I recently had a conversation with a Christian friend who confessed her aversion to reading the Bible. The reason she gave is understandable: she’s afraid that she’ll misunderstand and misinterpret the Bible, rendering her more confused than when she started. This is one of two prevalent extremes when it comes to personal Bible-reading. For some people, like my friend, reading the Bible is an intimidating task because they’re keenly aware of its complexity, and so they avoid it altogether. While they are willing to be honest, there are others who read the Bible with a certainty that claims to “hear from God” every time they read it. Two unhealthy extremes are typical: avoidance and arrogance. In a world of competing extremes, here are three foundational rules for healthy Bible reading that you can start applying today:
Accept the Complexity of Scripture
Healthy bible reading begins with accepting the complexity of Scripture. Peter speaks of Paul’s writings as containing things that are “hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.” The Bible is a collection of writings that encompass a multitude of genres, many of which aren’t in use in our day (i.e. Revelation is a “prophetic-apocalyptic epistle,” and a prime victim of misreading as foretelling of the future). The Biblical world is “distant” from ours in terms of language, geography and culture, and without a healthy awareness of that distance, we will be tempted to assume a meaning that isn’t there. Matters of salvation are clear in the Bible, but much of the Bible is easily misapplied and misrepresented because readers lack a humble posture towards. Reminding yourself of the complexity of Scripture will help foster an open, listening and humble posture.
Prioritize Your Heart Over Your Head
I have devoted a large portion of my life to understanding the biblical narrative and its complexity, so don’t misunderstand the following words: the primary purpose of reading the Bible is not to “understand” it with your head, but to receive it with your heart. If you believe “understanding” the Bible is the primary goal of reading it, you will miss its point altogether. And when you don’t understand it you might think something is wrong with you; it might even deter you from ever reading it again (like it did my friend). Or worse, if we too quickly presume that we have understood it, in an absolute sense, we can easily become “puffed up” (1 Cor. 8:2).
Instead, attend Bible reading with a heart ready to be convicted and corrected. Prayerfully anticipate that you would be cut to the heart, and be made aware of the many ways your life doesn’t align with the way of life that Jesus is calling you to. You’re not looking for “universal laws” to add to your bag of ammo, but listening for the voice that’s speaking to you. The great Catholic theologian Joseph Ratzinger wisely captures this when he says “the meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most indelible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out.”
Read with Patience
If you’re like me you might expect to experience something special whenever you read the Bible—a vision, an insight, a unique revelation. We sometimes approach the biblical text with the expectations, (or heaven forbid, the demand!) that God will open our “spiritual eyes” so that we can discover deep life-changing truths! That could happen sometimes, but it’s not the norm. Our expectation for quick results is more so informed by our perpetual-entertainment-culture of Netflix and Youtube than anything else. Learn to read with patience and endurance through the mundane and boring bits. Bible reading is a lot like brushing your teeth; you can’t expect to have healthy teeth all at once. Healthy teeth comes from brushing two minutes twice a day for the rest of your life.
Foundational healthy Bible reading that produces fruit will always include these three things: a humble acceptance of the complexity of Scripture, an openness to be convicted and cut to the heart, and a willingness to read with a patience that endures even when nothing special happens. With these three rules, you can trust that the words of Scripture will truly become “indelible”—it will truly “take root”, endure, and bear fruit in its time.