Real Life Prayer

IMG_2234 ?ver2A couple of weeks ago I wrote about #RealLifeDevotions, which often look different from Instagram-worthy ideals. That post focused on Bible reading, but the other half devotions, or quiet time, or “God and I” time, or whatever we want to call the time we meet with the Lord, is prayer. Just like Bible reading, we often neglect to pray until we can set aside a certain amount of time or set up prayer time the way we think is ideal.

Like Bible reading, my prayer time has varied through different seasons of life. For a while I had a regimented system of what to pray for on certain days. Another season, I used the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication (requests). That seemed a little artificial (who else do we talk to in acronyms?), but it did help me to include other elements besides requests. When my children were young, I prayed while rocking or nursing or falling asleep.

I used to think I hadn’t officially prayed for something unless I brought it before God during devotional time. But then I reasoned that real life conversations aren’t crammed into one 10-15 minute segment of the day. We speak to those closest to us throughout the day as well as setting aside special times to talk.

The Bible is the best textbook on prayer. God gives us instruction about prayer, more than can be included in one blog post (avoid vain repetitions, empty phrases, praying for “show,” ask in faith, confessing known sin, etc.).

Not only does God give us specific instructions about prayer, but He also gives us examples of how and when people prayed and what they prayed for.

Prayer isn’t a ritual: it’s a conversation with God. Like any other relationship, we need one-on-one time, with everything else set aside. Daniel had set times to pray. Jesus’ life on earth was incredibly busy, but He got up early in the morning to be alone with His Father or prayed through the night. His prayer time was interrupted, just as ours sometimes is.

But Jesus and others Bible people also prayed “in the moment.” One of my favorite prayers in the Bible is Nehemiah’s quick appeal sent up to God right after the king asked him a question. So I began praying for a need as soon as I heard it, or thanking God for something just as it happened, or asking for wisdom, forgiveness, guidance, strength, etc., all through the day.

The psalms give us examples all over the spectrum, from the highest praise to the deepest lament. The epistles share some of the deepest prayer requests I’ve seen. For a long time, I had a sheet of Paul’s prayers typed out and tucked in my Bible, and I would pray through them for myself and loved ones. One of my favorites is Colossians 1:9-12:

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

We’re not restricted to Biblical language, but Biblical prayers help us know we’re praying God’s will. But, really, we can turn almost any Scripture into prayer. We can ask God to help us heed the warning we’ve read, obey the command, trust in the promise, etc.

Usually I speak to God off the top of my head with whatever I’m thinking or concerned about at the moment. But sometimes I feel the need of structure to corral my wandering thoughts. The acronym mentioned above helps, but often I like to use what we call “the Lord’s prayer” in Matthew 6 as a basis. I first saw this idea in a book by Anne Ortland. It might go something like this.

Our Father

Thank you for being my Father. Thank you for drawing me to yourself and making me your child. Thank you for your tender love and care for me.

Which art in heaven

I’m grateful that You are not just my father, but my heavenly Father. You are all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful.

Hallowed be thy name.

Help me to honor your name in everything I say and think and do. May the nations come to know you and consecrate your name.

Thy kingdom come

I look forward to the day when your kingdom comes, when sin is done away, when all wrongs will be made right.

Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

Help me to know and do your will. Help me to trust, when the world seems so far from you, when circumstances seems most antithetical to your will, that you are working all things together for good behind the scenes. I pray that you would turn people’s hearts toward you, open their eyes, that they might clearly understand who you are and believe on you.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Thank you that you have always supplied all that I needed and much that I wanted. I ask and trust you for today’s needs.

And forgive us our debts

Please search my heart and show me anything I need to confess to you, anything I need to turn from or make right.

As we forgive our debtors.

Help me to remember I have no right to ask your forgiveness if I am not willing to forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15). Help me not to hold grudges or resentment, but to forgive as freely and fully as you have forgiven me.

And lead us not into temptation

You know what’s ahead today. You know my weaknesses. Please strengthen me and help me to remember your truth to combat the devil’s lies.

But deliver us from evil

I’m trusting you for protection, spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Then there are times in life we just don’t have the words. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27). A favorite from the OT that I love is when Jehoshaphat says, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” I’ve had to say something like that often.

The more we know what the Bible says about prayer, the more we can pray confidently, asking God to “do as you have spoken” (2 Samuel 7:25). “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14).

I saw a Twitter post once that spoke of “throwing the promises of God back in His face.” It’s good to base prayer on God’s promises, but not like this. Some have advocated storming heaven and demanding God answer a certain way. No, we approach Him in humility. That doesn’t mean we’re not honest or fervent. But we’re not belligerent or demanding. We don’t remind Him of His promises because He doesn’t remember them. He does. We plead them to be in accord with His will and to pray in faith.

You’ve heard the phrase “Prayer changes things.” Sometimes it does. More often, prayer changes us. Elisabeth Elliot once said, in answer to the question, “Does prayer work?”:

The answer to that depends on one’s definition of work. It is necessary to know what a thing is for in order to judge whether it works. It would be senseless, for example, to say that if a screwdriver fails to drive nails into a board it doesn’t “work.” A screwdriver works very well for driving screws. Often we expect to arrange things according to our whims by praying about them, and when the arrangement fails to materialize we conclude that prayer doesn’t work. God wants our willing cooperation in the bringing in of his kingdom. If “Thy kingdom come” is an honest prayer, we will seek to ask for whatever contributes to that end. What, after all is said and done, do you want above all? Is it “Thy will be done”? If so, leave it to Him.

Is it “My will be done”? Don’t waste your time and God’s by praying. Have it your way (A Lamp for My Feet).

Even knowing how beneficial prayer is, sometimes we just don’t feel like praying. A former pastor once said that one of his best times of prayer started out with confessing to the Lord that he didn’t want to pray. J. Sidlow Baxter has an almost amusing story of praying despite his emotions until they came along.

Elisabeth Elliot wrote of starting prayer time saying, “Lord, here I am again to talk to you. It’s cold. I’m not feeling terribly spiritual,” but then finding help in the psalms and hymns.

The point of praying isn’t to have an Exhibit A of ideal form. It isn’t about impressing God. It’s about getting to know Him, growing in our love for Him and likeness to Him. The more we read His Word, the more we talk to Him, the more natural and effectual prayer will be.

Has your prayer life changed through the years? Has prayer been a struggle? What has helped you learn to pray?

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Real Life Devotions

I’m sure you’ve seen Facebook or Instagram photos of ideal quiet times with the Lord. A beach at sunrise. A sunny deck and a glass of lemonade. A comfy chair, throw blanket, and steaming mug of coffee. A reading plan tidily checked off.

I admit I like having a plan and a routine. And there’s nothing wrong with those kinds of inspirational photos. It’s lovely when the setting comes together beautifully with devotional time. Maybe those pictures document the settings specifically  because they are so rare.

But I think sometimes we set ourselves up for failure because we don’t reach that ideal. When we struggle to stay awake, when we can’t find a quiet minute in the day, when the kids clamor for attention any time we sit down, when we hit the ground running with meetings all day and our attention span is shredded at night … what then? We often give up on our quiet time because it won’t look like we think it shoud.

But Bible reading isn’t just a nice thing to do when we can fit it in, when we can do all the things we think a quiet time requires. It’s vital to our walk with God. It’s our spiritual nourishment. We have our flesh and an enemy of our souls to fight against.

I’ve written before about finding time for Bible reading, so I won’t go into all that here. I just want to encourage you that real life devotions won’t always look ideal. God can speak to my heart in my comfy chair with a half hour set aside. But He can also speak through His Word (and has) when I am tired, rushed, ill, nursing a baby, traveling, or only have a few scattered minutes through the day.

With that in mind, I started a hashtag on Instragram and Twitter for #reallifedevotions. The idea was to show what real Bible reading time “in the trenches” was like.

Here’s my usual spot:

I used to be the comfy couch and throw blanket person, but then I too easily dozed off. So I moved here. My desk is cluttered, my inbox is stuffed, there’s a sprinkling of dust. My drawer is hanging open for easy access to pens, pencils, and sticky tabs. I do believe in dusting and straightening. 🙂 But if I waited to get everything else done before I read my Bible, well, I’d never get to it.

This is my second real life devotions photo:

I used to journal quite a bit, but then it seemed like I was spending more time writing my thoughts rather than reading God’s. For years I didn’t write anything. I guess some of my blog posts are processing what I have read. But lately I’ve started almost a bullet journal, just jotting down a summary, sometimes just a sentence. Sometimes I’ll write more if I need to process something. I look back at what I have written at the end of my quite time for that day, but rarely after that. (DL stands for Daily Light on the Daily Path, a devotional book I first discovered in missionary biographies and have read for years.)

With my mix of printing and cursive, I don’t know if others could even read my notes. (My handwriting has never been good, and trying to take notes in college lecture classes made it worse.) But they’re not meant for others to read. These aren’t the literary quality of The Journals of Jim Elliot or David Brainerd’s diary.

Nor are my journal entries decorative. I love to see what artistic people do with their devotional jottings, like Karla Dornacher. They can probably whip up beautiful art in journals or Bible margins in no time. I know for many, this is a way to meditate on God’s Word. But for me, trying to be artistic would be a distraction, a frustration, and one more thing to do. Their way works for them; my way works for me.

All of that to say, don’t feel like you have to have a beautiful, artistic, calligraphic journal with a pretty cover to jot down notes from your Bible reading time. You don’t even have to write anything down at all. If you do, great!  If it’s lovely, wonderful! But if it’s merely functional, a way to remember or think through what you’ve read, that’s fine, no matter what it looks like.

This third photo is staged because this has not been my practice. It’s in memory of a neighbor from decades ago who had three little stairstep children in a row, all under the age of five. Her washing machine was in her kitchen, and she left her Bible on top of it to get a few minutes reading in as she could.

As I wrote in Encouragement for Mothers of Small Children, the time when my children were little was the most challenging to try to carve out any quiet time, much less to read the Bible in a coherent manner. Yet I suffered spiritually when I didn’t read. It’s important to both read and study the Bible, but some seasons, it’s hard to do either. When I truly only had a few moments, God met with me and fed my soul in that time.

Moses met with God on a mountain. Daniel met with God in captivity. David met with God in pasture while shepherding, in a cave while hiding from enemies, and in a palace. Jonah met with God in the belly of a whale. We can meet with God any time, anywhere.

How about you? What does your real life devotional time look like? How has it changed through the different seasons of life? What was your most unusual devotional setting?

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Ways to Both Read and Study the Bible

When I first became a Christian, the church I was in urged people to read the Bible through in a year. I’m so glad, because I believe that grounded me in my faith more than anything else.

In later years, pastors often emphasized the need to read passages of the Bible in context and encouraged to read a book of the Bible through at a time rather than scattering our reading all around. I mentioned last week Drew Hunter‘s quote that we wouldn’t read only page two of a friend’s three-page letter. Nor would we read a paragraph on page three and a line on page one. The Bible isn’t a book of random quotations. Each book is a coherent whole, and all together they present a unified message.

Reading the whole Bible helped me keep things in context and see the grand themes of the Bible. It helped me get into books like Leviticus and Chronicles, which I probably would not have drifted into. I found some nuggets there I would have missed. Reading all of the Bible helps you interpret it, as some passages shed light on other passages.

Kelly Needham says:

Most Christians I talk to have never read the entirety of the Bible. They may read it frequently but only parts of it. But daily reading parts of the Bible doesn’t mean you know it any more than daily reading the first chapter of Moby Dick makes you an expert on the famous novel. Ignorance of the whole of God’s Word makes us easy targets in the war Satan has waged against God. Lies can slip through undetected like poison gas because we’re just not that familiar with the truth.

I still believe in reading the Bible through, but I don’t do it in a year any more. Sometimes I wanted to slow down, but felt I couldn’t or I’d fall behind schedule. Once one does fall behind, it’s hard to catch back up. So now I just go at my own pace. I don’t even know how long it takes me. Sometimes I read a couple of chapters a day. Other times I read more or less. I usually read the shorter epistles a few times through before moving on because they’re packed so full and go by so quickly.

I’ve seen some two-year or other plans. John O’Malley said in Overcoming Your Devotional Obstacles, “If it takes you five years to read through the Bible, you are not less of a Christian. Read it at a pace that you can comprehend it and receive something from it.”

Some folks I know have tried “binge-reading” the Bible occasionally. Joel Arnold says, “A pretty average reader can finish in 100 days by reading just 40 minutes a day.” My friend Kim once read the whole Bible in 90 days and shared her experience here.

Joel once read the whole Bible in a week, 10-12 hours a day. Afterward he noted:

The Bible is the most intertwined body of literature I’ve ever read. The books cite, quote, allude and echo each other constantly. It’s like a city, built up layer by layer, strata by strata, so that each later addition rests on every layer that came before … We don’t usually sense these relationships because we’ve forgotten 95% of the OT before we ever get to the New. But having it all out in front of your brain at once changes that completely. You find yourself flipping back and forth constantly between the testaments, jumping across thousands of years of history to study the same teachings and sometimes even the same phrases (Meditations from Binge-Reading the Bible).

Obviously no one can read 10-12 hours a day every week. But if we can use vacation time to binge watch a TV series, why not use it to read the whole Bible?

However, if we only read the Bible in great chunks, we miss something. We’re also told to study it, meditate on it, chew on it. Sometimes we need to slow down and spend more focused time on a smaller passage. Charles Spurgeon is quoted as saying, “Some people like to read so many [Bible] chapters every day. I would not dissuade them from the practice, but I would rather lay my soul asoak in half a dozen verses all day than rinse my hand in several chapters. Oh, to be bathed in a text of Scripture, and to let it be sucked up in your very soul, till it saturates your heart!” Sometimes there’s nothing like honing in on one or a few verses for an extended amount of time.

Remember, the early churches did not have the entire Bible bound in one book for a long while. They had the Old Testament and gospels, but they would have spent a great deal of time on the one letter sent to their congregation and others as they came around.

I mentioned last week that Tim Challies said the larger blocks of reading were for familiarity, and reading for intimacy was slowing down and meditating on or studying shorter passages. Kelly Collier calls these two methods plow work (which “moves through large portions of Scripture more quickly,” like reading the Bible in a year or two) and trowel work (“taking a passage or verse of Scripture and settling in to dig for a long time,” like inductive Bible Study). I likened the two styles to a panoramic or macro lens. Or we could simply call them reading and studying.

I wrote a few years ago about finding time to read the Bible. Some seasons allow for both reading and studying, and it’s great to do both each day if you can. With the friend’s letter I mentioned earlier, we usually read the whole thing once or twice and then go back over it section by section. That’s good to do with a Bible passage as well. But it’s hard enough some days to get a few minutes to read the Bible at all. How can we possibly employ both reading and studying?

Here are some ideas:

Take turns. Often after I’ve finished a book of the Bible, I’ve taken a break to do a shorter study. Then I go back to the next book of the Bible.

Alternate days. Use a few days of the week for general reading, the others for more focused study.

Do the opposite of your church. For several years we were under a pastor who took a very detailed, thorough approach to preaching through a book of the Bible at a time. It took us years to get through Romans. But that was great, because then we knew it well. Since the preaching I heard was the in-depth, verse or two at a time style, my personal reading was more general. By contrast, when in other churches where the preaching covered more ground, I liked to do in-depth studies on my own.

Join a Bible study group. Bible studies tend to be slower and more focused (unless they’re topical), so I did in-depth study for the group and more general study on my own.

Adjust as needs arise. Once, chagrined and ashamed after an angry outburst, I set aside my regular Bible reading to look up and mediate on passages dealing with anger. That kind of thing has happened several times: an issue came up that I had to study out now.

Slow down and speed up as you feel led. In reading the Bible through, if I feel the need to put the breaks on in a certain passage and camp out for a while, I do so. Then I’ll pick up the pace for more general reading later.

There are going to be days when your regular routine flies out the window: illness, traveling, company, emergencies. God gives grace for those. I have a small devotional book called Daily Light on the Daily Path that is a few verses on a certain theme each day. Usually I use it to start my devotions, but some days that’s all I get to.

There are going to be seasons in life when finding time for quiet study is nearly impossible, like when young children are in the house. Just like we sometimes grab a protein bar instead of having a sit-down lunch, so our spiritual feeding sometimes has to be grab-and-go rather than a leisurely meal. When I truly only had time for a verse or two, God fed my soul with just those verses. Anything is better than nothing. One writer proposed a micronutrient Bible reading plan for those times.

We need to keep in mind the goal for reading the Bible isn’t just to get through it in a specified time. Instead, we read to learn it, learn from it, get to know God and His Word better.

Our current church has us read through a book of the Bible together. We’re asked to read five chapters of the Bible a week, one a day Monday-Friday with Saturdays to catch up. Then the preaching focuses on a short passage of a different book. Then we all learn a verse each month. So we incorporate the general overview reading, have a more in-depth study of a short passage, and spend a longer time meditating on one verse. That’s not a bad practice for one’s personal reading as well.

What ways have you find to incorporate both reading and studying the Bible? Do you tend toward one more than the other?

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Book Review: Engaging the Scripture

I enjoyed Deborah Haddix‘s Journaling for the Soul so much, I bought her new Engaging the Scripture: Encountering God in the Pages of His Word not long after I first saw it.

I love that Deborah emphasized engaging the Scripture—not just reading an assignment, not just searching for information. Rather, “we are to read intentionally with the purpose of hearing from God, knowing Him, deepening our relationship, and nourishing our soul” (p. 28).

Deborah has chapters on the importance of God’s gift of His Word, dealing with distractions, further explanation about what’s involved in engaging the Scripture. Then she has a chapter for each aspect of engaging Scripture: reading, writing, meditating, memorizing, and praying it. A later chapter shares ways to interweave these practices (meditating while memorizing, praying verses while writing them, etc,)

Each chapter is fairly short: three to six pages of text, a page of personal reflection about the chapter, a section on resources for implementing the chapter, and a practice page or two.

Each chapter includes multiple ideas for engaging, with the encouragement to chose which works best with your wiring, schedule, and season of life. Tidbits of advice, encouragement, and wisdom are interspersed throughout the pages. Just a few:

Experiencing distractions during our quiet time does NOT make us a failure (p. 34).

Overwhelm often results in total abandonment. Start small. Experience success. Then incorporate additional ideas as you move forward (p. 39).

The physical food we take into our physical body does not nourish us unless we properly digest it and take it into our cells. Just as physical food is needed for physical strength, spiritual food is necessary for spiritual strength. The Word you read (the spiritual food) must be chewed, digested, taken into your being, and one way to chew your food is by memorization (p. 100).

Deborah has mastered the art of writing the way writers for the Internet are advised to: short paragraphs and lots of white space. The book isn’t long, but its style makes it seem even more manageable.

This is a wonderful resource that I highly recommend.

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Studying the Parts to Understand the Whole

A few years ago I read an annotated version of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. Sometimes I struggled with disrupting the flow of the story to read the notes. But the notes added so much to understanding the story, they were worth it in the long run.

I read recently an article where someone brought up this difference between reading for pleasure versus reading an annotated version of a story, stopping to read every footnote. This writer brought out the disruption of this type of reading. She pointed out that we don’t read regular books that way (unless we’re in school reading an assigned text), so we shouldn’t read the Bible that way.

There are times we should just read a particular passage as it is for pleasure, with no cross references or footnotes. But there are other times we should study it out in depth. It isn’t either Bible reading or Bible study. We need both.

Some people read and study in tandem. They’ll read one passage devotionally and study another, possibly to prepare for a group Bible study. Others will take turns: they’ll read one book of the Bible all the way through, then do a Bible study project on another book or topic, then read another book of the Bible through.

When I first started using a study Bible, I wasn’t sure I liked reading a verse or two and then stopping to read the footnotes sidebars, and charts. It did seem more halting and fragmented than just reading the passage. But the extra material did aid in understanding the passage.

Instead of reading a verse and it’s footnote one by one, sometimes I read a paragraph at a time, then look over the footnotes. Or, if there is a lot of footnote information for each verse, I’ll read each footnote after its verse, and then go back over the last few lines of text just to put it all together.

Then, beyond just the notes in a study Bible, there are commentaries, Bible study guides, and a whole slew of other Bible study materials with which to dig into a passage even further..

Let’s see if I can illustrate the benefit of study in another way. I was not exposed to classical music much as I was growing up. I remember one Girl Scout trip to a symphony, a couple of performances of Handel’s Messiah in school or church, our pastor playing excerpts of Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio in a high school assembly. I remember thinking the pieces were nice and enjoying a few of the songs more than others (especially “He, Watching Over Israel,” based on Psalm 121:4, from Elijah). But I didn’t get much more than that from the pieces.

Then I went to a Christian liberal arts university which wanted to teach us more than academics, so we were exposed to various kinds of classical music concerts, Shakespearean plays, etc. During my junior year, I asked a sophomore music major roommate to help me pick out some classical vinyl albums marked down to $3 at the bookstore that she thought I might enjoy. I grew a bit more in my appreciation of classical music.

But it wasn’t until my senior year in college, when I had a class called Music Appreciation, that I really began to understand and then love classical music. We went era by era, learning what kind of music was produced by which composers in each period. We learned something of the lives of major composers. We listened to and took apart some famous works. We learned to identify the different themes in each piece, note their development, and trace how they interacted with each other. We’d have tests where the professor would play a few seconds of a piece of music, and we’d have to identify it as the first theme of the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony (a melody which was later given words by one of his students and turned into the lovely song “Goin’ Home“). Some of the works we studied then are my favorite pieces today – New World, Hayden’s Surprise Symphony (and the fun story behind it), Smetana’s The Moldau, Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture and others. Listening to them again is like rereading a favorite book, enjoying and anticipating the flow. I came to understand and enjoy the whole much more by studying the parts. In fact, I haven’t added any new classical music loves because I haven’t studied any pieces to the extent I did then.

It’s the same way with the Bible. As we study the individual parts of a biblical book, we learn what the details mean, how they fit within the book itself, how the book fits within the whole Bible. We trace the themes and see how they intertwine. We’ll know and get more from those passages in ways we don’t know those we’ve only given a cursory reading. And each time we read that book, we build on what we know and appreciate what we remember from previous studies. Study might seem tedious in the midst of it, but it’s worth it when you put it all together. C. S. Lewis contrasted the difference between meditating on a single verse devotionally vs. working through a longer passage: “Hammer your way through a continued argument, just as you would in a profane writer, and the heart will sometimes sing unbidden (from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis).

Some days, even some seasons of life, like when young children are in the house, our Bible reading may be more like grabbing a quick protein bar instead of sitting down to a meal. There are many good reasons to read the Bible, and sometimes we’re greatly blessed from just reading a passage. While working on this post, I read Julia Bettencort’s great post about reading the Bible for pleasure. Some days our thoughts are already scattered, and focusing on and absorbing a single passage is more helpful than adding notes or references. But we also benefit from studying more in depth at times. Our study informs and enhances our general reading. It’s good to make time for both.

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The Forgotten Element in Bible Reading

It’s funny how you can read certain Bible passages for years, and suddenly something new jumps out at you. This happened one morning last week as I read in 2 Timothy. Chapter 2 verse 7 says:

Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

Many verses speak of God giving us understanding as we read His Word. I often pray for Him to do so just before I start reading the Bible. And I knew the Bible instructed us not only to read, but to study and meditate on it. But this is the first time I noticed both God’s part and ours so clearly and closely working together.

The ESV Study Bible notes comment on this verse:

Paul exhorts Timothy to make the effort to think and meditate on what Paul has written; as he does so, God will give him understanding in everything about which Paul has instructed him. The believer’s efforts and God’s empowering work together.

The definition of the Greek word for “think over” is noeo and means “to perceive with the mind, to understand, to think upon, heed, ponder, consider.” The KJV says “consider,” the NIV uses “reflect on.”

By contrast, just one chapter over, in 2 Timothy 3:8, Paul speaks of men who are “corrupted in mind.” The ESV notes say: “False teaching is cast in terms of deficient thinking . . . this is why divine aid is necessary for coming to the “knowledge of the truth” (2:7, 25-26)” (emphasis mine).

Jen Wilkin said, in “Studying the Bible Is Not Supposed to Be Easy“:

Bible study is . . . absolutely a skill. And so we need to go into it expecting, not that it will be easy – that the Holy Spirit is just going to dump truth on us just because we were faithful to sit down and flip open the covers – but rather, that if we obey just some simple reading tools that we would use with any book, that the Bible will begin to yield up treasure to us. 

I started to do a study on meditation, think, consider, ponder, etc., in the Bible, and then realized the topic was too big to complete in time for this blog post. But just looking up forms of the words “mediate” and “ponder,” I came up with the following:

When people speak of meditation, what usually comes to mind is emptying the mind or concentrating on one’s breathing. But what is Biblical meditation? It’s cogitating, reflecting, thinking about something, turning it over in your mind.

What does the Bible tell us to meditate on or think about?

  • God’s Word in some form: mentioned 10 times
  • God’s work, deeds: 9 times
  • God Himself: once
  • Our way (in relation to God’s): 4 times

Some of the words often associated with meditating on and pondering God’s Word:

  • Joy, delight
  • Counsel
  • Wisdom
  • Comfort
  • Love

The result of meditation on God’s Word is often faith, hope, and praise.

There are times for overview reading of larger parts of God’s Word, and times for camping out on a smaller section. Either way, we need to remember the object isn’t just to get through a certain amount of material or to check off our duty for the day. We need leave space to turn God’s truth over in our minds. Perhaps we need to allow for thinking time while reading and studying. Perhaps we need to turn off the constant noise while we go about our day’s duties to have time to think.

Of course, we have to be careful that our thoughts involve the text and what it says and how it applies. Some peoples thoughts stray far from Scriptural truth, yet they claim to be teaching Scripture. We don’t need to insert our thoughts into the Bible: we need to insert the Bible into our thoughts.

In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word (Psalm 119: 14-16, ESV).

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night (Psalm 1:1-2, ESV).

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Wise Woman, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth, Booknificent)

Book Review: Read the Bible for Life

I first discovered George Guthrie through links to his blog from others. The posts I read there were so helpful that I got his book, Read the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding and Living God’s Word.

After an introduction detailing reasons for reading the Bible, lamenting a lack of Biblical literacy among Christians, and posting several reasons why Christians don’t read, Guthrie launches into the four parts of his book.

The first part covers “Foundational Issues,” like how to read it, reading it in context and for transformation. etc.

Part 2 discusses reading the various genres in the Old Testament: stories, laws, psalms and proverbs, and prophets.

Part 3 covers the different types of literature in the New Testament: stories, Jesus’ teachings, epistles (letters), and Revelation.

Part 4 contains four chapters concerning “Reading the Bible in Modern Contexts,” like personal and family devotions, as a church, and in times of sorrow.

At the end, Guthrie includes a couple of reading plans, including a chronological one.

Most of the chapters are the result of interviews Guthrie conducted with experts in various fields of Bible study. I appreciated that the interview format kept the book informal and accessible rather than academic. But because of the interview setting, sometimes extraneous details were included, like scenes from where the interview took place, the interviewee’s posture, etc. But I think the benefits of this process probably outweighed the extra unnecessary details.

I have multitudes of places marked in this book, but I’ll try to share just a few. If the source was someone other than Guthrie, I put that person’s name in parentheses.

God’s Word, wielded by the Holy Spirit, has the power to sort us out spiritually, to surprise and confront us, growing us in relationship with our Lord Christ. Thus, reading the Bible ought to at once be as encouraging as a mother’s gentle touch and, at moments, as unsettling and disturbing as a violent storm.

I would suggest that true literacy—the kind that matters—brings about clearer thinking and informed action. Thus, true biblical literacy involves an interaction with the Bible that changes the way one thinks and acts, and that kind of interaction takes time.

As we read on a daily basis, growing in our skill in Bible reading, the rhythm of a life lived deeply in God’s Word will become as nurturing as our daily meals, as spiritually strengthening as daily exercise, and as emotionally satisfying as a good-morning kiss from a spouse. It takes discipline, but Bible reading can come to be a discipline of delight if we open our hearts and lives to it.

The key is to have a posture toward God’s Word by which His Word is changing us in our context rather than our molding the Word to our cultural tastes and values. That is hard to do. We have to read with humility. And I think the beginning of humility is the fear of God. We have to believe in the authority of God’s Word and be ready to adjust our lives to it. (Andreas Kostenberger)

Jesus meant for people to put His words into action in specific, tangible ways. Our problem is that we think it is enough just to grasp general concepts as if taking in the Word of God is a mental exercise. Jesus, rather, meant our interaction with the Word to be a life exercise.

When we begin to see the beauty and power of the Bible’s story as a whole, we then begin to read each part of the Bible better. (Bruce Waltke)

When slogging through the myriad of laws about priestly worship practices, the tabernacle, uncleanness, and primitive issues of justice, you may feel like the wheels are coming off your momentum. Yet this part of Scripture is also God’s gift to His people. Gems here are waiting to be unearthed from under the seemingly crusty surface, and those gems form a vital part of the foundation of the Bible’s grand story.

I would hope, that when we come to Scripture, we would approach it not as a chore or a duty or a textbook but as a source of delight. At times we should say, ‘Wow! I’ve actually got the next half hour to read the Bible and talk to God!’ (David Howard)

So we need to remember that the Lord wants us to understand this book. We should pray, asking the Holy Spirit for insight and discernment as we read, even as we are putting forth effort to study and understand it. (J. Scott Duvall)

Lament teaches us that we have to go through the process of dealing with our suffering before God. You don’t just stuff your feelings down and put a good face on it, like a lot of us tend to do. You need to go through the process of pouring your heart out to God. And if you don’t have the language for it, the Bible will give you the language. (Michael Card)

Because we are ‘self-help’ oriented, too often we as Christians have become more content to go to the Christian bookstore and get good books there, neglecting our reading of the Bible. We think those books apply to us better than the Bible does, but the reality is, no book in the Christian bookstore can do what the Bible is divinely inspired to do: to transform us at the deepest levels in the way we think and live, to mold us into the image of Christ and show us our place in the grand story of Scripture. (Buddy Gray)

All I know about Guthrie is from some of his blog posts and this book, and I didn’t know any of the people he interviewed except that I had heard of a few of them. But don’t remember seeing any theological problems or concerning issues or statements.

This is a book I wish I had kept running notes or outlines of. But Guthrie does include a summary of the principles discussed at the end of each chapter, which helps for a quick review.

The general helps to reading and understanding as well as the specific advice and tips for the different genres were greatly helpful. I thought this book was an excellent resource for anyone who would like to understand and apply more of the Bible.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Women of the Word

WOTWIf you could only read one book about studying the Bible, I would recommend Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin.

I read it four years ago, but wanted to read it again. I should probably reread it every few years.

Jen opens with some of the mistaken approaches she took to reading the Word of God at first. One was reading it as if it were a book about her and to help her. Though the Bible does help us, it is a book about God. Another “turnaround” for her was the realization that the Bible should speak to the mind as well as, and even before, the heart.

If we want to feel a deeper love for God, we must learn to see him more clearly for who he is. If we want to feel deeply about God, we must learn to think deeply about God (p. 33).

We must love God with our minds, allowing our intellect to inform our emotions, rather than the other way around (p. 34).

Jen’s great passion is promoting Bible literacy, which she says “occurs when a person has access to a Bible in a language she understands and is steadily moving toward knowledge and understanding of the text” (pp. 36-37). She emphasizes the steady movement: we won’t some day “arrive” at complete Bible knowledge, but we should be ever growing.

But “we may develop habits of engaging the text that at best do nothing to increase literacy and at worse actually work against it” (p. 37). She discusses several of those wrong habits, like the Xanax approach (which “treats the Bible as if it exists to make us feel better,” p. 39), the Magic 8 ball approach, and several others.

Then she shares Five P’s of Sound Study: purpose, perspective, patience, process, and prayer, explaining, illustrating, and giving example of each. Within “process” she discusses comprehension, interpretation, and application, and she stresses reading in context and in consideration of the genre of each book.

Throughout the book Jen emphasizes that Bible study and literacy is not an end in itself: it is a means of knowing God for who He is, getting to know Him better and being changed to become more like Him.

Our study of the Bible is beneficial only insofar as it increases our love for the God it proclaims. Bible study is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. It is a means to love God more, and to live differently because we have learned to behold him better. And it is a means to become what we behold. The reciprocal love of God is a love that transforms (p. 148).

She includes an excellent chapter expressing the great need for women to teach women and sharing helps for those who would go on to lead Bible studies. I especially appreciated the admonition to avoid “ricocheting around the entire Bible…Good teaching will necessarily involve the use of cross-references, but not at the expense of the primary text” (p. 139) and to avoid “feminizing the text” (p. 140) as well as the rest of the advice in this chapter.

I am glad I read this again, and I am happy to recommend it again.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books,
Literary Musing Monday,
Carole’s Book’s You Loved)

Book Review: Overcoming Your Devotional Obstacles

If you’ve ever tried to develop a habit of Bible reading and prayer time (often called devotions or quiet time), you know it doesn’t take very long at all to run into some obstacles. The first one is usually making time: busy schedules crowd out quiet time or urgent needs come up in the midst of it. Then when we do get a few minutes, we’re easily distracted. If we can rein in our attention and focus, we don’t always understand what we read or know how to apply it to our everyday lives. And if we do understand, we forget what we’ve read within minutes. We see cozy Instagram photos of people with their open Bibles and steaming mugs of coffee and wonder why our devotional time seems to far so fall below the picture-perfect time others experience.

Devotional ObstaclesJohn O’Malley tackles these issues in Overcoming Your Devotional Obstacles: 25 Keys to Having Memorable Devotions. I appreciate that he deliberately chose a positive, encouraging title rather one with a negative cast, like Seven Reasons I Fail in My Devotions. His purpose, he writes, is not assigning fault or blame, but rather “putting tools in your hand to help you go from defeated to victorious in your time alone with God.”

The author emphasizes that our relationship with God is based on grace, not performance. Our devotional time is not meant to try to impress Him (or anyone else). Devotions are not a work to gain favor with God; they’re a means of communicating with Him. But there are ways to improve our understanding of His communication to us.

Our Quiet Time with Him is more about discovering His presence than finding the perfect Bible reading plan or study method. If we complete a Bible reading plan and did not discover His presence, we may have checked off the box for the day on our daily Bible reading plan, but we missed Him.

When we do not spend time with God, we deplete ourselves. We deplete our peace, joy, and strength. When limiting our access to time with God, we tend to lean on our own understanding; we are filled with doubts, and we consult our own heart instead of the mind of God (Proverbs 3: 5-6).

Jesus said that His sheep know, hear, and follow His voice. Your time with the Lord is about listening. God’s Word is the answer to every human need. Read not to accomplish book or chapter count. Read and listen.

If it takes you five years to read through the Bible, you are not less of a Christian. Read it at a pace that you can comprehend it and receive something from it.

The author discusses each of the obstacles mentioned above: finding time for devotions, battling distractions, improving comprehension, discerning how to apply what we read, understanding cultural differences, and retaining what we read.

I loved the author’s description of application as “the intersection of Bible learning and Bible living.”

I particularly liked his illustration about understanding and learning from the different culture that the Bible was written in. He likens it to taking a friend to a family reunion. The friend won’t know the histories, background stories, and quirks of all the family members, so you’ll likely have to explain some references along the way. “Culture is the system of beliefs, values, and ideas of a people in a certain time period.” However, “God and His Word are transcultural.” The author suggests some resources for finding out more about the cultural aspects, but above all other resources, he reminds that the Holy Spirit indwells believers and teaches us from God’s Word.

I also appreciated the tips for retaining what we read, something I don’t remember seeing in other books about devotions. One tip was to write down on a 3×5 card three key points from the verses read and then read and think about the verse and those points several times throughout the day.

The author advocates a lot of 3×5 cards, however. I counted at least four that he recommended filling out: one for a verse to meditate on; one for recording the time spent and main truth learned; one for writing down several statements about why we read the Bible; and one to write down your expectations for what God will do through His Word. He notes that one can use a journal, electronic device, etc.

The author includes some Bible study plans, lists of resources, and work sheets.

My only point of disagreement in the book was with the author’s statement that “Applying Scripture to your life is what brings the Word of God to life.” I know what he means: we don’t benefit and really learn it unless we apply it. But I always wince when I see someone speak of “making the Bible come alive.” God’s Word IS alive (“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” – Hebrews 4:12, ESV; “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” – John 6:63b, ESV). We’re the ones who need to be brought to life. But I know the author believes these truths, so the disagreement was with the wording.

This book is immensely practical and to the point with little to no fluff. It is an excellent resource for anyone who is trying to establish a devotional time or who has run into any of these obstacles in their own quiet time.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Reading the Bible Literally

Some years ago I read something scoffing at Christians for taking the Bible literally. One example the author used was the Bible’s speaking of the sun rising and setting, because of course we know that the Earth revolves around the sun: the sun itself doesn’t rise and set. Yet meteorologists use the terms sunrise and sunset every day. We understand in the English language what those terms mean while not taking them literally.

Taking the Bible literally means we don’t interpret it as myth or stories, even though it contains a few stories in it. But we understand the Bible uses different expressions of literature which are not strictly literal without detracting from an overall literal approach to the Bible. What are some of these literary devices?

Idioms. Terms like sunrise and sunset, as mentioned, or phrases like “kick the bucket,”  a somewhat slangish euphemism for dying. Making a “bucket list” capitalizes on that idiom to mean having a list of things one wants to experience or accomplish before dying. On a side note, I was amused recently to see someone take that a step further in an article on “my bucket list for the summer,” apparently not knowing the significance of the bucket in that phrase.

A couple of Biblical idioms:

  • The land of Canaan “flowing with milk and honey.” We understand that to mean plenty, not literal rivers of milk and honey.
  • To be “stiff-necked” or to stiffen the neck indicate stubbornness, not a need to see a chiropractor.

Metaphors. A simile compares two things using the phrase “like” or “as”: “Her smile is as bright as a summer day.” A metaphor does the same thing but without “like” or “as.” In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, we have this famous metaphor: “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players.”

A few Biblical metaphors: ‘Behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves” (Song of Solomon 1:15b. “You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5:13a).

Anthropomorphism attributes human characteristics to something not human. “The flower lifted it face to the sun.” “The wind roared.”

Biblical examples: “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). The Bible says that “God is a spirit” (John 4:24) and as such does not have body parts as we know them. Yet to communicate with us in ways we can understand, the Bible speaks as if He does. “ And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch forth mine hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them” (Exodus 7:5). Psalm 17:6 says, “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my words.” Deuteronomy 33:27 says, “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” We understand that to mean that God’s care is just as real as if He were literally holding us in his arms.

Personification is closely related to anthropomorphism, meaning to treat something abstract or inanimate as if it was human. One of Emily Dickinson’s poems personifies death: “Because I could not stop for Death,/He kindly stopped for me;/The carriage held but just ourselves/And Immortality.”

Biblical example: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? If you turn at my reproof, behold, I will pour out my spirit to you; I will make my words known to you” (Proverbs 1:20-23).

Hyperbole exaggerates something for effect. “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.”

Biblical examples: “You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). “The cities are great and fortified up to heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:28b).

Poetry uses many of these devices, but poetry itself is often phrased in a non-literal way. To quote Emily Dickinson again:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

Biblical examples: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). God didn’t actual send in giant birds, a la The Lord of the Rings, but His care of them was just as if He did. “If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:9-10).

Parables are very short stories with a moral or religious meaning, like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” They differ from fables in that they have human characters and are plausible, whereas fables use animals, sometimes inanimate objects or nature, and are usually obviously fanciful.

In the Bible, Jesus’s teaching abounds with parables: the prodigal son, the lost sheep, the sower, the good Samaritan, etc. But there are parables in other parts of the Bible as well, especially among the prophets, like the one Nathan told that convicted David of his sin with Bathsheba.

Symbols involve an item being used to represent something else, like a newscaster referring to the White House and meaning the government: “The White House issued a statement today…”

Revelation is full of symbols. The dragon and the beast, for instance, are not animals but evil people whose characters are represented by those beings. There has been argument over the elements of communion, or the Lord’s supper, or the Lord’s table, for years, but it makes the most sense to believe that the elements of bread and wine are symbolic rather than actually containing the body and blood of Christ. One indication of this is the reaction of the disciples as they listened. They were not above questioning and even arguing with the Lord, but no one batted an eye at His statements at the last Supper, indicating that they didn’t think He was advocating cannibalism.

When we listen to the news, read nonfiction, or hear a speech, we can easily discern these literary devices, and we don’t dismiss everything else the speaker or writer says as symbolic or untrue because they use anthropomorphism or an idiom or a metaphor. We’re able to discern from the context whether certain phrases are literal or figurative, usually without even thinking about it, and we get the message the communicator is trying to convey.

I, for one, am glad the Bible uses different literary genres of devices rather than just giving us lists of facts and truths and teachings. Many of us “get” truth in different ways – some prefer it plainspoken, some benefit from a story or illustration. Hearing the same truth in the law, in a parable, in poetry, in prophecy, in an epistle, reinforces that truth to us.

The Bible uses these devices, but the Bible is not wholly a story or parable or fable. There are some who interpret the first two chapters of Genesis or all of Genesis or even the greater part of the Old Testament as myth. But much of the OT is literal history.

The better way to read the Bible is in an ordinary way like you would any other nonfiction, taking it as meaning what the words would ordinarily mean unless the context indicates it is figurative speech. For instance, there is nothing in the Genesis 1 and 2 accounts of creation that indicate anything is meant other than normal 24 hour days. Sure, Peter says “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day,” but that doesn’t mean every time you see the word “day” in the Bible that it could possibly mean 1,000 years.The ordinary reading of this passage would indicate that creation took place in the span of a week. That’s certainly not beyond God’s power to do. Good people differ on this, and I don’t think anyone’s salvation hinges on whether they think the days in Gen. 1 and 2 are 24-hour days or eons. But I have read accounts where this is taken as mythic or symbolic that then skew other parts of the Bible to mean something quite different from what a more literal reading would indicate. Though good people can differ here and there on some of the fine points, overall a literal approach (except where obviously figurative) is the best.

And by saying that we read it in an ordinary way, I am not discounting that we need the Holy Spirit’s help to open our understanding. The Bible is a supernatural book and we need God’s help to understand it rightly. I just mean that we read it as literal unless it’s obviously figurative.

There is much more that could be said about this, but I am way past the time I allowed for this post, and it’s plenty long already.

A couple of other helpful articles are Taking the Bible Literally (though I’d disagree with him on a couple of points, like hell) and Do Faithful Christian Take the Bible Literally?

(Sharing with Inspire me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Glimpses, Soul Survival, Tell His Story, Faith on Fire)