Near the end of our recent Christmas holiday, I took two of my children on a self-guided walking tour of the small downtown area of our city. We have driven through this area hundreds of times. I assumed that I knew it well. But by slowing the pace, we discovered interesting little treasures that we had missed before.
We made those discoveries using an excellent guide written many years ago. But I had to pay close attention to it. First, I noticed that it included both instructions and some history about our city. I had to search carefully for key words such as street names and descriptions of landmarks. At various points I had to re-read instructions, not once but several times, before moving on.
That is very much the way we understand all sorts of communication every day, whether it is a text message, a memo from the boss, a novel or even spoken conversations. Without even realizing it, we process communication through a mental pattern of steps, subconsciously asking:
First . . . What kind of information is this?
Next . . . What is the author saying?
Then . . . What does the author mean?
Last . . . What difference does this make to me?
This is the natural approach to reading. But when we open the Bible, we begin to do unnatural things that frustrate our efforts to understand it. Trouble starts when we assume that we already know what the passage is about. We stop paying attention to the text. This is probably the deadliest killer of Bible understanding.
We then start paying attention to other things that interfere with our natural process of reading. The subtitles in most Bibles are a case in point. They reinforce the “I-already-know-what-this-is-about” attitude. They lead us to mistake details of the passage for the main truth.
Another bad habit is to skip to a different passage in order to understand the one we’re reading before paying attention to what it says. This is not the same thing as letting Scripture interpret Scripture. How often, when not understanding Mark, for example, do we jump to John to help explain Mark? Did not the Holy Spirit make Mark capable of writing his unique message clearly, and will He not explain Mark if we listen carefully to Mark? But if we listen to John instead, we miss what Mark is telling us. (Incidentally, the original readers of the first Gospel, probably Mark, did not have this problem).
Even many thoughtful Bible study plans take short cuts. Typically, they give scant attention to what the author of each passage is saying and what he means. They often pose good questions, but focus almost entirely on application. Of course, without application, Bible reading is an empty exercise. But without paying careful attention to what the author said or his main point, we really do not know what we should learn from the passage and can easily draw wrong conclusions.
By these and other ways, we distance ourselves from the passages that we read. We interact more with our own vague ideas about the text, or someone else’s ideas. But as disciples of Jesus, we will not thrive or consistently grow in our understanding of Jesus in His Word until we interact vigorously and directly with each passage. We will do that when we see the Bible as God’s love letter to us.
Brian Onken, director of The River, has identified the habits that hinder us. He shows how to unlearn them and how to apply our natural process of reading in order to understand Scripture. On Monday, I will summarize his insights on what our Bible reading might look like using the natural reading approach. As one who has read the Bible many times through, and who is now using this approach, I am astounded at what I am learning and enjoying for the first time—consistently.
For those in the Greenville, SC area, you can learn directly from Brian by signing up for one of his upcoming classes, which are offered without charge.