“Now,” the pastor implored us as he completed his sermon, “in light of what we’ve seen in 2 Timothy 3:16 this morning, I challenge each of you to equip yourselves for life and ministry! God commands us to be obedient and to glorify him through our obedience so I’m asking each of you to spend at least five minutes in each of the next five days reading the Bible. This is God’s clearly stated will so let’s go out and do it!”
I looked around. Lots of heads were nodding positively: this would be the week to obey God and to give him his glory. Some were looking down at the floor. One man—he looked like a cutting-edge sort of guy—glanced at his watch. The service ended with a song and the benediction.
On the way out of church a man in the congregation took a moment with the pastor.
“Pastor, I’m pretty busy but I want to take up your challenge. With life as full as it is, when should I do it? Is there an especially good time of day to read?”
“No, it’s totally up to you! Maybe while you’re having breakfast, or maybe before you go to bed. Just commit yourself to find a little spare time somewhere in the day.”
“Great,” the man responded, “I’ll do it before I go to bed at night—it might be a good way to get to sleep!”
This particular scenario is my own creation but it summarizes some of the more common sentiments I hear from believers today—from both pastors and parishioners. In this post I’d like to ask a few tough questions about how we treat Bible reading today. Why do we bother to ask anyone to sacrifice their precious time in this way?
First we need to ask, do we actually know God? If we don’t know him—even if we know lots about him—then any invitation to read “God’s word” is like asking someone to read someone else’s mail. The appropriate response to that will always be, “If I haven’t met him, why should I be interested in his issues?” So it’s important for those who don’t read the Bible to start with a polite question: “Dear God, have we ever actually met?” For those who lack any appetite for the Bible I’m sure he’ll answer, “No, we haven’t, but I’ve been waiting for the opportunity for some time now!”
The point is that our religious activities—whether we’re deeply involved in a cool and post-modern community of faith; or are members of a clunky and traditional old church—are not the real issues at stake. I think of Paul, for instance, when he was still Saul, being “zealous for God” as he chased Christians all over the landscape. All of that was so much nonsense when he was finally knocked off his chariot by God himself.
“Who are you?” Saul asked the one who spoke to him out of a brilliant light.
“Jesus, whom you’re persecuting” came the answer.
This, by the way, is an awkward point because in my experience it’s uncommon to hear church people talk about God as if he cares for them and vice versa—in contrast to Paul’s great passion for Christ after his own introduction that day on the Damascus road.
Yet the Bible assumes that all who really know God love him. Why? Because all who know him discover that he first loved us. And it’s impossible to ignore the Creator of all of heaven and earth as he regularly tells us, by his Spirit, “I love you” (Romans 5:5). Consider, for instance, Psalm 42:1, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” The Bible is full of portrayals of people with that appetite, who love him deeply. And all of us who get that, love to spend time hanging out with God in his Word.
Some in the Bible, of course, despise God. And many—take Jacob or Paul as two instances—move from one status to the other as the Bible tells the stories of their lives. The Bible offers such transformation stories not only to invite us to that kind of story in our own lives; but also to warn us that only those captured by the love of the Father and his Son—as those who “kiss the Son” (Psalm 2)—will prosper in the coming Day of Judgment. And those on that Day who claim to have been religious—even when they’ve done “many mighty miracles” on God’s behalf—but who never really liked him much, will be told, “Depart from me, I never knew you” (in Matthew 7).
So knowing God “in person” is a crucial starting point for Bible reading and John 8:31 treats our devotion to the Word as the measure of true life in Christ. Yet there’s a second obstacle to overcome for many of us with lots of church experience. It’s our utilitarian tendency to treat the Bible as a resource for successful living. In sermons we hear of Scriptures as a place where we learn how to be more Godly; how to have stronger marriages; how to manage our wealth; how to become more missional as truly authentic people; how to build strong communities; and so on and on and on.
In other words, because of our fixation on finding “applications” in the Bible we begin to be “fix-it” Christians and the Bible serves us as a moral manual. This, however, misses seeing God himself—the Father-Son-and-Spirit-God—as the ultimate moving presence in the Bible; and as the ultimate motive for coming to the Bible.
Let me make the point by asking whether we see the Bible as God’s deepest and most tangible self-disclosure that he makes available to us: is he sharing himself and his heart through it? Or is does it offer us a set of lessons God and our pastors wants us to learn, ideas we need to assimilate, and behaviors we need to adopt? These differing emphases separate those who treasure the Bible relationally from those who don’t.
It’s true, of course, that the Bible does offer us all sorts of practical benefits. The God who gave us marriages, resources, communities, and everything else, has lots to tell us about how these benefits are part of his love for us. But they all become idols if we worship and serve the creation while missing the God who loves us and who has given us all these things in the context of his love. God is not a means to our ends, but our ultimate aim in himself.
So what should we say to a pastor who begs his congregation to spend 5 minutes a day for 5 days a week in the Bible? Or even to read 15 minutes each day in order to complete a one-year-read-through?
God alone can answer that, but God’s answer might be, “Shame on you! Is your portrayal of me so small, so disaffected, and so utilitarian that all you can ask for is a useless bit of spare time? I’m the ‘God who is love’ and I’m offering myself as the dynamic center of life for all your people—so get in touch with reality!”
So, as spiritual leaders of one sort or another, quit using the small appetites of those who may not even know God as a measure for anything spiritual. Instead let’s use the measure of a real love relationship.
Would a good pastor, for instance, offer premarital advice to a young couple like this: “Be sure to spend at least 5 minutes a day, 5 times each week talking to each other: that’s what your marriage needs to prosper!” God forbid!
Instead, with marriage as a model, here’s what we might want to tell young believers:
“God loves you. He opens his heart to you in the Bible. You’ll need to have ears to hear that love and the Spirit offers that—just ask for it and you’ll receive it. You’ll also need to give up things that block your response to him—he’ll coach you in that as you read. And you’ll want to have other partners to share with, so always look for companionship in your reading. Then be sure to pray in response to what you’ve read.”
If they ask, “How much reading?” answer with a bigger frame of reference—God’s love—in view than the frame of what others are doing.
“One good measure is to ask how much time you have for internet, movies, and television—our discretionary time. Then ask how you can use some of that discretionary time to be with God and with his people. Don’t let the soil of your heart get packed down by what the culture is throwing at you! Maybe cut your present ‘screen time’ down by half and offer the other half to Bible time. Just remember, the more time you spend with God, the more you’ll enjoy him! Go for it!”
Remember, the more we know God, the more we love him, and the more we love him, the more time we want to have with him. Try it. You’ll like it!