I have friends who tell me that they really want to study the Bible, but they don’t have time. Or they don’t have a place to do it. Or they don’t have any reference books for it. Or they have tried and they don’t understand it. I can’t argue with any of these explanations, but I can tell everyone the same thing: we all need to study the Bible.
The reason we need it is that life is terribly messy. If you think it is hard to understand the Bible sometimes, I can’t dispute your experience. However, I am sure that you think life is hard to understand sometimes, too, but you don’t opt out. In fact, I will hypothesize that if you made time to study the Bible, you would almost certainly get a better grip on life.
Notice that I don’t use the word “read” the Bible. I do that on purpose. You can’t study it without reading it, but you can read it without studying it. I use the word “study” because we need to read the Bible with the intention of learning and growing. There are all sorts of ways to do that, and today I will describe one of them. Yesterday I explained the TRIP method. Today I will introduce lectio divina.
Lectio divina is a Latin term which means “divine reading.” I use the Latin term instead of an English translation, because this approach to Bible study has its roots in the era when Latin was the language of the church. This method was first devised as a way for a group of people to study together in a formal way. That is the origin of this practice. However, it can be a lovely way to study the Bible all by yourself.
I recommend that you record your thoughts in a notebook during this process. There is something about writing down your thoughts that inspires more critical and attentive study. The Holy Spirit can use your writing to teach you things you did not think you knew. But even if you don’t choose to journal, lectio divina provides a form and discipline that can lead you to grow in deeper faith and the practice of your faith.
The method of lectio divina is simple:
- Read a passage and think about it
- Read the passage again and think about it
- Read the passage again and pray about it
This is the high level explanation of lectio divina. Let’s dig deeper.
First, choose a passage. You can use the Daily Texts as selected by the Moravian Church and published annually by Mount Carmel Ministries. (By the way, I don’t get any commission for talking about this book so much. I just love it. I have used it for more than ten years. It is the backbone of my own daily devotions. Click here to visit the site. ) You can use some other reading plan. You can choose a book of the Bible and read it by chapters or smaller passages. Any choice is fine. I do recommend that the passage be not more than six or seven verses and reasonably confined to one topic, but you can set your own standards.
Second, pray for understanding. All Bible study must be immersed in prayer. When Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would come, he said that the Spirit would lead us into truth. We need to be sensitive to the presence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit when we study the Bible. We have a Bible, because the Holy Spirit inspired the writers and acted through many people over thousands of years to preserve the texts. The Bible is the work of the Holy Spirit, and we need his guidance to understand it.
Then begin the process of lectio divina.
The first reading:
You may read the passage more than once. As you read, listen for a word or phrase that speaks to you. Don’t be too critical. Listen with your heart as the Holy Spirit guides. Don’t choose a word. Rather, listen for a word. You want to hear God’s word to you, not to choose some word for technical analysis.
If you are journaling, write down the word or phrase and any thoughts that arise from your understanding that this is God’s word to you. Some of your thoughts may be questions you cannot immediately answer. That is fine. Just write them down and come back later to deal with them.
The second reading:
Again, you may read the passage more than once. As you read, listen for God’s invitation to you. Remember, your objective is to hear God’s invitation, not to try to figure out what it might be. As you read, listen with your heart. Let the indwelling Holy Spirit invite you to action or contemplation or commitment.
If you are journaling, write down this invitation and your thoughts about it. Would it be hard for you to respond to this invitation? Does it seem like a strange invitation? Does it make you laugh, or cry, or ??? Be honest with yourself in your reactions to it. Be honest with God.
The third reading:
Read the passage, maybe more than once. Now it is time to pray for help in living out God’s invitation and guidance.
If you are journaling, the process of writing your prayer can be a time of great catharsis, or vision, or even confusion. Pray honestly. Use normal words, not “holy” words. Talk with God the way you talk with any good friend. Get things out on the table and name them. Listen. Listen. Listen.
The process of lectio divina is very simple, but it can help you to discover some profound truths.
You may have been wondering when I would get around to talking about dictionaries and commentaries. After all, don’t people need such things in order to understand the Bible?
Yes, they do. And No, they don’t.
When Martin Luther was translating the Bible into German, his goal was to get it into the hands of people so they could read it for themselves. He knew that the Bible was simple enough for anyone to read and understand. The lesson to “love your neighbor as yourself” is pretty simple. Any three-year-old can immediately comprehend that lesson. Living it is quite another matter.
Martin Luther never expected that the common people of Germany would have libraries of study aids for the Bible; he simply hoped that each one could have a Bible and read it. His advice to everyone was not to worry about any parts that were hard to understand. There was plenty of material that was clear and simple for all. The real challenge, after all, was to live like Christ, and there was plenty of guidance on that subject that did not require post-graduate education.
However, study aids are wonderful to use after you have become committed to study. The first reason to study the Bible is to grow your relationship with Christ, and as you grow and mature in your faith, you will certainly want to study more and more deeply in the truths of the Bible. Then you should acquire Bible dictionaries, commentaries and so forth. These study aids are all wonderful and enlightening and even inspirational. None of them, however, must be permitted to pre-empt the place of the Bible in your study.
If you don’t have a commitment to study the Bible and pray every day, that is the thing you need to develop. If you have a Bible and you decide to study it, then you have all the equipment you need to start growing in faith. Don’t burden yourself with some worry that you don’t understand everything you read. Worry that you don’t live what you do understand.
Think about this: Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” If you could read that sentence in koine’ Greek or in Aramaic, it would be a wonderful thing, but it would not help you to love people who treat you like dirt. In the plain English translation, those words set up a standard for daily life that is pretty hard to achieve. When someone calls you a dimwit Bible-thumping hillbilly, because you trust Christ and are not ashamed to say so, it is very hard to respond with love. That challenge is daunting enough for most of us.
Do not defeat your own desire to study the Bible by making it harder than it has to be. Let the Holy Spirit nourish your faith and help you make the time. The blessing you experience as a result will be carrot enough to bring you back the next day.