Tim Alford suggests four ways to ensure that your Bible reading really provides spiritual benefit
“I believe the Bible is the best gift God has ever given to man. All the good from the Saviour of the world is communicated to us through this book.”
What are some of the practical tools that you can take away and apply to your life, that will help you and your young people build a consistent, life-giving, Jesus-connecting rhythm of Bible reading?
1. Read all of it!
In the following paragraphs I am going to advocate for a slow reading of short passages of Scripture - meditation, memorisation, praying the Scripture and so forth - but before I do, it’s important to emphasise that this should be couched in an understanding of the meta-narrative of the Biblical story. Without this, it’s all too easy to misunderstand or misinterpret that which particular passages are trying to teach us. Let’s take a particularly contentious topic to serve as an example….
“Women should remain silent in the churches,” writes Paul, “They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says”
1 Corinthians 14:34
Taken on its own, this passage would surely lead us to the conclusion that church gatherings are universally the province of men alone, whilst women must be consigned to passive and silent consumption.
Couched in the meta narrative of the biblical story however, we understand that this could not have been Paul’s desired intention. From the beginning of the story, we learn that women and men are made, equally and unequivocally, in the image of God, tasked to ‘rule over’ the Lord’s good creation together (Gen 1:26-27). We consider also Deborah, the judge of Israel (Judges 4-5); the women who followed and supported Jesus (Mark 15:40-41, Luke 8:1-3), Mary who sat at Jesus feet, assuming the posture of a disciple to their rabbi (Mark 10:38-42); Priscilla and Aquila who led a church in their home (1 Cor. 16:19), Phoebe, the deacon of the church in Cenchreae (Rom. 16:1), and Junia who was highly esteemed among the apostles (Rom. 16:7). We note too that Paul himself assumed that women would indeed speak when the church gathered, as indicated by the instruction he gave to the women in Corinth to cover their heads as a symbolic sign when praying or prophesying aloud (1 Cor 11:4-5).
The point here is not to advocate for egalitarian theology, that would require much more than an illustrative paragraph would allow, it is, rather, to demonstrate how our reading of specific passages of Scripture must be filtered through our understanding of the meta-narrative of Scripture.
Thus it has been my practice for several years to read the whole Bible every year, each year in a different translation, to train myself to better know the story of which I am a part and am called to invite others in to.
I do understand that the thought of reading the whole Bible can feel somewhat overwhelming when you look at the large size of the book and the small size of the text! But, in actual fact, you can read the entire Bible in a one year by reading for just 20-30 minutes a day. Perhaps you think you don’t have that kind of time? Then maybe take a quick look at the screen time function on your phone and see how much time you spend on social media, then decide what you think would be a better use of those 20-30 minutes each day.
You can read the whole Bible. Instagram can wait (or even be deleted). It’s not a matter of time, it’s a matter of priority. You can do it, you just have to choose it.
2. Memorise it!
There’s this amazing story in Matthew 4 where Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. He’s been fasting for 40 days in the heat of the desert, exhausted and hungry, and in this moment of weakness the enemy comes to tempt him.
So how will Jesus seek to resist? How will he be able to stand strong and not give in to the temptations that seem all-to-legitimate at the time?
He reaches for the Scripture. But not the app that he has stored on his phone, rather the verses he has stored in his memory. He reaches for the ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God’ (Eph. 6:17), and repels the lies of the enemy with the truth of God’s Word.
Commenting on this passage, pastor Andy Stanley writes, “That’s our example. Truth for lies. And it raises a challenging question: Have you filled your mind with enough “it is written” statements that you’re prepared to combat the lies you face every day? … If the Son of God felt it was
necessary to respond to Satan’s specific lies with specific truths, what does that say about us? If anyone could have overcome through sheer willpower, it was Jesus. If anyone could have reached down into his own reservoir of personal strength and experienced victory, it was Jesus. If anyone could have engaged Satan in a battle of wits and logic, He could. But instead, He reached for truth … When you quote God’s Word as it applies to your daily situations, you aren’t just speaking on your own. You are a representative, a spokesperson, of the Kingdom of God! You’re backed by the full power and authority of the Creator of the universe, the Author of life himself. When God speaks, every other voice in the universe is rendered speechless. That’s why the truth, real truth, God’s truth, has the power to set you free.”
Memorising Scripture helps to get it into our hearts. It enables us to name the seasons of our lives, to combat worry, to resist temptation, to give accurate answers to our friends who ask tough questions, and to cling on to the promises of God when everything around us seems to be falling apart.
As we commit the Word of God to our minds it shapes our hearts, forming us into his likeness, helping us to know him more deeply and become more like him.
3. Meditate on it!
The Lord gave this instruction to Joshua: “Do not let this book of the law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:8).
Now for anyone for whom talk of ‘meditation’ raises a red flag, let me be clear that Christian meditation is the same as a spiritualist/Buddhist meditation, which has to do with the emptying of yourself. Nor is it the same as a secular mindfulness, which has to do with seeking to become focused on the present moment. Christian mediation is about filling ourselves with Jesus. It’s about casting our burdens, anxieties, worries on to Him, then fixing our minds on the things of God. It’s about ridding our thoughts of clutter and stilling our spirits so we can open our hearts, minds and ears to God.
As St. Ignatius of Loyola once said, “It’s true that the voice of God, having once fully penetrated the heart, becomes strong as the tempest and loud as the thunder, but before reaching the heart it is as weak as a light breath which scarcely agitates the air. It shrinks from noise, and is silent amid agitation.” Thus we must learn to still ourselves if we are to hear the voice of God through Scripture.
To aid us in this, I’d encourage you to have a go at an ancient practice in the Christian tradition called Lectio Divina, which simply means ‘Divine Reading.’ Here’s a brief step-by-step guide to the practice:
- Find a quiet space, remove all distractions, switch off your phone
- Choose a short Bible verse or passage
- Make a list of concerns, worries, burdens, distractions and things on your mind. Give them to Jesus in prayer.
- Come to quiet, begin to slow your breathing, and relax into Jesus’ presence. Prayerfully ask him to fill your heart and mind. Ask him to help you still your thoughts and to speak to you through the Scripture you are about to read.
- Read the whole passage slowly and thoughtfully. Remember you’re reading and listening together.
- Read it again and again, allowing God to draw you towards one particular phrase or even one word.
- Now ask God what he is wanting to say to you through that particular sentence or word.
- Write down what you’ve noticed, what stood out to you, or what you feel God has been saying.
This slow, meditative reading of the Biblical text creates room for God to speak to us through it in a way that reading larger chunks does not allow for.
4. Paraphrase it!
Another way to meditate on Scripture is to write your own version of a particular passage. This is not to replace the translation in your Bible of course, but serves as a practice that can help us really think through and dwell on the meaning of a particular verse and apply it to our context. Here’s an example:
1 Peter 1:24-25 - the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures for ever.
My Paraphrase: Cities and civilisations will pass, celebrities will come and go, politicians and laws will have their day, popular opinion will shift with the next big idea, but God’s Word is THE TRUTH that will never change, never fail and never pass away!
So why not have a go at your own paraphrase and see what comes to you from the text that reading it alone would not draw out.
It was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who once said, “First of all I will confess quite simply - I believe the Bible alone is the answer to all our questions, and we only need to ask repeatedly and a little humbly, in order to receive this answer. One cannot simply read the Bible, like other books. One must be prepared to really enquire of it. Only thus will it reveal itself. Only if we expect from it the ultimate answer, shall we receive it. That is because in the Bible, God speaks to us.”
I pray that as you sit with, dwell in, meditate on and enquire of the Word of God, you will hear his voice more clearly, know his character mire intimately, and love him more deeply. Happy reading!