What a precious gift it is that you and I have a Bible in our language that we can hold in our hands! 500 years ago William Tyndale was one of the people who risked his life to get this to you. Today 26% of American adults never read the Bible and 63% of only read it once a week (Barna group research).
On the other hand, some of us read the Bible but it has little or no impact on the kind of persons we are and how we actually live our lives. Chris Webb, the president of Renovaré, tells the story of a friend’s uncle who when he retired from his job read the Bible from beginning to end in one year. After this success he set out to read the entire Bible in a single month! It takes 76 hours to read the Bible straight through so it took him about two-and-a-half hours each day. He went on to do this every day for twelve years! He read through the Bible cover-to-cover 144 times!!
“Rarely has anyone been so immersed in the Bible as that man,” writes Webb. And yet his friend who observed this Bible-reading marathon concluded, “Here’s the irony, my uncle died shortly afterwards… the meanest, bitterest son of a gun you could ever wish to meet.” Webb adds, “It’s the tragic irony of too many Christians and churches: soaked in Scripture, yet in the end completely untouched.” (The Fire of the Word, p. 32)
I was sharing this story with a young pastor in seminary. It stuck in his mind and a week later he asked me, “What is the best way to read the Bible?”
Depend on the Holy Spirit
The most important thing about Bible reading is the attitude we bring to it. Jesus confronted the Pharisees for reading the Scripture in a way that was deadly — they studied it diligently but refused to let it lead them to engage personally and lovingly with him as the Christ (John 5:39-40). This is what the cranky old uncle did. How readily we make the mistake of putting our Bible reading on a To Do List that we check off with a sense of accomplishment — this is a waste of time!
Reading to get through the Bible is not enough — we need to let the Bible get through us. We need to submit to it, or, more accurately, we need to submit to it’s author, the Holy Spirit. The Bible is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16), but is my reading inspired by God? Am I listening to and relying upon the anointing of the Spirit as I read? (1 John 2:20, 27)
The bottom line of our Bible reading, as in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, is that we hear the word and put it into practice (because we learn by doing and bearing the fruit of love for God and the people around us is what matters) — that’s life built on a strong foundation (Matt. 7:24-27). Since good fruit grows from a good tree (Matt. 7:17-18), let’s consider how our Bible reading can help us to yield a bumper crop to God’s glory!
Four Fruitful Ways to Read the Bible
There are many ways to read the Bible. I’ve benefited from Bible reading plans like the One Year Bible many times, but let me suggest some other uncommon and especially transformational approaches:
1. Let the Word Flood Your Soul and Sweep You Off Your Feet Like a Tidal Wave
Periodically ingest the Word in large doses. This is far more valuable than the typical daily “Quiet Time.” Read a whole Gospel in one sitting when you can. If we open ourselves to the Greatest Story we’ll be drawn into it and captivated by Christ! It takes about one hour and twenty minutes to read the Gospel of Mark. For the last year I’ve been enjoying listening to an audio version of Mark while I exercise, which I usually do in two parts.
Try watching a movie presentation of the Gospel of Jesus and experience it as the drama that it is. Or read out loud one of Paul’s letters like a letter that’s been written to you personally. Or pray or sing a psalm each day as a prayer that your soul desperately needs.
You’ll know you’re being swept away by the Bible in a Spirit-flood if you enjoy feeding on Scripture and if sometimes you’re drawn into long, in depth Bible study. What a blessing it is to let yourself be so wooed by the winsomeness of the Living Word (Jesus Christ) that you’re drawn into consecutive hours of studying a passage or topic in the written Word for your own personal learning! (When pastors have a habit of doing this they have no problem coming up with sermon material!)
2. Savor One Phrase of the Bible for Minutes — or a Lifetime!
Just as we need large doses of Scripture so also we need to go deep with particular words, ideas, and images that the Holy Spirit draws our attention to. The key is to saturate your mind with God’s revelation till it seeps down into your heart to form your desires and intentions like the way a potter carefully uses his hands to shape a lump of clay.
Meditate on a phrase of Scripture like a bee plunging into the depths of a flower to draw up it’s sweet nectar. (See Jeanne Guyon’s words about this in my article on her classic, “Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ.”)
For instance, brand into your brain the image of Jesus playing happily with the children and think about it as many times as you can that day. (Remember to smile!) Or delight to imitate the Beloved Disciple at the Last Supper and as you go to sleep imagine laying your head on Jesus’ chest. Or breathe in and out slowly as you pray a phrase of Scripture like, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9-10).
Or turn ideas from your Bible reading into habitual prayers by tying them to things you regularly see in your environment. For instance, you see a cloud and automatically you pray, “Yes, Lord, you make the clouds your chariots — you’re wonderfully at work all around me right now!” (Based on Psalm 104:3.)
3. Pay Attention to the Emotions and Needs that Surface in You
When we let the Bible read us and we rely on the ministry of the Holy Spirit as we read then we will sometimes feel things like conviction of sin, thankfulness for the mercy of Christ, restlessness or emptiness, longing for more intimacy with Jesus, worry about a problem we’re facing, sadness over a loss, anger about someone who mistreated us, or affection for God as Abba.
One reason the Holy Spirit is called the Spirit of Truth is because he prompts us to become aware of personal feelings and experiences. But like the cranky uncle we may read the Bible only in an intellectual way and actually misuse it to deny our sins and struggles rather than exposing them to the light of God’s love and then walking in that light, which is the only way to have genuine companionship with God and one another (1 John 2:7).
The Psalms especially help us to open up our hearts to God, but the Holy Spirit can use any portion of the “living and active word of God” to do his surgery of the soul (Heb. 4:12).
4. Memorize Long Passages of Scripture
I think the most important thing we can do with the Bible is to memorize whole chapters. Many earnest Bible students memorize lots of verses and this is great, but it’s far more impactful to memorize long sections so that we’re taking in divine thoughts that build on each other in a supernatural progression and we’re internalizing the order that’s part of God’s Word and kingdom. For most of human history this was the way that people related to the Bible: someone read a passage to them and they learned it by heart so that they could continue to use it for meditation and prayer and to share with a friend.
Most Christians are intimidated with the prospect of memorizing a whole chapter of the Bible or even a paragraph and so was I at first. But you can learn to do this — unless you think you have more important things to do! Memory is a muscle that can be strengthened with training. To memorize you need to use four simple tools that children learn in kindergarden: repetition (over time), concentration (free from distractions, external and internal), understanding (realizing why one thought follows another), and mnemonic devices (like acronyms or silly songs).
If you’re not able to memorize then figure out why. You’re missing at least one of the necessary tools. Perhaps you’re having trouble concentrating because your mind fills with anxious, obsessive thoughts and your body is constantly restless. Probably you need someone to listen as you talk out your repressed emotions and receive the gift of empathy that will eventually bring God’s peace. Then try printing out the chapter you’re memorizing on a piece of paper and take it with you for a long walk someplace where you won’t be distracted.
1 Corinthians 13
Consider an example of the kind of Bible reading that can wonderfully improve your character and your life. Imagine you read 1 Corinthians 13 and the thought comes to you, “These words on love are wonderful! This describes perfectly the way Jesus is all the time and it’s how God is loving me right now! With God’s love living in me I could become a more loving person to others.” Feeling this way could motivate you to memorize this electric chapter of the Bible.
What are you thinking about while you wait in line at the grocery store, lay in bed, vacuum your house, take a walk, or drive your car, sometimes probably for hours at a time? Whatever you’re thinking about is having a huge influence on your mood, energy, personality, wisdom for problem solving, and capacity to care for other people.
If you memorize 1 Corinthians 13 then your brain has become a spiritual library and anytime you want you can pull the Love Book off of the shelf of your mind and begin to use it. There is no better source for wisdom on how to be a good spouse, dynamic speaker, or effective leader than 1 Corinthians 13 — it’s way more fruitful than any self-help book on the best-seller list.
Here’s the other great thing about memorizing long passages of the Bible: it will naturally lead you into doing the first three transformational ways of Bible reading that I suggested. When you memorize a chapter of Scripture you are readily carried into a divine drama, drawn to feed on particular phrases as if your life depended on it (because it does!), and prompted to get in touch with particular emotions or struggles that need your attention.
Lectio Divina is an ancient way to do Bible reading that helps us greatly along the lines of this article. I think it’s especially powerful to do with a friend or a group.