The Formative Power Of Reading The Bible Devotionally
By Georges Boujakly
There is an accusation that evangelicals are a mile wide and an inch deep when it comes to our reading of Scriptures. We are drowning in knowledge, it is said, but when it comes to living it out, we are swimming upstream.
Some will disagree, deeming this accusation simplistic and false. Some won’t. What we won’t disagree about is that evangelicals have a long-standing love relationship with God’s word. We were born out of a desire for the freedom that comes from reading the Bible in our mother tongues, and deciding our spiritual fates without the dictates of state or institution. We were born out of a desire to obey the Scriptures by being a people on mission with God.
That said, however, my readers will agree with me that the pursuit of holiness could stand a boost among us. At times I wonder if our falling short of holy living is not related to our falling short on our devotional reading of scriptures.
Very early in our history we developed a way to read the Scripture devotionally. When I began to follow Jesus, the first thing my new friends did was to buy me a Bible and teach me how to read it devotionally. Granted, their teaching me was not methodical but it was formative. “Read and pray asking God what’s in it for you”, they said. That meant I was to read the Bible daily devotionally: bringing its meaning into my ordinary life.
There is a je ne sais quoi in this way of reading the Bible. It happens every time we engage the Scripture devotionally. Change occurs. We love more. We sin less. Sometimes we feel the dread or weight of the word of God, sometimes a light bulb lights up, sometimes a joy surprises, sometimes the Spirit tells our spirit we’re on the right track. This devotional engagement I have come to know has four elements to it. They are ancient. The elements correspond very well to the way Benedict of Nursia taught his monks to read the Scripture in the monasteries he developed. His method has come to be known as lectio divina (literally sacred or divine lesson), which I’m calling devotional reading of Scripture.
The first element is reading for understanding. We read with pencil and paper at hand, and a Bible dictionary or commentary nearby. We first must understand what we read. We do so, of course, in an attitude of prayer, humility and submission. What happens when we read devotionally is nothing short of divine. We are the readers, then there’s the holy text written by inspired writers, and then there’s the Holy Spirit who is supervising the reading. When we come to Scripture out of a need for personal change, to become holy as God is holy, God is at work transforming into Christlike followers. It’s nothing short of a miracle.
Our reading must be deliberately slow, methodical. Thoughts and feelings, will and spirit, and our whole self are on high alert. An imminent attack of grace is about to take place. We read with our heads, our hearts, ready to obey.
First comes reading then comes meditation. Here we begin to mull over in our minds the meaning of what we’re reading. We repeat the thoughts and the words. We savor them as we savor a Werther’s candy or we recoil as if we have bit into a bitter cucumber (Scripture is both!). We soak in the marvelous truth we’re discovering. We see mercy unfold and we marvel in it. We see grace and forgiveness freely offered and we are grateful. We pay close attention to what we’re reading, thinking as hard as we can about the eternal underneath it all. We are extracting the marrow of Scripture to nourish us spiritually at the points of our needs. We delight in the word of God as Psalm one instructs. There’s always mystery here. The reader, the text, and the Holy Spirit converge in training us for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7-8).
First the reading, then the meditating, then comes praying. We pray the thoughts and messages we are gleaning from our understanding and meditating. We seek to understand so that we obey. We thank God for his promises remembering that he is faithful. We cry out Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, the earth is full of his glory, and we cry over our world, our own brokenness, and our lack of devotion. We pray the scriptures back to the one who gave them in trust to us.
Last comes contemplation. This is the time to relax and rest letting the words sink in deeply into our heart. The voiced prayers and the acute listening are done. Now is the time to let things settle. The meal is had. We are still and we be. We bring who we are into the restful presence of God. The creative work is done. Now comes the ceasing. It’s like stepping outside in the morning, facing the sun and soaking in the presence of its light and warmth. Simply being. This is one of the hardest things we do. It’s hard not to occupy our minds with thoughts, and wishes, and daydreams. These have their place. But in contemplation we let go of pretense, posturing, pride, accomplishment, insecurities and all else and we simply be present to God.
Devotional reading is a way to abide in Christ. We read the text carefully analyzing its words, structure, and thought patterns. We relish its beauty and we hide it in our hearts. We address the creator desiring what he desires. We sit quietly before God bringing to him our life: its joy and sadness, the good and the bad. Those who soak in the word of God will have living waters springing from their hearts into the hearts of the people. They are formed into the likeness of Christ.
Warning: Preachers who take the time to read, meditate, pray, and contemplate the text of their sermons will discover that the formative power of their preaching far surpasses their human skill. Those who crave Jesus all week long shall be satisfied.
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