Deep and Wide
Mastering the Bible So the Bible Can Master You
© 2013 by Tim Underwood
Printed in the United States of America
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com[smm1]
1. What Is Depth and Why Does It Matter?
2. What Is Width and Why Does It Matter?
3. Preliminary Considerations
4. Retention: Retrieving the Bible from Memory
5. Comprehension: Deepening Our Understanding of the Bible
6. Deepening Scripture’s Impact on Our Emotions
7. Deepening Scripture’s Impact on Our Lives
8. Making A Commitment to Scripture
Scripture brought me
to the gate of Paradise,
and the mind, which is spiritual,
stood in amazement and wonder as it entered.
—St. Ephrem the Syrian
This book, called the Bible, sparkles iridescent with power. Unlike the ocean, the greater the depth, the brighter the light becomes. It strips off every façade, revealing the heart’s encrypted secrets. It flows into the aching sores of the soul, soothing them. It brings sight to eyes blinded by impenetrable darkness. Its pages contain the keys to life and heaven. “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
Yet for all its breath-taking capabilities, the Bible can sit small on a shelf, collecting the same dust as Robinson Crusoe or old issues of National Geographic. Its magic lies dulled and dormant until it is picked up, and only then does the Mighty One—the Spirit of truth—wield it.
This wielding, however, doesn’t happen automatically. Nor does it occur, I suspect, nearly as often as it could. The reason for this is that it is a joint venture, a sort of synchronized dance shared between the Spirit and the Redeemed. The Spirit longs to take us further into God’s heart, yet he will only do so with our cooperation.
That’s what this book is about—how to cooperate with God the Spirit in knowing and experiencing the truth of Scripture. Why did I write it? God has stirred my heart, and I feel that I must speak. To quote Jeremiah:
His word is in my heart like a fire,
a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
indeed, I cannot. (Jer. 20:9b)
After decades of my feeding on God’s Word, many of the seeds planted by the Spirit have shot up and are beginning to blossom and bear fruit in me. The bounty of the harvest is thrilling, beyond what I anticipated.
What especially amazes me is how God has changed my attitude toward his Word. Once it bored me. Oh, I respected it. And I knew many of its facts—more than most folks (because I’d been to seminary). But Bible reading had become more of a duty than a joy. I’d rather read the latest Christian author (or even a secular self-help book) for advice. In contrast, today the Bible has become a source of fascination for me. As I learn each new truth I want yet another.
How did this happen? I have no magic formula to present. It simply happened through the Spirit-aided power of God’s Word, which penetrated into the deeper regions of my soul and stayed there long enough to do its work. This sentence presents both the solution and the challenge. That is, the solution to the problem of how to develop a fascination with the Bible is the challenge of allowing its seed to penetrate into the deeper regions of our souls for a significant length of time in order to produce fruit.
Wheat or corn only grow under proper conditions. Toss a handful of wheat seeds onto the concrete patio when it’s ten degrees outside, and what do you get? Frozen wheat seeds. Do the same when it’s one hundred degrees out, and you end up with roasted wheat seeds. No amber waves of grain.
But put in properly cultivated soil, a handful of wheat will produce a multiplied return.
The same is true of Scripture. Its seeds of truth are good grain, packed with potential. If they’re well-planted and properly cultivated, they will raise a bountiful crop in the soul. (See the parable of the sower in Luke 8:4–15).
How does this happen? Again, this is the work of God’s Spirit through his Word. He can do it any number of ways. What I want to sketch for you in this book is not one particular method but an overarching goal (which is mastery of Scripture).
My dream for you, I must add, is ambitious. Most of us in this part of the world have the time and resources to gain a significant mastery of the Bible, to become, in a limited sense, “experts.” I’m serious. The expertise I describe doesn’t require special skills or educational degrees. You don’t have to read Greek and Hebrew. All that is needed is willingness matched with persistence. There’s no competition involved. Your own particular mastery will be matched uniquely to you, to your gifts and passions.
At this point you may be asking, “Why do all that work? I have a decent knowledge of the Bible. Why would I want to bump it up to a much higher level? My life is so busy already. Would that really be worth the work?”
The short answer is, “Yes!” There is an exponential difference between a fairly superficial encounter with Scripture and a deep one. The superficial experience yields mostly information—information that quickly fades from consciousness when we turn away from it and focus once again on the “real world.” The superficial experience, while interesting at first, eventually fades. Most of us don’t read the same book or watch the same movie more than once or twice. So the first time we encounter the biblical story of David killing Goliath, we say, “Wow! That’s awesome!” The second time, we say, “That’s inspiring!” The tenth time, if there is a tenth time, we’re tempted to hurry through it while our subconscious mutters, “Spoiler alert: David wins.”
In contrast, when the Bible is encountered on a deeper level, these encounters move us past information to transformation. The words become precious. They touch our hearts. They change our attitudes and our actions. We want more and more. The content of a passage isn’t exhausted by a basic understanding of it. That’s only the beginning. There are layers upon layers of understanding and experience still to be mined. Furthermore, Scripture, deeply understood and experienced, becomes seriously useful both in our own lives and in the lives of those we touch. We find that these verses keep popping up in our minds as guides and tools when we face various situations.
So how can we enter into the sort of experience with the Bible that I’ve just described? If the Bible is to have its full impact on us, it needs to be encountered in what I call a “three-dimensional mode.” One dimension involves a single point. That point has no depth and very limited width. For some folks, that’s the way they encounter the Bible. They hear a fact of Scripture once in a while, don’t really understand or experience it (depth), and don’t see how it’s connected with anything else in the Bible (width). All in all, it’s a very superficial experience, like the seed sown on the path in Jesus’s parable of the sower, which a bird picks up and eats before it can take root (Luke 8:4–15).
Some people experience the Bible in two dimensions. Two dimensions describe a line with any number of points on it. It has width but no depth. These folks know a few, or even many points of fact related to Scripture. Maybe they grew up going to church and Sunday school and so have a bit of Bible literacy. They can repeat some of the basic stories and recognize a few basic characters or themes in Scripture, but there’s no depth to speak of. Their understanding is merely a surface one. And the power of these texts has not penetrated into their hearts and lives. The result is that the Bible has scant impact on them. The Bible is just one set of facts among many that they hold in their minds. Nor are they especially motive to read the Bible. If these people have a devotional time, it’s something churned out more by force of habit or duty, without much desire.
But a three-dimensional relationship with Scripture extends both deeply and widely. “Deep” means that the knowledge penetrates. It’s not just a superficial surface interaction. The Bible grows down far enough to impact us on numerous levels. “Wide” refers to the breadth of our Bible knowledge. Instead of merely limiting ourselves to a few facts, we increasingly expand the number of biblical ideas we know.
A three-dimensional, deep and wide relationship allows the rich wisdom and power of Scripture to gain access to our hearts. Once this happens, our lives are never the same. This is a “living, active” word (Heb. 4:12). It’s able to change everything it touches for the good. Most importantly, God’s Word leads us to its Author—the one who loves us mightily. I invite you to join me as we explore how to encounter God’s Word in all its dimensions.
What Is Depth and Why Does It Matter?
There are times when solitude is better than society, and silence is wiser than speech. We should be better Christians if we were more alone, waiting upon God, and gathering through meditation on His Word spiritual strength for labour in his service. We ought to muse upon the things of God, because we thus get the real nutriment out of them. . . . Why is it that some Christians, although they hear many sermons, make but slow advances in the divine life? Because they neglect their closets, and do not thoughtfully meditate on God’s Word. They love the wheat, but they do not grind it; they would have the corn, but they will not go forth into the fields to gather it; the fruit hangs upon the tree, but they will not pluck it; the water flows at their feet, but they will not stoop to drink it. From such folly deliver us, O Lord.
―Charles H. Spurgeon
Both depth and width matter, but of the two, depth is the most important. That’s because depth is crucial to spiritual transformation. Bible knowledge, without depth, tends to have little impact. It’s just data flowing quickly in and out of our minds.
What is depth? Depth occurs when we move beyond a surface, superficial engagement with Scripture and begin to explore and interact with its deeper levels of meaning and power. Depth develops through multiple avenues: depth of comprehension, depth of emotional impact, and depth of application.
Depth of comprehension
Comprehension asks the question: Do I understand the basic concepts that the author intended to convey? The Bible was written to ordinary people, therefore much of its content is straightforward. When, for example, the Bible says in Mark 1:16, “As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee,” we can easily picture this. Walking is a common human activity, and most of us have strolled along a waterfront. But even a passage like this, though simple, offers us an opportunity to gain a slightly deeper understanding. It raises questions like: Where is the Sea of Galilee? What does it look like? How large is it? How deep is it?
Some comprehension questions will be less intuitive. Consider Leviticus 8:8: “He placed the breastpiece on him and put the Urim and Thummim in the breastpiece.” What are the “Urim and Thummin”? Or consider Luke 22:8: “Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.’” What’s the “Passover”? Or, take 1 Thessalonians 4:3: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified.” What does it mean to be “sanctified”? So you can see that even basic comprehension may require some extra research on our part.
Learning simple definitions, though, is only the beginning of deepening our comprehension. We’ll also want to ask questions like: Where else does this location, situation or idea come up in the Bible? How do these other references add to my understanding of this particular verse? How would people of that day understand this? Is this part of any wider patterns in Scripture? Often our comprehension can be deepened by using outside, extra-biblical sources (commentaries, histories, archeological results, and so on) that teach us more about the culture of the time.
The potential for depth of comprehension is vast. Even PhD-level scholars only know a lot about a little. I’m not suggesting that it’s necessary for all of us to imitate professional scholars in our level of comprehension. That’s not realistic. On the other hand, every bit of depth we can gain in understanding gives us additional benefits.
What’s the benefit of gaining depth in comprehension? At the most basic level, comprehension helps us to make sense of the text. If we can’t do that, then the Bible will be unable to communicate its truths to us, (truths that can help us in many areas of our life). Without these truths we lose huge potential benefits.
Or consider the converse. If our basic understanding of the Bible is flawed, then the Bible could actually communicate falsehood to us. Think of how many people have twisted the Bible. (In the first century, people distorted the words of the apostle Paul). His fellow apostle, Peter, explains: “Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:15–16).
The more deeply we understand the Bible, the more accurate our understanding is. An accurate understanding opens us up to these incredible truths, as well as protects us from distortions and errors. Rather than just believing what we’re told, we can more skillfully evaluate it.
Depth of emotional impact
A second avenue for developing depth is experiencing the truth of Scripture emotionally. Jonathan Edwards said, “The kind of faith acceptable to God does not consist in weak, dull, and lifeless wishes, raising us only a little above the state of indifference. God in His Word insists that if we are in earnest, we will be ‘fervent in spirit,’ and our hearts will be vigorously involved with our faith.” If the first avenue, comprehension, is mainly objective, this second avenue, experience, is mainly subjective. It’s also more difficult to describe, but let me try.
As humans, we are integrated beings—a mixture of thoughts and emotions. Our ways of thinking influence our emotions, and our emotions influence our ways of thinking. In order for the truths of Scripture to change our lives, they must engage us both at the rational (thinking) level and at the emotional level.
Listen to the psalmist speak of the effect of God’s words on his heart:
I rejoice in following your statutes
as one rejoices in great riches. (Ps. 119:14)
My soul is consumed with longing
for your laws at all times. (v. 20)
for I delight in your commands
because I love them. (v. 47)
My comfort in my suffering is this:
Your promise preserves my life. (v. 50)
God’s Word is meant to bring us more than mental enlightenment. It’s also intended to move us emotionally. It stirs us to joy, longing, delight, and comfort, to name a few possibilities. Why does it matter if Scripture impacts us emotionally?
Emotions spark interest
Emotions help to make us interested in the Bible’s contents. If it does not move us emotionally, then the ideas seem boring. If the text, stories, and ideas stir us, either negatively or positively, then they’re more likely to capture our attention.
Emotions produce motivation
Emotions are also closely connected with motivation. Our emotions give us the “want to” component. Can you hear Paul’s ardor when he says, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death” (Phil. 1:20)? Or David’s strong emotion:
O God, you are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you,
my body longs for you,
in a dry and weary land
where there is no water. (Ps. 63:1)
Emotions can bring healing
Our emotions also need to be touched by Scripture so that they can be healed. Chuck Swindoll once said: “Life bites.” It’s true. All of us get our share of bumps and bruises, nicks and cuts as time goes by. Some of these are just annoying mishaps, but others are savage ruptures in the lining of our souls. When Scripture affects us in a deeply emotionally way, it’s like a salve soothing and healing our brokenness and pain. It brings peace in our worry, hope in our despair, comfort in our pain. Psalm 119: 28 says:
My soul is weary with sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word.
Emotions reveal who we are inside
When the Bible touches us emotionally it also reveals what is inside of us, both good and bad. I learn a great deal about my deepest motivations from the emotions (or lack of them) that rise to the surface when I read the Bible.
Emotions impact our ministry
Growing deeper emotionally also positively impacts our ministry. Try leading someone to Christ or motivating them to grow without expressing any passion, excitement, or joy. A lot of what folks pick up on is not our words but the state of our hearts as revealed by our emotions.
Subjectivity is more than just emotions, though. It also refers to experiences of the senses. It’s possible (especially in the case of biblical stories, locations, or objects) to gain depth in our ability to experience any of these more vividly in our minds and imaginations. Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ (2004), certainly allowed people to picture more intensely the suffering that Jesus went through just before he died. Or consider those who make a trip to the Holy Land and say afterwards that their ability to picture Bible locations has been greatly enhanced. Good teaching or scholarship does the same through pictures or explanations. This increase in subjective understanding makes our comprehension of the Bible both more accurate and more vivid.
Depth of application
A third avenue for developing depth involves application. Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly.” Once we have some depth in comprehending Scripture’s truths and in experiencing these truths emotionally, then it makes sense to apply them to our lives. “Application” means that we take the truths of Scripture and actually use them to guide us in our thoughts and actions. Application is the ultimate purpose of Scripture. The Bible wasn’t given simply to inform us or to entertain us. Jesus taught this emphatically when he asserted: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28). James adds: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (James 1:22).
The application of Scripture touches us in two basic areas: our thinking and our actions.
Applying Scripture to our thinking
First, application can shape our perspective. Our perspective, or point of view, has a huge impact on how we live. It affects our attitudes, our values, our actions, and our unconscious thoughts. In order to grow spiritually, all of us must develop a godly point of view. The lens of our perspective is blurred by ignorance, immaturity, and sin. Paul describes it this way: “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. . . . You, however, did not come to know Christ that way. Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus” (Eph. 4:17, 20–21). In 1 Corinthians he adds: “Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults” (14:20).
Our goal is to take the word of God and apply it to our thinking. For example, if we’re anxious about money, it’s helpful to remember the words of Jesus: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear” (Matt. 6:25). Or if we’re embittered by the meanness of another person, Scripture reminds us: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:31–32).
We apply the Scripture to our perspective by carefully comparing our thoughts with the benchmarks of God’s Word. It’s a long and painstaking process. Paul describes it this way: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2).
It’s essential that we deepen our ability to compare our thinking with the teachings of the Bible. The mind is where our victories are ultimately either won or lost. As Scripture penetrates our minds and transforms our perspective, a glorious thing happens—even our unconscious thinking begins to be transformed. This allows us, more and more, to have a godly attitude or response without even consciously needing to choose it. Godliness has become a part of our basic being.
Applying Scripture to our actions
The second area of application is applying Scripture to our actions. Remember James 1:22? “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (emphasis added).
A biblically-transformed perspective is meant to lead to biblically-transformed actions. We’re trying to move our Christianity out of its “religious” compartment and let it influence all of the other compartments of life; we want it to travel from Sunday into Monday. We discover, with amazement, that God’s truth is meant to affect everything from the moral to the mundane.
As we are transformed, we stop lying and begin to tell the truth (Eph. 4:25). We turn away from sexual immorality and live a pure lifestyle (Eph. 5:3). We start serving others more (Phil. 2:3–4). We forgive (Luke 6:37). We develop a well-balanced prayer life (Eph. 6:18). We seek God’s will above our own (Matt. 6:33).
What’s the benefit of deepening our application? As our ability to apply Scripture deepens, more and more of our thoughts and our actions come under the control of God’s Spirit. We bear more fruit for him. We bring him more honor. We enjoy him more. We’re a better testimony to his grace.
A positive cycle develops: the more we apply Scripture the more we want to apply Scripture. When I obey Christ’s command to forgive, for example, I discover the benefits of forgiving. Forgiveness heals the caustic wounds of bitterness inside of me. It often heals a broken relationship as well. It’s a good testimony and example to others. And when I forgive, it keeps my relationship with God healthy. All of God’s wise truths are like this—“in keeping them there is great reward” (Ps. 19:11b).
God wants to take us deeper in our experience of his Word—deeper in comprehension, in emotional impact, and in application. This depth allows the Bible to do its rich work. Developing depth in the Word is a natural part of growing. If we’re not going deeper, then we’re probably stalled out spiritually. Developing depth is a gift of God but it also requires significant effort on our part. We’ll explore that more in a later chapter.
What Is Width and Why Does It Matter?
The Holy Scriptures are our letters from home.
—Saint Augustine of Hippo
It shall greatly help ye to understand the Scriptures if thou mark not only what is spoken or written, but of whom and to whom, with what words, at what time, where, to what intent, with what circumstances, considering what goeth before and what followeth after.
―Miles Coverdale, Bible translator (1488–1569)
If depth is about the quality of our interaction with Scripture, width is more about the quantity. Depth tries to get more out of a text, while width tries to get to more texts. Depth wonders about John 3:16, while width is also concerned about John 3:15 and 3:17. This is an oversimplification, as you’ll see, since these two approaches overlap and need each other.
Width (or breadth) involves knowing as much as possible about the Bible as a whole. This includes everything from the major stories, themes, facts, and people, to the less well-known examples of all of these.
Some Christians seem to think that breadth is optional, that it’s overkill, for example, to spend much time on the Old Testament, especially on the more obscure stories and characters. They’d rather focus on Jesus and Paul since their teaching seems more relevant to our current needs.
There’s some truth in this perspective. If I only had a few hours to teach people the Bible, I’d definitely focus on Christ and his work on the cross. My hearers need that information in order to be saved, and they need salvation right now.
Still, one of my motivations for writing this book is that I believe that mastering the whole Bible gives a believer a significant advantage over merely possessing a patchy, limited understanding of the Bible. Let me explain why width is important.
Width is important because God gave us every biblical detail
We have a game in our home called “Bible Trivia.” I think it’s a great game, but I have some problems with its name. Listen to how one dictionary defines “trivia”: “matters or things that are very unimportant, inconsequential, or nonessential; trifles; trivialities” (Dictionary. Com).
It’s true that some details in the Bible are more momentous than others, but are any of the details “trivial”? Second Timothy 3:16 teaches us that “all Scripture is God-breathed.”
My point is built on the “high” view of Scripture. This view says that the whole Bible is inspired by God, which implies that the original writings are not only authoritative, they’re also inerrant (without error). This means that, for us, every detail matters. None of them are mistaken. None are man-made. None are irrelevant. It’s true that some details are more important, but none are unimportant. They all have a role to play. So if God went to all the trouble of delivering these facts, why would I pay attention to some and ignore others?
Width is important because it increases our sense of context
In real estate the three most important factors are “location, location,
location.” In Bible interpretation, they are “context, context, context.” When I say “context,” I mean that the words and ideas which surround a particular Bible verse help us to get a proper sense of its meaning. Proverbs 17:8, for example, tells us:
A bribe is a charm to the one who gives it;
wherever he turns, he succeeds.
What?! Is the Bible telling us to grease the palms of the officer who wants to give us a ticket? The context is crucial here. A few verses later, the writer gives us another perspective:
A wicked man accepts a bribe in secret
to pervert the course of justice. (v. 23)
Verse 8 isn’t recommending bribery. It’s just making the dispassionate observation that bribery often works.
If a verse is taken out of context, then it’s easy to make it say something that the writer never intended it to say. So we look for clues in the verses surrounding it, then in the book, and finally in the Bible as a whole. I’m presupposing here, as I did earlier, that God inspired the Bible and that, therefore, it will agree with itself (though there are certainly difficult passages).
It follows, then, that the wider my knowledge of Scripture, the more skillful I’ll be (at least potentially) at using context to accurately interpret. So much of the New Testament is based on the Old Testament. When Christ calls himself “Son of Man,” for example, it’s crucial to understand that this title already had a history for his listeners. He’s not just saying, “I’m human.” We get a clue of Jesus’s meaning when we listen to this passage out of Daniel: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13–14). Jesus is almost certainly claiming divinity here by his use of the phrase “Son of Man.” Without width we’d never know that.
Width is important because depth depends on it
Maybe you picked up on this in the last chapter: you can’t go deep without going wide. For example, Luke 22:20 tells us: “In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’”
What does Jesus mean by “covenant”? We can look up the definition of “covenant.” We can see the role it plays in the verse. Ultimately, though, to gain a solid knowledge, we’ll have to trace the use of “covenant” throughout the Bible, where it’s used 271 times. This was an old concept going back at least to Noah: “But I will establish my covenant with you, and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your sons’ wives with you” (Gen. 6:18).
God’s covenant with Abraham was also critically important (Gen. 17), as was his later covenant with Israel (Deut. 29). And then Jesus came as the mediator of a new covenant (Heb. 12:24).
When it comes to gaining a deeper comprehension of the Bible, width is crucial. Width adds additional information and context, keeping us within the boundaries of legitimate interpretation on a particular issue.
Width is important because it unearths a feast of truths
I love a grilled cheese sandwich with a dash of cinnamon sugar sprinkled on it. My mouth gets happy with any form of chocolate. But what if I only ate grilled cheese and chocolate? Or even grilled cheese, chocolate, and porterhouse steak? It would be boring. Most of us crave variety when it comes to eating. It’s no different when it comes to Scripture. Romans 3 is steak. Ephesians 2 is scrambled eggs. Isaiah 40 serves us lasagna. And the comforting message of Psalm 4 is cherry pie.
The Bible is packed with tasty morsels of truth. Nehemiah teaches us about leadership, Esther about courage. Third John shows that even the “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John) wasn’t immune to attacks by bull-headed church leaders (Diotrephes—“who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us” [3 John 1:9]). Sometimes even single verses will yield surprising truths. Why are we to share the gospel? So that people will be saved, right? There’s another reason. Listen to Philemon 1:6: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.” Doing evangelism helps us gain a “full understanding of every good thing have in Christ.” Who knew? The Bible is packed with delicious nuggets like this. Often they complement truths we already know by displaying them from a new angle. Like Lego blocks, they attach to one another to help form a richer, more nuanced picture.
Width is important because it reveals patterns and points of connection
The Bible isn’t just like a collection of separate songs on a music album. It’s more like an orchestra filled with multiple instruments playing various parts in the same symphony. Certain themes appear and then reappear. Some are just interesting. For example, Joseph was sold into slavery in Dothan. Many years later, the prophet Elisha was in Dothan when God revealed a shocking reality to Elisha’s servant: “And Elisha prayed, ‘O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17).
David shepherded sheep near Bethlehem, and a thousand years later other shepherds in Bethlehem saw the angels announcing the birth of David’s heir, Jesus, the Messiah.
Or check out the men of Ephraim. They seem to have been a divisive, hot-headed bunch, who started fights whenever they perceived their honor to be slighted (Judges 8:1; 12:1; 2 Sam. 20:21).
Other coincidences are more instructive. For example, Joseph, Nehemiah, and Daniel all served well in pagan governments and still managed to maintain a strong walk with God. How did they do it?
Or if we want to study faith, it’s helpful to see how various individuals with strong faith exercised it in their particular circumstances (read the list in Heb. 11 for a start).
Or, on the negative side, we can spot a pattern when people take a proud attitude toward God and others (2 Chron. 32:25; Acts 12:22–23; 1 Cor. 4:18).
As a personal example, when I memorized 1 Thessalonians, I was amazed at the pattern of pastoral concern that flared up constantly throughout the book.
There are unlimited patterns and points of connection in the Bible. Reading widely allows us to perceive some of them. Perceiving patterns helps to make the Bible more interesting. It also helps to make the Bible more instructive. For example, seeing how different people demonstrated their faith in God is very useful for us today. And spotting patterns also helps us more easily remember the contents of Scripture. It’s a mnemonic device. It’s easier to remember a series with a logical connection than all the individual facts by themselves. Patterns are also great for teaching.
If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.
―Saint Augustine of Hippo
Before we move on to how we gain depth and width in our study of the Bible, I’d first like to set the stage with a few practical observations.
This isn’t a contest
I’ve already stated this, but I’ll say it again: Bible mastery isn’t a competition. In fact, if we allow a competitive mindset to creep in, then we’re undermining the whole project. If our secret (or not so secret) agenda is to look better than others, we’re not approaching God’s Word with the right attitude. This is about him, not us. Our goal is to know him, to follow him, and to glorify him.
Does pride creep into these sorts of achievements? Of course it does. That’s true of any human endeavor. And it does feel good when we shine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if God shows you that pride is creeping in, just ask him for help and keep on learning.
The flip-side of this, of course, is not a sense of superiority but a sense of inferiority. You may feel intimidated by how much more other believers know or about how they seem to grasp complex Bible issues more quickly. Again, you don’t have to match up with others. God has given you all the brainpower you need to learn all the facts he wants you to learn. If someone else is quicker, then God expects more from them than from you. We’re all in the same boat, by the way; I had professors at seminary who were far more brilliant than I. One of them, Gleason Archer, could translate in more than twenty languages.
Choose your own unique learning goals
There are 1,189 chapters in the Bible, with 31,103 verses and more than 750,000 words. Furthermore, any single word or verse has multiple layers of meaning. So there’s more than a lifetime’s worth of truth to learn. Even top-notch Bible scholars end up specializing in narrower sections of Scripture.
First, you’ll want to get a handle on the basic biblical stories, themes, and characters. They’re essential to mastering the central biblical story line. Adam and Eve, for example, set the stage for all that is to follow in human history. We could easily add to them Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, Paul, and so on.
Beyond these big-picture people and scenarios, the garden of Scripture is full of ripe spiritual fruit in every direction. Maybe you especially enjoy narratives. Or prophecy. Or the psalms. Or the life of Jesus. Find out what benefits you the most and what matches your own individual interests, passions, and gifts, and then go crazy. The Holy Spirit may guide you to certain passages. It’s good to eventually read the less-preferred parts of Scripture to gain balance, but if you start with what interests you, you’ll likely be drawn into a wider range in time anyway. Everything, after all, is connected to everything else in Scripture at some level. It’s also beneficial that we each have different interests since we can turn around and share our own particular insights with other believers. I have a friend, for example, who loves the Jewish cultural aspects of Scripture and has enriched my understanding with his hard-won insights.
Choose your own favorite approaches
Later in this book, we’ll discuss a variety of techniques. I prefer memorization; for some reason it allows the Bible to penetrate further into my heart. Others enjoy journaling or small group Bible study or in-depth scholarship or color-coding their Bible. One of my friends loves to so Scripture “fly-overs”, reading large chunks at a time. Others feel the need to slow down and really chew on small details. Part of our development is learning what works best for us and then using it to maximum effect.
The ultimate goal is a life-transforming, love relationship with God
Please burn this statement into your heart: The ultimate goal of Bible mastery is a life-transforming, love relationship with God. In fact, the purpose of every spiritual discipline is to enhance our relationship with God. The psalmist says:
Blessed are they who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart. (Ps. 119:2)
Are you growing stronger in your desire for God? More obedient to his commands? Deeper in your love for his people? More solidly committed to his purposes? If not, something needs to be altered. Even the Bible is not an end in itself. The Bible is a tool. It’s meant to be a bridge that connects us to God himself and not just to his ideas.
This goal will guide the way we evaluate the effectiveness of our interaction with Scripture. It’s easy, for example, to treat the Bible like a big crossword puzzle. In that case, our main satisfaction will be the challenge of solving the riddles. It is fun to solve the riddles, but the more crucial purpose, for the child of God, is to master the details in order to know the Master.
Rely on the Spirit to bring his Word to life inside you
What I’m about to say is true of all the spiritual disciplines: Bible reading has no power in itself to change us. It’s the Holy Spirit working through the discipline of Bible reading who uses this (and other disciplines) to make us new people (my thanks to Dallas Willard for that insight). In the case of Bible learning, we can master an enormous number of facts and truths, but the only way that they will transform us is if the Holy Spirit is allowed freedom to be part of the process. He not only illuminates our minds, helping us to perceive the Bible accurately and discover deeper implications, he also uses that truth to impact our souls. Without the Spirit’s help, what the Bible teaches is out of our reach. Paul puts it this way: “We have not received the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us” (1 Cor. 2:12).
Make it a practice to consciously open your heart and mind to the Holy Spirit as you approach the Bible. Ask him to speak to you and to help you humbly receive whatever he says. When it comes to internal changes, the Holy Spirit will act in his way and his time; so just relax and let him do the work.
Don’t neglect other spiritual disciplines
Remember that in order for Bible learning to be effective, we also need to combine it with other spiritual disciplines. Like a well-planned weight-lifting workout, a variety of spiritual disciplines (or exercises) are needed to work different sets of muscles. It’s wise to develop the whole body and not just aim for “killer abs” or “big gun” biceps. It turns out that each muscle is a necessary complement to the others.
The same is true of spiritual disciplines. In order to get the most out of Scripture, for example, we also need a solid prayer life. Our experience with Scripture is also enhanced by our worship, fellowship, service, confession, and so on. These other disciplines open up our heart to the Lord. They keep us soft and sensitive. They also reveal our strengths and weaknesses.
While God can make sudden, dramatic changes in us, it has been my experience that substantial spiritual growth usually takes time—significant time. And because it takes time it also requires perseverance. Years (and even decades) of consistent immersion in Scripture yield a rich harvest. So if you begin to seriously interact with the Bible and it doesn’t quickly yield obvious results, that doesn’t mean you (or the Bible) have failed. Spiritual growth is a mysterious, subterranean process which only God really understands or controls. Often we’re growing more than we know. Periods of apparent aridity can abruptly give way to spring seasons of luxuriant growth. It’s God’s job to regulate growth, not ours. Yet this isn’t to imply that we’re simply passive lumps of clay waiting for the Potter to mold us. We can speed the process by cooperating with the Spirit. An open heart, combined with a frequently opened Bible, makes all the difference. And removing every barrier to spiritual growth is also critical—which leads to the next observation.
Deal with sin
Someone once coined the phrase: “The Bible will keep you from sin or sin will keep you from the Bible.” It’s true. I’m not suggesting that we must first deal with all sin before we can benefit from the Bible. Obviously one of the Bible’s purposes is to help us detect sin. But sin is one of the barricades that blocks or slows the flow of Scripture into our hearts. This is especially true when it involves deliberate, unrepented sin. Unrepented sin comes from a hardened heart (at least hardened in that particular area), and a hardened heart has a more difficult time hearing God’s voice.
There’s a lovely Hasidic story of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put Scripture on their hearts. One of them asked, “Why on our hearts, and not in them?” The rabbi answered, “Only God can put Scripture inside. But reading sacred text can put it on your heart, and then when your hearts break, the holy words will fall inside.”
—Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
A crucial element in this whole discussion of mastering the Bible is retention. “Retention” describes the ability to retrieve the Bible from memory. Someone mentions “Samuel,” and you know who he is and what he did. You’re thinking about God’s grace, and Ephesians 2:8–9 pops up. When the name “Cephas” is mentioned, you realize it’s another name for Peter.
You may ask: Why is retention important when I can just go to the Bible and look things up? You can and you should look things up. In fact, even seasoned Bible scholars rely on concordances. But retention confers a number of unique advantages.
Retention helps develop good Bible interpretation instincts
Retention means that we’re not always starting from scratch. Our earlier memories stand alongside the passage we’re currently interpreting to inform and guide. As our retention level climbs (along with corresponding comprehension, of course) our level of biblical instinct also grows. We get a feel for what’s right. We learn to sense the big picture as we retain the little details. Consider, for example, that King Josiah removed all the high places in Judah—locations where pagan sacrifices were offered in violation of the Hebrew law. This act of obedience to God becomes even more significant if we remember that Josiah was the only one, even among the godly kings, to remove these high places. No one else had been willing to deal with the high places, perhaps because of all the hassle this would involve. Even Jehoshaphat, who was a godly king, didn’t deal with them: “In everything he [Jehoshaphat] walked in the ways of his father Asa and did not stray from them; he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord. The high places, however, were not removed, and the people continued to offer sacrifices and burn incense there” (1 Kings 22:43, emphasis added).
Knowing these details helps me to see the difference between solid obedience and total obedience. Josiah inspires us toward the latter. The better our retention, the more likely we are to see important nuances and patterns.
Retention makes Bible knowledge more accessible
When do we need knowledge of Scripture? Just during “religious” moments, like on Sunday morning or at Bible study? Of course not. We need this fabulous book flowing through our veins every possible second. We need it to strengthen, guide, and empower us at home, at work, at school, at a sporting event, everywhere. That’s the whole point of living for Christ—if it’s real, it’s a full-time deal.
This is why retention is so important. If I can remember what I’ve read, then it’s easier to apply it to life as it happens. If I can’t remember what I’ve read, then I’m far less likely to use the Bible as a practical resource. It remains in a sort of alternate universe that doesn’t intersect much with the universe I live in most of the time.
Do you recall Matthew 13:12, where Jesus says: “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him”? Here’s a similar irony: Whoever retains Scripture will be able to retain even more. Retention yields greater retention. What do I mean? I mean that one truth connects us to another. For example, if you remember the story of Esau selling his birthright (Gen. 25), then it’s easier to remember Hebrews 12:16–17, where Esau’s folly is mentioned as an illustration of how not to be controlled by the lust of the moment. Retention makes it easier to place a particular fact in the context of the larger body of facts. That, in turn, makes the new fact more memorable.
Retention deepens the impact of Scripture
The longer I can remember a Bible truth, the more time it has to get below the surface and trickle down to where the movers and shakers of my soul live (my emotions, memories, motivations, perspectives, and values). Length of exposure is critical when it comes to scriptural impact. The more sustained contact an open heart has with a particular truth, the greater the chance it has to be transformed. Brevity, on the other hand, will diminish the impact. Retention is the clamp that holds the truth down long enough so that it can soak in.
Levels of retention
There are different levels of retention. The more details remembered, the more useful the memory will be:
Level 1. No retention: “Micaiah? Never heard of him.”
Level 2. Fuzzy retention: “Seems like the Bible mentions him somewhere.”
Level 3. Less fuzzy retention: “He was a prophet, right?”
Level 4. In the ballpark: “He was the prophet who stood alone for the Lord against King Ahab when he was with the king of Judah- King Jehoshaphat.”
Level 5. Lots of detail: I can accurately reproduce most of the story.
When I’m functioning at level four or five, I have increased confidence in what I remember, as well as additional details to work with. With these additional details I can make more associations and correlations. As I share the verse or story with others, I can do so with greater skill because I’m painting with a fuller palette. And extra details give the Spirit multiplied angles he can use to impact me with the truth of the passage.
Levels of accessibility
I’ll use a house to illustrate this. In our house, we store various objects in different places, depending on how immediately useful they are to us. The things we use only once in a while go to the far-flung corners of the house—the attic or the basement or the back of the garage. These items we don’t think much about. In the right situation, our memory may recall their presence (though it might not—have you ever said, “We still have that?”).
The objects we use every week tend to go in the living room or bedroom. The ones we’re using today often get set on the kitchen table. I put my keys, my wallet, and my phone on the kitchen table at night because I know I’ll walk by them in the morning, and I can’t afford to forget them.
When a verse is properly understood, it’s on the kitchen table for a short time, but if it’s not used, it eventually gets placed farther and farther out of sight until it’s in the basement (where eventually it will be all but forgotten). Do you know what I’m talking about? You read through 2 Kings, are informed and entertained by it, consider it a bit, and then don’t look at it again for years. Just reading a passage intelligently does help to cultivate our biblical instinct, but for many of us, our actual retention of the facts fades so rapidly that they are quickly forgotten. So the impact is brief.
What if, though, you could keep more of the teaching in the living room for a while? You could continue meditating on it for more than a day or two after you read it. You could share the verse multiple times with others.
Or what if, even better, you could keep key truths out in the kitchen where you could take them with you when you left the house and run them through your mind as you went through the day? This is a sense of what we get in Psalm 1 where the psalmist says of a certain man:
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night. (v. 2)
What might solid retention look like? Obviously, some will do better in this than others. I recall hearing that Martin Luther had the New Testament memorized in Greek! Once again, the goal needs to be tailored to our own individual capacities and opportunities (some do have more time to study than others).
Here’s an overall sense, though, of what solid retention might look like.
I put the whole Bible in my basement
I at least read the whole book through often enough to implant fuzzy memories of all its ideas and facts. This, at minimum, allows for the chance of retention and retrieval. The Spirit may bring it to mind unexpectedly if I’ve read it. If I don’t even read it, then he doesn’t usually recall it for me.
And if I read intelligently, I can use what I’m reading as a tool to understand the rest of the Bible, even if a sharp memory of it doesn’t last very long. To me this is a minimal level of interaction with the Bible as a whole. To do less is to simply avoid parts of the Bible.
I put as much as I can into my living-room.
What do I mean? I mean I put as much Bible truth as possible into the easy-retrieval part of my mind. I may not be consciously thinking of it at a given moment, but I’m familiar enough with it to quickly recall it to memory when needed. If someone mentions the period of the Judges, I instantly know what they’re talking about. If they mention God’s grace, my mind quickly finds scriptural examples of it or even exact verses. This is a storage area that can be steadily increased over the years. It’s an expandable room! The goal is to get as much material into the living room as possible and to increase the sharpness of these memories.
I keep the kitchen table well-stocked
The kitchen table is small. Have you ever put too much on your kitchen table? Stuff starts to fall off, doesn’t it? The same is true of our conscious memory. We can’t even begin to keep all of the Bible truths in our conscious awareness at all times. We do, after all, have other duties that demand our attention. Yet what if we could keep a conscious flow of Scripture weaving in and out of our minds all day long? How good would that be? Very good.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night. (Ps. 1:2)
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom. (Col. 3:16)
The kitchen table is the highest scriptural seat of power. The more our mind stays in prolonged contact with Scripture, the more our mind is transformed (Rom. 12:2).
How can I increase my level of retention?
There are a number of ways for us to increase our ability to retrieve the Bible from memory. I’ll discuss six of them.
My retention increases when I care about knowing God
It goes without saying that when we care about a subject we pay more attention to it. Caring increases our motivation and our focus. Think about that person you had a crush on in school. It wasn’t hard to take in and remember all sorts of detail, was it? You practically memorized them—their hair, their smile, the three words they actually spoke to you! The same thing happens when God becomes extra important to us. When we care about growing close to him, then his words in the Bible take on an increased significance. This is our best friend speaking!
My retention increases when I take enough time to significantly interact with the biblical material
We miss a lot when we whip through the Bible. Our mastery of Scripture is directly related to the time and effort we devote to it. A “just-get-it-done-quickly-so-I-can-move-on-to-something-else” mentality works against us. Unfortunately, we live in a culture that seems to be in a constant hurry.
The Bible takes time to significantly understand and to experience. How much time? There’s no standard quantity. The real measuring stick isn’t time, per se, but the quality of our interaction. Do we have time to read and reread? To look out the window and think? To research words and concepts that we’d like to understand better? To say a prayer or two as we walk through the passage? To relax and be unproductive for a bit? I say unproductive in a paradoxical way. Sometimes the pressure to “get something out of this” gives us tunnel vision. Many valuable insights and experiences sneak up on us if we can relax and wait for them to arrive via Serendipidity Lane.
My retention increases as my depth increases
Each of the three areas of depth—comprehension, emotions, and application to our lives—also aids retention. As I grow in depth, I simply make more connections with each Bible verse, fact, theme, character, and so on. The more I know about Abraham, for example, the easier it is to recall him. Or when I apply Ephesians 4:26 (“in your anger do not sin”) at a moment when I’m feeling angry, the verse becomes more memorable.
My retention increases when I find and learn biblical patterns
The Bible is filled with patterns like a honeycomb. Really, the only limit is our imagination. Explore the covenants God makes with people. Research well-known women in Scripture. Find the prophecies concerning a messiah. Do a word study on the word “faith” or “believed.” Not only do these efforts give us nuance and depth, they create a string of memory associations that make it much easier to retrieve Bible facts.
My retention increases when I memorize
Memorization is the most precise of all the retention tools. It allows us to reproduce the exact words of our particular translation. It also takes quite a bit more time and effort. For most of us, therefore, memorization must be selective rather than exhaustive. We’ll want to choose verses that summarize main themes in Scripture. It’s helpful, for example, to learn verses containing God’s key promises to us. Or verses related to evangelism. Or verses that teach us about God’s greatness. Or verses that show us how to live.
Memorization has been an especially helpful tool for me, so let me put a plug in here. I believe that most of us are far more capable in this area than we realize. It’s common to hear people say: “I’m no good at memorization.” Now that may be true, but I suspect that often it’s not. The main reason that we struggle to memorize usually has to do with other factors. One is a lack of motivation. Memorization isn’t especially valued in our culture. We are a literate culture with tons of information at our fingertips, so memorization seems unnecessary, especially given the amount of effort involved. Another factor is that we haven’t found the most effective methods for memorization. Most of us simply repeat a verse over and over in order to remember it. That’s not a particularly effective approach. There are other, more productive ways to memorize. I, for example, significantly improved my retention by setting Scripture to music. A third factor is that we have unrealistic expectations about the level of effort involved. It is work to memorize. Memorization needn’t take a lot of time in any given day, but to really burn a verse into our long-term memory takes time and effort. I will tell you from experience, however, that memorization has transformed my life and my ministry. Out of all the spiritual disciplines I practice, this one has had the greatest impact.
My retention increases when I make a deliberate effort to improve it
Half-heartedness yields lackluster rewards. Wholeheartedness will pile God’s plunder at our feet. I read recently that our minds are not like video cameras or tape recorders recording every little detail. They operate with a sort of short-hand system—highlighting certain details while letting a lot of others go. Mere exposure to God’s Word doesn’t guarantee retention. For significant recall, a deliberate effort is required. I’ve seen this in myself. I remember no more of the ordinary details of life than anyone else. But by dint of effort, my catalog of Scripture memory verses has mushroomed over the decades, expanding to include whole books. The effort does not have to be herculean; just choose an effective method and consistently work the method. Over many years the yield will astound you. Remember a gorgeous cathedral is built one block at a time.
Comprehension: Deepening Our Understanding of Scripture
You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.
You know, we can quote the written Word all day to our friends, but nothing will touch them like our own hunger and love for the Word himself. It is not dutiful love that attracts but love freely lavished from a heart familiar with the gardens of heaven.
―Amy Layne Litzelman, This Beloved Road: A Journey of Revelation and Worship
The last chapter was about retention—retrieving the Bible from memory. This chapter is about comprehension—understanding the words we read. Comprehension is the main gate through which we enter into “the gardens of heaven.” Of course it’s possible to enjoy Scripture without truly understanding it. The Holy Bible is, almost everyone agrees, a profound work of literature. There are riveting stories, beautiful poems, and penetrating insights scattered throughout its pages. But in order for Scripture to do the work in us which God desires, it’s essential that we first understand what God intended to say.
This statement reveals my philosophy of interpretation. I believe that there is such a thing as a right interpretation and a wrong one. The right interpretation is the one that the author (in this case, God) intended. If this is true, then legitimate options for interpreting a particular text are limited to what can be justified as a possible intention of the author. This eliminates many fanciful and “creative” interpretations. Furthermore, I believe that despite our subjective filters we can come to a shared basic understanding on many (if not all) texts. Having said this, I’m aware that committed Christians still disagree on certain biblical interpretations. That doesn’t mean, however, that solid, careful interpretation can’t be achieved or that is doesn’t make a difference. Despite our limitations, there’s still a world of difference between a slapdash opinion and thoughtful scholarship. This is why Paul said to Timothy: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15).
How can we deepen our comprehension of a particular verse? Let’s first consider what a deepening of comprehension might look like.
Levels of biblical comprehension
Before we start, let me note that while these stages represent a progression or growth in our understanding, even knowledgeable believers will find themselves in multiple stages at once. We may, for example, know a great deal about Paul’s teachings while still being neophytes when it comes to our grasp of the minor prophets.
I have no knowledge of the text whatever
We can’t comprehend what we don’t encounter. If I don’t read Luke 12:1 or hear it spoken about, then my understanding of it becomes a moot point. This is a shame since I also miss out on its helpful truth (although God may show this truth to me indirectly through another person or a particular situation).
I encounter the text but don’t pay much attention to it
Have you ever read a Bible passage and looked up only to realize that you had no idea what you just read? Or maybe you had an idea at the moment but forgot it within a few minutes. The passage you read will have little impact.
I encounter the text, pay attention to it, but don’t understand it
Let’s say you read the phrase, in Ephesians 2:8: “For it is by grace you have been saved.” If you’re new to the Bible, you may wonder what “grace” is and, for that matter, what it means to be “saved.” Both these terms are, in a sense, insider lingo. We need the broader context of Scripture to help us understand these terms.
I have a basic understanding of the text
This is a solid, no frills comprehension. You don’t yet understand how the text relates to the larger biblical context or what are its many possible nuances and implications. Still, this is a crucial step forward. Once we have a basic grasp of the text, the possibilities for growth begin to blossom.
I have a deepening understanding of the text
This level is a vast one. It encompasses everyone from the young believer who’s doing their first real Bible study to a professional, elite-level Bible scholar. That’s an oversimplification, too, since an elite Bible scholar may be extremely knowledgeable about the grammar and syntax of a passage but not have anywhere near the understanding of its practical implications that a layperson does who’s attempted to live out its truths.
The issue isn’t where you are on the chain of knowledge—it’s where you’re going. Do you know more today than you did yesterday? How will you know even more tomorrow?
I have a change of perspective (impact level!)
We achieve this last level when our understanding of a particular Bible truth affects the way we see life. For example, Psalm 34:8 says:
Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.
We can accept the idea that “the Lord is good” as something that’s true on a detached intellectual level, yet still look at life through the lens of “The Lord is not that good.” This lens is revealed by our general discontent, bitterness, restlessness, and so on. When the truth of Psalm 34 affects our life perspective, however, we begin to see God’s goodness all around us as we go through our day. Seeing God’s goodness can, in some ways, be considered an application of the text; we can consciously choose to look for the Lord’s goodness, but as it begins to happen more naturally and doesn’t always have to be consciously chosen, it becomes increasingly a perspective change.
A change in perspective can operate independently of a deepening understanding of the text; that is, it’s not necessary to reach a deep understanding in order for the text to impact your perspective. Sometimes, even naïve, young believers experience a perspective shift when a particular Bible truth hits them strongly.
Areas of comprehension
There are three broad areas of comprehension: foundational facts, secondary facts, and marginal facts.
The Lord of the Rings series has many delightful, suspenseful stories in it. To make best sense of them, however, it’s essential to understand the main theme of the books. Frodo and his companions have one overriding mission: to destroy the mightiest ring of power sought by the evil ruler Sauron. Everything they do is connected to achieving this quest. The ultimate goal, destroying Sauron, requires the destroying of his ring first. To make sense of the books it’s necessary to ascertain these broad themes.
The same is true of Scripture; to make proper sense of it we must understand its overriding story line. In my opinion the overriding story line is this: The Bible is a love story. It’s a story of love offered, love spurned, and love reconciled. God is the hero of this story from beginning to end. Everything else in Scripture is better understood against the background of this story line. If we see the Bible primarily as history or as a book of morals, or even as a religious handbook, we’ll miss the big picture. The Bible throbs with passion. It’s more than a divine game of chess. It’s a love story.
This love story is fleshed out by certain foundational facts. Each of them is helpful in adding detail and clarity to the overall picture. What might these basic facts include? That, of course, is a matter of personal judgment. Let me offer what I believe are a few basic elements.
The main characters
The Bible is full of characters, but some are more central than others. The most important character, of course, is God. To understand the Bible we must gain some sense of who God is, what he’s like, and the various roles he plays.
Other central characters include Satan, Adam, Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Mary, Paul, Peter, and so on.
The main stories
Certain stories are pivotal. They trace critical crossroads in the God/human story. These would include: the fall, the flood, Abraham’s life, the exodus, conquering the Promised Land, David’s life, the exile, Christ’s birth and death, the early Church, the end times, and so on.
The main themes
Certain themes weave throughout Scripture tying together the various stories and characters. The main themes include: holiness, sin, love, salvation, judgment, God’s laws, God’s plans, and so on.
The question immediately arises, how does one choose the main characters, stories, and themes? That’s somewhat subjective. Notice that I used the phrase “and so on” three times. It’s not crucial that we all have the same list. Nevertheless many of the main elements (the foundational facts) are obvious. David, for example, occupies a huge niche in Scripture. His name is mentioned 893 times. Abraham (or Abram) is noted 267 times. Sin is mentioned 421 times, evil 437. Love is used 505 times (statistics from 1984 NIV). Some of the important characters, stories, or themes may not be mentioned many times, but they are still crucial to know about. Eve, for example, is only noted four times, but her actions in the garden of Eden profoundly affected the whole human race.
Secondary facts are those characters, stories, and themes that aren’t strictly foundational but still add important depth to our understanding. Knowing the names of Jesus’s disciples is helpful to our reading of the New Testament; knowing that Cain committed the first murder by killing his brother Abel or knowing the role of the Urim and Thummim is helpful to our reading of the Old Testament. While not absolutely essential, these facts are not just incidental either. They give depth and nuance to the foundational facts. Sometimes they’re part of a broader pattern. Often they can be used to illustrate a biblical principle.
I hate to call anything “marginal” in Scripture. It’s all inspired by God. And as I noted earlier, the Spirit can use even the most obscure details to teach us truth. But some biblical details are more like a dash of seasoning in a stew; they add flavor without adding much substance. The genealogies, for example, meant more to the Jews of that day than they mean to us. To modern believers they’re mostly a stream of unfamiliar names that flash by and are quickly forgotten. The same is true of the extensive detail given about the tabernacle or of the various census numbers (“The total number of firstborn males a month old or more was 22,273” [Num. 3:42]).
So how do we treat these three categories? Do we focus on the foundational facts and ignore the others? I’m not sure that’s even possible. In reading about David, for example, we encounter facts on all three levels. They’re woven into the text. First Samuel 16:12, for instance, tells us that David was “ruddy” (which essentially means “rosy-cheeked”). That’s a marginal fact. Nevertheless it does sharpen our mental picture of David. It’s worth thinking about and remembering. The more important elements of David’s story, however, are the ones which merit more intense study and reflection. God called David as his next king. Why? What was it about David that made him a “man after God’s own heart”? How did David manage to lose his godly heart for a while later on in his life? How did he respond when Nathan the prophet challenged his sinfulness?
Deepening our comprehension
Before we discuss how to deepen our comprehension, let me make a suggestion. If you want to maximize the results of studying the Bible, you must find a way to store your notes so that they won’t be quickly forgotten or lost. There are different ways to do this. Some people buy a Bible with large, blank margins and write in it. Others create a folder for each Bible chapter and put all their paperwork in it. I tend to do this on a computer. Having a system allows you to save any notes you take. If new insights or illustrations about a verse come to mind, or if you take notes on a sermon or a classroom lecture, you can store your notes all in one place. This allows you to come back to your notes time and again over a long period, which will reward you with long-term biblical insights. This is also helpful when you desire to use your research to write a sermon or to teach a Bible study or just to explain a passage that someone has asked you about.
The Bible is not a scholarly tome. It was written to ordinary people. Most of it can be understood by simple persistence and common sense. Read the book of Job once. Read it twice. Think about what you’ve read. It slowly comes together, doesn’t it? Yes, there are particulars you may not understand, but you can get the big picture and most of the smaller details by yourself.
Notice the word “persistence” I used a moment ago. It does take some effort to understand Scripture, and it’s usually easier just to let someone else explain what it means. We can listen to a sermon or read a book. These are beneficial, but there’s something lost if that’s all we do. Truth that’s first encountered by our own thinking has its own special benefits. For one thing, it’s more fun to discover something for ourselves. It becomes our own particular treasure. For another, any truth we discover for ourselves is more likely to be remembered since we’ve given it more thought up front. Perhaps the most important benefit of self-discovery is this: we develop a healthy independence. When we study for ourselves, we become better at evaluating what various texts mean. We’re less dependent on the opinions of “experts” and more able to sort out the facts on our own. When our pastor asserts various doctrines, we’re able to mimic the “noble Bereans”: “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
Even if you’re not particularly gifted academically, you still come out ahead (when it comes to understanding the Bible) if you work at thinking for yourself. You’ll also come up with all sorts of insights no one else has mentioned, many of them especially germane to you and your own personal needs and issues.
With that said, I will be discussing various study tools in a moment. I think that using the hard work of others is very helpful in our journey toward biblical comprehension. It’s silly not to, especially when others have a technical mastery that most of us will never even attempt.
Seek to gain an accurate basic understanding of the text
When we build a house we begin with the foundation. It’s essential that the foundation is properly laid, or everything that goes on top of it will be compromised. The same is true of biblical understanding. If my basic understanding of the text is correct, then whatever other uses I make of the text are more likely to be faithful to God’s Word. I recall being at a Bible study where the leader warned us not to talk too much about the Bible. His rationale? Joshua 1:8, which begins: “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth.” Ouch. The text actually teaches us to do the opposite. We’re told to constantly discuss the Bible. So my friend goofed. And I have goofed a few times myself. Learning to accurately interpret a text takes practice, combined with a lifetime of effort.
So how do we gain an accurate basic understanding of the text? I’m tempted to tell you to do what we did in seminary and that is to ask a lot of questions of the text, such as: Who wrote it? Who was the audience? When was it written? And so on. By the time you finish answering these questions, however, you’ll probably just shrug and go back to whatever you were doing. Instead I encourage you to do some of the following.
Read and ruminate
As I suggested a moment ago, a good deal of comprehension can be generated simply by slowing down, patiently reading and re-reading the text, and just thinking about it. As you do so, try to be aware of the context of a particular verse. What do the verses surrounding it contribute to our understanding of this specific verse? How does it fit into the book as a whole?
Research any words you don’t understand
Are there terms in the verse which are unfamiliar to you? Say you’re reading
Romans 5:9: “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” You may not be sure what “justified” means. Sometimes simply looking in a standard dictionary is enough; it will often list the “religious” definition of a word. At other times you’ll have to consult either a Bible dictionary or a commentary. Even a good Bible translation cannot eliminate all the specialized religious jargon (justification, sanctification, Levite, cherubim). Nor would they want to eliminate all jargon since some of those words have a more precise meaning than a generic English equivalent.
Note any questions that the verse raises
An intelligent reading of Scripture often raises questions. In the verse just quoted, we will need to know what it means to be “justified by his blood” and also to be “saved from God’s wrath through him.” Some of these can be answered by thought and common sense. Others will be aided by various study tools. (I’ll discuss study tools at the end of this chapter.)
Study the verse in the broader context of the whole Bible
This is a more advanced approach and takes longer. Conversely, though, the more we understand the broader context of the Bible, the easier it becomes to comprehend individual verses.
We’ll have to be selective in this endeavor. The Bible is huge, and potential studies are endless. So you’ll want to focus on key ideas and characters. One place to start is with a word study. If you want to study “faith,” you can use a concordance to find all the uses of the word “faith.” Look them up and note, next to each verse, anything it adds to your understanding. There might be related words, like “believe” or “trust” that could expand your study of faith. Look for patterns or contexts that help to explain the sense of the word. Another place to go for this sort of study is a Bible dictionary, encyclopedia, or a word study book.
The most accurate studies go beyond the English language, studying the word in the original language. The reason this is more accurate is that a particular Greek or Hebrew word isn’t always translated the same way in the Bible. The original word can mean more than one thing. This is what scholars call a “semantic range.” The original word for faith (pistis), for example, takes up over two pages in a lexicon (Greek dictionary). This level of study might sound like too much for some of you. That’s fine. There are other tools that can do this work and summarize it for you. But if you’d like to gain this additional level of mastery, study in the original. Fortunately today we have lots of great software available that will do most of the work. You don’t have to actually take courses in biblical languages to use them.
Bible study tools
What tools are useful for studying the Bible? I don’t want to overwhelm you, but there are a few basic tools that are very helpful for study.
Before I discuss Bible study tools, let’s talk about Bible software. I’ve been using Bible software for years and I love it. Bible software packages come with dozens, if not hundreds, of digital books to use to study the Bible, including commentaries, church history, and so on. Here are some advantages of having these digital books on your computer.
Digital books are cheaper
This is especially true if you buy a larger program. You’ll pay hundreds of dollars for books on your computer that would cost you thousands of dollars if you bought them in a hard copy. (Check out Logos Bible Software.) A physical book costs more than a digital book.
Digital books take up less space
Books gobble up shelf space. I recently bought a Logos program which had hundreds of books on a DVD the size of a saucer.
Digital books are easier and quicker to use
It takes far less time for me to type a word into my digital concordance and find the references than it does to look up the word in a physical concordance and then find each reference separately in my Bible. My Logos program also has indexing, which means that I can type in a word and it will search every book on the program that uses that word.
Digital books make it easier for untrained people to use the original languages
Greek and Hebrew are challenging languages. Even those of us who studied them in seminary are usually far from mastering them. Digital programs exist which will do most of the work for you. Click on a Greek or Hebrew word, and the program defines it, parses it, and can tell you where else it is used.
Digital books allow you to copy and paste text
When I write Bible lessons or sermons, I can copy verses and quotes from my Bible software and paste them into my word processor with a click of the mouse.
Unfortunately not all the best commentaries or reference books are digital. In fact, digital programs tend to pad their libraries with a lot of public domain material—items that are no longer under copyright (for example, Matthew Henry commentaries). These materials, while they have some value, lack up-to-date research. I suspect that this is slowly changing and that more material is becoming available in both hard copy and digital.
A good Bible translation
The first tool for studying the Bible is a good translation of the Bible. Actually, it’s helpful to own at least two or three translations. I grew up with the King James Version and eventually went to the New International Version (NIV). Each translation has its own agenda. Since the Hebrew and Greek don’t always have precisely equivalent words in English, certain choices must be made. There’s not just one “right” translation. Some translations (the New American Standard Bible, for example) are more literal. They’re truer to the original Greek and Hebrew. This is helpful in terms of accuracy but can be awkward at times in the English translation. Other translations get the English sense better but give up some technical accuracy to do it (such as The Message). Others try to strike a balance between the two (NIV). I’ve heard that the English Standard Version, a newer translation, is also a fine version. It’s an essentially literal translation, based on the RSV, which updates it and removes traces of liberal bias. The point is this: find a solid translation you trust to be your main tool (it’s usually better to get a more literal version for study), then get a couple of other strong translations. Reading two or three translations side by side gives you a better sense of the text. You’ll discover what some of the translation issues are. Sometimes, in a particular passage, one of the translations will be more accurate than the others or just easier to understand.
If possible, choose your main translation in a study Bible format. Study Bibles are packed with tools. You’ll have a mini-commentary on the same page as your verses, a listing of parallel passages, a Bible dictionary, a timeline, a concordance, maps, and so on. Having all this packed into your Bible is quite handy. Your Bible becomes a sort of Swiss Army knife. Like a Swiss Army knife, though, these tools will be smaller, minimalist versions of the full-sized tools, but often they’re very useful. (By the way, some folks might disagree with me about using a study Bible. There is a temptation with a study Bible to pay more attention to the notes than to the Bible text. It’s tempting to let others do our thinking for us rather than wrestle with the text ourselves.)
Concordances are huge time savers. They help us find every place that a particular English word is used. Say you want to do a study on “faith.” If you remember a relevant verse but don’t know its location, the concordance will help you locate it. A digital concordance is superior to a physical one. It’s faster in general, and what’s especially nice is that you can look up a multiple-word phrase. For example, if you want to find all the uses of “day of the Lord,” you don’t have to go down a long list of “day” references seeking the occasional “day of the Lord” verse. Each concordance is keyed to a particular Bible version, so you’ll want to get a concordance which matches the Bible version you’re studying.
Commentaries give us the insights of trained scholars who’ve studied various books at great length. Some commentators write more technical commentaries, which go into detail on all sorts of language and interpretational issues. Other commentators deal more with the big picture—the main meaning of the text and how to apply it to our lives. You’ll have to decide what you can handle and what’s useful. At least one mildly technical commentary is helpful when you study a book because it will usually tackle the difficult questions that arise from a text. The lighter commentaries tend to breeze over these. These books are sold individually or, sometimes, in a larger set. The sets are cheaper (per book), but sometimes the quality of scholarship is uneven. Again, the digital commentaries are cheaper and easier to use. Commentaries reflect the theological beliefs of their writers. That’s why I prefer evangelical, conservative commentaries, though some liberal writers are excellent in their technical analysis.
If you want advice on which commentaries are best, there are useful bibliographies that evaluate them. The two I currently own are: New Testament Commentary Survey by D. A. Carson and The Old Testament Commentary Survey by Tremper Longman III.
A Bible Atlas
A Bible atlas is filled with maps and pictures of Bible lands. Seeing the locations of Bible-era countries, tribes, towns, and areas helps us to make more sense of biblical stories. We can perceive, for example, that when Jonah boarded a ship to Tarshish instead of going to Nineveh, he was deliberately going in the opposite direction.
A Bible dictionary or encyclopedia
There is an incredible amount of detail on specific topics in a Bible dictionary or encyclopedia. If commentaries dig trenches, encyclopedias dig postholes. They’ll take a subject like marriage and give you an in-depth explanation of what marriage was like in both the Old and New Testament times. Or you can read about a particular name or article of clothing or tool or location. I own the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. I love it! It’s a five-volume set with five thousand entries, written in a language that laypeople can understand. There are tons of pictures and drawings. Best of all, I bought it for under one hundred dollars.
A book on hermeneutics
Herman who? Hermeneutics is the study of Bible interpretation. This is a critical subject since the accuracy of our Bible comprehension directly depends on the accuracy of our Bible interpretation. The Bible isn’t a piece of clay to be molded into whatever we wish. As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, there is a right way and a wrong way to interpret the Bible. The goal is to understand the text as the original author intended his message to be understood. This can be a challenge. For one thing, the Bible was originally written to people in a different time, place, and culture. The readers would have instinctively understood aspects of Scripture that are confusing to us. Furthermore the Bible is stocked with various literary genres, each of which requires a different interpretational key. For example, poetry isn’t meant to be taken as literally as narrative. The book of Revelation, a type of “apocalyptic” literature, is especially challenging since we’re not always sure what is symbolic and what is literal.
There are some excellent books available which discuss key principles to use when we approach a biblical text. One which I find particularly helpful is: How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. Another, a bit more scholarly, is Validity in Interpretation by E. D. Hirsch.
Deepening Scripture’s Impact on Our Emotions
Understanding Scripture in a language other than the heart language in which we think and experience emotion is like trying to eat soup with a fork. You can get a little taste, but you cannot get nourished.
―William Cameron Townsend, missionary and translator
We must come to the Bible with the purpose of self-exposure consciously in mind. I suspect not many people make more than a token stab in that direction. It’s extremely hard work. It makes Bible study alternately convicting and reassuring, painful and soothing, puzzling and calming, and sometimes dull—but not for long if our purpose is to see ourselves better.
―Larry Crabb, Inside Out: Real Change Is Possible If You’re Willing to Start from the Inside Out
This chapter is the most challenging for me. Why so?
Emotions are the least controllable aspect of our relationship with God
I, for one, would love to hit a button and feel the joy of the Lord. Or increase my hunger for God. Or gain deeper compassion. Conversely, I wish I could poke the same button to release anxiety or anger or lust. I’d be overjoyed to flush them out of sight.
Unfortunately, for most of us, our emotional state is a mite contrary. It does what it wants to do when it wants to do it. Worry, for example, snags and holds on like Velcro. In fact, if I don’t watch it, soon I’m worrying about worrying.
I’m not suggesting that our emotions are always uncontrollable or that we’re completely at their mercy. As we’ll see, emotional health can be cultivated. It just takes time and isn’t always easy to control in a given moment or situation.
Emotions can flow from good or bad sources
The fact that I’m happy doesn’t automatically mean that I’m at a good place spiritually. Sin, at least for a season, can bring us considerable pleasure. Proverbs 10:23 tells us: “A fool finds pleasure in evil conduct.” Conversely, sadness or even lack of emotion doesn’t mean that I’m in a bad place. Isaiah 53:3, tells us of Jesus:
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.
In fact, there’s a time when godly people should feel anger or grief. To not experience them may be a sign that we’re not sharing God’s concerns (1 Cor. 5:1–2).
We know that in heaven “there will be no more death or crying or mourning or pain” (Rev. 21:4). Here on earth, however, a godly Christian can still expect to experience the full range of emotions—both the highs and the lows. Although most of us prefer to be happy, there is a time when godliness will produce painful emotions, such as sadness or anger or even jealousy. The goal is for our emotions to be guided by godly perspectives.
Emotions are by-products that spring from other sources
Our emotions have no independent life of their own. They are chemical responses stimulated by outside sources. In other words, our emotions are just symptoms. The outside sources are the “disease.” What this means, from a practical point of view, is that to influence our emotions we have to focus mostly on their source. What are these outside sources?
Emotions can originate from our perspective
The main source of our emotions is our perspective—how we view various aspects of life. Consider David in the situation with the giant Goliath. His fellow soldiers were terrified of Goliath; they were frozen with fear. They viewed Goliath primarily as a danger. However, David, though only a young man, was energized by the situation. That’s because he saw it as an opportunity for God to win a victory. His emotions were affected by his (chosen) perspective.
Emotions can originate from our bodies
Another source of our emotions is our physical body. When the body gets thrown out of whack, its chemistry can generate all sorts of emotions. On the simplest level, for example, physical exhaustion can cause depression. Certain medications affect our moods. Brain chemistry can produce everything from euphoria to depression.
Emotions can originate with Satan
A third source of our emotions is Satan. The Enemy knows how to manipulate our emotions (consider King Saul in1 Sam. 16:23).
God holds us responsible for the choices we make
Given the factors I’ve already listed, you can see that emotions and desires themselves are not the main issue. The main issue is how I relate to God. God ultimately holds us responsible not for our emotions but for the choices we make in our relationship with him. If I’m seeking him and obeying him, that’s what matters. Sometimes this will make me feel happy or peaceful. At other times it won’t. Just read the psalms and you’ll get a sense of how much people, even godly people, can fluctuate emotionally (Ps. 13).
This raises a question, however. If God doesn’t hold us responsible for our emotions but for our choices, then what about verses like, “Be joyful always” (1 Thess. 5:16), which seem to command joy? I believe, in this case, that what the verse is commanding isn’t an emotion but an action. I can choose to rejoice whether I feel joyful or not. Rejoicing, in this sense, means choosing to be grateful and hopeful because God is good to us. It’s an act of the will and is also dependent on faith.
This isn’t to say, however, that emotions don’t matter. As I stated in an earlier chapter, our emotions can greatly enhance our relationship with God or seriously hinder it. To legitimately enjoy God, for instance, will only boost our relationship with him. Furthermore, our emotions are often indicators of our primary attitudes and perspectives. They can function as “warning lights” on the dashboard of our soul.
Allowing the Spirit to impact our emotions
How can we allow the Spirit, through Scripture, to have more impact on our emotions?
Focus on the source of the emotions and not the feelings themselves.
This follows from the previous discussion. If I want to change an emotion (for instance, change from worry to peace), I have more chance of success if I trace the emotion to its source (false beliefs, for example) and work on the source. If I focus primarily on the emotion, I may be able to shut it down temporarily, but it will almost certainly return if I don’t deal with the source. Furthermore, if I focus primarily on getting the right feelings, then I’m vulnerable to spiritual deception or distortion. Paul gets to the heart of this tendency when he warns Timothy: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2Tim. 4:3–4).
Proper spiritual growth is a holistic matter. Good feelings are meant to flow from a godly foundation. What’s that foundation? A love relationship with God and obedience to God.
A love relationship with God
This is the absolute starting place. It’s the essence of life. We come to Jesus for salvation. He forgives our sin and takes us into God’s family. Through the Bible and other means of grace, we begin to know God and to love him. He becomes our master, our father, and our friend. This, in turn, causes us to begin to love his Word because we love the Author. We hunger to know him, and his Word is his clearest way of speaking to us. As I work on growing my love relationship with God, this love vastly increases the emotional impact of the Bible.
Obedience to God
God has given us plentiful instruction on where the path of life runs (Ps. 16:1) and how to stay on it (Ps. 119:105; Prov. 3:5–6). God’s path isn’t necessarily the way we’d instinctively go, nor is it always the most pleasant route; nevertheless, it is the path of life. Those who commit, with the Spirit’s help, to walk in obedience to God will reap emotional benefits over time. We find healing from our bitterness, peace from our worries, and hope in our despair.
These two foundations are essential. They reflect a healthy, growing Christian life. Any attempt to bypass them and go straight to good feelings will only lead us to a manipulative, superficial, and deceptive form of faith. It would be like someone who uses recreational drugs to feel good while their body is actually deteriorating. Good symptoms need to reflect an underlying reality of good health. If we focus on these two foundations, our emotional development will often continue, albeit at its own pace. However, this isn’t always true; sometimes there are deeper emotional issues to deal with.
Drain the toxic swamp
Often constructive emotions are blocked or overridden by our interior bogs of brokenness. It’s surprising how many of us believers, with all our hope of salvation, are still among the walking wounded. We’ve been mistreated. We become angry. That anger morphs into toxic brews like bitterness, rage, anxiety, depression, and so on. These leach into our perspectives. They sap our soul strength. They also tend to outshout the quieter emotions, such as peace and joy. Until we learn how to forgive and to release these toxins, they will continue to poison our hearts. This usually requires self-awareness as a starting point. If we’re not cognizant of what’s driving us, it’s often difficult to change it. Draining the swamp also involves conscious replacement of sin’s lies with the cleansing, healing balm of God’s truth. In addition it often necessitates attempts at reconciliation. A lot of this can be done on our own with the help of the Holy Spirit. We can also be helped by others—wise, loving brothers and sisters—and sometimes therapy is needed.
Take your time when interacting with Scripture
I told you I’d keep repeating this one. Farmers prefer long, moderate rains to quick, “cats and dogs” downpours. Why? Because the long, moderate rains soak in better and thus do more good. During short downpours a large percentage of the rain runs off into storm drains and creeks and is carried away, out of reach of the thirsty fields.
Take your time when interacting with Scripture. Allow more than five minutes. It takes longer than that for our brains to even quiet down and focus. This is not to say that we can’t benefit from brief interactions with Scripture throughout the day. Thirty seconds to a minute can revamp our perspective or strengthen our resolve. But these mini-meditations are more effective if they’re primed first by sustained periods of contemplation and study. Jesus himself rose up while others were still sleeping in order to gain significant amounts of time alone with his Father (Mark 1:35).
It’s not just a matter spending more time; it’s how we spend that time. If we’re schussing down a mountain of facts, then our engagement with each of them will tend to be superficial. While there is a time to go more quickly for the sake of gaining breadth, it helps if there are also seasons when we slow to a crawl for the sake of depth. Connected with this is slowing down mentally. Relax. Take a deep breath. Look out the window. Release the tension in your muscles. Circle a verse once. Circle it twice. Circle it as many times as you like. Don’t worry if nothing profound hits you at the moment. You’re sitting at the beach listening to your Father talk. Savor his words. They’ll do their work in their time.
Pictures are what touch our emotions. They’re often able to get past intellectual barricades and penetrate to the heart. Ask any preacher what his audience remembers, and he’ll say it’s the illustrations. Take time to envision Jesus healing people, blessing children, calming the storm, praying to his Father, rebuking Peter. There’s emotional resonance in these pictures. Walk visually through Psalm 23. Feel it. See it. Hear it. Touch it. Taste it.
Some passages, of course, are easier to picture. These include narratives or concrete metaphors. Others are more abstract. Even in the abstract passages, though, picture associations can often be constructed.
Keep in contact with Scripture throughout the day
This one’s a little tricky. I’m not suggesting that we can’t focus on whatever the task at hand may be. If you’re driving a truck, keep your eyes on the road. If you’re talking with someone, pay attention to them. Our minds, however, are complex. They function on multiple levels simultaneously. In the background, our basic beliefs and philosophies are always running. If we fill our minds with Scripture early in the day, then we can periodically, for maybe only a few seconds, let these truths surface. A quick prayer or affirmation helps to keep us on the right course. This regular contact with Scripture will begin to alter our attitudes and perspectives, more so than if we simply consider a few verses for a short time and then set them aside until the next day.
Ask the Spirit to touch your emotions through Scripture
The Spirit is the one who makes all of this happen. He knows which internal wires to connect (or to disconnect). He’s the one who adds “oomph” and brings life to what are only black and white words on a page. He opens our eyes to discern these truths and shows us why they matter (1 Cor. 2:12).
Be consistent in these practices
I’ve come to believe that of all the spiritual traits one might desire, perseverance is near or at the top of the list. We’re told to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Heb. 12). In the spiritual world real progress seldom occurs overnight. Those who approach Scripture spasmodically seldom experience significant impact emotionally or in any other way. We can’t stock up on Scripture for six months in a day or two of intense reading. Consistency makes a huge difference. By “consistency” I don’t mean some rigid, never-to-be-altered sort of routine. There’s room for flexibility. But consistency involves at least some regularity and pattern.
What if there’s a lack of impact?
This raises one last question: What if I read Scripture and it doesn’t move me inside? I’ve noticed a wide variation in how the Bible affects me emotionally. Sometimes reading the Bible is like drinking in an icy draught of water on a hot day, or eating a tasty sandwich when I’m famished. On other occasions, like the day I’m writing this, Scripture seems to bounce off me with little effect. I don’t feel any better when I’m done reading (or listening).
What’s happened? It’s a complex question—one which applies to the spiritual life as a whole. The impact of Scripture can be bafflingly unpredictable. The same commitment and the same routine don’t guarantee the same effect.
What can we do? First, it helps to check for obvious blockage. If I’m living in sin, for example, that will dampen my spirit’s response to the Word (if I read it at all). Or if I’m exhausted on a particular day, my weariness dampens my spiritual response. I’ll just try to get more rest before my next reading.
Second, it helps to follow the tips mentioned above. There’s no substitute for spending sufficient, open, relaxed time in the Bible. Too often we expect maximum impact with minimum effort. Third, focus on faithfulness not on effect. Our part is to feast on God’s Word. His part is to touch our hearts through that Word. That’s why, when I don’t feel much, I try not to get on a guilt trip. I just put it in God’s hands. Fourth, believe that a liberal dose of God’s Word always has an effect even when we don’t consciously perceive it. There’s a subtle work of the Spirit that’s often imperceptible to us, even though it’s crucial. As I bathe in Scripture, these precious truths heal me and fortify me in ways I don’t recognize. If you doubt this, then neglect Scripture for an extended time. You’ll begin to weaken and grow spiritually lethargic. Fifth, look long-term. This is in line with the previous point. A lot of the emotional impact of Scripture only emerges clearly over time. While we may sense no tangible change on a given day, we can look back and perceive that we’ve changed emotionally. We’re becoming happier, more patient, more sensitive, and so on. Many significant changes can take decades.
So we strike a curious balance here. On the one hand, we’re careful not to overemphasize the feeling aspect of Scripture reading. The feelings come and go and don’t necessarily reflect anything about our faithfulness or character. On the other hand, feelings do matter. If Scripture seldom affects us in healing, positive, motivating sorts of ways, then that’s a problem. It’s like watching a television program with the sound turned off—something important is missing. We need to see if there’s anything we, with God’s help, can do about it. Even if we can’t change our lack of emotions, it’s worth the effort to try. If nothing happens, then we can still continue on in faithfulness, trusting God to use his Word for our benefit.
Deepening Scripture’s Impact on Our Whole Lives
The Word of God will be to you a bulwark and a high tower, a castle of defense against the foe. Oh, see to it that the Word of God is in you, in your very soul, permeating your thoughts, and so operating upon your outward life, that all may know you to be a true Bible-Christian, for they perceive it in your words and deeds.
―Charles H. Spurgeon
The Bible will always be full of things you cannot understand, as long as you will not live according to those you can understand.
The true follower of Christ will not ask, “If I embrace this truth, what will it cost me?” Rather he will say, “This is truth. God help me to walk in it, let come what may!”
—A. W. Tozer
The Bible is meant to be more than entertainment or even information. It’s a potent spiritual draught poured into us to transform our whole lives—our will, thoughts, behavior, relationships, knowledge, and so on. As James 1:22 notes: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Second Timothy 3:16,17 add: “16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 17 God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (NLT).
How can I grow in applying the Scripture to my life? Once again, the other areas we’ve discussed contribute to this one. The better I remember and understand Scripture (retention and comprehension), the more astutely I can apply it. And as Scripture deepens its emotional impact on me, I’m more likely to want to apply it.
Apply Scripture correctly
I can apply Scripture more deeply to my life when I apply it correctly. As crucial as application is, it comes with a certain level of risk. People have used Scripture as an excuse for all sorts of sinful, foolish, or just mistaken behavior. So what does applying Scripture “correctly” include? Whole books have been written on this subject, but let me summarize two basic principles.
The application must begin with an accurate interpretation of the text
To apply Scripture in a deeper way to your life, it’s essential to start with an accurate understanding of the passage. As I mentioned earlier, the key question at this juncture is: What was the author’s original intent? I’m part of a school of Bible interpretation that believes that the author’s intention matters, that it’s to be the governing principle in how we understand the text. This limits the range of possible interpretations since some of our modern interpretations wouldn’t make any sense to the original author. Ideally, every text has one accurate interpretation. I say “ideally” only because we can’t always agree on what that one accurate interpretation is.
The application should show a reasonable connection to what the text intends to teach
I once read an otherwise excellent evangelical author who said that it’s okay sometimes to apply a text in a way that’s foreign to what the original author meant. God could, for example, use a text about Moses finding water in the desert to tell me that I should start a new business in the “desert” of the business world. I think we should resist this tendency, which I call “Christian tea leaves.” Once we start reading unintended meanings into Bible texts we have lost the safeguard of proper interpretation. Suddenly the text can say anything we want. This approach is basically a form of allegorization.
Let me make another distinction. Sometimes texts are very specific. “Do not commit adultery” is one of these. It has a narrow range of application. Other texts, however, are more general. “Husbands, love your wives” is one of these. There is a multitude of ways to love our wives. Scripture often gives us general principles that allow for a wide range of application. We have quite a bit of freedom here, though our applications must also line up with other Scripture.
Focus on your heart
In Scripture the heart is the command central of the soul. The heart includes our will, emotions, and thinking. It basically serves two functions. First, the heart motivates us. Second, it shapes our perspective. If our heart is in line with God, then most of the hard work of holy living is already done. A godly heart will cause us to naturally do what is right most of the time. If it’s out of sync with God, however, then our particular choices will tend to easily slip back into a default sin mode.
Jesus captured the importance of our basic heart orientation in a famous passage out of Matthew 22:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:34–40)
Jesus is saying that all the other commandments are built on the basic orientation of love toward God and our neighbor. We choose these other actions and attitudes because we have a loving commitment to the welfare of others. When we have an attitude of love, we will follow most of the particular commandments by inclination. Why would I steal my neighbor’s goods, for example, if I truly loved him? Or commit adultery with his wife? Conversely, this is why some Jewish leaders of Jesus’s day got into spiritual trouble. They focused intensely on being correct in particular matters while neglecting the big picture attitudes which they brought to these actions. Jesus sternly critiqued them:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Matt. 23:23–24)
It is my opinion that the majority of our efforts in application should focus on the heart. If my heart is lush with the fruit of the Spirit, not only will I instinctively make wise applications, but I’ll also do the right thing for the right reason. This allows the Bible not only to modify my behavior; it also allows the Bible to transform my heart. That’s the biblical norm—godly living from the inside out.
Learn to discern general principles
At first glance, large portions of Scripture seem to be irrelevant and not applicable to our lives. There’s tons of history in the Bible—what do we do with that? Are we supposed to be like the historical people we read about? Will God deal with us the same way he dealt with them? What about all the Old Testament rituals and laws, most of which believers don’t attempt to follow today? Furthermore, a large portion of the prophecies are directed at someone else. This can be confusing. In addition, even some more obviously relevant teaching, such as in Paul’s epistles, is still directed at particular people in a particular time and culture. As my pastor friend put it, all of Paul’s teaching isn’t “case law.” Most of us, for example, don’t greet each other with a holy kiss or expect woman to wear head coverings.
So why don’t we just read these passages for information or inspiration, without attempting to apply them to our lives? After all, an understanding of the Old Testament, whether or not we always apply it directly, is still extremely useful in interpreting the New Testament.
It’s true that the information alone is helpful in some ways. It’s also true that some passages are easier to apply than others. Nevertheless, let me take us back to Paul’s assertion in 2 Timothy 3:16,17: “16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 17 God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (NLT). Saints down through the ages have taken this teaching literally, believing that God can speak in practical ways to them through any passage of the Bible.
We approach each text confident that God may use it to guide our lives. One reason for our confidence is that God has promised his Word will be practically useful for us (2 Tim. 3:16). Another reason is that we don’t approach the text alone. The Holy Spirit takes God’s Word and guides us in our use of it.
In portions of Scripture that seem to be irrelevant to my life, I can still learn about general spiritual principles. These general spiritual principles tie together the particulars. When we perceive the spiritual principle behind what God does, we can begin to understand why God acted in certain ways or enacted certain types of commandments. This in turn helps us gain a sense of the spirit of the law. Understanding this spirit is critical for skillful application. If we lose a sense of the “why,” we’ll lack wisdom in our choice of the “what.” Again, the Pharisees are an example with their “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel” behavior.
So we seek to understand the “why” as part of determining the “what” as it applies to us. Sometimes this is easier than at other times. The spiritual principle may be clearly stated. Many of God’s promises are like that (“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” [Matt. 6:33]). Or the Bible may make editorial comments on the narratives. The prophets often do this—interpreting what’s happening among the people and how God is responding to it. At other times, it’s not clear at a glance what the spiritual principle is behind a passage. The ritual laws that God gave to Israel stating that some things were “clean” and some were “unclean” seem to fit this category. Why did God declare some things clean and others unclean? Was this a hygienic issue? A moral issue? Was it symbolic? Why, in New Testament times, were most of these regulations no longer required?
When the undergirding spiritual principle isn’t obvious in a passage, we must use caution in our efforts to discover it. It’s easy to read our own opinions into a passage. I remember hearing preachers say, for example, that the reason King David got into trouble with Bathsheba was because he had stayed home in the palace when he should have been out with his army, and that therefore idle hands are the devil’s workshop. We don’t know that this was the problem; the Bible doesn’t say this. David did have a kingdom to run in addition to fighting wars, so it’s not clear that he was idle. If the principle isn’t stated, it’s best to be a bit tentative and to lean most heavily on clearly stated teaching. The more breadth we have in our familiarity with Scripture, the better our instincts will be when it comes to sensing the spiritual principles flowing beneath the text even when they aren’t overtly stated.
Finding the spiritual principles that undergird a passage will give us a basis for application even when a particular passage seems totally unrelated to us. Consider the extensive genealogies in Scripture (2 Chron. 2 is one example). These were of critical importance to the Israelites of that day and even much later. The genealogies established the Israelites’ physical connection to Abraham and to their particular tribes. To us gentiles today, these lists can seem tedious and irrelevant. Yet there are certain spiritual principles that they can remind us of. One is that God knows and cares about every particular individual. None of us are nameless and faceless to him. Isn’t that good to know? Another principle is that God is faithful. He made promises to Abraham that were fulfilled to his great great . . . great grandchildren. They are the “sand of the seashore” that God promised him (Gen. 22:17). If God is faithful to them, he’ll be faithful to us as well.
Levels of application
There are different levels of applying Scripture to our lives.
I don’t apply Scripture to my life
For some folks the Bible, if read at all, seldom impinges on their real world. Their actual life and their biblical beliefs live in separate, airtight compartments. This tendency may spring from various sources. They may be in rebellion toward God. If he says “do this,” then they “do that.” Scripture annoys them. Or they may be ignorant. They don’t really know the Bible. Its teachings are vague, shadowy mutterings on the periphery of their consciousness. They can’t apply what they don’t know. Or they don’t see Scripture as connected with the real world. They believe that the Bible is meant to teach airy, religious ideas, which may inspire us in some fashion but bear little connection to our actual, workaday life.
I apply Scripture superficially
Technically, as a believer, I’m committed to following the Bible. If you asked me about obeying Scripture, I’d say, “Of course we should obey Scripture.” But if I’m a person who applies Scripture superficially, obedience is not happening that much. The reasons for this could vary. I might be resistant to Scripture (see next point), ignorant of it, or just unwilling to put out much effort, or maybe all of these (they tend to run in a pack). The Bible doesn’t have much impact on my real-time, day-to-day living. I may pick up on a few of the more obvious teachings (don’t swear, don’t steal), but my obedience is limited, and Scripture isn’t making new inroads into my life.
I apply Scripture selectively
Let me hasten to say that we all apply Scripture selectively to some extent—we have to. As humans we are limited, both in our attention span and in our capacity for change, so by necessity we can only work on our spiritual life a few areas at a time. If I try to change everything at once, then nothing gets changed. So I may focus, for a time, on certain scriptural themes more than others.
What I’m talking about here, though, occurs when we choose to pay attention to some verses while setting others out of bounds. We may, for instance, be quick to defend true doctrine (Jude 1:3) while ignoring how we are to engage in this (“speaking the truth in love” [Eph 4:15]). Or a husband may focus on his wife’s duty to submit to him (Eph. 5:22–24) while conveniently forgetting his duty to show her sacrificial love (vv. 25–33) or the need for a certain mutual submission (v. 21).
It’s human nature to treat Scripture like a buffet—loading up on the dishes that tickle our palate while passing by those morsels we have little taste for. The problem, of course, is that we need everything in the Bible buffet. Together the Bible teachings balance each other. In fact, it’s often the parts of Scripture I find least appealing that I need the most.
I apply Scripture sincerely but with limited imagination
This is definitely a step forward. I’m open to whatever God wants me to do—no roped off areas as far as I know (though, in reality, there are always at least a few). I’m putting God’s truths into practice wherever I see the need. If the Bible tells me to put off falsehood (Eph. 4:25), I do my best not to lie. If it says to forgive (Eph. 4:32), I work at forgiving. This is all good, and there are enough direct commands in Scripture to keep us going for a lifetime, but there are other life insights waiting to be applied if we can learn to look a little deeper and with a little imagination.
Let’s start with a principle that seems obvious. Ephesians 4:32 tells us to forgive. What does that mean? What is forgiveness? What is it not? How can I tell if I’ve forgiven someone? What makes it easier to forgive?
Our understanding of forgiveness increases our ability to apply it. Often our initial concept needs tuning and some imagination. It’s crucial to know, for instance, that forgiving someone doesn’t mean condoning what they’ve done. By forgiving I’m not saying, “It’s okay what you did.” Furthermore, forgiving doesn’t necessarily mean releasing them from natural consequences; if someone betrays a confidence, it may take a while before I can trust them with another important secret even if I do forgive them.
Then there are insights we gain by actually practicing a spiritual principle. I’ve learned, through painful experience, that I forgive others better when I limit my rehearsal of their offense. I try to tell as few people as possible about the offense, and I even attempt to tell myself about it as little as necessary. Rehearsal tends to breed resentment. I’ve also learned to surrender my hurt emotions to the Lord and ask him to heal me and make my attitudes loving.
Forgiving is a more obvious example out of Scripture that all of us can identify with. Other passages require more contemplation. Consider the prophets speaking against idol worship. Some people (who apply Scripture sincerely but with limited imagination) may think that since they have no stone or metal or wooden gods in their homes, they are being obedient to Scripture; they may not see that today we are just as prone to idol worship, with our idols being recast as money, achievement, good looks, and so on. People who apply Scripture with limited imagination might be prone to walk away from these sorts of passages without any serious attempt at applying them. “That’s just not my issue,” they think.
I apply Scripture frequently in widening and deepening ways
This is a general category with quite a range. “Widening” means that I apply more and more verses as time goes by. I’m not limited to the application of a few standard, obvious texts. Who knows, I might even apply a verse out of Hosea or Jude! “Deepening” means that I gain greater understanding and facility in my use of particular verses as time goes by. A number of verses, for instance, tell us to “love one another.” This is a command with an enormous range of possibilities. Love is a tool capable of astounding nuance and skill in the hands of a mature believer. Paul’s prayer in Philippians 1:9 captures this beautifully: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.”
Deepening and widening also relate to the areas to which I apply Scripture, including my actions, attitudes, decisions, understanding, and discernment.
Applying Scripture to our actions simply means we use a Bible verse to guide our actions. We don’t steal. We don’t curse. We give money to help the poor. We go to church.
Applying Scripture to our attitude is just as important as applying Scripture to our actions. In this lengthy section, I discuss how we can detect our true attitudes.
Our attitudes are the wellsprings of our actions. If they’re godly, then our actions are usually right. (Though, our actions are not always right—sometimes we can do the wrong thing for the right reason—that’s why we need to grow in wisdom). James captures this connection perfectly: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom” (James 3:13).
This raises some challenging issues similar to those I discussed regarding emotional impact, issues related to the peculiar aspects of our subjective nature. In the first place, how do I even know what my attitude is? How do I get a clear read on it? How do I know if I’m acting out of love or self-interest (or both)? How can I determine if I have a proper respect for God Almighty? When does appropriate desiring turn to inappropriate coveting? Is this a righteous anger or a sinful one?
It would be nice if we came with internal meters or warning lights to cue us in on our internal state. The truth is, we often aren’t sure what our attitude is. What does “proper respect for God” feel like? Is it a warm feeling? How warm? Is it more like fear? What role do emotions play in our attitudes? Can I be patient and frustrated at the same time?
Some people address this conundrum by reducing attitudes to actions. They’ll say: “First Corinthians 13 teaches us that love isn’t a feeling. Love is what we do. Love is patient. Love is kind. . . .” There’s some helpful truth in this observation. Actions do reveal attitudes. And often acting loving causes me to feel loving. But it’s also true that it’s possible to act lovingly without genuinely caring about another person. It can be a hollow charade done for any number of inferior motives (to impress others, to manipulate, to feed our ego, and so on).
There are two extremes when it comes to dealing with our attitudes. The first is to be oblivious to our attitudinal undercurrents—basically we operate on autopilot. The other extreme is to be overly introspective—always examining ourselves, always worried that we’re doing something for the wrong reason.
The first extreme, obliviousness, makes it hard for us to grow. If we’re unaware and/or uninterested in what’s driving us, we’re hampered in dealing with attitude issues. It’s true that God can change our attitudes without our conscious awareness of the process, but usually he shows us our attitudes and together we work on them.
The second extreme, over-scrupulousness, keeps us anxious and distracted and overly focused on ourselves. One of God’s goals in the believer’s life is to help us forget ourselves more often, focusing more on him and on others. The truth is that, in the end, it’s hard to know precisely what our attitude is. Only God truly sees us perfectly for what we are. People caught in this second trap often chase elusive emotions (I’ll try to feel warm so that I can be loving), which may or may not reflect our true attitudes.
I attempt to detect my true attitude in several ways.
· First, I pay attention to my emotional responses in various situations. While it’s easy to overdo this (I may be tired one day, for example, and that changes my normal emotional response), I’ve found that my emotional reaction to the moment often provides me with a clue to my hidden attitudes. For instance, I often felt annoyed when a particular person was around me. God eventually revealed to me that I had a judgmental attitude toward this person and toward a certain class of people. I looked down on them. He challenged me in this area and is slowly changing my attitude. I can see that my emotions were prompted by my attitude.
· Our actions also reveal our attitudes. Where I put my energy says a great deal about what I truly value or how I see things. I may say, for example, that I love God’s Word, but the truth of that statement is shown by how I deal with it. Do I commit significant time and energy to learning it? To obeying it? Do I share it often with others?
· Other people are often useful in helping us to discover our attitudes. They can view us from an outside perspective, seeing aspects of our lives that we may be unaware of—blind spots. This isn’t necessarily just about our negative traits. I’ve had others share their perceptions of positive traits in my life that I hadn’t seen clearly.
· The Bible reveals our attitudes as well. It gives us a list of various attitudes—both positive and negative (Col. 3:5–17). Sometimes these are explained in more detail (love, 1 Cor. 13). Other attitudes are modeled by the inhabitants of Scripture (Abraham models faith, Daniel models courage and integrity). Simply by studying Scripture with an open heart we learn a great deal about human attitudes in general and our attitudes in particular.
· The Holy Spirit is the orchestrator of all wise human self-understanding. He’s the expert on people—unbiased, fair, perceptive, and convincing. He helps us to interpret our reactions. He strips away our veneers, unmasks our excuses, pushes back our distortions, and lets us see ourselves as God sees us. He does this with all the necessary mixture of “oomph” and delicacy that the job requires.
Another area in which I apply Scripture is my decisions. We need to make many decisions in life, and we want them to be wise decisions; decisions in line with what God would desire. Romans 12:2 commands: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
We can also apply Scripture to our understanding. I was recently struck by a verse in Hosea: “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6). The writer goes on to explain that their lack of knowledge was their own fault, saying that they “have rejected knowledge.” In contrast, Psalm 19:7b notes:
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
It’s crucial that we apply God’s Word to gain a true understanding of everything we need to know in life.
First John 4:1 admonishes us: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” The world around us sends many messages about reality. Some of these are verbal (involving words), others are nonverbal (ideas conveyed by gestures, expressions and actions). Applying God’s Word as a test allows us to be more accurate in discerning what’s happening (apply God’s Word may also, at times, limit our evaluations since it teaches us both humility and charity toward others).
Making A Commitment to Scripture
There is no question of doing it purely on our own. But we must act. Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort. And it is well-directed, decisive, and sustained effort that is the key to the keys of the kingdom and to the life of restful power in ministry and life that those keys open to us.
―Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship
Dallas is right. God’s blessings cannot be earned or created by our own effort; rather many of his richest delights are only realized as the result of a cooperative venture—us working alongside of God. This is especially true of our relationship with the Bible. Its vast potential in our lives lies dormant in the face of passivity. Laziness locks the door to its gorgeous inner gardens. On the other hand, thoughtful, sincere, hard work, combined with dependence on the Holy Spirit, will always yield a plentiful harvest in our souls.
What’s your level of commitment to mastering God’s Word and letting it master you? Let me rephrase that question: How hungry are you to know God and how desperate are you for his presence? Your level of commitment to mastering God’s Word is a direct reflection of your hunger for God. Why? Because God’s Word is our main point of access to God himself. God’s Word is the front door leading into his sanctuary. How seriously we explore God’s Word will determine how deeply we encounter God himself.
Are you giving significant time and effort to the Word—more than five hurried minutes over a bowl of cereal? Is it quality, prayerful interaction or an interaction with mostly a “let’s get through it” mindset? Are you making progress in both depth and breadth, or mainly cycling through the same old territory?
Wherever you are, God is excited about leading you even further into his biblical treasure-house. The starting place, for all of us, is motivation. By “motivation,” I don’t mean that we’re always super excited about cracking open our Bibles. That sort of surface emotion comes and goes. When I say “motivation,” I’m talking about something further down in the boiler room of our soul. At this level reside our foundational values, attitudes, and perspectives, the deeply graven lines of our character. So, although at a given moment I may not feel like reading my Bible, there’s a deeper, more steady part of me that can continue to crave finding God through his Word. This part can motivate me to be steady and energetic in the Bible regardless of how I feel on the surface. If that foundational level of motivation is lacking, ask the Spirit for help. He alone can engrave these attitudes and perspectives into our character. Ask him to give you a love for God and for his Word.
When this deep motivation is used consistently, you’ll often find that your surface emotions begin to conform as well—in other words, what at first seemed tedious is now becoming more enjoyable. Nevertheless, when you’re trying to build the new habit of serious Bible study, you’re likely to encounter a period I’ll call “the slog.” This is the point at which it’s easy to get discouraged and quit. Your mind feels distracted. Your emotions aren’t rewarding you yet. You think, “Here I am reading the Bible, trying to meditate and nothing’s happening!” It’s at this juncture that every distraction tries to pull you away with the force of a tow-truck. It takes little or nothing to run you off down a rabbit trail (“I wonder if Jim emailed me back, yet? I’ll just take minute to check”). In addition to your frustration, you may also feel a twinge of guilt (“What’s wrong with me? If I were a good Christian I’d be enjoying this—other Christians seem to find satisfaction in their quiet time, why not me?”). Take my word for it, lots of Christians struggle with their Bible reading. I’ve heard this complaint often.
Please understand that learning to love and absorb Scripture requires a major retooling of most of our minds and hearts. Even as believers our minds are often glutted with worldly thoughts—thoughts which lean us away from God. We’ve often developed an appetite for earthly treats, junk food rather than the solid meat and vegetables of the Word. Plus, I hate to say it, we’re sometimes lazy. We’ve gotten this notion that good stuff ought to come easily. In addition, we’re living in an adrenaline-addicted society, one that runs us at a frantic pace and turns everything into sound bites. Scripture will only be mastered and absorbed as we grow able to relax, letting our hearts slowly sink into its rich depths. My point is this: the slog is normal and can be overcome (at least much of the time) by prayerful, concerted effort. That, however, may not happen immediately. It’s our job to be faithful in reading, and it’s God’s job to increase the blessedness of the experience. Let me add that even when we’re slogging along God is still using the experience in ways we can’t see.
The first commitment is to push ahead in our Scripture study and meditation regardless of how it feels.
There are four things that we can commit to in this process of mastering the Bible, and the first is to just do it.
The second commitment is to plan regular time for Bible study.
I must emphasize the word “plan.” Without a concrete plan and a commitment to follow that plan, our Bible study time will be hard to maintain consistently. It’s best, if possible, to set aside the same time every day. This will be, within reason, a firmly scheduled appointment. The reason for firmness is that if this time is seen as negotiable, it will soon be poached away by every possible claimant. Make Bible study a part of your day when you’re reasonably fresh—in other words, give Bible study a prime cut and not a time when you’re sure to be exhausted or distracted. If at all possible, rise early for devotions and set a certain length of time (at least a half an hour if you can get it). I urge you to err on the side of generosity. If you don’t have time, then it’s time to reassess your priorities. Something worthwhile may have to be set aside. Be creative if necessary. Quality time in God’s Word isn’t optional if we want to draw near to God.
The third commitment is to give Scripture high quality attention.
This may take a while to learn. Be patient. Get in a place where you won’t be disrupted, a “prayer closet.” Open with prayer, turning your heart toward God, asking him to open you to his truth and to himself. Go slowly enough to fully take in the text, rereading it as much as necessary.
The fourth commitment is to turn on your spiritual “field equipment.”
Meditate on a portion of Scripture that has caught your attention. Listen to the Holy Spirit. Pray through a verse. Take this thought with you as you go through your day; perhaps write it on a card to prompt your memory.
I haven’t given you a particular curriculum or method in this last chapter. That’s because this book is filled with these sorts of practical options. There are so many productive approaches to studying and absorbing Scripture. Choose one (or two) which matches where you’re at right now. In fact, you may want to choose a couple of different approaches—one which emphasizes depth (meditation, for example) and one which emphasizes breadth (reading through the Bible). Both of these are needed. Depth, by itself, may go so slowly that you never do get to Habakkuk. I’ve begun to benefit from reading more than once a day. I meditate in the morning and then, sometimes, pick up my Bible right before bed for a quick snack. The latter has had a surprising impact for a five- to ten-minute event. Although commentaries and books are useful, try to do as much as you can on your own first. Henry Ward Beecher once noted: “Coming to the Bible through commentaries is much like looking at a landscape through garret windows, over which generations of unmolested spiders have spun their webs.”
Back to my initial question: Are you committing significant time and resources to mastering God’s Word? If so, I encourage you to continue. You’ll be amazed, years down the road, at what a transformation God can make in you through consistent exposure to his Word. You’ll know God so much better and love him more deeply. If not, what’s holding you back? Find out because what’s holding you back is likely a place in your heart where God still needs to help you grow. There’s still some weakness there or a distorted perspective or misaligned priorities.
Think about it, what’s one good reason not to be immersed in God’s Word (when you have that option)? What’s more important or more valuable than knowing God through his love letter we call “the Bible”? Isn’t there a part of you that longs to be fully his? The Bible is one of God’s main keys to unlock every door that keeps you from the pleasure of his presence.
I’ll give Charles H. Spurgeon the last word:
Some people like to read so many [Bible] chapters every day. I would not dissuade them from the practice, but I would rather lay my soul asoak in half a dozen verses all day than rinse my hand in several chapters. Oh, to be bathed in a text of Scripture, and to let it be sucked up in your very soul, till it saturates your heart!