Ten Tips For Improving Your Bible Reading
Just like our bodies need food to flourish physically, so our souls need God’s Word to flourish spiritually (See 2 Tim 3:16-17; Hebrews 4:12). Our souls will shrivel without it. There is no other means of grace (aka spiritual discipline) that is more important than intentionally, regularly immersing yourself in God’s revealed word, the Bible. Not even prayer is as important (though it is a close second) because there is nothing we need more than to hear from Him. So, in light of this, let me offer the following ten tips to help improve your reading of the Bible this year.
#1 Ask yourself “Why do I read the Bible?”
This might seem like a strange place to start, but it is important to begin here. Often, we jump in without even considering this question. But, I’m growing increasingly convinced that our answer to this question may reveal why so many find reading the Bible dull drudgery – if they read it at all. Ask yourself, “Why do I read the Bible?” or, “Why do I think I should read the Bible?” Many people will answer by saying, “Because I am supposed to.” But, is that meant to be our primary motivation? “I’m supposed to.” No. Here’s the real question: “Do you want God?” In other words, do you want to know him more? Do you want to grow in relationship with him, understand who he is more fully, revel in all that he is for you, grasp his promises afresh, love what he loves, be more deeply anchored in what is most real? If so, you will want to read the Scripture. But, if God is not what your heart is ultimately after, then your reading will largely feel like dull drudgery, mere duty. Whenever we do the right thing (e.g. reading the Bible) for the wrong reasons (e.g. just because we should), it will always leave us dry and dissatisfied. When you read the Scripture because you want to know God more, it changes how you approach your reading. This doesn’t mean there won’t be times of dryness, there will be, just like in any other relationship, but the underlying motivation will propel you through those seasons. So, as we begin the year, maybe the first question isn’t, “How will I read the Bible this year?” but “Do I want God?”
#2 Read the Bible from love, not for it
The good news of Jesus’s life and work is that we are made right with God through faith alone, by grace alone, in him alone. In other words, we don’t earn or merit or deserve his incomparable love. For our purposes here, that means we don’t read the Bible in order to earn God’s love, but because we already have it. Or, to put it differently, reading the Bible won’t make him love us any more than he already does, in Jesus. Why point this out? Unless you are sure that you are safe with God, that he loves you, that he is completely committed to you, that he wants your best, you will never seek him. After all, if you see God as a vindictive, cruel, unapproachable task-master, why would you want to spend time with him? I wouldn’t. But, if God is immeasurably good, incomparably wise, unfathomably powerful and he has graciously made you his, in Jesus, that allows you to read the Bible from love, not for it. So, we can open up the pages of his Word day-after-day not to earn His love, but because we know we already have it.
#3 Understand the dynamics of your fallen heart
Nearly every morning I wake up and my heart has drifted back into it default position of unbelief. Pastor and author Paul Tripp, rightly calls this “gospel amnesia”. When I wake up I often feel like the weight of the world rests on my shoulders, that I need to earn the approval of others, that my worth is tied to my performance, that my treasure is found in this world, that I don’t really need God, and more. It’s embarrassing, really. But, we shouldn’t be surprised about this. Our hearts are like leaky buckets. Just when you thought it was filled, they start to empty. We need to know this about our hearts. This is just how fallen hearts function. Because of the nature of indwelling sin, our hearts effortlessly drift away from God like unanchored boats at sea. So, when we think, “I don’t really feel like spending time with God today?” we should respond by saying to ourselves, “I expect to feel that way. That’s my shady heart talking. I obviously need to take it in for a realignment.” Knowing that my heart is misaligned, to some degree, every morning motivates me to reorient my heart toward God and all that he is for me every morning. This happens most powerfully through the Bible.
#4 Raise the sail to catch the wind
In his helpful book Union with Christ: The Way to Know and Enjoy God, Rankin Wilbourne uses the illustration of a sailor raising his sail to catch the wind as a metaphor for how we should approach the means of grace. Just as a sailor will not catch the wind if he doesn’t raise the sail, we will not grow if we do not raise the sails of our hearts through the means of grace – especially regular bible reading. Some object to this and say, “If salvation is all of grace, then why are you saying there is something I need to do?” Well, no doubt, life with God is all of grace. But, his grace invites us into a life that requires us to participate (see Phil 2:12-13). We play a crucial role in our ongoing growth. Now, of course, if anything good and worthwhile is to happen within us it is ultimately up to God. The sailor raises the sail, but he’s dependent on the wind to move the boat. Reading the Bible is like that. Humbly opening up the Scripture is how we raise the sail of our hearts, while knowing it is only God who sends the wind. Fortunately, more often than not, he loves to send the wind, so its not much of a gamble. We can’t control the wind, but we can raise the sail to catch it. If we don’t, its guaranteed we’ll do nothing but drift.
#5 Find a good translation
I remember being a new Christian in college wondering, “How in the world am I to pick the right Bible? There are too many options!” It can be overwhelming. If you’re a new, or renewed, follower of Jesus I recommend reading through the Bible using a study bible (e.g. ESV Study Bible, Gospel Transformation, Reformation Study Bible, NIV Life Application Bible, etc). Most Bibles with study notes offer enough information to answer your basic questions and ensure you don’t get needlessly hung up on what things mean. As far as Bibles themselves go, here is a good place to start:
ESV: Probably the best literal (word-for-word) modern translation available. The ESV is an updated version of the RSV. This is the translation we use on Sundays as a church. If you need one, feel free to take one of the paperback ESV’s we have available. Personally, I also enjoy the NASB and NKJV.
NIV: The NIV is the most popular dynamic-equivalent Bible of our day that seeks to strike a balance between matching the original word usage while communicating the original meaning. That makes it not quite as literal (i.e. word-for-word) as the ESV, but helpful and easy to read. You do need to be more discerning here as recent editions have introduced more gender neutral terminology that is not found in the original languages.
NLT: The New Living Translation belongs to the family of Bibles known as “paraphrases”. The goal of interpretation of these paraphrases is not to match word-for-word but to freely use language to highlight the original meaning. The Message is another popular paraphrase. The primary advantage of the NLT is that there was a translation committee involved, as opposed to the single authorship of The Message by Eugene Peterson (which is great too).
#6 Find a plan
This is where it is easiest to get lost. You want to know God. You understand that you’re reading the Bible from God’s love, not for it. You know your shady heart needs it. You’re ready to hoist the sail. You have your ESV open in front of you and think, “Oh, great, now what?” To avoid this moment, you need a plan. It doesn’t really matter what your plan is, provided you have one. Often in their eagerness, new believers will think, “I’m just going to read the Bible straight through.” I tried this myself. This might surprise you, but I don’t recommend it. Why? Because it can be really discouraging, especially once you hit Leviticus. Instead, try a plan that has you reading the Bible in a year. This is the one I use. If a year is intimidating, take two or three. it can also be helpful to read a chronological Bible reading plan so you get a sense of the order of events in the Scripture. Or, you could sink yourself into a single book, or study a character, or dive into a topic you’re interested in. Don’t worry about getting it right. Pick something. Give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, try something new. Be sure to ask your friends what they’ve found helpful.
#7 Find a rhythm
If you don’t have a rhythm for when you’re going to get unhurried time with God through the Scripture, it likely won’t happen. Look at your calendar. Find a consistent block of time. Then, find a quiet spot. Turn your electronics off or leave them somewhere else in the house. Be intentional about making it a focused, non-distracting time. I remember once reading of a famous theologian, who had seven kids, whose wife would put a towel over her head at the kitchen table to read the Bible and pray. When the towel came out, the kids knew that momma was getting time with Jesus. Do whatever it takes. Get creative, even if it involves a towel. A relationship with God is forged like any other relationship – thru consistent, unhurried, quality time. Be patient with yourself, especially if this is new for you.
#8 Ask God to give you eyes to see
A passage of scripture that I regularly think of when I open my Bible is Psalm 119:18 that says, “Open our eyes that we may behold wondrous things out of your law.” We need God to open the eyes and ears of our hearts to see and hear what he has for us in his Word. This is why one person can read a section of the Bible and be bored to tears, while someone else may read the exact same section and be lost in the breathtaking beauty of what she finds there. So, when you open your Bible, pour out your heart to Him. Tell him you’re tired, distracted, or distant. Tell him your heart needs realignment around what is most real. Then, ask him to open your eyes. Tell him that you want to see, really see. Trust that the Spirit who inspired the writing of the Bible (2 Peter 1:21) is the same Spirit at work in you (Romans 8). Then read, full of faith, on the lookout for what he might bring to your attention. That leads us to the next tip.
#9 Stay on the lookout for God as you read
After asking God for help, be on the look out for how he wants to feed your soul and stir your heart. You’re really looking for one, maybe two, things to think about. Its hard to digest more than that in a single day. So, as you’re reading, you want to find a truth to savor for the day. Ask: What is this saying about God? What does God want me to learn here? What does this tell me about myself? What difference would it make today if I actually believed this? Try to find something about him to satisfy your hungry heart every day. More than likely, it won’t be something new that you haven’t seen before, though it might be, but more often it is something “old” that strikes you in a new, deeper way. The famous English pastor George Mueller was known for his goal of making his heart happy in God every morning. I’ve adopted that as my own goal ever since I first heard it. Read with intention. Look for what jumps out. Then, when it does, stop and savor it.
#10 Slow it down, then write it down
Have you ever spent time reading, then closed your Bible, and immediately forget what it is you’ve read. I’m sure you have. I have. It is a universal problem. Is there a way to avoid that? Yes. Slow it down. Then, write it down. By “slowing it down” I mean don’t spend all your time reading. Rather, read and then chew on something that you’ve read (this is called “meditating”). Take a verse, or two, that stood out. Stop. Read through it a number of times. Turn it into a prayer. Look at it from multiple angles. Imagine how your life would be different if you believed the truth in view. Take your time with it. So, for example, if you have 20 minutes to read. Spend 10 minutes reading and 10 minutes slowing down on one verse or passage that stood out. Writing it down helps to further solidify these things in your heart, especially if you’re prone to distraction. One thing I do, nearly every day, is write down a verse or two that stands out. I use a small notebook, but it could be anything, even a 3×5 card. Then, I pray through it and meditate on it. Then, I try to pull the notebook out around lunch and before bed to review those truths so that they are with me throughout the day. Give it a shot and see what works best for you.
Christ is all,