Begging for Bread: How Do I Read the Bible?
How Do I Read the Bible?
pastors are always telling their people to read the bible. But how?
“We are all beggars. This is true.” Such an accurate indictment of the human condition by Martin Luther shapes the posture and the manner in which we live. Beggars are humble, yet eager, recipients of bread who will atrophy, shrivel up, and die if they are not graced with food. For you and I, beggars at the feet of Christ, this is a fitting table prayer:
“Blessed Lord, who has caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them; that, by patience and comfort of Your holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which You have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever, Amen.”
-The Book of Common Prayer
So how does one go about this spiritual discipline of reading, marking, learning, and inward digesting Scripture?
When reading Scripture it is helpful to keep two questions in mind. First, what is God saying to me? Second, how am I going to respond? These two questions act as guides to our engagement of any particular text or reading of Scripture. The first question puts the emphasis where it should be – on the Author. Reading Scripture is not primarily about our endeavor to connect with God, but rather God’s continual, perpetual endeavor to interact with us. The second question moves us to be not only hearers of the Word, but doers of it as well (James 1:22-25). There is great blessing that results from obedience and submission to God’s work through His Word.
What follows are four steps – Pray, Read, Reflect, Respond – that have helped me in my own devotional engagement of Scripture.
Devotional time spent in Scripture may feel at times as intimidating as trying to understand a foreign language. While sitting in the classroom of my first Greek class, the professor instructed the entire class to open their Greek New Testaments, hold it up in their two hands, and bend their ear down toward the page. As students tentatively bent their ears down toward the page of foreign text, the professor whispered, “Do you hear it? It’s the Spirit of God waiting to speak.” May we all approach our time in the Word with such anticipation and ardency!
Prayer prepares our heart. The writer of Hebrews states that the Word of God is “living and active” (Hebrews 4:12). Therefore, we should anticipate God’s Spirit to work in such a way that we will be convicted and comforted, wounded and healed, diagnosed and delivered by His Word.
Prayer prepares our head. In his Sacristy Prayer, Luther writes: “I, too, desire ever to learn and keep Thy Word my constant companion and to mediate there upon earnestly.” Luther recognizes that the shepherd is no different than the sheep Christ has called him to feed. It is the Word of God we should desire. There is an inherent danger in approaching Scripture just to collect information. Such a pursuit can quickly lead to pride, arrogance, and a head and heart that refuse to be taught. Our posture must remain that of a learner – a disciple – whose desire is to hear and be formed by God’s very words.
Lord, open now my heart to hear,
And through Your Word to me draw near;
Let me Your Word e’er pure retain;
Let me Your child and heir remain.
Having prepared our heart and head through prayer, we are ready to read. It seems simple enough, but even this can be complicated. There are various patterns for reading Scripture devotionally:
o Read through the Bible in a year
o Read through a book of the Bible
o Read various verses from the Bible that relate to a particular topic
o Follow a daily reading schedule that sets aside particular texts for each day or week
It's best to choose one and stay with it for a while. If you discover that it's hard to follow along, or you want to try something else, go for it. Two concepts to consider when reading Scripture devotionally are pace and place.
Pace. As you read be mindful of the pace with which you are reading. The goal of reading Scripture is not for you to get through the Scripture, but for the Scripture to get through you. Many times I have started devotional reading plans with the right attitude of taking time to listen and meditate on God’s word. But after missing a couple days, and not wanting to be behind schedule, in an effort to catch up and gain some sense of accomplishment, I end up cruising through the rest of the readings without even giving it a second thought to them. Slow down and take your time!
On an additional note, if you find yourself glossing over a familiar section of Scripture (e.g. the Beatitudes, Psalm 23, the Passion account), try listening to it. There are various websites (biblegateway.com) and apps (YouVersion) that allow you have the text read to you instead of reading it yourself. Sometimes this reveals a whole new layer of meaning to the section of Scripture under consideration.
Place. It is important to know the proper place of the section of Scripture you are reading. This is about reading the verse(s) in context. If you are struggling to understanding what a particular part of Scripture is saying, read what came before it and read what comes after it. Like the bull’s eye on a dartboard, start in the middle (the verse in question) and work our way outward (i.e. verses around the verse, chapters around the chapter, etc.). In other words, keep your head down and keep reading.
Remember, the devotional reading of Scripture is not about information collection. It is for the purpose of being saturated by and meditating on the Word of God. Meditating on Scripture is referenced throughout Scripture. This does not refer to legs-folded-in-a-pretzel, unblock-your-chakra type of meditation. Scriptural meditation means sustained attention to God’s Word. Why is this important?
“Often we are so burdened and overwhelmed with other thoughts, images, and concerns that it may take a long time before God’s Word has swept all else aside and come through.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Reflection on God’s Word helps us observe, process, and consider how the reality of the Word intersects, and at times collides, with the reality of our world. This overlap of the Word and the world is seen in two dimensions: God to You and You to Others.
God to You. Recall the two questions posed at the beginning of this post: (1) What is God saying to me? (2) How am I going to respond? In the dimension of “God to You”, the first question is at play. Here are some questions to consider as you seek to answer this question:
o What are these verses telling me about God the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit?
o Who is doing the verbs?
o Who is receiving the action of the verbs?
o What is the text saying about me (human condition)?
o What is the text saying about me (new creation)?
These questions focus on the relationship God has established with us through Christ.
You to Others. The first question, what is God saying to me, is at play here as well. Consider these questions as you think about your relationships with those around you (work, school, neighborhood, community, etc.):
o Is there an attitude to change?
o Is there an example to follow?
o Is there a prayer to pray?
o Is there an error to avoid?
o Is there a fruit of the Spirit that is highlighted here?
Remember, the Word is living and active. This means that as much as you are reading Scripture, the Spirit through the Scriptures is reading you (1 Corinthians 2:10-13). By taking our time and allowing Scripture to get through us, rather than us getting through Scripture, we begin to see how God’s Word shapes and transforms our view of life and the world (Romans 12:2). During this time of reflection is when we transition from answering, “What is God saying to me?” to answering, “How am I going to respond?”
The goal in responding is to act upon what you have heard. One way this might take place is through memorization. Some of us have nightmares of having to memorize verses for Confirmation, parochial school, or Sunday school. Devotional reading of Scripture is a bit different. Here the Lord has engaged your life through His Word and there may be a particular verse that struck you a certain way. A great way to solidify this in your mind is to memorize the verse. This aids in internalizing what God has already spoken into your current situation. While I have memorized many verses over the years, the ones that remain are those that I continued to use in times of trial, testing, or temptation. Our family has adopted the practice of writing a family memory verse on a small chalkboard. We say this verse together before meals in order to internalize God’s Word together.
Response may take the form of application. If the section of Scripture you are reading speaks about God’s love, and after you have reflected on this, find ways in which to apply God’s love to you and through you to others. While this may at first sound like self-improvement for self-improvement’s sake, the primary purpose of application is to humble and submit ourselves to the authority and transformative work of God’s Word. As the Holy Spirit guides you in applying God’s Word to your life, make sure you application is practical, personal, and possible.
There is no way to plumb the depths of this spiritual discipline in one entry. Therefore let us beggars continue to receive from He who supplies: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)
Aaron J. Kuehn
Associate Pastor of Grace Ev. Lutheran Church, Menomonee Falls, WI