OnFire Encouragement Letter
OnFire #242 Bible Reading
We continue our series on spiritual disciplines and this week come to Bible reading.
A few years ago I wrote an article on Bible reading and posted it to my website at http://www.onfireletter.com/. I have updated it and added a few more things.
An OnFire reader wrote,
I begin with good intentions, but often get bogged down for some reason. Either because I get confused about what I am reading or because I don't know where to go next. . . . maybe if you gave people some sort of outline? Something for each day of the week, to read, in between the Onfire emails. It could be an outline for reading through the Bible in a year, or some "homework" to help people get more out of Onfire. That is just a suggestion, but it is coming from someone who gets totally lost sometimes while trying to read the Bible without a guideline of sorts.
She and I wrote back and forth a few times as we worked out some suggestions. Here are the results, which I hope will help.
The Spiritual Warfare of Bible Reading
Our enemy knows that the Bible is God’s word. It is one of God’s “communication networks,” so like any general in battle, Satan tries to disrupt communication lines to confuse his opponents (us). We don’t need to be afraid of Satan - after all, Jesus gives us his authority (Matt 28:18). But we do need to be aware of his schemes, and this is one of them. So, be aware that Satan will send distractions of all sorts when we try to get serious about this. Pray about this before, during and after. Keep a notepad for things you remember to do during this time.
Where to start can be a problem for both new and experienced believers. For the new believer the Bible seems so big, so, where to begin? It seems simple enough, but since we are followers of Jesus, why not start with Matthew. Don’t worry about understanding everything. A regular dictionary can help with some words. A notebook also helps to record what you discover. I use the margins in one of my Bibles. When you are finished with Matthew, you can read it again, or move on to Mark, then Luke, John, Acts. . . . You get the idea.
For the seasoned believer it can be a question of “been there, done that.” We have to be careful not to assume we won’t find anything new. Since God’s word is living and active (Heb 4:12), we also know he will continue to reveal himself and his will to us as we read and pray. We need to approach this with the right attitude. As Paul said, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, . . .” (Eph 1:18-19). God continues to reveal himself to us.
The seasoned believer can start with an area which is not as well-known. Try the Old Testament prophets, for example. Isaiah, Jeremiah. Listen to God’s heart as the prophets pour out God’s concern for justice and holiness. See how these are connected to the downfall of a nation. For something a little less challenging, try the letters in the New Testament, or the historical books of 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles.
Starting in new territory can be a little daunting because there is so much history and so many unfamiliar names and places. Even still, listen for God’s voice in them and let your heart be moved as you watch the news at night. Some good tools like Bible maps, a concordance, and Bible dictionary are good here. More on these below.
How Much to Read?
This is not an easy question to answer. There will be some who can handle reading through the Bible in a year or less. Others will get bogged down in some of the tougher or less captivating books. Sometimes a section will grab your attention and you’ll spend a lot of time there. Other times you’ll read through and nothing jumps out. Sometimes we are motivated, sometimes not.
I recommend a chapter or two, but more if you feel like it. If you get drawn in, then it might, of course, be less. If you are convicted by the Spirit about a matter, you will need to stop and deal with this.
The object in this is not a program, as such, but a relationship with God. We want to spend enough time that our heart focus changes from what we were doing or need to do, to God. Its like spending time with my wife. She wants to know she has my full attention when we talk, so sometimes I need to close the laptop, stop what I’m doing, sit down with her, turn off the tv, send the children downstairs, or take her out. I need to look at her. I listen. I say things which show that I’m listening, without stealing her chance to say something, because it has to be about her, not me.
It sounds odd, but this is not usually the way we think about it in church. I was taught to read the Bible because it was good for me, like taking my vitamin C pill as a child (mmmmmm, love that tangy orange!!!) Of course, it was good for me, and at the time I needed it to be this way. But, as I got older, I needed to make the transition from simply reading to relationship. It took someone probing me (uncomfortably, I might add) about my lack of reading for me to realize it was really about the relationship. At that point it changed from a chore or a new years resolution to something I am much more interested in.
It depends on how much we want to grow and understand. In the context of financial giving, Paul tells us, “Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.” (2 Cor 9:6) I think the same principle applies. Spiritual growth is a function of the time and effort.
Obviously, every day is best. Sometimes this becomes difficult. And sometimes, it is a matter of faith to take the time because there seems so much to do. When you get out of routine, don’t fret it, but don’t put it off, either.
Note this - we could easily fall into a legalistic thing where the goal becomes the act of reading. This is the wrong way around. We read for relationship. God doesn’t love us according to how much Bible reading we do. He just loves us.
Some people react to the idea of reading everyday because it sounds too much like legalism. It’s interesting that the two systems look alike, but they differ in the intent. Do I read because I’m afraid someone will think I’m not a very good Christian if I don’t? If I answer “yes,” then I’ve slipped into legalism. Does the idea of reading the Bible everyday sound tedious and boring? Then legalism is probably to blame. Good relationships are exciting. Comforting. Affirming. Challenging.
Bible Reading Program
I have not suggested a Bible reading program, and would hesitate to do so, because it is hard to suggest something which would fit the spectrum of OnFire readers. There are new believers and veterans. Some are mature in their faith, some are less mature. Some have an incredible depth of Bible knowledge and some don’t. We may be on the same journey as we follow Jesus, but we are not at the same point on the road. I find Deuteronomy and Leviticus interesting because I like the intellectual challenge, but they bog a lot of people down. The prophets challenge my commitment to working out my faith in very practical terms, but the Hebrew poetry and history can be daunting for others. You get the idea.
You can design your own program, but there are there are a host of Bible reading programs out there. Radio Bible Class (“The Daily Bread”) has suggested readings to take someone through the Bible in a year. So does the Bible Society. Other programs will take you through in 2 or 3 years. For iPod users, there are a number of free reading programs in the iTune store.
Also - you may be involved in a small group or Sunday school class. In this case you might want to follow a reading program or choose Bible books which go along with your group’s study.
Approaches to Bible Reading
Regular Bible reading is a spiritual discipline, but there are different ways to read, each with its own strengths and intentions. I use them all at different times since there is no “either-or.”
Devotional Reading - usually small passages, up to a chapter in length, designed for quick reading but still put the reader into the Bible. Sometimes accompanied by a reading or story, such as in the “Daily Bread.”
Block Reading - larger passages of scripture, sometimes whole books, in a sitting. This is helpful to see themes, understand how different passages relate to each other, and to become immersed in a biblical book. One of my favourite approaches.
Repeated Reading - over a given period of weeks or months, we read and re-read sections or entire books. Helpful to learn these passages in-depth. We tend to see new things each time we read the section.
Bible Study - an intentional digging into the meaning of the passage to understand it in its context, to relate it to the rest of scripture, and apply it to our lives. This is important for Bible study and sermon preparation, but can also be very enjoyable. Another favourite approach.
Bible Memorization - we memorize verses or sections of the Bible so that we can recall them later in time of need.
There are some basic tools which may greatly enhance your Bible reading. You can get really fancy in this or take advantage of a host of material on the internet. However, be careful on the internet. Some sites are more interested in preserving their particular doctrinal views than on biblical accuracy.
Bible - Sounds basic, doesn’t it? It may help to read a passage from a few different translations. It is often hard to translate the nuances, so checking against a different translation can help. Plus, reading from a different translation from what we are used to can bring out things we didn’t see before. www.Biblegateway.com has many to choose from, free, online.
Notebook - for insights, questions, notes, etc.
Dictionary - for words you don’t understand.
Concordance - If I couldn’t have any other tool, I would have a concordance for my translation, and I would have it on computer. A concordance provides a listing of passages by word. Obviously, a computer speeds up the search process. I can look up passages when I can’t remember the reference and I can do research on places and people easily with this. The internet has many of these to use. I have one on my computer and my iPod.
Bible Dictionary - This is a resource of articles on selected Bible topics, people, and places - great for providing a basic overview. I have several book editions, but now primarily use versions for my computer and iPod.
Study Bible - A good study Bible includes basic notes on various texts and topics. The NIV Study Bible is almost 25 years old now, but still a very good resource.
Bible Maps - Some Bibles include basic maps, some do not. These can be very helpful to get a picture of the biblical situation. Place names take on new meaning when you know where they are and what happened there.
There is So Much I Don’t Understand
Me, too. Don’t give up, because you don’t need to understand all of it for God to speak through it. I find that I gain new insights all the time, even in passages I know well. The goal is to know God better through his word. Again, its like my relationship with Jan. I know her better now than I did when we first married. If I had thought, “I don’t want to get married until I can understand her,” we still wouldn’t be married. But I can say I know her better.
I hope this helps. Be on fire,
OnFire is a weekly letter on faith and character written by Troy Dennis. Troy is the Pastor of Family Ministries at Highfield Baptist Church, Moncton NB Canada. This letter published Nov 12, 2010. *Scripture taken from the New International Version. To subscribe or reply, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Archives are located at www.onfireletter.com. Blog located at www.onfireletter.blogspot.com.