Today's post comes from my wise and encouraging husband, Andy.
Recently I’ve had several conversations in which someone makes a startling admission: “I don’t really know how to read my Bible.”
This admission shouldn’t be startling, even though we often pretend it is. Let’s get real for a second: the Bible is a complicated and tough book, and it takes time to get the hang of it. There’s poetry, historical narrative, prophecy, letters, and ancient proverbs. Sure, the Game-of-Thrones-like action of Judges is easy enough to get behind, but what about Lamentations? And even with the good stories, what am I supposed to be learning from this stuff?
And since this is a safe place here, let’s admit it: we all struggle with reading and learning from the Bible. Unfortunately, this blog post is not going to fix that problem, but hopefully I can point you in the right direction. Here are three tips for better Bible reading:
1. Realize that Reading Your Bible Is Not the Measure of Your Piety
Not many Christians would say outright that Bible reading is the highest Christian practice, but many of them communicate in such a way that leaves this impression. Just as an example, in Donald Whitney’s modern classic Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, the only topic that receives two chapters is “Bible Intake,” while topics such as worship, prayer, fasting, and a host of other important Christian practices are given only one chapter.
This sort of thinking leads many Christians who are discouraged about their own Bible reading to stay silent. They know that if they told people that they struggled with reading their Bibles, those people would question their commitment to their faith. If they told people they hadn’t read the their Bible in seven months, those people would probably start praying for their salvation.
Realize that you are probably in both groups of people: you have struggles with reading your Bible, but if you heard someone else was struggling in the same way, you’d worry about them. Since everyone is on both sides of the aisle, I only need give one piece of advice: R-E-L-A-X (cf. Aaron Rodgers).
Is Bible reading important? Yes. Should we encourage one another toward this habit of grace? Yes. Does it prove who is a good Christian and who isn’t? No. You are saved by faith in Christ and his benefits, applied to you through the means of grace (preaching, Baptism, Lord’s Supper). Bible reading is just one of a host of things we should be encouraging each other to pursue in light of this fact.
The Bible is much more interested in your character than in your Bible reading. Kevin DeYoung hits the nail on the head:
Christians often equate holiness with activism and spiritual disciplines. And while it’s true that activism is often the outgrowth of holiness and spiritual disciplines are necessary for the cultivation of holiness, the pattern of piety in the Scripture is more explicitly about our character. We put off sin and put on righteousness.***
If you have a choice between following the sermon you heard on Sunday and practicing patience more consistently, or reading your Bible more consistently, go with the former. Now, of course, this is a false dichotomy. You can do both; just be sure your priorities are in the right spot. One is a biblical imperative, the other is a helpful practice for Spiritual growth.
2. It’s a Long Game
The nineteenth century Presbyterian Professor of Preaching R.L. Dabney told his students, “Now, it is the preacher’s business, in his public discourses, to give his people teaching by example, in the art of interpreting the Word: he should exhibit before them, in actual use, the methods by which the legitimate meaning is to be evolved.”*
In other words, we should learn how to read our Bibles from hearing the sermon on Sunday mornings. And not just one sermon, but hundreds. You aren’t going to listen to one sermon and be able to read the Bible just like your pastor. It will take some time. Just let the sound teaching of the Word of God slowly seep into your consciousness, and soon that sound teaching is going to start flowing back out again when you read your Bible.**
In fact, let me blow your mind a little more: the Bible doesn’t really say that much about personal Bible reading. Many portions of Scripture that exclaim the virtues of the Word of God, are contextually talking about the preached word of God. For example, the beautiful description of God’s word being “God-breathed” in 1 Timothy 3 flows not into an exhortation to read the Scriptures, but a strong charge to the young preacher Timothy to “preach the Word” (1 Tim 4:1-3). Don’t overemphasize your personal devotions to the detriment of the place of preaching in the Christian life.
3. Get a Plan and Start Trudging Away
Like most habits, Bible reading is hardest at the beginning and slowly gets easier. Get your hands on a good reading plan and just start. I would recommend a plan that isn’t schedule dependent (reading for Jan 1, then Jan 2, etc.). These plans are nice in theory, but leave no room for a forgotten day, Sabbath rest, a day when you are sick, visiting relatives, etc. Eventually you find yourself reading Jan 15th’s readings on Feb 2nd, you get discouraged, and never pick it up again. Find a plan you can pick up easily, even after a dry spell.
The system is built around quantity and diversity in Bible reading. Each day you read one chapter of the Bible from ten different locations. The links above provide ten different lists of biblical books. Each day you read one chapter from each list. When you finish a list, you start it over again. Ten chapters might sound like a lot, but the diversity of the readings, and the fact that you are in ten different stories each day, keeps even the rookie reader engaged. The idea is that, while you won’t understand everything, the breadth of what you are reading will give you the scope of doctrine taught by Scripture.
In my opinion, Professor Horner’s dispensational roots show in the lists provided (very New Testament heavy), so I modified it a bit for my personal reading. If you have no idea what I just said, don’t worry about it. Here are my modified lists (only 9, not 10):
List 1: Matthew, Mark, Acts, Luke, John, Acts
List 2: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy
List 3: Romans, I&II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Hebrews
List 4: I&II Thess, I&II Tim, Titus, Philemon, James, I&II Peter, I,II&III John, Jude, Revelation
List 5: Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Proverbs
List 6: Psalms
List 7: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I&II Samuel, I&II Kings, I&II Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther
List 8: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel,
List 9: Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi
I highly recommend this plan. If you follow the link provided above you can find a printable .pdf with bookmarks for each list to put in your Bible. It has been great for me. But hey, it might not work for you. There isn’t one right plan. Find one that works for you and go for it.
*Dabney, “Evangelical Eloquence,” Lecture 5.
**...and talk to friends and parent your kids and disagree with your spouse and make life decisions, etc. I think you get the point. Listen carefully to the Word preached.
***Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 40.