In the first post in this series I spent some time discussing the dangers of Bible-lite, that phenomenon when Christians substitute secondhand study of God’s word for actual Bible study. In the second, I talked about some of the consequences of Bible-lite. Today, however, I’ll be putting on my professor hat to offer some solutions to the problem. If you struggle with studying the Bible (or even with wanting to study the Bible!), there is both help and hope.
Get a new translation. Or several.
Some versions of the Bible are more difficult to understand than others, and less accessible. Although Christians worldwide have different preferences when it comes to the Bible translations they read, it’s sheer stubbornness to limit yourself to only one when there are so many options available. If you struggle with the King James Version of the Bible (as many do), try the New King James Version (NKJV) or the New International Version (NIV). For people who wanted the Bible translated into modern vernacular, there’s The Message, and for those curious about multilayered meanings, The Amplified Bible is useful. Right now, an ASL Bible is being developed for the Deaf, and there are Braille, large-print, and audio Bibles available here. Read one. Read lots!
Additionally, a useful website – whether you’re studying verses on a certain passage – is Bible Hub, where you can see the same Scripture rendered in scads and scads of translations (along with helpful commentaries, context verses, and tons of other stuff). This should not only make your Bible reading easier at the comprehension level, but will also allow you to see the shades and nuances of meaning that shift from translation to translation. Finding a Bible you understand well and feel comfortable with is important.
Make your Bible study part of a ritual.
Yes, you can read your Bible anywhere and at any time. But anywhere-and-anytime is the enemy of consistency, since “I’ll get to it today” quickly gets lost in a morass of duties, responsibilities, and desires. Adopt a daily ritual (ideally one you look forward to) and make your Bible study a part of that ritual. For me, the ritual is a morning one: I wake up, eat a little bit of breakfast, and then go for a dawn walk and my “God time,” which ends with a Bible study over the rest of my breakfast once I return. What rituals do you always have in your life that you can pair study time with? Bible study shouldn’t be a miserable experience, so let it be a pleasant one. Brew a cup of tea to enjoy during your study. Play some (non-distracting) music you like. Go outdoors if that’s what suits you. Just make it a habit and a daily part of your life.
Ask God for help. Seriously. Ask God to show you what He wants you to know. This is one request that He will grant every single time, even if you don’t feel it right then. God is standing at the closed door to your heart with an axe, and if you ask Him for wisdom, He will break the door down to get it to you.
Can I also encourage you to start praying that God would put a desire in you to study His word? Most Christians assume that we’ll just naturally inherit a taste for Bible study the same way some people inherit a taste for sprouts, but it doesn’t always come so naturally. Begin with fervent desire. If you don’t have it, ask for it. Confess to God what bogs you down. And ask Him to bring you closer to Him through scriptural study. He will answer.
A lot of people start Bible study by reading chapters or whole books at a time. Even if you think you can, don’t. Start small. Read a verse, or a few verses, each day. You’d be surprised what you can mine just from a few sentences. Get in the practice of daily Bible study before you decide to start biting off bigger chunks.
Choose a theme or a topic for self-study.
There are tons of methods that you can use to study the Bible. Some people read it in order, beginning to end, but that’s never worked for me. I was taught to read the Bible originally using the promise/blessing/instruction/revelation method: whatever chunk of Scripture you choose to read, search for a blessing, a promise, an instruction, or a revelation of God’s character in it. Doing that gave me a way to seek my teeth into the Scriptures, but there are also other options:
- a theme study: pick a topic that works for you (check a concordance if you’re having trouble thinking of one!) and spend however long works for you reading verses related to that particular theme or topic
- a question study: figure out what questions you have about God or Christianity or your faith, and research the answers in the Bible
- a figure study: study the life trajectory of a particular person in the Bible
- the Jesus study: read the Gospels, or turn it into a “red letter” study by reading Jesus’ words only
- a sermon study: find verses related to the sermons you hear in church on Sunday
- a dictionary study: look up the particular occurrences of a word in the Bible, and then use Strong’s concordance and the commentaries in Bible Hub to help you figure out what the word means in the original texts and how that influences your understanding of the verse
Find a good teacher.
I don’t mean your Sunday school teacher or a pastor. I mean a person you know who knows the Word and loves the Word and has studied it for so long they quote it without knowing. Ask for their tips and help and ideas. Ask them to encourage you. Ask them to give you a place to begin. Find someone whom you can call with knotty spiritual questions or for clarification on a certain topic, or just to share what you’ve learned.
Experiment with your learning style.
Some people journal when they do their Bible studies, since writing down their thoughts helps them to stay fresh. If that works for you, awesome. If not, there are other ways to tether your brain to the study. Record your thoughts out loud on your phone or a recorder, then play them back later. Look up artwork or images related to what you’re studying. If you’re artistic, do some artwork that will help you process what God is teaching you. Find a friend to share your thoughts with. Blog. Find some good music that helps hammer it home. Don’t get hidebound by the idea that there is one particular way to study the Bible. Be as creative as you need to be.
Don’t depend on the church to do it for you.
It’s true that churches offer many different ways of studying the Word. You’ll hear it through sermons certainly, and you might attend a small group as well. But communal study isn’t the same as individual study, and when push comes to shove the church cannot offer you all the Bible study that you need. It simply can’t be done. If you expect the church to give you enough “food” for the week, then you’ll starve to death. What happens inside the building is meant to supplement and guide you into your own study outside it.
Everyone has that moment. I have had that moment. You’re ready for a word from God and you open the Bible to the “begat” section. Or you have trouble focusing. Or nothing seems to apply to you right then. But please remember this isn’t about instant gratification or God speaking a magical word to you in the moment. You’re storing up nourishment. I know you feel fine right now and that verse from Psalms seems irrelevant today, but in four months you’re going to be clinging to it like a life raft. And sure, that one verse in the Old Testament is sort of weird and obscure, but a year down the road you’ll read something and think, “Oh, wow, that reminds me of…” and everything will click into place in your head.
I really think that people read devotionals and supplemental materials because they want five-minute satisfaction, a God-boost for that day. And sometimes God does boost you in that moment. But more realistically, I’d liken Bible study to something more like an exercise plan. You don’t become ready to run a marathon in a day: you go through a process, and you reap rewards down the line from it when you’ve trained your body to do what it needs to do. Similarly, by feeding on the Bible regularly, we grow over time: we have a steady stock of help in troubled times, we have answers and words to give to others, we build a stronger relationship with God, and we have a steadier theology.
So don’t give up if lightning doesn’t strike the day you start. Or even five months in. Bible study is a practice, rich and deep, and wisdom is gleaned over years, not in one thirty-minute session. If you lapse, get back in the habit as soon as possible. If you’re bored one day, grind through anyhow.
The time will come that you’ll be grateful you did.