Ask any disciple of Jesus what some of their greatest challenges are in their faith life and you will more than likely hear about the struggle to read the Bible and to pray. Many great theologians such John Stott and R.C. Sproul have compared a Christian’s prayer life to breathing to underline its necessity, and far be it from me to be pedantic about a metaphor, but I think there might be room for some improvement.
If we think again about what Paul says to Timothy that, “all scripture being God-breathed,” then we already have the Bible telling us that it is the oxygen for our lives, but oxygen in a canister is useless unless it has a way of getting in the bloodstream to be pumped round our bodies. That is where prayer takes on its wonderful means of grace as it is like the heart pumping the oxygen of God’s words into our lives by the work of the Spirit.
I use that image because it highlights the need to normalise and naturalise the necessities of the Christian life. Most of us struggle to read, and pray, and talk to people about Jesus because they are activities that are sadly foreign and strange to us. But every activity was at one stage foreign and strange and new to us, and the only way those hurdles were overcome was by persistence and habit. The consistency and constancy of doing something over and over, and over and over again, normalised and naturalised activities so that they became part of the fabric of everyday life. That needs to happen with our Bible reading and prayer life, not so it breeds contempt in familiarity, but so that getting on our knees and opening our Bibles becomes as normal and natural and necessary as taking our next breath.
Here are some more thoughts to help you on the path to making your Bible reading as normal, natural and necessary as breathing:
7. Know the Big Picture
For most books you don’t want to know the end of the story before you begin, you don’t want to be told some of the details but when it comes to the Bible there is a lot of benefit in having at least an idea of the running trajectory of the narrative. One member of Newmills’ congregation recently commented to me about how “I love my book ending” in sermons and that is part of this idea.
Take for example this alliterative idea in trying to get to grips with the big picture of the Bible. In the closing pages of the Bible we find God’s people back in God’s presence and they are there permanently, forever for them to dwell with Him and He with them, the covenant is fully fulfilled. In the beginning pages of the Bible we have God’s people, Adam and Eve, in His presence but then they are pushed out of His presence by rebellion and sin. So the question comes, how do God’s people move from being pushed out of God’s presence to being back in His presence permanently? That’s what the stuff in between is all about and it’s why it is so important for us to read it to see how it gets us from here to there and how it all pivots on Jesus!
Coming to the Bible with a sense of its connectedness allows you to look deeper and see further. Bryan Chapell talks about putting on your gospel glasses and that is how Scripture needs to be read when all of Scripture is pointing to and pivoting on Jesus.
Some great books to help you grasp a sense of the big picture of the Bible:
Glen Scrivener, Long Story Short
Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture
Tim Chester, From Creation to New Creation
Don Carson, The God Who is There (slightly more hefty but worth the effort)
If you are not a big reader, firstly let me say to preserve and practice, but also to check out video overviews from the likes of the Bible Project.
8. Read the Bible and not only books about the Bible.
This needs to be said after the previous point as you may end being so bogged down in knowing every nuance of context, systematic and Biblical theology that you never actually sit down and read the Bible. I would call this the theologian’s and pastor’s problem predominantly but it is very easy trap for any of us to fall into and needs to be avoided. We need to be confronted by God’s words and not only what theologians and gifted authors think about them so make sure to use other books as tools and means to an end rather than the end.
9. Read for transformation, not only information.
Can you remember every sermon you’ve ever heard? Can you remember the beauty of every church service or the nourishment of every Lord’s table? Can you remember every pray you ever prayed? The answer is of course, ‘No’ but like a good meal, you know when you miss one.
Bible reading should be the same, it should be like a good meal, not fast food, that is needed to sustain us for that day. Maybe even treat it with a meal like pattern of three times a day!
You can’t come to Bible reading expecting to retain every piece of information that you come into contact with. Biblical knowledge is meant to be cumulative, growing over constant and consistent connection with the words and their Author so do not come to every instance of Bible reading with the expectation that you are going to remember everything that you study. The priority should be that we are reading to have our hearts changed not only our heads filled; we are reading to look more like Jesus, not only to know more about Him.
10. Ask the Right Questions
This work of asking the right questions needs to built on a foundation of looking for the right things and the right person. As said in the previous point, I’m looking for Jesus himself, not only information about Him. To use some more of Bryan Chapell’s language, I’m trying to excavate grace because grace is the fuel for the Christian life.
This leads us into the deep work of study, which is too vast to be covered completely here, but let me at least give you two of the patterns that I use to approach a passage. These are not prescriptive pattern but whatever we do there needs to be an active engagement. If you do nothing else have a notebook beside you and write things down, whether those are questions and things you don’t understand or glimpses of where you see something that might be applicable. That, or depending on how you view and treat your Bible, write on the pages themselves; the Journaling Bibles and Scripture Journals are excellent for this.
My first pattern is to ask three ‘what’ questions: What? So What? Now What? Each of those questions helps me to open up and examine an aspect of any passage. Let me break them down:
This encompasses so many questions:
Where is it in the Bible? Where does it fit in the big picture of the Bible? Is it pointing to Jesus or is it looking back on Jesus and looking forward to Him coming again?
What is going on? What is the context of the passage? (Asking this question with some rigour would help us avoid many errors of application)
What type of literature is it: Is it historical, poetical, prophetical, is it a letter?
What is this passage saying? Look at the words, the tenses, the original language if you can. Try to get a grasp of what the author is trying to say, to whom they are saying it and why?
b) So What?
Imagine you’ve read the passage to a disgruntled teenager or your old pagan self and all you get is a scrunched up face mumbling the question ‘so what?’ at you. Here you are starting to get into the meet of application and engagement and you are asking yourself, ‘Why did the Holy Spirit breath this text into existence? What is there that I need to know about humanity and its condition and therefore myself and my condition and God and who He is and what He has done (the weight of those things will not be evenly distributed in a passage)?
c) Now What?
In light of all of the other ‘whats’ what is there for me to do in response. Is there something that I need to repent of, something I need to be confronted with, something I need to be thankful for, something that I need to do. The Bible never confronts, challenges or comforts us for intellectual stimulation, it does so for life change. If the greatest command is to love God and love neighbour then the words of the Bible should in some way be illuminated that like light bouncing of a facet of a diamond and providing for that by the grace of God.
My other pattern follows on from the influence of Bryan Chapell. It usually follows the excavation work of the first three ‘what’ questions and continues on by asking what is the Fallen Condition Focus of this passage? That is asking what aspect of the fall is present in this passage, note that it is not only asking what sin is present; that’s a subtle but very important distinction. I also sum this up by asking ‘What is the big problem of the passage?’ Then after I’ve looked at the big problem, I look for the big hope which ultimately in some shape should always take me to Christ.
The latter chapters of Bryan Chapell’s book, Unlimited Grace are excellent for explaining this in much more readable and understandable depth. It is also a book that we will be reviewing in the coming weeks!
11. Don’t do it alone.
This impacts both the personal and the community aspect of Bible study but maybe the statement needs explained. On the one hand personal, private devotional study time is a necessity for the Christian as there are things that need to be talked about between God and comfortable talking to God about and there are things that you and Him personal need to work through and any audience however close they are to you and however real you are with them will change that dynamic. When I say ‘don’t do it alone’ I mean that from the personal time studying with the use of commentaries and other supplementary resources, to the blessing of Bible Study groups and good friends.
Let me highlight some of these:
a) Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
This is looking to the saints of old who have lined the way and left lines and lines of valuable and faithful insight into God’s word. In a case like this do not give in to what C. S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’ and not pay attention to the likes of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, or the Puritans.
Use commentaries to supplement your reading of a passage, use the help of people who have been gifted by God in opening up His word. My personal favourites are the Preach the Word series and the Reformed Expository Commentaries. The Preach the Word are particularly readable and are more along the lines of written sermons than what you would normally associate with a commentary.
c) Trusted Resources
The internet has given us access to a vast array of information but has also opened the doors on a huge amount of guff that needs to be avoided. Though people can generally find fault with most things, sadly even within Christian circles, I have found things from the Gospel Coalition, Crossway, Ligonier and the Bible Project to be a great blessing for me personally.
d) Friends & Mentors & Bible Study/Discipleship Groups
I would say that all of these things are great blessings for the Christian life which often fear and other loves distract and distance us from. Opening the Bible in an intimate one on one, not avoiding and not being able to hide, study with a friend can be scary, challenging, divinely deconstructed and yet so enriching.
Similarly having someone who has walked some more of the road of faith than you can help give insight and perspective into God’s word providing for and through all of life and its many ups and down.
Bible Study and Discipleship groups can also help you connect with a wider variety of people and again allows you to open your eyes wider and see the depths of God’s words as He impacts you and the people around you.
Of the list here, I would suggest that at least one of these is vital. I’ve realised more and more with age and some Christian maturity that the Christian life, the journey through this broken fallen messed up world cannot be done alone; God spoke the reality of that in the Garden and it has reverberated still down through history and into our lives.
e) A Good Church
There are few greater privileges in this life that sitting under faithful preaching and teaching of the Word in a community of Christ that cares. If you are not part of a church, you need to find one and get yourself sitting under weekly weighty preaching that challenges, confronts and comforts you with the Word.
12. Pray after.
If you already have a habit and discipline of Bible ready and prayer in your life, let me ask you what it is like? After you get your Bible reading done and you start to pray, what shape do your prayers take? Do you immediately jump into praying for Mavis down the road who is going for hip surgery tomorrow? Now Mavis, of course, is a prime candidate for prayer but after you read you should consolidate your reading by praying about what you have read. Pray in thankfulness for God’s word, pray in need for it to sink deeper into your heart, and pray in hope that God through His Spirit will shape your life to likeness of His Son.
Our Bible reading should begin and end with a dependence on the Spirit of God as the one who opens up our eyes to the truth within and applies the blessing of God’s life giving breath.
And finally, keep going. This is a lifelong battle, filled with times of joy and celebration and times of toil and sweat and with what seems like cruel defeats but never stop.
Do it daily and form good spiritual habits so that your Bible reading is so engrained into the pattern of your life that even on the days when your spirit may be dry and your desire may be dented you will still turn open the pages and find that God is still speaking in what seems to be the silence and hardship or drought of where you are at that moment.
There’s a need to keep going because unlike many other human activities this side of eternity this will never plateau. You will never reach a place where you couldn’t learn more from, or more of, this wonderful book and its great and gracious author, so keep going.
We started this little journey about better Bible reading with a Tolkien quote so let me end it with another:
“it’s the job that isn’t started as takes longest to finish“
Maybe your journey of Bible reading hasn’t even begun, and you’ve laid out every excuse under the sun to rid yourself of the guilt or to hide the fact that you simple couldn’t be bothered. Here you and I both are in a time when we haven’t that great excuse of ‘not enough time’ anymore, maybe this is the time to start a job that is a true job and decide to do something Godly and good with the time that has been given us.
Best and blessings,
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