The Slow Fade of Consistent, Independent Bible Study

I lived for the lightning bolt.

It was made out of electric blue poster board and covered in stickers.  Every student had one; Mrs. Cooper, our Bible school teacher, made them for us.  The winners of “Bible drills” – a contest where we’d race each other to see who could find Bible verses the fastest – received the stickers for their victories.  The lightning bolts were a trend in our class, and students used them as bookmarks.

But I didn’t just learn how to find verses in Mrs. Cooper’s class.  I learned the order of books in the Bible, too.  And then in Sunday School, I learned all the major Bible stories, how the Old and New Testament made sense together, Christ’s parables, the story of His life and death and resurrection.  Vacation Bible School encouraged me to memorize small verses for later use.  And sometime after that, when I was twelve or so, my mother gave me a book that taught me techniques to study the Bible on my own.  I still use them.

And yet many younger Christians I know don’t have those experiences to fall back on.  When I recently taught a young adult Bible study group, an anonymous poll of the thirty members revealed that only two read the Bible more than once a week at church. And in that group, members confessed to me that they didn’t really like or “get” individual Bible study – they were too busy for it. Rather, they explained, they wanted a teacher or pastor to study the Bible for them and then present the knowledge to them.  To be honest, I don’t think the sentiment is terribly uncommon in today’s church.

And that terrifies me.  If believers lose the desire among themselves for consistent, individual, and independent Bible study, we’ve lost the core of our entire Christian walk: the foundation of our understanding of God, of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, and of what He expects and desires of us.  That Bible classes no longer exist in some places is not an excuse; churches and individual believers both have the means to teach and encourage individual, self-motivated study.  And yet my fear is that such a discipline is slowly fading.

The Bible is the only tangible gift God has given us.  His indwelling spirit and His presence are both incorporeal – we can’t touch Him or see Him.  But we can hold the Bible, touch it, consult it, question it.  Knowing that, how can we not cherish it?  It is “alive and active,” sharper than a sword, meant to pierce, provoke – and also to comfort and soothe (Hebrews 4:12).  The Bible opens a windows on God’s thoughts, desires, delights, and frustrations; it shows us who Christ was; it forces us to readjust our lives daily.  It is the foundation on which Christians must exist.  Without it, in difficult times and confusing times and bewildering times, our sense of direction and our intentions and promises crumble away into nothing.

But it can only do that if we read it.  Expecting others – even in very good books, or very good small groups, or very good churches – to study the Bible for us is like asking someone else to chew our food before we swallow it.  You will learn things in independent Bible study that you cannot learn elsewhere; it is the time when God will speak to you personally.  As I warned the members of my study group, if you neglect that, you will feel the lack of it at some critical point.

Once, when I was pursuing my Ph.D., I wound up in a conversation with a professor who incorrectly assumed I’d read Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa.  Not wanting to show my own ignorance and having read a summary of the novel’s main events, I played along.  The conversation that followed was largely incomprehensible to me, full of words and concepts I knew vaguely but could not understand intimately.  I’m sure I missed the larger point; as a result, a conversation meant to be enriching and complex felt hollow and simple.  I forgot it immediately after I departed.  How then as believers can we profess to live our walk honestly, to understand the mind of Christ and God, when we haven’t even read half or all of what He has left for us?  When we have depended on summaries and analyses constructed by others?

No matter how much we evolve as a church and no matter where we as believers must go from here, if we don’t maintain our own individual, consistent study of the Bible in a way that is meaningful to us and enriches us, we will collapse under the weight of our duty.

Without a foundation, the house cannot stand.

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