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Saturday, December 04, 2004

How to read the Bible II - Devotional Reading

This is the second in the series on How to Read the Bible. The series was initially sparked by some discussions between a commenter and myself in response to my previous post on the Burning Bush incident in Exodus chapter 3. During a subsequent comment and email exchange between ourselves, it occurred to me that I needed to clarify (perhaps for my own sake) the different ways one ought to be reading the Bible.

This series of course is written blog-style. In other words it is a work-in-progress. Not only that, I might even change my mind later and correct or progress from what I have written before, or I might go off on a tangent and take on other, even unrelated topics. That's the beauty of blogging, and when you have a sometimes-overactive mind like I do, then anything could and does happen! Also I am not sure when and how long this series might be. Anyway, that's the nature of the blog, and, well, let's begin...

In the first part of the series, I suggested that there are at least three different ways to read the Bible:

(1) Reading the Bible devotionally
(2) Reading the Bible as part of a Bible Study exercise
(3) Reading the Bible exegetically.

As a young Christian, my mentors at the youth group and the church that I attended encouraged me to make reading the Bible part of my daily spiritual discipline. I was taught that it was important to read the Bible on a regular basis because the Bible is God's word to us. That is, God speaks to us through the Bible. I was challenged to do at least two types of Bible reading: (1) Read it daily as part of a devotional discipline, (2) Study the Bible in depth weekly.

I was taught that there is a difference between devotional reading and studying the Bible. When we read the Bible devotionally, we are deepening our relationship and intimacy with God. The emphasis is our relationship with our Father as children of God. When we study the Bible, we are increasing our knowledge of His teaching and the message of His word. The emphasis is our relationship with our Lord, as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

On the one hand, in devotional reading, we ask God to speak to us through His word, and on the other hand, we study the Bible to ensure that we understand the meaning, the message and the context of the Scriptures so that when we meditate on the Biblical texts devotionally, we do not take it out of its greater context of the Bible and what it teaches.

I was an eager young high-schooler with a new-found faith in Christ and approached my Bible reading and studying vociferously. At about the same time, I met an older student at the high school who told me he was once a believer. I was shocked that someone could once be a believer. He told me he stopped believing because of the contradictions he found in the Bible. I determined to find out about these discrepancies, to study them for myself, and to find out if why there were really contradictions or if there were explanations for their apparent inconsistencies. That set off a lifetime habit of study, reflection, questions and critical thinking.

One of my mentors also challenged me to find answers for myself. I used to come to him time and again with questions about the Bible, and for a while he would give me the answers. Later, he began to point me in the right direction and started asking me to find the answers for myself, and then going to him to discuss what I had discovered. Much later, whenever I would ask him questions, his answer would be, "That will be your homework!" Although it often frustrated me then, it eventually helped me to think through tough Biblical conundrums.

It is amazing to me how many people who have an opinion about the Bible haven't really read it. Or, if they had read the Bible, they often fail to take into consideration the context. Worse yet, sometimes they form an opinion after reading what some other people have written or said about parts of this book.

So how do we read the Bible devotionally?

To start, I will reiterate the contrast between reading the Bible devotionally and studying the Bible. I believe that these two are different, separate and yet essential disciplines for every Christian. Devotional reading is part of a devotional encounter with God. It is best done on a daily (or at the least, fairly regular) basis, usually in the morning. It is a time to re-calibrate our spiritual gauges, and to allow time for a protracted intimate conversation with our Father God. Regular study of the Scriptures is also an important exercise for us in our walk with God as disciples, for if we are to obey all that He has taught, we need to know His teaching in the first place.

In devotional reading, our focus is to let God speak and reveal Himself to us. Whether it is to correct, to re-inforce, to encourage, to expose, or to clarify, God wants to speak to our innermost beings and to touch us intimately. So we read the Bible expectantly, asking Him to reveal Himself to us, and to "Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth..." (I Samuel 3:10).

In order not to take the Scriptures out of context, it is best to read the Bible book by book. Spend each day reading through the same book, chapter by chapter. But keep the devotional reading relatively short. About a chapter ought to do it. I usually alternatively read through an Old Testament book and then I read a New Testament book. And every now and then, I go back to the Psalms. I may not read through the entire Psalms. I might spend a month or two reading through parts of the Psalms and then changing and reading through a New Testament Book and an Old Testament Book, and then coming back to the Psalms again, continuing from where I left off. The Psalms is a good devotional book because so much of it is written from the perspective of a personal experience of relationship with God. One discipline to use in reading devotionally is to read, and re-read the passage in order to observe what the passage is saying.

Have a pen or pencil ready, and journal your thoughts. Read interactively. By this I mean, read and respond to God as you read. Ask yourself, "What is this passage saying?" What does that mean to me? Relate what you observe in the passage to the context of what you understand the book to be saying, and be aware of the different types of literature that is found in the Bible. You need to supplement devotional reading of the Bible with a regular Bible study in order that as you read devotionally, you can bear the message of the Bible, the different parts of the Bible (for instance, the Books of the Law, the Wisdom Books, the Prophets, the Gospels, the Letters, etc) and know the contexts of each, as well as the local contexts of each book and passage.

If you are just beginning, it helps to have Bible reading guides and tools as well, although my mentors trained me in the "Old School" way of thinking - to let the Bible speak for itself, before consulting commentaries and other books about the Bible. The reason my mentors did that was because they believed that commentaries could easily color the message of the Scriptures, and then we are letting what someone else said about the Scriptures to speak to us, rather than letting the Bible speak for itself. However, commentaries are helpful in that, their authors are usually scholars who are more learned in these areas, and who can throw light on obscure passages, texts, history and culture.

This post has really become a very long one, so I would like to close here, by summarising and suggesting a few simple steps that you can take to read the Bible devotionally.

If you have never done this before, try starting with the Psalms.

Have a pencil or a colored pencil handy.

Read a psalm a day (when you get to some of the longer psalms, you could either break it up to read portions of it a day or to read it in several sittings during the day, or just allocate more time to finish the entire psalm in a day).

Start with a simple prayer to ask God to open the eyes and ears of your heart to see and hear what He wants to say to you.

Read the Psalm once through quickly.

Re-read it, and , observe everything it says about God and His actions.

Every time there is a reference to God, use your pencil to shade the noun and the verb. For instance, if it says "The LORD is my shepherd" shade "The LORD is..." (you may or may not wish to include "my shepherd" - I usually don't to keep the shading more emphatic in the text). If it says, "The LORD saves me from my trouble" shade "The LORD saves"

Ask yourself, "What does this tell me about God?" "What does it tell me about Who He is and What He has done and/or still doing for me?" "What does it tell me about what He wants to say to me?" "What does this mean?" "What does it imply?" "If this is what the passage says about God, how does that apply to me?"

Write down your thoughts.

Reflect on how you can apply the reading to your life now.

Respond to God in prayer, preferably using parts of the Scriptures you have just read.

If you are reading this during the morning, select portions of the text to either memorize or to meditate during the day about what it means.

End the day with another quick overview of what you have written or another re-reading of the passage and write down your reflections if you have more.

Respond in prayer to what you have read, reflected upon and written. Be specific about an action or application point.

Another good exercise is to ask the 5 W's: Who, What, Where, Whom, Why, and How. This is especially useful when you are reading the narrative portions of the Scriptures such as the History books, parts of the Books of the Law, and the Gospels. Pretend you are a journalist, and write a story about what you have just read as if you were an eye-witness or you are interviewing an eye-witness. It will help you to visualize what is going on in the passage and to let the Scriptures come alive. Then you can ask the more personal interpretative and application questions - what does it mean and what does it mean to me?

In a future post, I want to share with you a very effectve method of devotional Scriptural reading called, “Lectio Divina” (which is Latin for sacred reading).

For now, please share with me your own experiences in, and observations about, devotional reading in the comments section.

UPDATE: The post on Lectio Divina is up.