We are now ready to look at the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life, one by one. We will begin by considering the discipline of reading and studying the Bible. The Bible is, of course, basic to all the spiritual disciplines. The topic of Bible reading is rather broad, so we will be limited in scope, looking this time only at reading scripture in personal devotions: not in church, not around the dinner table, not with a spouse, but reading and studying the Bible alone in private worship.
Let it be understood at the outset that we are qualified to interpret and apply the scriptures in our private devotions. Christians often question their ability to mine the scriptures for the gold. The reasoning goes something like this: “Why not let theologians and authors interpret and apply the Bible for us? After all, theologians are equipped for such a task, but we in the pew are not.” When someone believes himself to be unqualified for this personal study of God’s Word, he will have no desire to continue with it. But the Bible itself gives us a different message: we have been anointed with the Spirit, and we know all things (I John 2:20, 27). As believers who have the Spirit of truth in us, we ought to have every confidence that we can interpret (prayerfully!) and apply (prayerfully!) the Word.
I suspect that we all know the need for these private devotions, and the need to read the Bible by ourselves. But perhaps we do not always know how to go about this reading of scripture. And if we do not know how, we become discouraged before we even start. The following is some practical advice on how to read and study the Bible in our private worship.
One: study solitarily. Find a proper setting for your devotional reading of God’s Word. Look for a quiet place, free from distraction. Where there is noise, meditation will be impossible. Jesus himself went into a solitary place to pray (Mark 1:35); likewise, we should find this seclusion, not only in prayer, but also in reading the scripture. Furthermore, because this is the private or personal worship of God, study alone. You have your own struggles, your own sins, and your own unique needs. This is the time to apply the Word of God to your own soul.
Two: think biblically. Let’s be aware of the temptation to replace the reading of the Bible with the reading of books and meditations. Maybe you have heard the story (hopefully apocryphal) of the seminarian who had hundreds of books surrounding him, but his Bible, dusty and unused, was buried somewhere beneath the mountain. It is a temptation to read books and meditations instead of the Bible, either because we find these books and meditations to be more contemporary and edifying, or because they are easier to read than the Bible itself. To throw out these materials would be an overreaction. Rather, let’s first read the Bible with understanding and meditation, and then, only after that careful reading of the Word, proceed to read the literature to enrich our understanding. May your Bible be more worn than any other book in your library.
Three: approach worshipfully. Our approach in these personal devotions must be that of worship. This perspective protects us against the thinking that the study of the Bible is like a vending machine that will give us what we want for the day—that this daily exercise in the Word is exclusively for our benefit. It is true that we make requests of God, and that we derive our daily strength from his Word. However, these devotions are fundamentally the worship of the great God of heaven and earth. Come to the study of the Bible ready to extol his great glory, and to bow down before his holiness.
Four: read meditatively. Remember that reading the Bible in personal devotions is not just a pursuit of head knowledge. It is a real temptation (for ministers, too!) to read the Bible only to seek information and stimulate the intellect. We are not interested in a mere mental comprehension of the holy scriptures. Meditate on the Word (Joshua 1:8)! Ponder it. Speak it to yourself. Let it seep into your soul. Feed on it. Drink deeply from it.
Five: advance systematically. Try, as much as possible, to stay in one book, and to advance systematically through that one book, from verse to verse, and from chapter to chapter. You might be surprised at the gems you discover when you study this way—gems you might not have unearthed had you chosen to study isolated passages (similar to a minister who preaches a series of sermons through a book, and is “forced” to preach on passages he would have never otherwise chosen to make sermons on; but when he preaches them, he finds them to be exceedingly rich).
Six: move slowly. Do not be afraid to move through a book of the Bible at a slow pace. Reading large sections of scripture is not always conducive to meditation and application. Taking in only a few verses each day will lend itself to thought-provoking study. I might add here that these personal devotions need not take a long time. Proper study of the Bible does not necessarily equal a lengthy study of the Bible in one sitting. Whether we take ten minutes or an hour is not so important; what is crucial is that we worship God and feed on his Word, and that we do this daily.
Seven: remember frequently. Take God’s Word with you during the day: memorize it, then recite it at noon, evening, and before you go to bed. Or, meditate on it in such a way that you retain it and carry it with you throughout the day. Our waking hours are filled with battles, enemies, and temptations. So, carry that Word with you! Write it on a post-it note; take a picture of it and make it your phone’s background; jot it down on the refrigerator whiteboard. The psalmist hid God’s Word in his heart (Psalm 119:11).
Be disciplined, soldier! You are equipped with the Spirit of truth. Worship God in the study of his Word. Feed yourself with that delightful food of the soul.
This post was written by Rev. Ryan Barnhill, pastor of Peace Protestant Reformed Church in Lansing, Illinois. If you have a question or a comment for Rev. Barnhill, please do so in the comment section on the RFPA blog.