Do not say…that one or two books is sufficient for instructing the soul. After all, even the bee collects honey not from one or two flowers only, but from many. Thus also he who reads the books of the Holy Fathers is instructed by one in faith or in right thinking, by another in silence and prayer, by another in obedience and humility and patience, by another in self-reproach and in love for God and neighbor; and, to speak briefly, from many books of the Holy Fathers a man is instructed in life according to the Gospel.
– Paisius Velichkovsky
Paisius Velichkovsky was an Eastern Orthodox monk and theologian. His observation is a rather simple one: we must learn wisdom from the bee, gathering wisdom diligently, broadly, and with great discipline. He exhorts us to read from the Holy Fathers, from the saints of old, who can instruct us in the Gospel and in Christian living. Our souls, being great things, need great nourishment. Like the bee, the gathering should take place daily, not from a paltry collection of sources, but from a diversity of literary riches.
I like to read and study. Not everyone is like me. Thank God. But if I could offer one bit of encouragement to others who, like me, are following Jesus, it would be to read a little more often than you do now. Begin with the Bible, particularly if Scripture is something you neglect. Scripture is a dietary staple. But then add to that a work of theology, or a historical work about a person who has been important to the Christian tradition.
Pay particular mind to your denominational heritage, if you have one (if you are a Methodist, read Wesley, if you are a Presbyterian, read Calvin, etc., etc.). I’d like the Baptists I know to be better Baptists, the Methodists I know to exemplify the best of their tradition, and on and on. Consider doing as Velichkovsky recommends: read the Church Fathers. Read Augustine. Read Athanasius. Read the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The old stuff is profoundly rich.
Choose one or two or three great theologians or renowned saints. Get to know them well, even if a little bit at a time. Pick up their work. Buy a book and learn about their lives. Read each day. Choose wisely. Stick with it. Observe. Learn. Apply. Grow.
Comedian George Carlin joked, “I was thinking about how people seem to read the Bible a whole lot more as they get older. Then it dawned on me – they’re cramming for their final exam.”
That may be true. It’s definitely funny. But it is misguided, at least insofar as it suggests there may be an entrance exam for eternity, or a minimum Bible reading requirement. God measures us not by what we know but who we know, by how we know the Father, and Jesus, the Son who was sent. We’re justified, or declared righteous, by faith in Jesus. But if we know him, God should see evidence of that relationship reflected in the content of our lives. The Bible is one resource that helps us know God better, so that we might walk with God more faithfully.
Many friends that I’ve made through the years have expressed interest in the Bible. They’ve been encouraged to read it. They’ve wanted to learn what is there, to understand the text, and to allow it to enrich their lives. But they’ve struggled to begin, or, once begun, they found it difficult to continue, or confusing in content. They understood that the Bible can help them grow in their spiritual life, but they struggled to understand how. And because they were unable to read the Bible profitably, they failed to make Bible reading a habit.
But that doesn’t have to be the case.
So how do we make it a habit? How can we read the Bible routinely and profitably, not only for knowledge of what it contains, but for knowledge of God?
I’m going to share ten pointers that have helped me. Throughout my years of study and in my practice of ministry, I’ve read the Bible from beginning to end a handful of times, and I’ve read select books more times than I could count, either for personal study or in preparation to teach. I’ve become more and more familiar with the story of Scripture by listening to sermons, reading books, and attending classes by learned instructors who helped me understand what I found in Scripture. I’ve also been to church as a matter of habit and through sermons, the public reading of the Bible, and in small group settings (like a Sunday school), I’ve been equipped to read the Bible with a measure of understanding.
I’m not done learning. But here is what I’ve learned, so far.
1. Acknowledge the Bible is not an Easy Book, but it is Understandable
The Bible is a collection containing sixty-six individual books–thirty-nine books in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible, or First Testament) and twenty seven books in the New Testament. There are a number of genres among those books, including narrative, history, genealogy, poetry, allegory, apocalyptic, epistolary, prophetic literature, and wisdom writings. There are various authors, some known, and others unknown to us. These books span centuries. The Old Testament was written hundreds of years (or more) before the birth of Jesus, while the books of the New Testament were written between the 40s or 50s (at earliest) to the 90s (arguably) of the Common Era.
When you read the Bible you are reaching back across history, trying to understand language, culture, idiom, geography, and context that is different from our own. The Bible is not an easy book.
But it is understandable. Through reading the Bible we can access the thoughts and stories of those who recorded their experiences with God, and we can learn from those experiences. We can learn what God is like, how God relates to humankind, and how we are called to live in light of the reality of God and what has been done in and through Jesus. We can also learn a great deal about what we are like, how God has made us to reflect God’s image, how we have been broken by sin, and how God has worked to redeem us through God’s action in history.
The Bible may not be an easy book, but it is an understandable book.
2. Join a Community of Interpretation
In the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons wrote in his treatise Against Heresies I:10:2-3:
As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it.
Nor will any one of the rulers in the churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these, for no one is greater than the Master; nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.
It does not follow because men are endowed with greater and less degrees of intelligence, that they should therefore change the subject-matter [of the faith] itself.
Irenaeus believed that the Christian faith was a received tradition, one that was passed down carefully from one generation to the next, without change or adaptation, tracing itself back to the teachings of the Apostles. This idea traces back to the Bible. In Titus 2:1, Paul exhorts Titus, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” Paul wants Titus to pass on what he has been taught.
In 2 Peter 1:12-15, we find another example that shows early church leaders passing down a received set of teachings. Peter writes, “So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body,because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me.And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.”
In early Christianity, we find evidence that the earliest ideas and teachings were contested. But there also appears to be a solid core that emerged as normative for Christian faith and practice. A canon of texts and a tradition of interpretation became established, and while the canon has remained, the interpretative tradition is more like an ongoing conversation. Some aspects of the tradition are firmly established. Others continue to be debated.
Today, there are a number of established traditions, the oldest of which is found in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity. The Protestant traditions are more nascent, but nonetheless they are well developed, and in their beginnings sought to return to apostolic or primitive Christianity, returning the church to the Bible and the teachings of the Apostles themselves.
Whether you are a Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal, or non-denominational Christian (or some combination thereof), solidify your ties to a community of interpretation. Learn from others of like conviction who have read the Bible and offered an interpretation of its meaning. Discover where you agree and where you disagree, as well as where the tensions rest. Uncover what unites the Christian tradition, and where traditions differ. Learn your own tradition’s weaknesses, and come to respect other traditions’ strengths. Stand firm on your convictions. But also have humility concerning the claims you make. You may be wrong, even if you doubt it.
3. Clarify Your Reason for Reading
Why do you want to read the Bible?
In John 5:39-40, Jesus said this to the religious leaders of his day, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me,yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
Jesus points to motive. He observes that while his opponents read the Scriptures, they did so in a way that led them to miss the coming of Israel’s Messiah. Jesus suggests that if they read the Scriptures to encounter God, and not as an end in itself, then perhaps they would have recognized him for who he was and they would have found eternal life in him.
If you want to read the Bible to win arguments, to appear knowledgeable, to impress God, or because you think reading the Bible may result in God granting you blessing or favor, perhaps you should revisit your motives. Do you want to read the Scripture in order to know God, to meet Jesus, to become better acquainted with the provocations of the Spirit? Do you want to grow in holiness, flee from sin, increase in love of neighbor, learn compassion for enemies, and more? Do you simply want to be the person God created you to be? What’s your reason for reading?
N. T. Wright said, “The Bible is the book of my life. It’s the book I live with, the book I live by, the book I want to die by.” Wright regards the Bible as a companion resource for life, a guide, and as instruction to prepare for death. He trusts that in and through it, God has spoken and that God speaks.
Why will you read it?
4. Acquire a Good Bible and a Few Study Tools
If you’re going to read the Bible it is a good idea to have one that is readable and accessible. All you may have is an old King James family Bible, its pages worn and hard to read. That’d be a start. But if you’re not familiar with ye Olde English, it might prove challenging.
A Bible commentary, like The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary. Commentaries come in multi-volume sets, and there are several good, reliable series. But having a one-volume commentary can come in handy, especially if you’re just beginning your study of the Bible and are building your theological library.
A Bible handbook, like Stephen Miller’s Complete Guide to the Bible. Zondervan also produces a Bible handbook; there are others. But Stephen has always been kind to me, and I count him as a friend.
5. Ask God for Help and Honor God’s Leadership
A. W. Tozer wrote, “The Bible is a supernatural book and can be understood only by supernatural aid.” That is true, to a point. All people can profit at some level from the reading of Scripture. But those who profit most will do so by seeking first to know God through the Bible. Any knowledge of God that we obtain is always a work of God’s supernatural grace.
That’s why you should ask for help. Pray while you read, and earnestly and simply ask God to enlighten your mind and enable you to understand. Apply what you learn. And if you ever feel challenged, that’s good. Maybe God is unearthing something that needs to change. Honor God’s leadership.
To candid, reasonable men, I am not afraid to lay open what have been the inmost thoughts of my heart. I have thought, I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: Just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing, – the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way: For this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: Here is knowledge enough for me. Let me be homo unius libri (” a man of one book”).
Here then I am, far from the busy ways of men. I sit down alone: Only God is here. In his presence I open, I read his book; for this end, to find the way to heaven. Is there a doubt concerning the meaning of what I read? Does anything appear dark or intricate? I lift up my heart to the Father of Lights: – “Lord, is it not thy word, ‘If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God?’ Thou ‘givest liberally, and upbraidest not.’ Thou hast said; ‘If any be willing to do thy will, he shall know.’ I am willing to do, let me know, thy will.” I then search after and consider parallel passages of Scripture, “comparing spiritual things with spiritual.” I meditate thereon with all the attention and earnestness of which my mind is capable. If any doubt still remains, I consult those who are experienced in the things of God; and then the writings whereby, being dead, they yet speak. And what I thus learn, that I teach.”
Wesley had a method. He entered solitude, welcomed God’s presence, opened the Scriptures, asked good questions of the text and of himself, lifted his heart to God and asked for help, read comparatively, meditated on what he had read, sought counsel from others, studied other books, and taught others what he had learned.
I read devotionally and acquisitively, and most often I employ the inductive Bible study method, which you can read about here.
7. Formulate a Plan for Study
Looking for a Bible study plan? Here are several. Here are others. If you have a study Bible, open it up and browse the introductory material. There is likely a plan there.
You could study one book of the Bible per month. If you did that for every book of the Bible, you could read the entire Bible in five and a half years. I read four chapters each day, plus a Psalm. I underline as I go and make notes. When I finish, I’ll choose another copy of the Bible and begin again. That’s my plan.
What’s your plan?
8. Set a Rhythm
I begin each day with Bible reading and prayer. That’s my rhythm. I have a daily reminder in my tasks, which helps me to stay on track.
Set an appointment on your calendar. Make it a daily task. Recruit a trustworthy friend to ask you if you have been routine in reading.
9. Let the Bible Read You
In Psychology and Spiritual Formation in Dialogue, C. Stephen Evans helpfully applies the wisdom of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard to our reading of the Bible. Kierkegaard’s reading of James 1:22-27 led him to conclude that Scripture is like a mirror, reflecting God, reflecting itself, but also reflecting us. Evans observes, “One way we can go wrong is by making God’s Word simply an object of scholarship to be studied rather than reading it to hear God speak to us.”
In Self-Examination, Kierkegaard offered this advice in reading the Scriptures, “Remember to say yourself incessantly: It is I to whom it is speaking; it is I about whom it is speaking.” Through the Bible, God addresses us. When you understand the Bible, apply it. Put it into practice.
10. Stick With It
C H. Spurgeon said, ““Bible study is the metal that makes a Christian,” and A. W. Tozer remarked, “Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian.” Once you begin, stick with it. Don’t quit. And if you do stop for a while, don’t be overwhelmed by guilt. Begin again.
If it helps, bring to mind the words of Psalm 19:7-13, which says:
The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever. The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb. By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward. But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then I will be blameless, innocent of great transgression.
I’ve given up more than once. I’ve bogged down in the commandments. I’ve gotten lost in a genealogy. But I’ve come back. I’ve made a new beginning. I’ve kept reading.
The past several years I’ve had the itch to draw and this year I took a step forward and enrolled in two art classes at McLennan Community College. I’m taking an art appreciation course online, and attending an entry level drawing class. I’m loving it.
As my kids have matured they have both expressed an interest in art, as we all tend to do, and from an early age my daughter impressed me with her ability to conceptualize ideas and put them on paper. She was very fortunate to meet a few of our young adult friends who were skilled in drawing and painting and making, and, when we invited them to babysit, they’d create alongside our kids, inspiring them to do their own work. When my son entered the picture he jumped right in and started expressing himself with pencils and markers. The past two years we’ve enjoyed doing stuff together at Art for Kids Hub.
It has been a blast to watch them make. I know everyone’s kids are virtuosos and geniuses, math whizzes and little artistic masters from the moment they crawl out of the womb. But mine are exceptionally exceptional. Mine are the best one’s I’ve ever had. So I’ve tried to encourage them. The biggest way I think I can do that is to do the work alongside them. As Austin Kleon writes, “If you spend more time in your life doing the things that you love and that you feel are worthwhile, the kids in your life will get hip to what that looks like.” That’s translatable to sports, faith…anything really.
In order to be the best teacher, I decided that I would become a student. The best teachers are usually those who never ceased to learn. I was asked by my friend Matthew yesterday why I’m taking a drawing class. Here are my reasons.
1. Pleasure. And I Have the Time.
When I think back to my growing up years, I can remember making stuff with my hands and being interested in drawing, even though I didn’t think I was very good. I would take comic book images, like Spider-Man and the Hulk, and I’d break out an old notebook and take a pencil and some colored pencils, and I’d do my very best to replicate what I saw. Then I’d step back, think it was horrible, and then quit, all because it wasn’t realistic. It wasn’t “right.” It wasn’t true to what I saw. And though my parents had enrolled me in a couple of art classes, and my great grandmother was a painter, and my mom and aunts and grandmother made stuff , I got to the point where I stopped drawing, stopped coloring, stopped painting.
Except I didn’t. I’d doodle in class, and when I had my own computer, I’d draw cartoons using the rectangles and circles. My friend Jason can probably remember me spending more time in seminary classes creating panels than I did taking notes. Most of my cartoons had something to do with the class.
So I have always enjoyed drawing, even when my work hasn’t been “good.” But the more I’ve practiced the better I’ve become. When stepping into the classroom, it helps to take pleasure in the work, it aids the learning process, and helps me to keep going even when it is tough.
In addition to enjoying it, I have the time to take the class, to learn. Both kids are now in school, and my writing schedule allows enough flexibility where I can complete my coursework, keep my volunteer commitments, and complete my writing projects. So far, I’ve found that drawing engages another part of my brain and helps me see things a little differently. I don’t know. It’s a nice complement to other things I’m doing.
2. For My Kids
As I mentioned before, I’m taking a drawing class for my kids. Now, I have work to show. This has led to my kids wanting to show their work, so in the future you may be seeing what they’ve created on this website. Art has basic concepts and principles that guide the work. By learning those ideas and principles, I can teach them to my kids and help them grow. Simple, really.
I also think I got kind of inspired when I made this tank for David last Halloween:
3. Because of My Influences
Members of my family were creators, makers. There are several paintings by my Nanny, rural landscapes and farming scenes, that are still with us, hanging on the walls. So when I take photographs and share them, or when I make something, maybe I hope it’ll be around after I’m gone. Maybe I hope that the work of my hands will be established, at least for a little while.
But I also had a seminary professor named Howard Hendricks who encouraged us to be creative, to draw, to make, to find ways to express ourselves and to tell stories that pointed others toward the glory of God. He understood that God was a creative being, and that people, created in God’s image, were made to create, to reflect the glory of the Creator in the things that were made.
Hendricks did not limit this idea to crafting words, preaching sermons, or making presentations. He saw that the arts could powerfully convey truth and encouraged his students to use their gifts. Most of the things I made for his courses involved photography or poetry. But I drew stuff, mainly on my computer. I own Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (and the Workbook) because of Hendricks, and worked my way through some of the exercises. He inspired me to draw.
Lastly, I’ll loop back to comics. I used to enjoy trying to recreate the heroes I encountered in the Marvel and DC stories. I collected comics in middle school. I’m so thankful my parents hung on to my collection. As comic book stories have come alive as movies, I’ve gone back to them, checking out the bound collections from my public library, reading backstories, checking out the evolution of the artwork. And I’ve become a patron of Bankston’s, a local comic books store. Right now I’m reading Detective Comics (Batman), Miles Morales: Spider-Man, The Batman Who Laughs, and Wolverine. The art is incredible.
So often we try to convey or communicate the character and work of God to others by stepping up the noise and the activity; and yet for God to communicate who and what God is, God needs our silence.
– Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, 98
The spiritual life involves speaking and not speaking.
In speaking, we issue invitations. We draw attention and take action. We converse, convince, and persuade. We do.
In not speaking, we stop. We become silent. We are still. We listen, contemplate, and consider. We be.
The church has always needed heralds. Romans 10:17 says, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” In Romans 10:13 we find, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In Romans 10:14-15, Paul asks, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
The logic is easy to follow. The person who hears and responds in faith does so following a proclamation of the message of and about Jesus, brought by another person who has been called and sent forth for that task.
The best gospel ministry marries proclamation to demonstration. We are told what the kingdom of God is like, but then we see it, it is put on display. In Matthew 4:23, we read that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” There is not only speaking, but activity.
And yet to plumb the depths of God, to know who God is and what God is doing, there comes a time for silence. Psalm 46:10 says, ““Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” In Psalm 62:5, we read, “For God alone my soul waits in silence,for my hope is from him.” Lamentations 3:26 reads, “It is good that one should wait quietlyfor the salvation of the Lord.”
Even Jesus withdrew to lonely places to pray. Jesus surely spoke. But he also surely took time to listen, away from the noise, the activity, and the constant demands.
Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” Observe each in its own time, do not neglect either. There is speaking and not speaking. There is action and stillness. There is doing and being.