by David Mathis Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
Do you want to read the Bible better? Christians will only experience so much of God and his grace without making a regular practice of reading and rehearsing what he has said to us in the Bible. During my years as a Christian and pastor, I am yet to meet a mature, happy Christian who hasn’t been a serious Bible reader.
Maybe you have dipped in here and there since you were converted, or perhaps you’ve started a new reading plan every January, only to fade fast before March. Maybe you’ve never really given serious Bible reading a try.
“Bible reading, of all reading, rewards careful, relentless observation of details in the text.”
Whatever our backgrounds and proclivities, God means for his children to take reading seriously, grow in our facility with it, and employ it as a means of his grace in our lives, and for the good of others. This is why Christians the world over, and throughout history, have been word people. God gave us a Book. Whether we naturally love reading or not, and whether we’ve been reading the Bible for decades or not, we all can benefit on occasion from rehearsing some of the basics of reading — not simply the natural reading of any book, but especially the supernatural reading of God’s Book.
Whatever your stage, experience, and proficiency, consider six fundamental principles for how to read God’s Book better.
1. Lean on God for help.
First and foremost, we dare not resign to reading God’s Book in our own human capacities. The Bible is special (Psalm 19:7–10). God speaks in the Scriptures with a kind of purity and directness we encounter in no other text (Psalm 12:6). These are the very words of God spoken to the world though his chosen apostles and prophets (2 Timothy 3:16). If these are the words of God, and they are, then we need the help of God to read them — to understand his words rightly, and feel his words appropriately, and apply his words faithfully.
Previous generations acknowledged the uniqueness of this Book with the title “Holy Bible.” Even if we don’t typically print that across our leather covers today, we will want to keep in mind the Bible’s holiness, its uniqueness — that God has set it apart from every other book. We approach it with conscious humility and with acknowledged dependence on him, that gives rise to prayer.
For this reason, many begin Bible reading with a short but vital moment of prayer, asking God to meet us in this encounter with him in his word and soak our reading with his gift of illumination. At times I will pause to ask for more help when realizing proneness to distraction or feeling confused about something I’m reading.
2. Learn some basics of language.
God’s word being supernatural, and requiring supernatural help, doesn’t mean the natural aspects of reading are unimportant. In fact, they are all the more important, since so much is at stake. Those most convinced of the supernatural power of God’s word will want to master what natural basics of reading they can.
Many basics of reading are intuitive and come to us “inductively” as we learn to read and make a practice of reading, but we also can be helped by some “deductive” principles about the basics, to hone our craft. Mortimer Adler’s and Charles Van Doren’s How to Read a Book is a good guide, among others, for learning and refreshing the basics.
DO UNTO AUTHORS
One key principle for reading, for instance, that we love to highlight at Desiring God says, “Do unto authors, as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, read to discern the author’s intention in his text, not your own preferences.
“We dare not resign to reading God’s Book in our own human capacities.”
Good reading requires effort to get into the author’s head, not through speculation, but through his own words. We seek to discover his meaning in (not around) the actual text of what he has written. This happens through patient and thoughtful attention to the words and sentences the author himself has written, and in particular by seeing the relationships between his words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs.
COME TO TERMS
Adler and Van Doren commend what they call “coming to terms” with the author. Individual words and phrases do not comprise a complete thought until they form a sentence — a proposition or claim (or coherent question or command) made by the author. Individual sentences, then, in the context of adjoining sentences form a train of thought, with each additional claim further advancing or clarifying the others in the context.
Texts, then, we may say, are like jigsaw puzzles. What we know, or think we know — whether about specific claims, or by what an author has in mind by his key words — helps us “put the pieces together” and better understand the whole. “Coming to terms,” then, means getting your bearings enough from the normal language of the passage to discern what the author has in mind by his key words and phrases. But how do we know what words and phrases are key terms to the author? Alder and Van Doren give this hint, which is also a call to hard work: “the most important words are those that give you trouble” (102). In other words, move toward, rather than ignore, what you at first don’t understand as you read.
To sum it up for Bible reading, biblical texts argue. They make cases. They give rationale. Reading the Bible well begins with following the human author’s train of thought from one sentence to the next, not isolating nuggets or pearls on a string that simply seem exciting out of context, but pressing to understand the whole.
3. Look carefully at particular details.
In some sense, this point only makes explicit what was implicit in the previous, but presses it further. Clearly the kind of care with language we’re advocating for requires a kind of active (rather than passive) reading that demands emotional energy and effort.
Adler and Van Doren lament (more than a generation ago!), “Most of us are addicted to non-active reading. The outstanding fault of the non-active or undemanding reader is his inattention to words, and his consequent failure to come to terms with the author” (106). “Most people read half asleep,” writes John Piper in Reading the Bible Supernaturally (327). “We read the Bible pretty much like we watch television — passively.”
Christians, however, because we have found our life is in this Book, will pray, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18). Then we will read with the expectation of seeing wonders, and with the energy, like Ezra, to study them (Ezra 7:10; Nehemiah 8:10; also Psalm 111:2).
Bible reading, of all reading, rewards careful, relentless observation of details in the text — the kind of observation that keeps looking even after it has become uncomfortable, especially in our modern pace of life, which does not encourage the pace of fruitful Bible reading and study. Slowing down is a skill we desperately need to acquire. One practical way to slow down is to take a pencil in hand, or put fingers on a keyboard, in order to process and share what we are seeing.
“You will never read a better book, but you can learn to read the Book better.”
Piper characterizes active Bible reading as “aggressive attentiveness” to words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. The kind of attentiveness that asks questions and seeks to answer them from the immediate and wider concentric circles of context. Active minds ask questions. And such reading (study) makes for hard mental labor. “The barrier to seeing the riches of the Scriptures is not owing to the fact that more people don’t know Greek and Hebrew,” writes Piper, “but that more people don’t have the patience to look, look, look” (332).
Such attention to detail, in Bible study, will take us beyond the individual human authors to the divine Author. Reading his Book will mean looking for connections across the canon, and how God, the ultimate author, reveals himself over time. Not only does history rhyme, as it has been said, but God has his reasons in the rhyming. When we see familiar patterns and various types across the sweep of biblical history, we can ask what God means to communicate to us through them. It means “believing that everything belongs and everything is meaningful,” according to Peter Leithart:
The Spirit doesn’t waste his breath. There are no incidental details. We’re told that Abraham had 318 fighting men for a reason, and the Spirit wanted us to know the man at the pool of Bethsaida had been lame for 38 years. Is 153 fish mere local color? No; it’s part of the Word of the Lord. . . . When a narrator uses an odd turn of phrase, don’t jump to the pseudo-scholarly conclusion that it’s an “ancient Hebrew idiom.” Expect it to communicate. . . . Give the human author some credit; he writes as he does for a reason. Most of all, give the Author credit, for if he’s able to harmonize the billions of motifs of human history, he can write a coherent book.
Paul wasn’t urging his disciple to be comfortable when he exhorted him, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Timothy 2:7). Such diligent trusting the biblical text requires coming to it at an unhurried pace — we might even call it a “leisurely” pace. Not leisurely in terms of attentiveness but in terms of space to linger, go deep, consult parallel passages, ask good questions, study for answers, and see the connections to Christ (Luke 24:25–27, 44–45). And “leisurely” doesn’t mean comfortable. Such attentive study is often unpleasant, even painful, but endlessly rewarding.
4. Linger over the truth.
We not only read and study, but meditate. God does not mean for our engaging of his word to end at the more cerebral, intellectual level of discerning meaning in the text through informed, patient, attentive reading and study. Rather, he means for his words to go down deep into the soil of our souls — not just freshly inform our minds but profoundly change our hearts.
“God means for his words to go down deep into the soil of our souls.”
Opening up ourselves to the laser of God’s word means seeing the Scriptures as his words to us, not simply to ancient audiences in other times and places. He means for us to read his words as captured and preserved for Christians (Romans 4:23–24; 15:4; 1 Corinthians 9:9–10; 10:6, 11; 2 Timothy 3:16–17), for us to get beyond the study of what God said in the past to others and “bring it home” to ourselves as God’s living and active word (Hebrews 4:12). Not only has he spoken, but he is speaking (Hebrews 12:25) — to us.
Reading God’s Book well leads to meditation, filling our minds with his truths, rolling them around on our tongue, savoring what he says, and not ceasing before coming to personal reflection.
5. Listen alone and together.
So far, we’ve assumed individual Bible reading, study, and meditation, but it should not go without saying that God means for us to receive and welcome his words together in his body called the church.
Healthy Christians will avoid the extremes of lone-rangering and of not engaging God’s words for ourselves. We will receive his words both as individuals made in his image and as his people called the church, the bride of his Son, redeemed together by his blood. Which will mean both listening to, and learning from, the insights of others and humbly, and boldly, sharing our insights with others (teaching).
We rarely begin to master something until we have tried to teach it to others. God’s word goes deeper in us when we try to pass along the blessing to others.
6. Learn to read by reading — for a lifetime.
In the end, there is no better way to learn to read the Bible than to read the Bible. Many ambitious souls, with a burst of inspiration or new-year resolve, start on aggressive Bible-reading regiments. Far fewer truly form the daily habit and genuinely endure for decades. What you do every day, for years on end, will drastically change your life. God means for us to engage his word like this, day after day, for a lifetime of enjoyment and discovery.
“There is no better way to learn to read the Bible than to read the Bible.”
If you’re looking for where to start, there’s no singular right place and no one way. Personally, I’ve found it most helpful over the years to be reading in multiple places at any given time. I typically am working through the whole Bible each year, with four short readings each day, in four different parts of the Bible, through the Discipleship Journal Reading Plan. But from time to time, I’ll change it up and give all my focus for a season to a particular place. My encouragement would be to try several approaches over time and see what habits suit you best in specific seasons of life.
Over time, Bible reading will feel easier and easier, in a sense, and more manifestly fruitful. A focused, unhurried season, day after day, goes a mighty long way. So, keep reading: daily, and for a lifetime. There is no better way to learn to read the Bible than to keep reading the Bible. You will never read a better book, but you can learn to read the Book better.