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I remember as a boy, there were a few times I tried to bargain with God. If he would just answer my prayer and let me have that blue BMX or this Atari video game console, I would do some things for him in return. Do you know what I used for a bargaining chip? I would give him more Bible reading time! Face plant. I am ashamed to admit it, but I can clearly remember times when my relationship with God was this transactional.
Now as adults, we often fall into the same trap of transactionality even if our camouflage is more sophisticated. We might not bargain with things like Bible reading time anymore, but we still forget that Bible reading is the way of feeding our souls. It is the wholesome, healthy, life-sustaining nourishment we need. We’re certainly not doing anyone a favour by reading Scripture, especially not God!
Too often, our Bible reading becomes mechanical and dull. We have only so much time in the day, so we get into routines where we try to carve out time slots to fit everything in. One of these slots we reserve for quiet time. This is great because if we fail to plan for it, we plan to fail. But sometimes, like going through the mechanical process of packing lunch for the kids while thinking about a bunch of other things, we treat our Bible reading time in the same way. There might be good reasons for it. If you’re like me, I do my quiet time in the mornings right after I fetched my first cup of Kosmeester Kortes Kroonprins from the kitchen. But sometimes I am not fully awake yet, despite the Kroonprins’ best efforts. At other times I have some stress on my mind that keeps me from relaxing and feeding myself with good Biblical content. So, I end up half-heartedly reaching for something “short and easy” like a Psalm or a few Proverbs.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Let’s consider another scenario. You are more structured and you follow a good reading plan. But now you’ve reached a part of the Bible that you struggle to relate to. You’re reading it, but your mental grappling hooks just don’t want to catch. You’re not quite getting your teeth into it. Tasting the goodness you know should be there remains just beyond reach.
Quick Poll: Think of the first difficult-to-get-through Bible book that comes to mind right now…
Let me guess… was it Leviticus? Or one of the Major Prophets where one chapter sounds too much like the previous one? Perhaps a long genealogy you had to plough through recently?
Here are 3 things that will help you if you struggle with any of these kinds of problems.
Thing 1: Pray
This might sound like an obvious one, yet often neglected. Have you remembered to prepare your heart for a moment before you picked up the Bible? Have you asked the Holy Spirit to illuminate this piece of Scripture for you? Something like “God, please show me the wonders in your Word” — a paraphrase of Psalm 119:18, is a good one to consider. As John Piper wrote:
Praying before the throne of God and meditating on the word of God are like parallel rails that enable the train of our souls to stay on the track that leads to holiness and heaven.
Without the leading and illumination of the Spirit, many things will not make sense to us. This is because
the person without the Spirit does not receive what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. — 1 Corinthians 2:14 (CSB)
Thing 2: learn your German — Sitz im Leben!
Sitz im Leben really just means “life setting”. We need to better understand the life setting of the author and the original audiences of the book we’re busy with. The more we understand what it meant to them back then the more we can know what it means to us right now.
I will confess, there are a few books which I don’t always enjoy reading from beginning to end. One of them are the Psalms. I have often discussed this with my wife Ronèl to try to figure out why this is since she sees the Psalms in quite a different light. It could be that too many of David’s poems sound the same to my untrained Afrikaans/English ears — that’s why I have Fluent Hebrew Reading on my geek Bucket List for one day. Maybe I can’t relate to David’s kingship over the Jews in Jerusalem, because I am just Paul, not an apostle and really not king over anything.
In fact, me struggling through the Psalms during my regular Bible reading time sparked this blog post. So shall we zone in on the Psalms for a while then?
My relationship with the Psalter (fancy word for all the Psalms collectively) is a curious one. As much as I don’t like reading Psalms cover to cover, some of my favourite Scriptures come from the Psalms. For example, I love Psalm 1. Psalm 2 fascinates me. Psalm 23 we all know and treasure, and is a real source of comfort in dark days. I can often relate to Psalm 73, especially because I live in South Africa. Psalm 82 expanded my Christian worldview and understanding of the cosmic order. I find comfort in Psalm 91. I love the theology packed into Psalm 110. And Psalm 150 tells me it’s OK to use all kinds of instruments in church (a source of personal debate for me at one stage in my Christian walk. I was told by someone once that bass guitars are instruments of evil!).
Reading through all the Psalms in succession highlighted some nuances in this compendium of poetry for me. For example, there are 5 “books” within our collection of Psalms. There are different contributors to the Psalter, and they all have different styles. David, Asaph (my favourite), the sons of Korah, Ethan, Moses and Solomon were all contributors. And there are anonymous authors too. I have a different level of appreciation when I know who actually wrote the Psalm I’m reading through.
I might not be king in Jerusalem, but it helped when I tried to find parallels between things in the Psalmist’s life and my own. For example, David often feared for his life and sometimes he became depressed or angry about that Groundhog Day. My life is not currently under threat, but I do sometimes share his feelings of depression or anger for other reasons. David was very expressive when it came to sharing his emotions on paper, so to speak, and he engaged, wrestled and prayed through many of his thoughts and emotions. My circumstances are different, but I can learn a lot from how David dealt with his and apply that to my life in a way that makes sense to me.
Lastly, it helps to know the circumstantial background of the Psalm. Often there is an explanatory note before the Psalm starts. When you read that piece of Scripture first, it lights up the whole context of the Psalm you’re busy with.
Think about it this way — Think about Eye of the Tiger. It is powerful and catchy, and you can appreciate it without ever having seen Rocky 3. But if you have seen Rocky 3, your appreciation of the song will rise to a different level altogether. That song totally defined an era when you were younger, didn’t it!? For you kids who have not seen it before — make it part of your education (my beard is greying, so I guess I can start talking like an old man now, ha!). Watching it now will be a bit cringy but it will be a fun movie nonetheless.
Anyway, back to the Psalms. It is about context. And life setting. And original meaning. It is about Sitz im Leben. Watch this short but awesome Bible Project video for context on the Psalms.
Thing 3: Reading plans
I always like to hear which strategy Christ-followers use in their Bible reading. Some rely on plans to take them through the whole Bible. Others prefer topical plans to help them through a specific theme, like anger, anxiety, or loss of life. Many don’t use a reading plan at all, and they go through a book of the Bible that interests them at the time. Yet others have no strategy and read whatever they open the Bible to on that particular morning.
All these are helpful, except perhaps the last one. I strongly suspect flopping around in Scripture will cause more harm than good. Almost certainly this approach will want to make you treat the Bible as a crystal ball. You will be tempted to take whatever you read as a personal message directly from God to you. You will probably ignore any kind of context couching the original message, and this inevitably leads to eisogesis. We don’t want more of that; people reading into the Bible what they want and acting upon their newly found insights are the greatest cause of Christian misconduct in the world.
But OK, I said “almost” certainly because I don’t want to falsely accuse someone. There are those who actually know their Bibles well enough to open to a passage and draw true meaning and inspiration from it without causing harm to their souls or others’.
I really want to encourage following a Bible reading plan. There are excellent ones included in many Bible reading apps. YouVersion and Logos Bible Software come to mind. I am currently enjoying the Bible Project’s reading plan which gives me an excellent video overview before each book and/or theme in the bible. But my favourite kinds are the chronological ones. Chronological plans don’t go from Genesis to Revelation, but instead follow a historical timeline. So, you might read a few chapters in Acts, then read a letter from Paul before returning for the next story in Acts. Or you might follow David’s adventures when hiding from Saul in a cave (1 Samuel 22), and then straight after go to the Psalm he wrote describing his feelings during this episode (Psalm 142).
Furthermore, chronological plans will interrupt the monotone of some prophetical books you might be struggling with. For example, you will read Jeremiah’s words intermingled with the events of the Babylonian exile, making them pop to life. It will give you a whole new level of understanding and appreciation for the Biblical content.
Try a reading plan — it will be worth it.
Eating fast food and potato chips (my weak spot) will still our hunger and make us feel satisfied for a while. But it does not provide us with the healthy, wholesome nourishment our bodies and minds need. Soon we will be struggling with all kinds of health problems.
A spiritual diet without a proper helping of Bible intake is no diet at all, and soon we will be struggling with all kinds of spiritual health problems. Devotionals are great, books by other Christ-followers can be very inspirational. Podcast are awesome, I love them. Sunday services and good preaching are essential.
But Bible reading is absolutely critical, and getting it second hand is just not good enough. When I was a boy, I missed the fact that Bible reading is essential for me to grow, to understand, to navigate life. It was not the bargaining chip I thought it was. I am so glad he is a forgiving God and won’t hold this foolishness against me!
Don’t miss a good spiritual meal because you are stuck with a piece of Scripture you’re struggling to get through. Along with some pointers in this post, remember also that the lesson will come when the student is ready. Perhaps you will be more ready to hear the wonderful teachings from Leviticus a few years in the future. Reading through the gospels or Paul’s letters might be more appropriate for you right now. This is completely fine — make it a matter of prayer. After all, you are journeying through the Word of God with the help of the Holy Spirit. He might be leading you to something specific and you will know when that happens.
Your relationship with God is a live, dynamic one — not a static process rooted in linear box checking.
Enjoy the Bible for what it is because
… Jesus said, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” — Matthew 4:4 HCSB