The Bible is not the easiest book to read. We know we are supposed to read it, and we often try, but then feel guilty because we “didn’t get anything out of it.” Ever feel that way? Relax. It’s not just you. The Bible is a collection of different kinds of writing collected over thousands of years. Some of the Bible contains stories and spiritual teachings, which is what most of us expect when we venture into its pages, but other sections contain histories, poetry, legal codes, weird prophetic visions, and letters. Some sections of the Bible, like lists of genealogies, are as interesting to read as the phone book, and like the phonebook, they are not meant to be read like a novel. They are reference books designed to look up information when we need it, rather than hold our attention page after page. It will be helpful to identify exactly what you are hoping to get out of the Bible before you start reading. You will read different sections with different approaches depending on what you are hoping to gain.
Here’s another way to look at it. Imagine you are a runner. You are getting ready for your morning run. How can you tell if it is a good run or a disappointing run? It all depends on your goal for the day. What are you hoping to get out of it? Imagine I am trying to get faster. I will run sprints, short bursts where I run as hard and fast as I possibly can. Imagine I want to run a marathon. I will be working on increasing my distance. I will slow down and keep running over a longer period of time. There are many different ways to run, just like there are many different ways to read the Bible, depending on what you want to get out of it. Here are a few:
Read to Know God
When two people meet and become friends, they want to get to know each other. We talk about who we are, where we live or what we do for a living. We tell each other our life stories about our past, our families and our childhood. We share our likes and dislikes, our hopes and dreams and plans for the future. We also share our values and character and declare what we stand for in life and what will we not tolerate. God reveals all of this in the pages of scripture. We read these stories and writings to get to know and understand God better. God has been active throughout human history and we see God at work in the stories and history of the Hebrew Bible, the ministry and message of the prophets, the teachings and passion of Jesus, and the faithfulness of the apostles. This is the way most people read the Bible, like a novel to enjoy the story. Just remember that the Bible is actually a collection of sixty six different kinds of books, so not every part of it is a page turner. If we try to read it the way we read other books we might become frustrated.
Read to Hear God
The Bible is not limited to the words frozen on the page. While we are reading about God, God speaks to us by the Holy Spirit. The Living Word speaks through the Written Word. Imagine a room filled with radio waves. We cannot hear the sound of the countless broadcast signals in the air around us all the time without the help of a radio that allows us to tune the signals to a frequency we can hear and understand. God is speaking all around us all the time, too. We can learn to read the Bible in a way that helps us tune in that Voice of God so we can hear it and understand it. The Written Word is important to us but it serves the Living Word which speaks fresh messages to us every day.
We teach the practice of “Lectio Divina” (LEK-tee-oh Di-VEE-na) or sacred reading. It is a method of praying the scriptures to hear God’s Living Word speak through the Written Word. The practice is rather simple. First, select a brief portion of scripture. Read it several times silently, paying attention to the details that are presented. Look for what claims your attention, like a troubling thought, a positive insight, a deep question, or a peculiar detail. Then meditate over the passage allowing the Spirit to guide your thoughts. Meditation is “holy thinking.” Just think about it. After this reflection talk to God about it in prayer. Talk as long as you like. When you are finished rest in silence. That pattern again is:
Read to Follow God
To say that God is Lord is to say that God is in charge. That means that we need to know what God expects of us. Throughout the scriptures we receive instructions from God on how to live our lives. We are given specific instructions on how we live with God, how we live with each other and how to make the world a better place through our actions. From the Ten Commandments, to the wisdom of Proverbs, to the teachings and character of Jesus, God gives plenty of instructions for us to follow. It’s not about being bad or good or simply about following rules. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in “The Cost of Discipleship” that:
“Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”
We live lives that are useful to God by being compatible with the new and better world that God is preparing for us. Only God can teach us how to do that and it is found in the scriptures. We read the Bible by paying close attention to any commands, instructions, or expectations given by God in the text then strive to live our lives accordingly. There are special assignments God gives directly to us individually, like Moses at the burning bush. Not everyone receives a call like that, but we are all called to live according to God’s plans. The Bible is full of teachings and instructions that guide us along the kingdom-building Path of Jesus. Read them. Learn them. Practice them. Live them.
Read to Love God
The heart of the Bible is the reminder that God loves us. We sometimes read the Bible to remember just how much God loves us the way we re-read old love letters. We read the Psalms, the New Testament letters and the words of Jesus to claim once again God’s promises to us. We remember how God has accepted us just as we are and moved galaxies to be close to us. We are reminded of the tenderness it took for God to join us in human flesh, sharing our death, and being raised again to give us life that never ends. Why would God go to such lengths? God loves us and wants to spend forever with us. Sometimes we only read the Bible to remember that so that we might never take it for granted.
Read to Remember God
Ben Franklin had a way of expressing a great deal of truth in a very few words. His proverbs and words of wisdom, like “A penny saved is a penny earned,” have become part of our everyday conversation and help to guide us in our everyday decisions. The Word of God is equally helpful to guide us in our everyday decisions but like these helpful proverbs we have to have them handy at a moment’s notice. Thus, we memorize scripture. By doing so, we are carrying around a collection of verses everywhere we go.
There is a lot more to say about how to read the Bible, but we can save that for another today. For now, remember to take a moment before you read each day to ask yourself why you are reading. What do you need from God? Are you going for a long run or a sprint? Are trying to get to know God better or hear God speak? Are you trying to memorize a single verse or are you trying to get your daily marching orders? Each goal requires a slightly different approach. The great news is, God shows up when we meet in the scriptures. Enjoy!
God works best in community. Join a Bible Study group at a local church. It is amazing how much easier it is to read and understand the Bible with a group of other believers you can trust!