Saturday, February 24, 2018
Reading the Bible: For Content vs. For Devotion
What does it mean to read the Bible “devotionally”? Does reading the Bible for content compete with reading the Bible devotionally? My guess is that most Christians would see contrary purposes in the two ways of reading. As part of the requirements for one of my classes, students are required to read 6-7 chapters of the Bible each day. One student commented at the beginning of the semester that he wasn’t used to reading the Bible that way. He usually read the Bible “devotionally:” certainly no more than a chapter at a time, more likely just a few verses. After reading, he would then spend time reflecting on what he had read. That is, perhaps, what most people mean by reading the Bible devotionally. The problem with that approach is that it is almost impossible ever to get the scope of the section, let alone the scope of the whole book, or the place of the book in the Bible as a whole.
Perhaps the difficulty is that we have the wrong idea of what it means to read the Bible devotionally. Devotional reading is a way of reading that is intended to increase our devotion to the God we serve. We best increase that devotion by getting to know the content of the Bible in a more thorough fashion than is the case for most of us. One thing that we will find in gaining a more thorough knowledge of the Bible is that we have often put God in our own convenient little boxes. Another way of putting it is that God is stranger and more unpredictable than we think. Because Achan violated the ban, God required that the Israelites stone him and his family to death (Joshua 7). When Saul violated the ban, God merely told him that he would not become the head of a dynasty. Saul remained king (1 Samuel 15). When David committed adultery and murder, he was not executed. He was not even explicitly required to offer a sacrifice (2 Samuel 12). I would argue that David did offer sacrifice (based on what he said in Psalm 51), because he also understood the requirements of the laws in Leviticus, but not based on an explicit requirement voiced by Nathan.
But how does one go about reading the Bible for both devotion and content at the same time? By doing a little more work than most people put into their devotional reading. The first step is to have a reading plan that takes you through the whole Bible in a reasonable amount of time (1-3 years). Anything slower is too slow. Second, use a Bible that does not have subheadings in the text. Instead, once you have read through your reading for the day, go back and outline what you have read. Pick out the major points of the section you have read. Then pick out the subpoints of the section. Having done that, you will then have a grasp of the development of the story (or the psalm, or the prophesy) that you are working on. Based on that outline, begin asking questions. What is happening here? Why is it happening? What is God doing in the passage? What is God requiring in this passage? Why are the people acting the way they are? What is motivating their behavior? From the answers to these questions, you can then begin developing points of personal application. These applications do not necessarily mean, “What do I do now?” The application may be, “What should I have learned here?” “What should I believe about God based on this passage?” In other words, application may have as much to do with what we are to believe as it does with what we are to do. The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 3 summarizes it this way: What do the Scriptures principally teach? The Scriptures principally teach, what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man.
Once you have worked through a particular book, go back and put all your outlines together. See how the story develops, see how one section naturally flows into the next. As I said, this takes more time than perhaps you ordinarily devote to your “devotional” reading. But you will also come away with a more satisfying view of the Bible, and of the God who gave it to you.