Guilt. Obligation. A sense of duty. A feeling within that it’s just what Christians are supposed to do. Curiosity. Desperation. Guidance.
All of these answers surfaced in response to this question in our Community Gathering conversation on Sunday.
I attended a Christian liberal arts university where students were encouraged to read through the entire Bible in a year. As incentive for staying the course, those who completed their reading were offered a free steak dinner at the President’s house.
I know the intentions for this approach were noble. The leaders of the University hoped that by reading the vast content of the Bible, students would know more about God and would grow in their relationship with God.
I’m afraid, however, that there are unintended consequences to such an approach to the Bible. I know because I fell victim to them.
Though I never took the President up on his offer, I did decide to read through the Bible the year after I graduated. I bought a One Year Bible, which has daily readings from the Old and New Testament, and decided to make my way through it.
By the summertime, I had fallen about a month behind. I felt terrible about it. I was reminded of my shortcomings every day when I read the dates that accompanied the daily readings in the One Year Bible.
So on my summer vacation (in Destin, Florida!) I spent most of the time trying to catch up. I had to stay the course. I didn’t want to be a failure at Bible reading. I must have read hundreds of chapters of Scripture that week.
Here’s the thing: I don’t recall connecting to God in a significant way during that week. I can’t remember anything about it except that I was so caught up in catching up.
What this revealed to me is that it’s possible to read the Bible and yet miss the God of the Bible.
I was caught up in a paradigm for Bible reading that revolved around completion, information, and volume.
The side effects were:
- setting up those who read the most Bible as an elite class of people
- and most significantly, missing God.
Jesus critiqued a similar impulse in the religious leaders of his day when he pointed out that they went to the Scriptures to find eternal life but missed that the Scriptures testified about Jesus and thus refused to receive eternal life from him (John 5:39-40). They read the Bible but missed the God of the Bible.
In the John 5 story, Jesus simultaneously points to a different paradigm for Bible reading, one that revolves instead around connection, relationship, communication, and interaction. The Bible serves as a witness that introduces us to God. The Bible is a conversation piece through which we interact with God.
What would it look like to read the Bible in such a paradigm?
- We’d read less. But we’d read enough to get the gist of a story, text or thought, but no so much that we weren’t able to slow down and listen to God through it. Certainly there are seasons where it’s necessary to read a greater volume of Scripture (e.g., seminary), but even then it’s critical to translate the learning into conversation with God.
- We’d attend to “heart tugs”. We’d pay attention to verses or phrases that prick our hearts, convict us, comfort us, or challenge us and we’d reflect on them in silence.
- We’d interact with God about it. We would spend most of our time in dialogue with God about what we’re reading – listening for how we need to grow and change, or sitting peacefully in his presence with the knowledge of who he is.
- We’d return to those Scriptures again and again. There’s no need to return to passages we’ve read in the completion paradigm – because we’ve completed them! But in a connection paradigm, we can return to them again and again with God to let him form us and shape us.
Dallas Willard says:
Do not try to read a great deal [of Scripture] at once. As Madam Guyon wisely counsels, ‘If you read quickly, it will benefit you little. You will be like a bee that merely skims the surface of the flower. Instead, in this new way of reading with prayer, you must become as the bee who penetrates into the depths of the flower. You plunge deeply within to remove its deepest nectar.’ …It is better in one year to have 10 good verses transferred into the substance of our lives than to have every word of the Bible flash before our eyes.
This kind of Bible reading is far from boring or guilt-inducing. Encountering God through Scripture will keep you coming back again and again.
How does this analysis compare to your own experiences? What motivates you to read the Bible?