“Some is better than none at all.”
I’m pretty sure my dad feels this way about pizza. After having a quintuple bypass five years ago, he dutifully made the change to a heart-healthy diet – and that meant sacrificing the anything-goes pizza he used to have for a few meager slices of the healthiest kind available. A sacrifice? Sure. But he doesn’t mind – he’s just glad he still gets to have pizza at all, even if it’s not quite the same.
I imagine that some Christians take the same attitude with Bible study. Strapped for time and desperate to feel close to God, they swap out time with the Word for a ten-minute devotional, a chapter of a Philip Yancey book, or the latest study guide written for their small group. Some time with God is better than none at all, they reason, and anyway, there are Bible verses somewhere in what they’re reading…so it counts, right?
I know this because I’ve done it myself. And the temptation to “swap out” these easier studies for Bible study can settle into a permanent habit. We talked about why in the first post in this series, but now I’d like to talk about the consequences of Bible-lite: what it means for your faith when you subsist, so to speak, on the supplement.
When you depend on Bible-lite…
1) You lack knowledge and understanding. The only way to know the Bible is to read the Bible. And even when we think we’re “reading” the Bible by mulling over some verses in a devotional or in a book chapter, those verses lack context. When we read a verse divorced from its context, we lose a lot: the conditions and qualifications around it, the audience and the speaker, the discussion that it follows from, the narrative framing, the tone. At best, this results in us missing out on the richness of a particular passage. At worst, it results in us misunderstanding or misapplying Scripture by cherry-picking verses we have no real understanding of.
Additionally, when we read another person’s analysis without bothering to look up the verses and consider them ourselves, we cheat ourselves of interpreting God’s word on our own. Authors can guide us to wonderful truths and understandings, but we should come to that analysis with them rather than letting them come to it for us. That way we can avoid the mistake of assuming that an author is always correct – because sometimes they aren’t! We must never let anyone stand in as a substitute authority on God’s word; we must turn to the word itself. In the lion’s share of cases, a little bit of self-study will lead us to the same analysis that the author makes: we’ll find joy in a richer understanding, and in having tested for ourselves that this analysis is true. But sometimes, just as importantly, your self-study will lead you to be wary of something you’ve read, especially if it seems to diverge from your understanding of the Bible. This is a necessary skill for any Christian: the ability to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). Keeping close to God’s word will help us to have discerning hearts about the supplementary material we read.
2) Your ability to share Christ suffers. The Word, Hebrews reminds us, is “alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (4:12). When unbelievers have questions – and they will have questions – it is ultimately the word of God that will inform your answers. Even when believers have questions – about doctrine, about dogma, about why this or what that – it is ultimately the word of God that will inform your answers. If you haven’t been in the word, that lack is going to show. Your confidence will suffer too as a result. That’s not to say with constant, rich Bible study you’ll have an answer to every single question; you won’t. But time spent in Bible study will help prepare you even for those times of uncertainty. If behind your quotations of authors and supplements you’ve read is a naked lack of Scriptural understanding, you won’t be able to hide it.
3) You will lack comfort and strength. I’ll admit outright that I owe a lot to the Christian authors I love. C.S. Lewis’ nonfiction writings inspire me in ways that have set my passions for writing and creating ablaze. Philip Yancey is largely responsible for sparking an enormous, fiery renewal of my faith. I can’t count the many books that have made me think, visualize Scripture differently, or helped me to approach a spiritual issue. And yet at moments of great joy or moments of great sorrow and need, it’s always Scripture that pops into my head. I attribute this largely to my upbringing in which plentiful Bible study was encouraged. When I’m in need, God brings to my mind the verses I need right then. And they help. I take comfort in the reminders of His love for me, the help He will provide, and the heart He has for His children. And when I’m puzzled or confused or uncertain, I am able to return to the source for certainty, reassurance, and calm.
If you aren’t studying Scripture, or if you’re only scooping up the odd verse here and there from a devotional, the well will run dry. Permit yourself a great store of comfort and strength and encouragement for the times in which you’ll need it. The more you get into the Word, the deeper the stock that the Spirit can draw from to move you, help you, and comfort you.
4) You will have bad, flimsy theology. Have you ever heard the phrase “Cleanliness is next to godliness”? How about “God helps those who help themselves”? Those two quotes are oft-mistaken for Bible verses. They are not. The first can be traced back to Sir Francis Bacon; the second to Ben Franklin. The Bible contains neither. In fact, the entire Bible essentially contradicts the second: God and Jesus are entirely in the business of helping the helpless!
Bad theology comes from a lack of information, a lack of discernment, and wrong information. It’s easy to assume that what you read in a Christian book, or a Christian internet post, or a Christian devotional is true, especially if it sounds right. But if you don’t know the Word well enough to figure out whether what you read is grounded in Scripture, you can end up adopting a lie as truth. And those lies can cause harm in any number of ways: they can damage your relationship with the church, they can damage your relationship with believers and nonbelievers, and in serious cases they can damage your relationship with God.
It’s true that many points of theology are up for debate and interpretation, and many Christians have spent years and years chewing on certain issues without coming to any real point of unity. But in general, even when debating and discussing theology Christians use Scripture to inform their views, since Christians view the Bible as the authority on our faith’s fundamental truths. When developing our understanding of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit, when developing our thoughts about sin and salvation, when developing our thoughts about the Biblical principles we must live by, we must always go first to Scripture. And yes, we can use other things to inform our context of Scripture: history and context and language studies and analyses and commentaries. But the Scripture comes first and last, because it will help ground our understanding
It’s good to read and think and analyze and ponder. But if we forget what is at the heart of all our analysis and study, then we will get lost in words without meaning, be unable to determine anything for ourselves, and find ourselves incapable of comforting ourselves or answering others with certainty when the need arises. So it’s good to keep the Bible as the focus of our study, even as we use other material to supplement it.
In my last and final post in this series, I’m going to put on my professor-hat and talk about some of the ways we can make straight Scripture study a little less arduous, and a little more beneficial.