In Psalm 119, the writer shares his love of God’s word. He wants to learn it, be guided by it and meditate on it day and night. He views it as a light, and a comfort and in God’s word he places his trust. I have not always resonated with Psalm 119. Instead, I have found reading and studying the scripture…well…hard, difficult, and at times frustrating. I have used it as a sword against those who disagree, and have had the displeasure of having it used as a dagger against me. I have spent hours trying to understand it and at times have found myself shaking my head because it didn’t always make sense to me.
Someone posted a comment asking me to write a posting about Bible study. After thinking about it, I believe the best approach is to share some general principles more than a some kind of ‘how to.’
I’ve found that the root of much of my frustration with scripture was my approached. Our educational system teaches us that information is meant to be mastered. We are given textbooks and told to read, memorize, understand and then tested on how well we can regurgitate the information. So we grow up reading fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, pamphlets, brochures, and other material the same way. Our goal is to understand, manage and master it.
I’ve approached the Bible much in the same way. I viewed it as information that I needed to digest and understand. There were facts, figures, principles and rules to know and dissimilate. I felt that I needed to master this book more than any other because this book is important. So I would attend bible studies, buy commentaries, listen to various discussions and lectures all so I would be able to answer any question about this book.
There is nothing with this method. It is important to know what is contained in the pages of scripture. Paul tells us to do our best so we will be able to “rightly” explain the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15 NRSV). So studying scripture is something we are called to do.
There is another way to approach scripture though; formatively. When we approach the scripture this way, we are not trying to master the material. Rather, we are allowing the material to master us. There is a big difference. One can study scripture informationally and leave unchanged. One cannot read the scriptures formatively and leave unchanged. To read scripture formatively is to be changed. It is to be mastered.
How does one make the shift from informational reading to formative reading? Well, for one thing we slow down. Instead of trying to cover a chapter, or book, we are satisfied with a verse, or perhaps even a word. How much we study, or how much we read is no longer our concern. Our concern is that we ‘hear’ God through our reading and having our lives changed.
We begin by placing ourselves before God and reading a small portion of scripture. This can be a paragraph, passage, or a few verses. Some stop when something ‘jumps out at them.’ It is at that point that we meditate, wonder and pray over the scripture.
I would suggest doing a search for Lectio Divina which is an ancient practice of reading scripture. Lectio Divina slows us down and help us to listen more fully to God. Many who have started practicing Lectio have discovered how powerful scripture can be. They come away not with some tidbit of trivia, but with an invitation to more fully follow God.
Both informational and formational approaches are important. We need times when we study, gaining information and understanding. We also need those times of formation when we allow God, through His Word, to master and transform us. Yet, I believe that we have focused so much on informational reading that we could probably spend a greater amount of time in formational practices. There are countless bible studies, but is the result more love? We have the information, more information than we ever have, but do we care for our neighbors more? Our goal, after all, is to love God and others. If our current focus on bible studies move us toward that goal wonderful. I, for one, believe we need more transformation of the heart (which formational practices bring).