Take and Read: How to Read the Bible 101
The best advice I have ever heard on the topic of reading the Bible came from a sermon with the message, "Just read." Really. Rev.Ted Smith of the Weston Presbyterian Church addressed a concern many of us had, that we were not worthy to read the Bible, that we couldn't do it right. While we all had this underlying guilt about not reading it every day, we didn't really know how. This lack of confidence in our Bible reading abilities comes, in part, from our ignorance of the fact that there are two main reasons for reading the Bible, one is study and the other devotion. This difference dictates how we read, and it should. For those who really want to read the Bible devotionally, but don't feel they know how, the following guide should help.
Don't Be Afraid
We are not alone in thinking we are not educated or spiritual enough to read the Bible. This belief is bolstered by the fact that we actually hire people to read it and interpret it for us, our ministers. As a minister myself, I am not criticizing ministers, just the way that even Protestants, who believe in the priesthood of all believers, have handed over the Bible to others. I was quite surprised when I became a Presbyterian and began attending various Bible Studies, that many of them weren't even using the Bible as part of the study! There is a huge industry made up of books and other media designed for Bible Study. Most of these resources simply take the place of a minister, by giving the writer's opinion of what a particular text means. I was surprised. It seemed to me that people were just afraid of actually engaging the Bible. Of course, that may have been wise, because I found, myself, that once I began to read it, strange things began to happen. One of my very first goals as a minister was to have a Bible Study and to actually read the Bible as the foundation of it. Now, it may sound as if I'm negating what I said earlier about the difference between Bible study and devotional reading, but, in fact, I always intended for any Bible Study I was leading to involve both.
Long before I was leading Bible Study myself, though, I was a mother of three children in diapers, sitting in the pews hearing this life-changing sermon. Along with his inspired words, my pastor also provided a daily lectionary (the Revised Common Lectionary of the World Council of Churches that most mainline churches use) that provided psalms, an Old Testament reading, Gospel reading, and Epistle reading for each day. It seemed so simple, I thought, even I could do it.
I had come through very difficult pregnancies and had been quite ill, along with caring for my children. While I really wanted to be faithful and read the Bible, I despaired of ever being able to do so. My days were buried in baby food and diapers and rest whenever I could grasp it. This sermon freed me, however. I began to read. Every day. I found that I could leave my Bible open on my desk, with the list of lectionary readings beside it, and then, when a spare moment came, I could just sit down and read. No other preparation necessary. Actually, one thing was necessary. The sermon had also talked about the need to pray to the Holy Spirit to be with us as we read. I started with a very brief prayer my minister had provided, but soon was using my own. Truly, there were days when I only had one minute to read, but I did. I didn't worry about not understanding as I read. I simply sat with God and text. I later came to understand it as devotional reading and continued to do it daily throughout my years of seminary even when I was actually studying the Bible in depth. Somewhere along the way I began to name what I was doing as sacramental.
The question may come up, especially among today's Christians, "Why read the Bible?" It is a fair question. Although 85% of American households own Bibles, and each of those households owns on average, 4.3 Bibles, according to the American Bible Society, most people in those households have decided that reading the Bible is not a priority. Many have been turned off by the use of the Bible as the source of "proof-texting" whereby one argues a point using Bible verses out of context. Others have just never been encouraged to read it for themselves, but have an almost superstitious belief that they should have one in their home. Many plan to read it someday when they are not as busy. So all of these Bibles go unread. Not one of these people will be smited because they haven't read the Bible, but regular reading can bring spiritual benefits.
Many who read the Bible, look for answers in it. When reading devotionally, or sacramentally, this is not the goal. In fact, there is no goal. Our hope is to just be with God, not expecting anything, or trying to read between the lines. We are not memorizing, translating, taking notes, or learning, necessarily. What we are doing is opening our hearts for transformation. It is much more like prayer than like study, in this sense. We just read, and God does the rest.
55% read the Bible to be closer to God, down 9% (from 64%) in 2011
79% believe they are knowledgeable about the Bible but 54% were unable to correctly identify the first five books of the Bible
36% of Americans read the Bible less than once a year or never while 33% read the Bible once a week or more
54% of adults in America believe the Bible has too little influence in U.S. society today - more than four times the proportion of those who think it has too much influence (13%)
Source: American Bible Society bwo http://www.demossnewspond.com/americanbible/press_kit/bible_statistics
Stay tuned for "How To Read the Bible 102", coming soon.