As we near the end of this part of the series of “How to Understand the Bible,” we take up one very practical question: what can we do to make sure we are reading Scripture regularly?
I still cherish my boyhood memories of going fishing with my grandfather. It seems like it was yesterday. One day while I was sorting through the wide variety of tackle I had collected, fidgeting with lures and sinkers and bobbers and the rest in my fancy tackle box, my grandfather looked at me and said: “Mel, you won’t catch a thing unless your hook is in the water.” Of course, he was right. His hook was always in the water, and he had much more to show for it.
The main principle of reading Scripture for a lifetime of spiritual growth is: just read it. Don’t spend too much time looking for the “just right” study Bible, or other helps. Don’t neglect reading Scripture because you are in a period when you are having a hard time understanding it. And don’t slow down because you have not found a plan that is right for you. Put your hook in the water. Something will happen.
Here are some guidelines for a lifestyle of fruitful Bible reading.
1. Follow a plan, but vary the plan year by year. There are plans that are structured for reading the whole Bible in a year, or two years. The plan may go from Genesis to Revelation, but some plans have you read an Old Testament portion, a New Testament portion, and a Psalm every day, for instance. One very ambitious plan has you reading the whole Bible in 90 days. I like doing that every couple of years. It takes me about a half-hour of reading a day. One plan gets you through the four Gospels in 40 days. Another goes through just the New Testament in a year. There are holiday reading plans for Lent or Advent which really help us focus on the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. You can find verse-of-the-day devotions, but they are of limited worth because you do not get the broad scope of the story of Scripture. Bible Gateway is a good place to find a wide variety of plans.
2. Do not give up. If you start a reading plan in January and falter in March, getting hopelessly behind the plan, just choose another plan for the year. Keep your hook in the water. If all else fails, just read a chapter a day. Consider a day incomplete unless you read something in Scripture.
3. Use a simple tool for a schedule. I like printing out a plan on a single sheet of paper and having it tucked in the back of my Bible. You can use an online scheduling function on your computer or mobile device, but make sure it is a function that is easy to use and easy to access.
4. Decide whether you will make notes or not. Writing your thoughts and questions down as you read helps with comprehension, and many people do it faithfully. I have generally preferred not doing that, however, because I know I will keep reading every day if it is just me and the Bible in my hand. It is different when I am studying Scripture for a group I am in or a teaching I am preparing in which case I take careful notes. You should figure out what works best for you. If taking notes does not bog you down, do it. You will have an accumulating treasure.
5. Know the time of day that is best for you, and set a pattern. This is really important. Lifestyle is about regularity. Most people eat and sleep on a preferred pattern that works for them. So it is with reading Scripture as a lifestyle. I like the early morning when it is quiet in the house and my to-do list isn’t pressing in on my mind. Others find a lunch break or the evening better.
6. Read introductions to Bible books. If you’ve gotten through Numbers and are ready to dive into Deuteronomy, don’t just plow ahead. Take a few minutes to read an introduction which will orient you to the context, circumstances, date, themes, and author of what you are about to read. Study Bibles, for instance, have concise introductions that are no more than a page, for instance, The NIV Study Bible (Zondervan) and The ESV Study Bible (Crossway). But you can get longer introductions in Bible dictionaries or handbooks. Some excellent choices are The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Dictionary, the New Bible Dictionary, and the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary.
7. Allow time for reflection. In today’s hectic world this gets squeezed out, but it is essential. This may mean shutting your Bible, closing your eyes for five minutes and thinking about what you’re read, speaking to God a word of thanks or frustration or inquiry. I find taking a walk after reading to be an excellent way to let the thoughts circulate around in my mind. If there is a single verse, or even just a phrase or a single word, that strikes you powerfully, take some time to ponder it. God the Holy Spirit may be placing a marker in your mind which will be important at some later point in your life. Commit to this: read and reflect.
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Mel Lawrenz is Director of The Brook Network and creator of The Influence Project. He’s the author of thirteen books, most recently Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership.