My earliest memory of reading the Bible was doing so only because my mother asked me everyday if I had read my Bible. I would pick up the Bible and read the shortest Psalm and shut the Bible quickly, happy to have finished that from my to-do list for the day. But as a teenager, when I became more serious about my faith and grew in my relationship with God, it was mainly because of God’s Word. Its riches and depth and the God it revealed fascinated me and I know that it formed and transformed my life. I realised how little I knew of the Bible and I poured myself into reading and understanding the Scriptures personally and in community.
But at the same time, my personal reading of the Bible or ‘quiet time’ became the basis for defining my life as a Christian. I felt that the days when I read the Bible, God was happy with me and whenever I missed reading my Bible God was somehow disappointed with me. I judged how good a Christian I was by how regular my quiet times were and how I felt when I read the Bible. The underlying emotion I felt in relation to the discipline of the Word was guilt – not enough time reading, not the right emotion while reading, not always understanding what I read, and not always obeying what I read.
But it wasn’t just guilt that I struggled with, on the days when my quiet time was amazing, when I felt the right emotions, on the weeks when I was regular, when I obeyed - I was inordinately proud of myself. Pride can so easily creep into how much we know of the Bible, how much of the Bible we are reading, and how well we are able to interpret and understand it. We rest our spiritual life on this ‘work’ and bring it before God saying, ‘God I’ve been faithfully reading my Bible and now I will be accepted or now you owe me’.
Now I know this doesn’t happen all the time, but these can be the extremes that we swing to when it comes to any spiritual discipline – guilt and pride. Guilt over not doing enough and pride over how well we are doing.
The perspective that we need to bring to this discipline is grace. Spiritual disciplines are not to get brownie points with God. We don’t engage in the discipline of the Word to earn or retain God’s favour, we come to the Word because we have received favour - having been fully accepted because of what Christ has done. It is the means by which God shows us Himself and transforms us. The disciplines are God-ordained means by which we experience God and His grace.
“By themselves the spiritual disciplines can do nothing. They can only get us to a place where something can be done, they are the means by which we place ourselves where God can bless us.” Richard Foster
God in His grace has chosen to reveal Himself to us through the Scriptures and it is the only way we know Him, His character, His plans, and His purposes. For a believer it is the ultimate authority and it has to become the most precious asset. The Bible is uniquely and solely God’s complete trustworthy revelation to us today.
Our souls are made to find their nourishment in God just the way our physical bodies are nourished by food. This nourishment comes through feeding on the Word of God. Scripture describes itself as something that nourishes our soul and makes us grow.
We come to the Word expecting to be fed and knowing the richness we find in it. If you’re anything like me, I come to the Scriptures with a selfish heart. If I’m discouraged I want a verse that says to me “God is there for you and everything will be alright.” If I’m happy I want verses that are light and easy. I want God to speak to my immediate situation. So when I don’t find something for my immediate need, Scripture becomes boring or irrelevant. The posture we need to come with is an expectant and a humble heart – willing to hear what God wants us to hear, submitting to His revelation, seeking to know Him – we will always learn something about God, about His work, about who He is, and what He is doing.
God’s word is described as a sword which can penetrate through the thoughts and intentions of the heart. We know that it can cut through to our hearts and expose what lies in us – stubbornness, unwillingness to repent, unwillingness to obey. Our posture as we come to the Scriptures is to be open and vulnerable. We are not reading an idle book but a book that is living and active. So we come willing to be transformed, willing to obey – prayerfully asking the Spirit to reveal God to us, to make our hearts open and vulnerable, and to humble us.
It is important to develop patterns for both personal and corporate intake of the Word. While the particular details will and should vary from person to person, it is essential to have consistent patterns. You have to find your own pattern and rhythm. One size does not fit all and at different points in your life it will look different. Below are some guidelines, which I have found helpful for personal and corporate intake of the Word.
Have a specific time and place, away from distraction as much as possible and have a systematic plan for reading the Bible. Go through one whole book at a time – few verses, a chapter, few chapters, etc. Read through the whole Bible and not just the parts you are most familiar with and the parts you like. Have a good translation that you are comfortable with. Don’t overreach, be realistic in your plan.
We need to bring aspects of study to our Bible reading because the Bible is an ancient book. We are removed from the writers and original audience through time, culture, language, and history. While the Bible is God’s word, it is through human authors who wrote according to their own styles and personalities and in different genres. The Bible requires us to interpret it as we read, and we need to be faithful to interpret it well. One of the easiest ways to study personally is to have a good Study Bible that has the background and context of the book and notes to help you and guide you through the text.
One of the most important aspects of study that we bring to the Bible is to read it with the big picture story line in mind. The whole Bible tells one story – the Creator God redeeming His creation for His glory through Jesus Christ our Redeemer. All of Scripture points to Christ. But the story does not read like a single storybook. Neither is the Bible a series of disconnected moral tales. It is the story of God acting in history to work out His plan of salvation through Christ.
Meditation engages us at the level of the heart, allowing the text to sink into our hearts and chew on it. It is reflecting, contemplating, responding to the Word we read and study. Meditation aids us in memorising and impressing the Word. However, if we do all the reading, studying, memorising, and listening to Scripture but fail to apply and obey it, we will not reap the benefits. Scripture transforms us only when we believe it, obey it, and alter our life by it.
We are meant to live the Christian life in community and our intake of the Word has to incorporate our community. If you are struggling to maintain consistency in your personal intake of the Word – find someone to hold you accountable and share what you’re learning or what you’re struggling with. Study the Bible with someone else or in a small group. Another important aspect of community oriented Bible intake is listening to the Word preached and read when we are gathered together for worship. It is important that we hear it as a body, rather than listening to a sermon online, so that the obedience and application is corporate and we are accountable to one another for what we hear.
If we are becoming legalistic in our Bible reading, we need to remember grace. But a lot of the time we are on the other end, we are just lazy. It takes effort and it seems like a lot of work. R. C. Sproul says,
“Here then, is the real problem of our negligence. We fail in our duty to study God’s Word not so much because it is difficult to understand, not so much because it is dull and boring, but because it is work. Our problem is not a lack of intelligence or a lack of passion. Our problem is that we are lazy.”
To counter our tendency to laziness we need discipline. Discipline is essential for godliness. This means persevering in reading, studying, and meditating on the Word when we don’t feel like it. We continue, we start again, we keep at it - with grace as the motivation not guilt. When we do so, we will reap the benefits and find nourishment for our souls because it gives us life.
May we echo the words of the disciples,
“Lord to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life?” John 6:68