Bible Reading for the Disciple

In my previous essay, The Decline of Bible Reading, I commented on polling in Canada that revealed a serious decline in Bible reading amongst Christians. In that essay, I noted two key ways the church could address the problem. In this essay I discuss how a disciple of Christ can make reading the Bible an indispensable part of his spiritual development and life.

Be Committed

The first key step involves creating a hungry heart. A committed disciple must be committed to the Word of God and must possess a strongly held belief that the Bible is critical in one’s relationship with Christ. All disciples know that in their heads and give intellectual assent to the concept but does that belief go further to penetrate their hearts and permeate their lives?

The cultivation of that attitude towards the Bible is dependent on the disciple leaning on the power of the Holy Spirit to create a hunger for God’s word and undertaking a few basic spiritual exercises to create the environment for that hunger to thrive. There needs to be a commitment to walk in the Spirit, to be filled with the Spirit and a commitment to practice spiritual disciplines that together move a disciple to always be seeking to feed upon the Word.

So how does one get that hunger? One way is to look at your life and see if there are other things your heart and soul are feeding on for fulfillment and meaning, besides the Word of God. Do you hunger more for that promotion, that hobby, those clothes, that status, that political activism, that desire to change the world rather than change yourself? The list could go on but the principle is one of self examination. Are there things that you hunger more for in your heart than the Bible? If you find your heart has a larger feeding tube to something other than the Bible, it may be time to either cut off that tube or start putting some clamps on it and start enlarging the pathway to the Scriptures.

Be Consistent

Routine may be seen as dull and boring and generally looked down upon by those advocating a more exciting lifestyle. But routine is a key success factor for consistency and consistency is necessary in getting into the Bible on a regular basis.

Ideally, the disciple should be reading the Scriptures at least once a day, every day. For most people, this can only happen if Bible reading is incorporated into a regular routine, so regular that it becomes a life long habit.

There will be times when routine is upended due to special circumstances such as travel, but even then, a disciple must be diligent in carving out time for Bible reading. Travel can even be a better time to read the Bible, such as while waiting for a flight in the departure lounge or taking extra time to read an entire NT book instead of watching an in-flight movie.

Whether you read in the morning, in the afternoon or at night, really doesn’t matter. What counts is finding a sufficient length of time to read the Bible on a regular basis so that you are reading it daily. Try to find a time when you are not rushed and when you can read it thoughtfully.

Be Creative

Normally, disciples will read a chapter a day or follow a reading plan of some type but, over time, this can become too repetitive and even dull. It is easy to get stuck in a reading rut where the Scriptures seem uninteresting and one winds up reading the Bible more out of a sense of duty rather than a means of communion with God.

That is when it is time to get creative with Bible reading. Break up the reading routine with some simple things to change the pace or set some new reading goals. A common one is to read the Bible in an entire year. One can use a reading plan but once I read the Bible in a year, backwards. Instead of the standard starting in Genesis, I started in Revelation and read each book in reverse order.

Another idea is to read the Bible in a different translation rather than your favourite one. This has the dimension of providing a different perspective on your reading of the Scriptures. My go to translation is the New International Version (NIV) but lately I have been reading in the New English Translation (NET) and enjoying its study notes as I read.

Read the seemingly difficult books, such as Leviticus or Ezekiel, by first reading an introduction to these books from an associated commentary. That way you can gain some background information that can help you understand the text better.

Another way to shake up your reading is to use an audio version of the Bible. Instead of visual reading, try hearing a book of the Bible. This may not become part of your regular practice but it will definitely act as an interesting change of pace.

Daily Bible reading is important and sounds simple but it is harder than it appears. That is where the application of the three principles of being committed, consistent and creative can help a disciple on the pathway to solid Bible reading.

2017 © Ed LeBlanc

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The Disappearance of Bible Study

20160319-Bible-3The Importance of Study

Education is considered the ticket to success. If a young person finishes high school but doesn’t go on to post secondary education of some kind, most people will consider their chances of achieving career and financial success very slim. Thus, high school students are being strongly encouraged to do post secondary education and many of them do, otherwise the message is clear: if you don’t have a university degree or a college diploma you will never get a good paying job.

Even after students complete university, many of them will continue into graduate and post graduate work before starting their careers. Many who do embark on their respective career paths after their undergrad will get an masters degree in their field part time or enter into an MBA program while they are working. Depending on career aspirations, the drive to acquire more education can be almost never ending.

Getting a formal education involves many things: books to buy and read, labs to do, assignments to complete, lectures to attend and so on. One of the major activities that students will have to do as part of their education is to study. Many students hate studying, mainly because it takes a lot of time to do and requires an enormous amount of concentration that is usually accompanied by outright frustration. Students have to study because students have to write exams. One cannot pass an exam unless one has mastery over the material and that comes primarily from studying.

For Christians, a key component of their spiritual development and training is Bible study. The Bible is so indispensable for Christian growth and development that it is impossible for any disciple of Jesus to walk with Him without a generous and continuous intake from His Word. As Paul wrote to Timothy,

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” – 2 Timothy 3:16

By study, I mean study, not reading. Studying the Bible is very different from reading the Bible. High school and university students know the difference. They know that reading their textbooks and their lecture notes once or twice is insufficient to gain mastery over the material and do well in their exams. Even if they had a photographic memory they would know the data cold but to really know a subject goes beyond committing the simple facts to memory. It means understanding what those facts mean, how they interrelate with other facts and how they can be applied in different situations. Students know that they need to study the material over and over again. Through studying, a student knows the nuances and particulars of the subject. Their exams test them on the understanding not the memorization.

The same applies to the Christian who wants to experience significant growth and communion with God. Simple readings of the Bible, while good and important, cannot take a person into a deeper understanding of the Word and of God. The Bible must be studied.

What is Bible Study?

So what is meant by studying the Bible? It can mean many things but it basically comes down to three actions: observing what the text says, interpreting what the text says and applying what the text says. Into these areas come all the tools and techniques that are used in doing a proper study of the Bible such as the use of concordances, Greek and Hebrew dictionaries, general Bible dictionaries and surveys and even commentaries. It also means taking the time to look at the text, ask questions of it, find answers and writing down your findings. The details on proper Bible study are beyond the scope of this essay but the point is there is more to it than just reading. Once you move beyond mere reading, the great treasures contained in the Scriptures will be found that would be easily missed.

The Bible Study Challenge

Most Christians do not have personal Bible study as part of their spiritual routine. Many struggle with Bible reading and prayer and to add personal study on top of that seems to be even more difficult. Yet, every Christian must ask themselves if they are already devoting time in the study of other things. What about those who are studying for their MBA part time while juggling the demands of a job? What about those taking golf lessons and practicing on the driving range on a regular basis? What about those who are taking guitar lessons and practicing on a daily basis? If Christians are finding time for these kinds of study in order to advance their career or to pursue personal interests, why is time not being taken for the timeless Word of God? If we really have a desire to accomplish something, we will take the time and effort to study in order to achieve it. Do we have the desire to pursue Christ through the Bible that radically?

My challenge to all disciples of Christ is to take up a personal project in doing a study of one book of the Bible, something short and achievable such as the the book of James or 2 Timothy. Spend at least an hour a week studying a book verse by verse, chapter by chapter and seek to find the treasures buried within. Use whatever tools you have on hand and record what the text is saying, the questions you asked, the answers you found and the gems you discovered. I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed and that, over time, your walk with the Lord will deepen.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

The Decline of Bible Reading

20160310-Bible Cover

People of the Book?

According to Islamic tradition, Jews and Christians are referred to as “the people of the Book”, in this case, the Book being the Bible. Christians have been known as the people of the Book, not just because the Bible is their holy book, the book of ultimate importance to the faith, but also because they are a people who read, study, meditate, memorize and talk about the Book. Being “people of the Book” means people engaged with the Bible.

The Canadian Bible Engagement Study (CBES) conducted by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) in 2013, casts some doubt if Christians in 21st century Canada can still hold on to that ancient title. The study, called Confidence, Conversation and Community: Bible Engagement in Canada, conducted a survey of 4,474 Canadians on their views on how they engage the Bible in their lives. The full report can be read here.

Regular Bible reading has been on the decline in Canada for several decades and the CBES report bears this out but what the report has to say about those who self identity as Christians is of particular interest. As more Canadians don’t consider themselves Christian, it is understandable that this group pays little attention to the Bible but are Canadian Christians far behind?

Taking Christians as a whole, the report’s findings were remarkable. For those who identify themselves as Christian, six percent read the Bible daily, six percent read it a few times a week and only three percent read it once a week. Astonishingly, 70 percent of Canadian Christians seldom read or never read the Bible. This kind of survey result would seem to indicate that Christians are no longer the people of the Book and might be called the people who ignore their Book.

But is that the end of the story? The study breaks down the numbers a bit further into Christian traditions. Catholic and mainline Protestant Christians read the Bible far less than their Evangelical cousins. Mainline Protestants and Catholics who read their Bible a few times a week or weekly are in the single digits. Monthly French Catholic readers are in the single digits as well while English Catholic and Mainline Protestant monthly readers are in the double digits but just barely. Evangelicals seem to do much better with those reading their Bibles at least a few times a week at 44 percent, weekly at 51 percent and monthly at 58 percent.

Although some may see this as evidence that Evangelicals have healthy Bible reading habits, the results also tell us that the other half of Evangelicals are not reading their Bibles even on a weekly basis, let alone a monthly one. Mainline Protestants and Catholics have seen weekly Bible reading decline by more than one half since 1996 but Evangelicals have seen daily readers fall by one third in the same period. Evangelicals may be the tradition with the strongest Bible readers but a sizeable number still do not have regular reading habits and the trend in daily readership is not that encouraging.

Followers or Disciples

So why is Christian reading of the Bible falling in such dramatic numbers? The survey found two key factors that affected regular Bible reading amongst Christians: confidence in the Bible and a seriousness about their walk with Jesus.

The survey showed that those who had a strong confidence in the reliability and the authority of the Bible were found to read it once a day, week or month by a wider margin than those who had even a moderate confidence in the Bible. Those who reflected on the meaning of the Bible in their lives, who engaged in discussions about the Bible outside of church activities and who regularly attended worship services, were found to read the Bible much more frequently than those who did not.

The scriptures teach that the Bible, the Word of God, is critical to the spiritual development of Christians. As Jesus famously said to The Adversary, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes form the mouth of God”. The Bible is spiritual food to feed humanity’s spiritual soul. If this survey showed that the majority of self identifying Christians in Canada only ate physical food once a week or even once a month, there would be screams of a crisis in Canadian churches. Christians seem to be starving themselves by eating the spiritual food of the Bible very sparsely and yet few within the church seem to be concerned.

What can be done to turn the situation around? Simply telling people to read their Bibles because they need to is an exercise that will fall on deaf ears. Christians who are not reading the Bible regularly need to recognize their own spiritual malnourishment and to see the Bible as true food.

One key way to address this problem is to re-establish confidence in the reliability and power of the Bible. Many Christians have fallen victim to the secular modernist take on the Bible that in effect waters down its reliability and, by extension, its relevance to life. By marginalizing the Scriptures, Christians will turn to other writings to find spiritual fulfillment such as the latest self-help book. Christian leaders need to not only do a bit of apologetics for the Bible in the church but they also need to encourage everyone to share how the Bible has and is changing their lives. The Bible says that it is living and active. Let others share their stories of how it has been living and active in their lives and not just a repository of ancient knowledge.

The second key way to address this self-starvation of the Bible, is to show Christians that Christianity is not about showing up on Sundays and getting to use the title Christian in their spiritual resume. Christian leaders of all kinds need to show to those under their spiritual care that Christ is calling them not be mere followers of Him but to be His disciples.

The words follower and disciple seem to mean the same thing but in reality they are not. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus had plenty of followers who followed him all over the countryside. Those who followed Him did so looking for free food, free healthcare and political freedom from the Romans. But when Jesus pressed them on the cost of following Him to the point of denying oneself and taking up one’s cross in order to follow Him, many left Him. Jesus wanted disciples to deny their lives for Him, not followers who could come and go as they pleased.

Followers of Jesus will treat the Bible as an optional reading lesson. Disciples of Jesus will treat the Bible as the bread of life. Serious Christians will see the Bible as indispensable in knowing Jesus more deeply. Causal Christians will see the Bible as a dusty, boring book that has little relevance to their earthly pursuits. If the church in Canada wants to regain the title people of the Book, she must be willing to disciple her people and show them the riches and treasures contained in God’s Holy Bible.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

Christian Lukewarmness – Book Review: Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan (2008)

Crazy LoveCrazy Love is a book about the Christian’s relationship with God but in particular, it is a book about the serious state many North American Christians are in regarding their relationship with God.  At the crux of it is an incorrect view of who God really is and a failure to grasp his eternal, holy, all powerful and all knowing nature.   As a consequence, many Christians place themselves in the centre of their lives and rather than the Lord Jesus.

Chan tells his readers to get over themselves:

To be brutally honest, it doesn’t really matter what place you find yourself in right now.  Your part is to bring Him glory – whether eating a sandwich on a lunch break, drinking coffee at 12:04 am so you can stay awake to study or watching your four-month-old take a nap.  The point of your life is to point to Him.

Within that realization is the truth of the great love God has for His children and the love we are to have for Him.  If we grasp who God really is, Chan argues that our lives should then be characterized by a great transformation. But there are distractions.  As Chan puts it pointedly “Are we in love with God or just His stuff?” God’s stuff, His material creations that He has provided to us for our sustainment and enjoyment, often serve as distractions or worse as idols.

In probably the most pointed part of the book, Chan recalls Jesus’ parable of the sower and cautions the reader “Do not assume you are good soil.”  He believes most churchgoers in America are the soil that chokes the seed because of the thorns; those worries, riches and pleasures of life.

Then Chan makes this stunning statement:

A lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing.  To put it plainly, churchgoers who are “lukewarm” are not Christians.  We will not see them in heaven.

Chan points to Revelation 3:15-17 where Jesus talks about the lukewarm within the Laodicean church and that He is about to spit them out of His mouth (3:16).  Chan says many believe this passage is talking about the saved but Chan argues how could the saved be spitted out of Jesus’ mouth?  In other words, Chan does not see this as a form of discipline but an outright rejection, an “I never knew you. Away from me you evil doers.”

But is this interpretation correct?  Looking a little further in Revelation 3:19, Jesus says to the church at Laodicea, “Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. ”  It seems here that Jesus is saying His statement on the spitting out of His mouth to be more of a correction than a rejection.  He still loves those whom are lukewarm but will spit them out as a form of rebuke and discipline, not a taking away of their salvation.

This corresponds to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he details a set of serious spiritual and moral problems that many in the church are participating in.  Some, such as incest, are so serious one could question if these people really are true believers in Jesus.  Yet Paul calls them brothers, expresses love to them and never questions their salvation.  He affirms in his letter that God has called them into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ while at the same time rebuking them and calling on them to repent.

Chan follows up with another bombshell:

In an earlier draft of this chapter, I quoted several commentators who agreed with my point of view.  But we all know that you can find quotes to support any view you want to take. you can even tweak word studies to help you in your effort. I ’m not against scholarship, but I do believe there are times when we come to more accurate conclusions through simple reading.

Rather than examining a verse and dissecting it, I chose to peruse one gospel in each sitting.  Furthermore, I attempted to do so from the perspective of a twelve-year-old who knew nothing about Jesus.  I wanted to rediscover what reasonable conclusions a person would come to while objectively reading the Gospels for the first time.  In other words, I read the Bible as if I’d never read it before.

This is the weakest point in the book.  In order to defend his conclusions on what it means to be lukewarm in the faith, Chan relies on an exegetical defence from the Gospels.  However, he sabotages that effort in two areas.

In the first area, he says he was prepared to quote several commentators who agreed with his conclusions but he decided not to so for the odd reason that you can find quotes to support any view you want to take.  Although this may be true to a certain degree, it does not invalidate the use of the thoughtful and rigourous findings of others who have seriously studied the scriptures. In effect, Chan is committing one of the gravest mistakes of contemporary evangelicalism: the personal interpretation of the Bible while ignoring 2000 years of serious biblical exegesis and scholarship by saints who have gone on before us.  Chan decides to ignore the work of others and rely solely on his own reading of the Bible, as if that gives his conclusion greater objectivity.  If anything, it is an example of subjective hermeneutics.  He himself says that one can tweak word studies to help you in your effort. How do we know that Chan didn’t do such “tweaking” in his simple reading of the Gospels?

In the second area, Chan didn’t want to examine a passage by dissecting it but to read each gospel in a single sitting and to do so like a 12 year old for the first time.  It isn’t at all clear how this method of exegesis is superior to doing proper basic Bible study.  Chan gives little in the way of explaining how this method provides greater objectivity than pondering the verses over and over again to see what Jesus is saying.  It would appear that Chan is saying simple Bible reading is superior to in-depth Bible study but he fails to provide arguments as to why this is the case.

Chan concludes:

Jesus’ call to commitment is clear: He wants all or nothing.  The thought of a person calling himself a “Christian” without being a devoted follower of Christ is absurd.

Despite weaknesses in his exegetical approach, Chan draws an accurate conclusion.  Contemporary pop theology has produced a weakened definition of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus was quite firm about the need for obedience in order to truly follow Him and that it was not simply a matter of calling Him Lord (Matthew 7:21)

Chan writes: “Let’s face it. We’re willing to make changes in our lives only if we think it affects our salvation.”  In other words, the main focus of much of contemporary evangelicalism is ‘am I going to heaven and what do I have to do to get there’.   Going to heaven becomes more important (an anthropocentric view of the faith) than loving the Lord Jesus and following Him (a Christocentric view of the faith).

Chan could be accused of promoting a works-righteousness gospel but he rightly points out that all of us have lukewarm areas in our lives.  The difference lies in striving for obedience and surrender to Jesus day by day, all the while being covered by His grace.  The hardened lukewarm would never concern themselves about the areas of their lives that were not under Jesus’ lordship and it is to those people that Chan is speaking to.  He questions their motivation: Can I go to heaven without truly and faithfully loving Jesus?

Crazy Love highlights the depth of God’s love for His children and how that should motivate the Christian to live for Him and to move out of his comfort zone.  The book is a challenge to all Christians, and those who call themselves Christian, to examine themselves and determine if their lives reflect being a true disciple of Jesus, as the Scriptures define it.

Despite the weaknesses of his exegetical method and view of lukewarm Christians, Chan’s conclusions are consistent with what the scriptures do say about true discipleship and authentic Christianity.  Chan is not advocating a kind of works gospel but rather a true conversion that leads to repentance, dependence and obedience to the Master and Lord.  It is a message that many North American Christians need to hear and heed.

Three out of five stars.

2014 © Ed LeBlanc