As someone who grew up in the church, I was always taught the importance of reading my Bible but I wasn’t always given a clear plan as to how to do that. There were some helpful, little “read-alongs” that you could use, you know, “Read these verses” and then read the little warm and fuzzy devotional that went along with it. There were devotional books and devotional monthly magazines like Our Daily Bread, but those remained simply devotional material with kind of “feel good” messages. They never really did anything for me in regards to actually studying the Bible.
As I got older, I found solace and comfort in the Psalms. I could relate to David, he seemed like the kind of guy that I would meet and talk with only to feel as if we had been lifelong friends (I get the irony of that as my name is Jonathan). But I still never had any real precise reading plan. In fact, you might say that my approach towards Bible reading was more like a game of roulette, open up to the Bible index, close your eyes, point somewhere on the page, and go to the appointed book of the Bible. There was really no rhyme or reason to the approach that I took.
While I’ve adopted a Bible reading plan to read through the Bible in a year, I still struggle. Am I reading simply to check off the box? How effective is it for me? Am I getting anything out of it? Should I quit doing it and go back to the roulette approach? I’m sticking it out, but I’ve been known to take tangents in addition to my “required” reading plan.
As a follower of Christ, I believe that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is his revelation of himself to his creation. It’s not a stagnant piece of work or literature, but an actual living document that continues to speak although it’s been years since it was originally penned. I believe that there is a process that takes place beyond a simple reading of words on a page and that reading the Bible is a spiritual act, an act that involves more than just eyes on pages.
At some point, maybe it was during seminary, I discovered something that took a considerable load off of my shoulders in this area. It’s an ancient practice called Lectio Divina, Latin for “sacred reading.” It’s an ancient practice that emphasizes a prayerful reading of Scripture. The practice is broken into four parts: reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating (or living). The practice is far more in depth than what I will describe here, but a brief overview seems appropriate.
It sounds simple, right? We read things all the time: billboards, news tickers, junk mail, bills, emails, and the list goes on and on. But in our fast-paced and information saturated society, we have most likely found ourselves guilty of cursory reading. To be honest, I can’t even count the number of times that I have “read” things only to find out later on that I had missed some key points in my cursory reading. I have mastered the art of skimming. In fact, I have a friend who prides himself on the fact that he hasn’t actually read a book in a long time, he simply skims books.
This isn’t a criticism of my friend (he’s much smarter than I am), but we need to learn to slow down and one way that we can do that is by practicing lectio divina. We read through a passage multiple times, changing our inflections as we read it aloud. We stop and pause on words or phrases. It’s a completely different reading of Scripture than the “Check the Box” approach that I can too often find myself using. It’s slowing down and leading the words wash over us. It’s the difference between approaching our spiritual food like a quick snack versus a gourmet meal. It’s savoring every bite.
It’s one thing to read something and a completely different thing to actually “chew” on what you’ve just read. I can remember back to studying engineering in college and those painful times when I would have to read a section of my textbook over and over again because I had zoned out while I was reading it. Sure, I could say that I had completed the reading, but had I really ingested what I had just read?
When we slow down and take a “gourmet” approach towards Scripture reading, we can emphasize it even more by actually thinking through what it says. Like I said before, Scripture is a different kind of document and the process by which we read it needs to be a different kind of reading. We have been given a helper, an assistant of sorts, in the Holy Spirit. He helps us as we read if we open ourselves up to what God is saying to us through his Word.
When we meditate on Scripture, we add one more step of assurance to our process, one more step that will help us move past a cursory reading of Scripture and move us to a more contemplative reading. We ingest and digest the Word that God has spoken to us.
Ever have a friend that never lets you get a word in edgewise? It’s never fun. In fact, I can almost guarantee that if you have a friend like that, your relationship can’t be too deep. They might think that the relationship is deep because you know a lot about them, but if you turn the tables and ask them whether or not they know you, chances are pretty good that they will be hard-pressed to answer questions about you.
Prayer can easily be misunderstood as just our communication with God, but prayer is dialogue, it’s two-way conversation. If it isn’t, then we aren’t doing it right. We need to engage in a conversation with God. We don’t necessarily expect that he will speak audibly back to us, but within our being, we may sense the gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit as we open ourselves up to hearing. Like Scripture says over and over again, let him who has ears hear what the Lord is saying.
Some might term this aspect of lectio divina “Living” rather than “Contemplation.” It’s a practice of James 1:22-25, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.”
If we have a propensity towards cursory readings, how much more will be have a tendency to forget what we have read and do nothing with it. If we read Scripture to simply check off a box, it won’t do the transformative work in us that it needs to do.
If we are intentional about taking what the Holy Spirit says to us through Scripture, than we will not be like the man or woman that James describes here. We will take what we have seen and do something about it. To look in a mirror and see flaws and then walk away and not address the issue is irresponsible. When we see what needs to change in our lives, when we sense what has to happen, we need to take action and this is what we do here. We take what we have read and we begin to put it into practice.
Like I said, this is merely a scratching of the surface of what this ancient practice is all about, but it’s a practice that I have had to go back to and remind myself of time and time again. While I am not a perfect practitioner of lectio divina, even a derivation of the method can be helpful and freeing.
There are moments of our lives when we need to simply slow down and rest in a particular section of Scripture. In the days and weeks leading up to my mom’s death and in the time afterwards, I spent most of my time in the Psalms and in Romans 8. The day of her funeral, I drove to Williamsburg by myself, reading aloud Romans 8 three times to let the words penetrate my wounded soul.
If you have found yourself simply going through the motions or checking off a box in the area of Bible reading, I would encourage you to find out more about this ancient practice. It’s not a magic bullet, you won’t do it once and think that you have “arrived,” but it may be just the thing that you need to free yourself from cursory readings and skimmings of the Word of God.
Try it out, and if you’re so inclined, let me know what you think. I’m always up to hear a good story about a change that’s taken place in someone’s life.