we should always pause to consider what the principles or end we’re after verses the methods or means we’re using to get us there. When we get these mixed around we can become slaves to our methods and give ourselves license to stop short of our goal.
Let’s say for example that you want to have a healthy heart. One principle component of a healthy heart is exercise. You could choose from dozens of methods to achieve this principle: jogging, swimming, dancing… Say you chose jogging. It’s cheap and you can do it anywhere and it requires less coordination than dancing. After a while you forgot why you jog, but you just knew you had to check it off for the day. Next you start becoming an evangelist for jogging. It works. But then one day you start getting shin splints and then you have knee problems, pretty soon you find that you have to give up jogging. Now you feel like failure, but you’ve long forgotten about why you started jogging in the first place, so you sit on the couch and mope. You’ve become a slave to a method. Methods change, principles don’t. In reality, you’re free to take up swimming now, or some other method that fits your end goal of having a healthy heart.
When it comes to studying the Bible I think it is important to keep principles and methods straight. We want to know Christ and be saved by the power of his resurrection, we want to be obedient to all his revealed will, we want to know the character of the judge and Creator, and we want to worship Him. Our plan of study will vary with the seasons and days of life. There is great freedom in having mastery over our choice of methods. We can identify problems and solve them when we have the end in mind, but if we latch on to a method, we’ll most likely get stuck at some point and get discouraged.
What are a few principles I keep in mind as I approach personal study?
1.How does the Bible view itself? Often as food: sweet dripping of the honeycomb (Ps 19), we “feed” on Christ whom all the Scriptures bear witness to (John 5:57, Luke 24), we should desire to grow on spiritual milk (1 Peter 2:2) and then onto solid food (Heb 5, 1 Cor 3), so I use that metaphor as well.
Fundamentally, just like we need food we need God’s word. So eat. Every day will not feel like a feast. Some days we eat peanut butter and jelly and some days we eat turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes. Our Bible reading will probably look more like this pattern of sustenance and feasting. Sometimes we’ll really dig in deep and study something very particular and other days we’ll graze and chew and be fed. And this is all good.
When we eat food, we grow up (or at this age sometimes out). But it doesn’t happen all at once. I think sometimes we are like the little boy who thinks if he eats his peas at one dinner, he’ll be dunking a basketball the next morning. Growing takes time, we can’t expect to eat a huge meal here and there to even keep us alive, let alone help us grow healthy, strong bones and muscles; it’s not the way we were made. In the same way, we must approach our Bible study as daily bread, asking the Creator to feed us, his finite, time limited, tired creatures who can only take in one stomach full at a time.
A word to the perfectionist types like myself, the type that comes up with an elaborate plan that crumbles at the first sign of failure, is to hack resolutely at it; bit by bit, over and over, you’ll start to see the threads weave together, you’ll notice themes, you’ll have more “light-bulb” moments where one text will remind you of another. Just because you skipped breakfast the last three days, doesn’t mean you should keep skipping breakfast.
2. Scripture interprets Scripture. We need to be taking in the full picture as often as we can. We want to read the books as books, the stories as stories, the arguments as arguments. Don’t get hung up squeezing every last drop of meaning out of every text or seizing up on a passage that doesn’t make a ton of sense to you right now. You’ll come back around to it soon enough with more wisdom and knowledge. Kids have to try a food like 17 times before they develop a taste for it. I heard a good analogy once: The Bible will fit together like a puzzle- perfectly, simply, but not all at once.
We can learn from our kids here. Kids learn to talk by listening and copying. They are hearing vocabulary well outside their range and sometimes they even use it, to everyone’s amusement. But that is how God made them to learn. They’re immersed in the language and before long their trying it out and little by little they gain mastery and confidence. Sometimes we need to be humble enough to start where we are to begin the slow process of growth rather than try to “catch up” to a standard we think we should be. I think subtly, we can approach Bible reading with that instant gratification expectation that is so familiar to us modern people. If we are not having a culinary experience every single day, that’s normal. It doesn’t mean we aren’t growing or that it will return void.
3. Hunger is the precursor to a growth spurt. I can’t remember who pointed this out to me, but it was really helpful to notice God’s plan for hunger in Dt 8:3:
And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Dt. 8:3
For a long time I didn’t really think much about the manna God gave as much more than a solution to predicament they just happened to be in. But really, God let them hunger to prepare them for His food, which was of course even to prepare all of us for the Bread of Life. God causes us to hunger for his word in his kindness. I was thinking about how this is applicable even to this group. When we read a hard book, or have discussions that bring up questions we didn’t have before, or we’re wondering if what an author is saying is really true, this is a kind of hunger. Hunger makes a good chef. A study like this is a great place to be a Berean. Take your hunger from here to God’s word.
4. The role of educated clergy provides the check and balance to personal study. Thankfully, due to the reformation, the Bible is not under lock and key from the lay people. We have it in our own language at great cost to many saints before us. This great gift comes with responsibility. It is important that we are reading in conjunction with teachers and pastors, sitting under good expository preaching week after week. It is also helpful to have a good grasp on the systems of the Bible. R.C. Sproul’s explanation is helpful:
Reformed theology is systematic. The science of systematic theology is so called because it attempts to understand doctrine in a coherent and unified manner. It is not the goal of systematic theology to impose on the Bible a system derived from a particular philosophy. Rather its goal is to discern the interrelatedness of the teachings of Scripture itself. Historically the systematic theologian assumed that the Bible is the Word of God, and as such is not filled with internal conflict and confusion. Though many themes are treated by many different human authors over a vast period of time, the message that emerges was thought to be from God and therefore coherent and consistent.
Reformed systematics are a tool for studying the Bible. If reading our Bible like is a meal, then systematics are kind of like a farm. Systematics aren’t the food, but like a farm they are concerned with maximizing quality and quantity, organizing it, preparing for future meals, safeguarding it from outside dangers. The Holy Spirit is the one who illumines the word of God to our hearts, but there is nothing extra spiritual about foraging around in the woods by ourselves, not making use of the means he’s provided.
With these principles in mind, what does the method look like for me?
First of all, I think that thinking of the Bible as food informs how I read. Eating is essential to life, but not every meal is a steak dinner. I listen to the Bible while I do laundry or clean the house. We listen to it in the car. I try to read the Bible to my kids in the morning and my husband reads the Bible at family worship in the evening.
I really had to learn to leave off the quiet time ideal. The idea looms about that there is this idyllic study setting: we have a journal, colored pens, tea, and a sunrise. That really is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But it’s simply not realistic to my season of life. I looked up where the term quiet time started- it started with college students. And that makes sense. It really is a time of life conducive to intensive study. I tell my teenage girls to take advantage of their time of life; it is a season for deep root growing while other responsibilities are smaller. But without a flexible methodology, I think we as women can feel a looming sense of failure if our quiet time is anything but quiet. I’m going to read a fairly lengthy quote by Doug Wilson. I come back to it so often because it is so freedom and perspective orienting, I think it’s worth it. His example is to moms particularly about children in church, but it applies to anyone who is busy with the work of God. You might have to do a little translating work to your own context:
Whenever God’s people take up the adventure that he sends them, there are always troubles that arise in the midst of the adventure that make you want to second guess your initial decision. In the midst of the turmoil that you’ve gotten yourself into, it is easy to wonder if you read the fine print carefully enough. One example would be the path that many of you have chosen to follow, bringing many children into the world, caring for them, providing them with Christian education, bringing them to worship every week and doing so in a church service where all the littles spend the entire worship service with us, worshiping together with us. This is no fad. Fads are not this much work. But it might be easy to think that this must have been a fad when I chose to do it. I want to speak a particular word of exhortation and encouragement to you moms, for example, who are doing this. It would be easy for you to focus on all the “management troubles” in your row, you know: the little ones are squirming or making faces at the visitors behind you, or spilling communion wine into the Psalter, or having to be taken out 3 times in the service and brought back in again. You don’t need to be reminded of the drill. It might be happening right this minute. You might be wishing you could listen to this word of encouragement to moms but you are distracted with other duties. But be encouraged in this one thing, all these things are happening (and they really are happening) but they are happening in the presence of the Lord. He delights in them. He wants you here and he wants you here in this kind of shape. Bringing children to Jesus is something that he welcomes and he welcomes all that is entailed in it. We sometimes think He wants us to be more like the officious disciples, frowning at the squirmers, when he actually wants us to be more like the squirmers ourselves. Unless you become as a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven…
I apply this idea to my bible reading. If I didn’t have all this work to do, all these people to care for, I could sit and read my Bible! He has given you the work to do and he does not look down on you with disappointment because you feed your soul by listening to an audio bible while you cook dinner for your family. All these “inconveniences, noises, and needs” are actually working to kill my checklist mentality, my self-sufficiency. I come to the word heavy laden, weak, and needy. He wants me to come hungry, in this kind of shape because he wants to sustain me with the right kind of food, himself.
I’m not discouraging time alone in Bible study and prayer. I am discouraging giving up on bible study and prayer because quiet time conditions are not your reality. And I am encouraging freedom. I do strive for some quiet time. Mine looks like once in a while driving to get a diet coke in the morning and staying in my driveway with locked doors while I read my Bible and pray. It’s my modern take on Susanna Wesley. It might look like some extended reading a few times a year on a vacation. But more often, I read my Bible while my kids practice violin in my ear. I read a chapter while I’m waiting in line at the grocery store. I read out loud to my kids. And I listen to it more and more. It all COUNTS.
Remember this is a fight of faith and it is hard work. The devil is our continual adversary. J.I. Packer (in his foreword for R.C. Sproul’s book, Knowing Scripture, which I highly recommend) says if he were the devil he would attempt to get people to stop reading their Bibles:
How? [he says] Well, I should try to distract all clergy from preaching and teaching the Bible and spread the feeling that to study this ancient book directly is a burdensome extra that modern Christians can forgo without loss. I should broadcast doubts about the truth and relevance and good sense and straightforwardness of the Bible, and if any still insisted on reading it I should lure them into assuming that the benefit of the practice lies in the noble and tranquil feelings evoked by it rather than in noting what Scripture actually says. At all costs I should want to keep them from using their minds in a disciplined way to get the measure of its message.
It’s no wonder that we should find opposition at this point. I’ll end with Piper:
The goal of Bible reading is not only that we would see God, but that we would also enjoy him. But more than that, we don’t just want to see and savor God’s glory privately within us — we want it to conform us to that glory, so that others can see and experience God’s glory through us. This, then, is the last goal of Bible reading: to be changed from one degree of glory to another, by beholding the glory of the Lord.