The new year is a great time to commit yourself to spiritual disciplines, and one of the most important disciplines of the Christian life is reading the Bible. We encounter the Bible when we go to church, and attending public worship is itself a key Christian discipline. Private reading, however, is edifying in its own way; and that’s what I want to talk about here.
There are many ways to read the Bible. Atheists and skeptics read it. One could read the Bible with the same approach we take to other ancient works, such as The Odyssey or The Epic of Gilgamesh. When we do so, however, we are not reading the Bible in keeping with its purpose: to make us “wise unto salvation” and draw us into the life of God. The Bible contains the crucial teaching necessary for us to know how to be saved. In fact, salvation is the unifying theme of the Bible, and the Bible tells us about our salvation in four acts: creation, fall (or rebellion against God), redemption, and new creation. As we read through this great story of salvation, the Holy Spirit works in our hearts and forms us in the likeness of Christ.
The Bible opens with the stories of creation, and it tells us that God deemed everything he created to be good. But early in the story humans rebel against God and violate the goodness and harmony of God’s created order. Sin thus came into the world. Sin is not just something we do. It is all the “gone-wrongness” in the world, everything that is not in alignment with God’s work and will, and its result is death. Yet God’s love for us is so great that even in the face of our ongoing rebellion, he came to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught us how to live, and through his death and resurrection he conquered sin and death. Now we can receive forgiveness for our sins, and our broken relationship with God can be restored. Now we can overcome the human addiction to sin and become the people we were always meant to be. Christ will come again, and when he does, he will make everything new. We can live forever with God in this new creation, and there will be no more sin, no more death.
That is the story of Scripture: creation, fall (rebellion against God), redemption, and new creation. Reading the Bible with this story in mind can help us understand how the various smaller parts of Scripture relate to our own lives. Many passages within the Bible can be confusing, even startling to us; but if we understand the different parts of the Bible as contributing to a great story of salvation, these difficult passages often come into clearer focus.
It is not enough, however, simply to understand the story the Bible tells. We actually have to read it with two “lens” of understanding: first prayerfully then consistently, to receive its benefits.
Prayer prior to reading invites the Holy Spirit to be your teacher. You are asking God to work through these pages he has inspired to draw you closer to him. You are acknowledging that there is more to reading Scripture than simply the words on the page. We seek not just information, but transformation. After reading, articulate one main thought. Did you learn something about God’s goodness? About human frailty? About how you should live, or something in your life that separates you from God? Then, as John Wesley taught us, pray again, and ask God to seal these words upon your heart.
Like prayerfulness, consistency is important. Read the Bible every day, even if you only read a small bit of it. Pick a time that works for you—first thing in the morning, on your lunch break, or before bed, any time that you intentionally carve out. You will undoubtedly come across parts of the Bible you find difficult. Passages may seem confusing or just boring. Perhaps you find it difficult to reconcile a particular story of Scripture with what you believe about God. Keep reading. Remember: reading the Bible is a spiritual discipline. It isn’t always easy or fun, but consistent reading of Scripture will over time build you up in the faith, and God will work through Scripture to help you become the person you were always meant to be.
You don’t have to sit down and try to read the Bible from start to finish. If you do this, great, but this way of approaching the Bible isn’t for everyone. Some people like to use a “one-year Bible” or some kind of Bible reading plan (many of which are available online). If these work for you, then forge ahead, full steam. Personally, I like to choose a book of the Bible or part of a book and work my way through it carefully. What parts of the Bible I choose often have to do with questions, struggles, or concerns in my life. If you find yourself spending a long time on a single book, that’s perfectly okay. I find that quality is better than quantity when reading the Bible. Take your time. Meditate on Scripture. Pray over it. Allow God the time and space to work in your life.
It’s important to read both the Old and New Testaments. Many Christians like to focus on the New Testament, but reading the Old is just as important. The two Testaments together make up one story. The Old Testament is incomplete without the New. The New Testament is incomprehensible without the Old. If we focus only on the New Testament, we miss a great part of God’s story of salvation.
Finally, if you fall off the horse, get back on. All of us ebb and flow in our commitment to our spiritual disciplines. Don’t beat yourself up. Just start reading again and recommit yourself to prayerful and consistent engagement with Scripture. Through your reading, you will come to understand God more deeply. You will come to understand yourself and other people more clearly. The Holy Spirit will meet you in these pages and form you into the person you were always meant to be, and you will draw closer to God in faith, hope, and love.