While I’m not sure that there is necessarily a wrong way to read the Bible, I do believe that not all ways are created equal, so to speak. That statement, of course, assumes that the reader is approaching the Bible honestly, and not with a heart bent towards rebellion – like the kids who mocked the prophet Elijah and were then promptly eaten by a bear.
Assuming strict definitions of the words “read” and “study,” this isn’t an article about “how to study the Bible.” That’s a different and equally important discipline. In fact, lack of clarity between the differences combined with a lack of emphasis on properly reading the Bible has created a frustrating morass that many Christians feel they must struggle through in order to engage the Bible. This, in turn, leads to a failure to read the Bible.
Not reading the Bible is often attributed to time-management issues. Well-meaning Christians will repeat the admonishment, “You have time to watch your favorite TV shows; surely you can find time to read God’s Word.”
While many people do struggle with appropriately managing time, that’s not what’s going on when Christians fail to read the Bible. It’s a heart issue, not a time-management issue. In other words, people don’t have the heart’s desire to know God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible.
The first step in robustly reading God’s Word is praying that God will change the desires of your heart. A good way to do this is to pray the Bible back to God. Echoing Psalm 119:10-12, a good example of this type of prayer is, “Father, please give me a whole heart to seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! Through the power of your Spirit, give me the grace to store your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Blessed are you, O Lord; teach me your statutes and reveal yourself to me through my Bible reading.”
Prayer, however, shouldn’t be treated as a magical panacea that is divorced from human responsibility. There comes a point when the prayerful desire to read God’s Word should give way to actually reading the Bible.
A friend once related an anecdote about a prayer group that he led with several men from his church. Over the course of several months, one of the men continually confessed his failure to read the Bible and would ask for prayer that he would commit to the regular reading of God’s Word. Eventually, there came a day when my friend gently asked him, “Do you think that the time may have come to stop praying about reading the Bible and to simply pick it up and read it?”
Of course, there’s more to reading the Bible than simply picking it up and reading it (although, that’s a very good place to start). Sadly, people frequently pick up the Bible with a misunderstanding of the book itself as well as the purpose/reason for reading it.
Many people approach the Bible with a sense of duty that includes a hint of dread. For them, the Bible is long, boring, and technically difficult. Many others view the Bible as a type of owner’s manual that contains secrets to living their best life now. Often, people’s Bible reading is limited to a few verses a day that are read quickly in order to move on to the next item on their agenda.
To start with, the Bible isn’t about the reader; the Bible’s main objective isn’t to help the reader make it through his or her day. The Bible is about God, and the book’s main objective is to reveal God to His people. We need to stop reading the Bible as if it were a book of secrets that if unlocked will smooth out life’s path for us. When reading the Bible, our primary goal should be learning about God in order to love Him more and to strengthen our faith in Him, all for His glory. In order to do that, understanding that the Bible is a single book with a single story is of vital importance.
Too often, the Bible is interacted with as if it were a collection of separate stories that are loosely connected by thematic concerns. That’s how many people read it. Which is odd, since people don’t usually read any other story that way.
When reading a story, it’s essential for the reader’s understanding that the main character and the main character’s concerns and goals are kept in mind. Obviously (at least it should be obvious), God is the Bible’s main character. In Genesis 3:15, the reader is told what God’s concerns and goals are; the reader is told what the Bible is about.
Knowing that the story of the Bible is how the main character is going to send a Redeemer into the world to crush the head of the Serpent brings the Bible to vivid life. With each new character that’s introduced, like Noah, Abraham, and David, to name three, the reader is confronted with the question, “Is this the promised one?” Of course, it doesn’t take long for the story to reveal that each subsequent character is not the promised one. But, each character reveals a little more information about God’s promised Redeemer.
Reading the Bible through the lens of God’s objective will help to undermine the sense of dread brought about by the false belief that the Bible is dry and uninteresting. And, more importantly, it allows the Bible’s concerns to take their rightful place in the spotlight.
Reading the Bible as a single story is aided by long reading sessions. Things like the narrative arc, changes in tone, and plot development aren’t allowed a foothold in the reader’s brain when reading short segments. Christians should allow large chunks of the Biblical narrative to wash over them. This will also serve as an aid for studying the Bible.
When studying the Bible, context is key; any Bible study plan that even remotely underplays the importance of context deserves to be ignored. For the sake of space, a good Bible study method/plan, among others, can be found at the Charles Simeon Trust. However, focusing in on the exegetical details of the Bible creates the risk that the reader will not only lose sight of the forest for the trees but may also lose sight of the tree for the tree bark. Making sure that the entire narrative scope of the Bible (the context) is fresh and mentally available will help the student of the Bible plug the smaller gleanings into the overall harvest of the Bible.
Reading the Bible as a single story about God and His objective to save a people unto Himself is a practice that every Christian should adopt. Likewise, praying for the heart’s desire to know God through His Word should be a priority for all Christians. The Bible is a rich, colorful book that tells the most fascinating story of all time – God’s story. But learning to love that story requires reading that story in the way it was meant to be read.