“This year, I will totes read my Bible more.”
We’ve all done it. Perhaps because we’re good people, wanting to experience more of God’s presence in our lives. Possibly because we’ve just spent New Year’s Eve drinking too much and making out with people we shouldn’t have and we need to feel like our entire beings are not made of sin. Or maybe because it’s a whole lot easier than committing to change something that matters.
Wait. Put the gun down, brother. Sister, I see that tent peg, but hear me out. I’m not saying reading the Bible is bad. I’m not even saying it’s not good. It’s just that we can easily focus on Bible reading as if it’s something it’s not, and replace other – just as important things – with it. And there are ways that reading the Bible more does no good. I suggest, instead, that we read the Bible better.
The Bible is God’s word. It has power, it contains truth and it’s our primary source of objective understanding of God. And if you read it religiously – sorry, um… relationshiply? – every day, that’s great. But if, when you’re toting up the columns to work out whether you’re a better Christian now than you used to be, you think that counts in the plus column, I think you’re wrong.
Bible reading is good, but I think, seen as a righteous act in itself, it’s selfish.
Wait! Chill! Hear me out. Paul says that some gifts of the Spirit are only of benefit to the person using them, yes? But we wouldn’t say those gifts are or were bad. So, can we agree that something good can be selfish? At least in principle, if done to exclusion of other things? If we only read the Bible and never prayed, would that be good? If we refused to help a brother because we had Bible reading to do, would that be good? No. I didn’t think so. Bible reading is for us, to help us understand God, to hear from Him, to hear His truth and be transformed by it. It’s like going to church. It doesn’t make you a good person. But it might give you the tools to become one, if you do it right – and if the Holy Spirit helps you.
I can’t tell you the number of times, over the years in various Bible studies and cell groups, that I’ve heard people chastising themselves for not reading the Bible enough. Not having enough of those entirely scriptural, totally commanded-by-Jesus events: ‘Quiet Times’. My first problem with this is the name. It’s open to comic abuse and, to a non-Christian ear, it’s a bit creepy. We should dispense with it if only to dispense with explaining that you’re leaving the room for a ‘quiet time’. It’s unseemly.
My second problem with it is that it focuses on quantity, not quality. How many times have you read a Bible passage and it’s had no effect on you? How often do you read a passage you’ve read 20 times before and just stop paying attention? More relevant to the resolution issue, if you are one of the lucky few who ever resolved to read the Bible more and then actually did it, what fruit did you see?
I mean it. Did you become more righteous? Were you kinder, overall, to those who were mean to you? Did you love your enemies more than before? Did you find yourself spending more time and money on the least of these than you used to? Were you a better, more energetic witness? If you were, stop reading. You’re fine. But myself, I never managed it. I got bored, lost focus and gave up the new regime or, a few times, found my religious ego so pumped by being so righteous that I became insufferable, judgemental and harsh.
Reading the Bible more is fine, as long as we are also reading it better. By this I mean that the act of reading it is not good in itself, unless it leads to transformation or deeper understanding. And once you’ve been a Christian for a certain number of years, reading the Bible in exactly the same way you’ve always read it is unlikely to lead to many new insights. So to read it better, we must read it differently:
* Don’t read it as a manual for recognising who’s in and who’s out, so you can treat them differently. Similarly, don’t read it for ammunition. The Bible was not created so that you could memorise verses that hurt, control or punish people.
* If you’re of a different socio-political bent, the last point will not be a danger, but don’t congratulate yourself too soon. If you’re reading the Bible to find support for the ideology you hold, no matter how commendable, liberational and affirming it is, you’re doing it wrong. If the Bible is a source of authority and truth, then we must be prepared for it to challenge our worldviews, and try to make sense of that. If it’s not – if it’s purely a culturally conditioned and slightly oppressive text as some of my liberal friends think, why the hell are you reading it at all? If scripture never deviates from what you automatically assume, you’re probably reading it wrong.
* Don’t read it smugly. What you are doing is reading a book, not feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, freeing the captives or any of the things that actually count as righteousness. You know: doing stuff. It’s: walk humbly and act justly, not: walk humbly and sit around by yourself reading a book. Even if it is the book.
* Don’t read it lightly. Racing over it is pointless. We’ve all read it before. Rather, devote more time and focus once a month than a sleepy 10 minutes done purely out of duty.
* Don’t do it by memory. You think you’ve read it all, but reading it again is valuable. If you’ve been thinking or reading or growing at all, and if you are paying attention and opening yourself to God, reading the Bible – actually reading it – is powerful. And if that doesn’t work, read some theology, read some great literature, engage in philosophy – then read it again. The word of God is deep. We just have to find a way to get into it.
But hey. What do I know? I’m probably significantly less righteous than you and I definitely don’t read it often or deeply enough. Read it more if you like. Just don’t let a resolution, with the failure, disappointment and self-loathing that so often accompany them, ruin it for you. And don’t let Bible reading take the place of the good works God has prepared for you.