Monday, June 22, 2009

Why Doesn't Anything Happen When I Read My Bible?

I'll admit it: as much as I love preaching, as much as love to read theology when I have some free time, and as much as I enjoy Biblical languages, I don't sit and just read the Bible as consistently as I should. My "quiet times" are only semi-regular.

There are probably a number of reasons for this, but one that I have consistently come back to is that most times I don't feel anything when I read my Bible. Nothing seems to change. I still fight my same old battles with lust, pride, selfishness, a foul mouth, and so on. "This is the Word of God," I tell myself, "so why don't I notice it doing its work in my life?" Why doesn't anything really happen when I read my Bible?

I was lamenting this to a close friend a couple weeks ago and he quickly responded with something that has been rolling around my mind ever since. He told me that expecting that kind of instant gratification comes more from our culture than from true Christian spirituality.

This is, by the way, a great reason to meet consistently with other godly people. Sometimes they say something that is really, really helpful.

The more I think about Jonathan's words, the more I realize two things. (1) I can be really dumb; (2) that advice agrees with the way a biblical view of Bible study specifically and sanctification more generally.

Think about Psalm 1: meditation on the Law was a day and night activity. Does that mean that the psalmist was in such depth of communion with God that he always felt the strange inner warmth of His presence as he read the Law? Doubtful. He was probably a normal person- that is, he was probably like you and me.

Again, consider Psalm 119: verse 11 says that when the Word of God is stored up in the psalmist's heart, then he will manage to avoid sin. He goes on and on about the need for meditation, for learning God's ways, for knowing His statutes inside and out. Do those sorts of things happen through good feelings one morning? Absolutely not.

I could pull plenty more biblical examples, but I choose instead to note that this fits more broadly with the fundamentals of spiritual growth. Nothing that truly contributes to our growth happens instantly. It is no wonder that we call Bible reading and prayer "spiritual disciplines." For these activities to make a difference in our lives, they require sustained consistency.

It also coincides with my Christian experience. Almost all of my greatest spiritual growth has been done over long periods of time. I'd venture a guess that your life isn't much different in this respect.

Clearly daily Bible reading should not be complete drudgery. That's not what I'm saying. I still like the Bible when I read it and I'm often encouraged by it right then and there. But "being encouraged" is not the same as having rapturously deep spiritual communion every time I crack the Book.

So what I am saying (or rather, what Jonathan said) is that we should never have a Googleized view of Bible reading- you type in your desire, and God responds with immediate results. We have to keep at it if we want to see things happen. We have to desire God today, and then again tomorrow, and then again the day after that. When we do that, then we'll see just how much God really is at work in us, to will and to work our sanctification for His good pleasure.


Zwingli 2.0 said...

Great post. I'm feel your pain!

I wonder if you can't go further with the thread about reading often with godly people.

One of the curious scenes in Augustine's Confessions is Ambrose reading silently. You and I wouldn't think anything of it, but in the 4th century was that a big deal. Books were ordinarily read aloud, often by servants.

I think listening to somebody else read a book can help preserve the 'otherness' of a text.

"And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" Can't "they" just read it for themselves? Apparently, not. :-)

For those of us firmly in the digital age, I think small, online Bible-study groups can play a similar role in simulating the preaching-hearing experience Paul describes above in passage from Romans 10.

It's not just that studying with other people increases our chances of learning a new idea; I really think that it alters our overall experience of texts, setting them over against us, ready to be encountered -- ready to be heard.

Jason said...

I think of it like any exercise. I run regularly, but it is very rare for me to go out and be 30 seconds/mile faster than usual. I can get faster, but it takes dedication and time. Every now and then I surprise myself and go much faster than usual, but it's very rare indeed.

I do sometimes miss the great waves of emotion I got when I first read the Bible. However, I find that there is a much deeper and more satisfying feeling as I see the big picture more and more clearly each time I go through it.

Zwingli 2.0 said...

The metaphor of jogging is interesting since it’s essentially a solitary activity.

I’m not faulting you, Jason, since most of us feel the same way about reading the Bible, but maybe it’s problematic that we often think of Bible reading as a solitary activity.

I’m reminded of Andrew’s earlier comments about prevailing acquisitive, consumerist attitudes. It’s not only that we want to be gratified immediately, it’s also that we approach the Bible as yet another source of information for our consumption, like Wikipedia or US Magazine.

It would be better, I think, if our metaphors for reading were more relational. For example, maybe Bible reading should be more akin to catching up with one’s spouse after work, rather than jogging.

We can’t change metaphors or thinking patterns by fiat. Our attitudes need to change for our metaphors to change. But I think attempts to rethink Bible reading in relation terms, as an “encounter” rather than an “activity” or “exercise”, would be fruitful.

Andrew Faris said...


I get the sense that you have an axe to grind...

It's a good one to grind though. Perhaps one of the most consistently neglected commands of God in Scripture is also one of the easiest ones to understand and do: "Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture" (1 Tim. 4:13). Why don't we spend more time simply reading the Bible together, especially at church?

Still, we should surely spend time with the Bible on our own, right? Your genuinely good exhortation turns into overstatement when you suggest that Jason's analogy doesn't work because it is too solo. Jason's analogy is a good one for what I had in mind because it stresses discipline. Sports analogies in general tend to work well for that point.

Further, it's an analogy: it's not supposed to be stretched too far!


JJ said...

Love the topic. It's something that my church is working through right now. We've found the secret (tongue in cheek). But, we really have. It was staring us in the face the whole time. It is (drumroll please) the gospel. I already know the gospel, you say. Well, it's quite deep actually. The gospel is not only the only source of our justification, but also the only source of our sanctification. That's something I was struck by in seminary, but didn't have time to stop and ponder on. The gospel is both the ABC's of the Xian life and the A-Z explanation. It can be codified into a few small points to be shared in a few minutes, but can take more than a lifetime to learn. The whole Bible is the gospel because it points to the person and work of Jesus. Our lifelong duty is to continue to see the pathways to Jesus. This is extremely encouraging. If you just run to Bible verses that talk about a particular sin (eg. worry) then that can be helpful, but does not address the motivation. It's like telling someone "Stop worrying, stupid!" When this happens the person often feels more guilty because they are made more aware of God's law and are just trying to obey in their own strength. The gospel connections give us more than just the knowledge we are supposed to obey. They give us reminders and the motivation that we need to obey because we love God. I know this is lengthy, but I feel it is worth it.

Also, Zwingli you may want to check out Garry Friesen's stuff on Bible marathons (

Lisa Robinson said...

Andrew, I really appreciated this post. Learning about God on His terms will not always produce the warm and fuzzies, but it should increase our enlightenment concerning His revelation. I'm always reminded of 1 Peter 3:15 and the signficance of sanctifying Christ in our hearts and being prepared to preach and defend Him and at any time. Not to mention, those unplanned ministry moments where encouragement in the word is needed.

I get concerned with the seemingly growing emphasis on experience in evangelical circles, which is exacerbated by our instant-gratification individualistic culture. It can produce rapid boredom and subsequent abandonment with things we don't "feel" are working.