As someone who grew up going to going to church, I’ve often viewed the Bible as both fascinating and daunting, but somewhat inaccessible. Hearing about all the stories in Sunday School was definitely entertaining, but they were harder to make much sense of once I got older and read them for myself.
When I began reading the Bible on my own initiative, I found it difficult at first to get much out of it. I knew there was a lot to unpack, but it was hard for me to believe I’d be able to make much sense of what I was studying unless I decided to attend seminary.
Over time, I was able to learn how to read the Bible and become familiar with it, but it took numerous changes in how I approached it before I was at a point where I could read it daily and make some sense of what it was trying to tell me.
I work primarily with teenagers, and I find them repeating the same mistakes I did when reading my Bible when I was younger, and after talking with some peers when doing this Bible study for myself, I realized these mistakes are also common among most adults as well. I’m pretty convinced that, without some guidance, most people fall victim to the same traps when reading the Bible, and unfortunately lose their enthusiasm for God.
There are a lot of things you can do to learn how to understand the Bible better, but first, here are a few common mistakes to avoid:
1. Looking for Insight Rather Than Personal Application
The Bible is a fascinating book, there’s no question about it. Even if you’re coming at it from a completely atheistic perspective, there’s enough historical and cultural significance, as well as action-packed sequences, to keep you occupied for days.
However, for believers, simply reading the Bible for information is not enough if we want it to have an impact on our lives.
“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:22-24).
Just about every verse you read contains some kind of direction from God on how we can change our lives for the better and open up to His transformation in our lives. The Bible is applicable to situations we go through on a day to day basis (Hebrews 4:12), from dealing with stress to loving those around us.
It’s a huge temptation to only read the Bible with the purpose of gaining more knowledge. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, you’re missing the whole point of the Scriptures if you never once sit down and read it with the intent to let it guide you to change something in your life.
2. Failing to Research Context
The Bible is one continual story, from cover to cover, about God creating us and doing whatever He could to build a relationship with us. While many verses work fine when read in a vacuum (most notably Proverbs and Psalms), most Scripture is meant to be understood in context. You can learn a lot more about the verse you’re reading by examining the details surrounding it, including:
Author – who wrote the book, and why were they writing it? What else do we know about this person?
Date – when the book was written can tell you a lot about the verses in the book you’re reading. For example, knowing that the book of Ruth took place in 1300 BC tells us that they lived during the time of judges, when Israel was at one of its most darkest points in history. This makes the story of Ruth and Boaz that much more inspiring and powerful.
Recipient – who the book was intended for can give you more insight on how the Scriptures were meant to be processed. This is especially true of the letters in the New Testament, most of which were written to different churches who were in various spiritual states.
3. Sticking to the Same Translation
If the only version of the Bible you’ve ever read is the one sitting on your shelf that you’ve had since you were a kid, there’s a chance you’re reading a translation that may not be right for you.
A lot of people make the mistake of sticking to the same Bible translation, either refusing to change because of tradition or because they’re unaware of the other reading options available. Since each translation is slightly different, reading a different version can give you more insight into the Scriptures, and can make an otherwise confusing Scripture more accessible.
Order another version (such as the New Living Translation or The Message) and see if it helps you understand a new perspective on the Scriptures, or clear up any confusion you may have previously had.
4. Reading in a Distracting Environment
This one seems like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised by how many people I talk to who read their Bibles with the TV on, while playing iPhone games, or while friends or family are nearby asking for help. While those scenarios may work for homework or paying the bills, they make it close to impossible to really read the Scriptures and hear what God is trying to tell you.
As I mentioned in the first point, reading your Bible can (and should!) be a very personal affair. Eliminating distractions could mean the difference between reading a cool verse and finding the passage that changes how you view your life.
5. Thinking the Only Way to Read the Bible is By Looking at Words on a Page
In today’s modern age, there are countless ways to digest information. This is no less true for the Bible. Many people get stuck in a box and feel intimidated by the sheer volume of Scriptures, and end up never giving the Bible a shot. And while the fear is understandable, it’s completely avoidable.
If you’re feeling bored of reading, or perhaps have a disability or learning challenge, try listening to the Bible (via a full audio Bible, or a read along feature like the one found in the Tecarta Bible app) or watching the Bible (The Story is a great example of a visual presentation of the Bible).
Mike Query is a Youth Minister and Web Strategist at the Bay Area Christian Church. He spends most of his time reading blogs and playing music, or doing whatever will keep him in a creative mood. Reach him at Google+, Twitter or Facebook.