In my book Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt is Not the Enemy of Faith I wrote about how important it is to read the Bible to meet God, to read it relationally and as sustenance for the soul. Often we simply read it for information, to follow a rule, or as an academic pursuit. Reading to meet God sounds like a great idea and the ideal for a Christian, but how do we actually do it? How can we change our mind-sets to view Scripture as a living, rich revelation instead of a religious tome of instructions and history? Here are seven ways.
Read the whole story.
Many of us learned to read God’s Word from children’s Bible storybooks made up of individual stories—Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Jonah and the big fish (of course it was Jonah and the whale back then), the boy’s five loaves and two fish, and so on. We learned to look for stories, snippets of Scripture. And usually these came with a moral lesson about trusting God, making the right decisions, being honest, serving others, or something else.
The other main way we heard the Bible taught was character centric, like a series of mini-bios. We studied the lives of Abraham, Joseph, Ruth, Saul, Solomon, Esther, Peter, and Paul. We were taught about their shortcomings and their faithfulness. We learned that they were examples for us to follow, just not perfect ones.
While we gleaned a lot of truth from these lessons, the teaching method actually misguided us. We learned to read the Scripture similar to how we skim through a magazine: a story here, skip the boring bits, a profile there, and some good info throughout if you know where to look. But the Bible is not like that at all. It is a narrative made up of different parts. It must be read in full.
We must learn to read the whole story of Scripture from beginning to end. The Bible is God’s story of redemption, the revelation of Himself and His plan for the world. All those stories and all those characters are parts of the whole, characters in the drama, but none of them are the point. They all point to the point: Jesus Christ came, lived a perfect life, died an innocent death to save sinners and kill death and sin, and will one day return to right all the wrongs. Sure, some parts of the Bible are confusing and dry, but they fit in the whole too. And when we understand that there is a whole narrative, even those parts start to make sense in their context.
Reading the Bible this way may seem like a tall task, especially if you haven’t been in the habit of reading it much at all. If so, start small, bit by bit. Take notes. Ask questions. In the next appendix, I recommend several books, some of which can help explain how it all fits together. Piece by piece, little by little, you’ll begin to see the big story of the Bible and it will become so much greater than you thought possible in Sunday school.
Look for Jesus.
It was the advice that helped change my perspective on Scripture and the advice I would suggest to any Christian who finds the Bible to be stale and lifeless: look for Jesus. So much of what we miss in Scripture is because we look for characters and themes and lessons other than Jesus. But He is both the primary character and the primary plotline of Scripture. To look for anything else first is to rip out the heart of God’s Word. Because Jesus, as John 1 tells us, is the Word made flesh.
Every page of Scripture points to Jesus. It all fits together to point to Him and to glorify Him and depict Him and reveal Him. In the first point I said to read the whole story. Well, that’s because the whole story is the story of the need for Jesus, the promise of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the work of Jesus, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and ultimately the victory of Jesus.
When we read the whole story and see Jesus throughout the pages, we see Him afresh, not as whatever preconceived notions we had. We see Him as more than a teacher, more than a healer, more than a model character. We see the breadth of Jesus from the man who sat with children and loved widows to the sword-wielding King of justice and glory.
When you see Jesus, get to know Him.
Observations about Jesus are the stuff of sermons and Sunday school lessons and Christian books like this one. But in the Bible we have the means to get to know Jesus. We have the means to move past observation and awareness and fact finding to a real, personal connection with Him. How? Like we do in any relationship.
Make it a regular thing. Go back to those Gospels over and over again. God’s word is inexhaustible and can always deepen your understanding and belief. We don’t limit ourselves in conversation with our loved ones because we “talked to them already” and neither should we limit ourselves in the reading of the Bible because we “read it already.” It is as dynamic and deep, in fact even deeper, than any person we seek to know.
Ask questions of Jesus in Scripture. Ask about His character. Ask about His values. Ask about His life. Ask about His priorities. Ask about His weaknesses. And let Scripture respond to you. The answers you find will lead you to want to know more, to be closer, to be with Jesus. And the more we are with Him, the more we will find ourselves wanting to and learning to be like Him.
Don’t shy away from the hard stuff.
One of the most significant weaknesses of most Bible teaching in the traditional church is the void where all the hard stuff in the Bible happens. Not until I got to college did I ever hear mention of the rape of Dinah or God commanding the destruction of entire people groups. Nobody talked about the flood except as a means to a rainbow. Nobody answered questions about where Cain found his wife if his parents were the first people ever. Nobody explained what it meant for an omnipotent, omniscient God to relent and change His mind or how He could harden Pharaoh’s heart, then judge him for rebellion. What in the world are we supposed to do with that stuff?
Well, I can tell you what we’re not supposed to do: ignore it. Pretending it doesn’t exist doesn’t delete it from the Bible. If God hadn’t wanted us to see it, know it, and think on it, He wouldn’t have filled up His self-revelation with it.
We must read it and consider it. We must be willing to wrestle with it. We have to look at it not as a bunch of isolated incidents and texts that might be problematic but as part of the whole. If we are going to read the whole story and look for how it all points to Jesus, then we need to see how the hard stuff fits in. It likely isn’t a straight-line connection, but each difficult passage connects to something else that connects to something that points to Jesus. It is all there on purpose because it all paints a picture of God.
Just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean we can reject it. As we looked at throughout the book, thinking that way is to determine who God is based on our own intellectual abilities. We don’t get to do that. We must see what Scripture says, look at it in context, see it as part of the whole, and recognize that it is all part of a portrait of God that expands far beyond our minds and hearts.
Start small, perhaps with children’s books, and mix in other resources too.
Sola Scriptura: by Scripture alone—one of the foundational doctrines of Protestant Christianity. It means that our only holy book is the Bible, our only word of God is the Bible, our only doctrine is found in the Bible. The Bible is the foundation on which our faith is built. But it does not mean we read only the Bible. In fact, other books by godly writers can serve to open up our minds and hearts to Scripture.
Some of the best materials are those written for children. (I know, I know; I pointed out the weaknesses in children’s Bibles earlier.) In appendix 2, I recommend two children’s Bible storybooks in particular, The Big Picture Story Bible and The Jesus Storybook Bible. After graduating from college and gaining a theology degree, after working in Christian publishing for several years and reading mountains of biblical teaching books, I still find these the freshest, best entry points into the message of the Bible. They make it fun by bringing out the story, and they make their points with clarity and gentleness. I am sure other similar resources are out there as well. They make an ideal starting point to begin enjoying Scripture and piecing together its message.
Additional resources and books will be helpful too. Some will prefer commentaries; others will gravitate to Bible study curriculum. Each serves a great purpose in helping us dig in and understand more. Don’t shy away from them. Find the ones that fit your learning style and take full advantage of them. The thing to always remember is to not let the study of the Bible become the end. Knowledge of Scripture can be an idol all by itself, but it must always be a means to closeness to God.
Don’t read the Bible as a set of rules but rather as a book.
So many Christians lose touch with the heart of Scripture because for so long they have approached it under the rule of law. “You must read your Bible every day.” Reading your Bible every day is a great thing, but within its very pages it describes how the law introduces us to sin. When we make rules out of things, we tend to take the life out of them, no matter how good they are.
We need to approach the Bible as a book. After all, that is the form in which God gave it to us. For those who love to read, this means conscientiously moving it to the category of great literature in our minds, a great story, deep philosophy, a rich biography. When we think of it that way, we will see different things in its pages, yes, but more importantly we will practically be able to overcome the greatest mental block to reading it at all.
For those who do not enjoy reading, I wonder how you made it all the way to this point in a book! More seriously, though, think of the Bible the same way but find a different format in which to consume it. Reading is not for everyone, but the Bible is. So find a way to eat up this wonderful story, teaching, and biography. Audio Bibles are great tools. They may be the perfect answer for you or they may be the gateway you need to get into the written text. Either way, avail yourself of them!
Regardless of how you do it, though, no matter the medium, distance yourself from the legalistic guilt of reading the Bible as law. That robs it of its wonder and steals the joy from your heart. It is so rich and deep; read it to discover and wonder!
Pray for the Spirit’s help.
We have a helper and a teacher. Jesus even said we would be better off if He left because this helper is so amazing. Really? We’re better off without Jesus on earth with us? Yes! Because the Holy Spirit dwells in every Christian, moving us toward being more like Jesus, teaching our minds, and softening and convicting our hearts.
Only by the Spirit will anything I just wrote about reading the Bible matter at all. If you seek to do any of this in your own power, you will dry up, run out of motivation, get bored, become arrogant, lose faith, get confused, and turn from God. It is inevitable. The Bible is not a normal book. It is a book spoken out by God to be interpreted to our hearts by God the Spirit. It is a supernatural book.
To connect with God through His Word is a miracle of the Spirit and not something that can be formulated. All the suggestions I just made are not the equation that adds up to relationship with God. They are ingredients that must be present, but only the Spirit can mix and prepare them in such a way that we see God in His glory and are moved to follow and honor Him. So beg the Spirit to open your eyes when you read. Plead with the Spirit to give you the inspiration to read. And He will. Maybe not in a flash, but He will. And as you delve deeper into God’s Word, you will find that the Spirit and God’s message in the Bible will change you.
This post is modified from the appendix in Help My Unbelief.