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To Read Or Not To Read?

To Read Or Not To Read?

Have you read your Bible today?

Most Christians I know say that the number one challenge in their spiritual life is the discipline of reading scripture on a daily basis. And I have to admit it: I’ve tried devotional books, I’ve tried reading the Bible from beginning to end in 15 minute segments and I’ve tried approaching the text armed with a whole pack of high-lighters. But I’ve never discovered a way that was consistently real and relevant to me. And when I recently checked out a major online Christian bookstore, I knew I wasn’t the only one involved in this struggle. A side bar in the devotionals section asked “Not Enough Time?” and offered a list of solutions, starting with Bible studies which take ONE minute a day!

I don’t want to put off those readers for whom the daily quiet time works but I would like to challenge our usual mindset about it to encourage those for whom it doesn’t work, those for whom the Bible has become a big, dusty guilt-trip. There’s no doubt that it’s important to read it but even the Bible itself doesn’t tell us how or when. Where did Paul say “Read your Bible every morning for 15 minutes” or “Memorize 10 verses every week”? Nowhere, however, Scripture does say things like “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16 NIV) and “I have hidden your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11 NIV).

For one thing, the discussion becomes a little tricky because even these verses couldn’t possibly have been talking about the leather-bound, gold embossed books we call The Bible. During the time Paul was writing, “Scripture” meant the Old Testament and the Psalmist certainly knew nothing of what we call the New Testament! So how do we follow Biblical teachings about God’s Word? Our problem is that we often mistake “Word” for “book.” God’s Word isn’t a book; it’s a message. Whether we say “I love oranges” or “Oranges are delicious” we’ve got across the same message. And whether we quote “Blessed are the merciful” or paraphrase it with “It’s good to show mercy,” we’ve conveyed God’s central truth. After all, neither are the precise words of Jesus or the original writers we’re reading, but translations, a fact which should remind us that it’s the basic idea, not necessarily the exact words that we’re talking about here. We usually have God’s Word in book form for convenience but does a blind man who has only heard it on tape not know God’s Word? Does an illiterate woman who has been told about God’s love and forgiveness not know His Word? Do people in persecution who own no printed Scripture not know His Word? Of course not.

While regular scripture reading is one of the best ways, it is not the only way to “hide God’s Word in our hearts.” When we discuss scriptural truths with fellow believers or ponder how these truths work in our daily lives or read Christian books or listen to thought-provoking messages or watch mature believers live their faith, we are in fact hiding His Word in our hearts. Of course, turning to the Bible is always the way to confirm whether or not our ideas are truth but it’s not the only way to bury truth in our hearts. Having only the “daily quiet time” approach can create an impression that this is our spiritual time before we get on with the rest of our lives—it splits our lives into “spiritual” and “secular.” If we only read the Bible for 20 minutes every morning or pray for 10 minutes every night, we can too easily fall into the trap of compartmentalizing our existence instead of letting God’s presence seep into our every movement and thought.

Of the people I’ve spoken to, it seems prayer is a much easier way to make God a part of their lives. Even people who don’t call themselves believers often pray. Somehow, it’s easier to talk to God than to read the Bible every day. (It makes me wonder if it’s because we like to talk a lot more than we like to listen!) But there are other things we can learn from the comparison of prayer and Bible reading.

While I don’t read my Bible everyday, my husband and I have made a commitment to pray together every night before we go to bed. Very rarely is it a time of spiritual invigoration. Too often the one praying takes a long pause, more from somnolence than solemnity. And too often, the one “listening” doesn’t even notice! But this prayer routine is a way of officially ending the day, acknowledging God’s part in it and handing to Him all concerns before we go to sleep (well, before we lie down and go to sleep, anyway).

And then there are the heartfelt prayers that flow naturally during my days—the fervent pleading when I feel powerless, the awe-struck praise when His goodness overwhelms me and even the angry questions that arises in the midst of calamity. These prayers have little in common with our bedtime recitations. And yet, both are prayer, and both are necessary.

In all relationships we have to deal with routine, maintenance issues. Most of my discussions with my husband are not thrilling debates on our beliefs or deep discussions of our feelings. The usual remark starts with “Can you turn that down?” or “Will you need the car this afternoon?” and I dare say we’re typical. The meaningful discussions come, unplanned, once every week or so. It’s dangerous to base any human relationship entirely on feelings and perfect moments and it’s no different with our relationship with God. Human feelings are more about hormones and sleep and workloads and lunar orbits—things too wobbly to act as the base for something meaningful.

There’s certainly something to be said for the discipline of reading the Bible every day even if it isn’t exciting (like a regular intake of fiber in a daily diet—dry but essential). Perhaps our spiritual “diets” are balanced when we have bran flakes every morning and only expect a steak dinner with a chocolate sundae every now and then. In our multi-media, multi-sensory, non-stop entertainment culture, it seems we’ve come to crave constant stimulation and amusement. Perhaps we want to eat steak and chocolate for every meal.

Since we have very little scriptural advice on when and how to read the Bible, I’m just going to tell you what I think: There are (at least) two kinds of Bible reading. There’s the dry, daily intake, which takes discipline. And then there’s the kind that takes your breath away. Like the time the words “Joy comes in the morning” came to me from nowhere with each contraction during the birthing of my daughter. I couldn’t rest until I’d tracked it down and read it in context. There was the time a friend had questions about speaking in tongues and I became a search engine, flipping pages to cross-reference passages and working out what I really believed about the whole thing. There was the time I read the book of Ecclesiastes in one sitting, soaking up every word as if my life depended upon it.

Whether we feel it or not, our life does depend on the vital truths of God’s Word. Our relationship with God is not about a tally of verses read or memorized in a day but about being daily infused with His Spirit. Truth can inhabit us and leak into our lives, if we recognize it and let it.

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