How Not to Study the Bible

Journal 2005

I’ve heard numerous sermons, sat through many classes, and read several books on how to study the Bible, and I’ve tried various techniques. I’m currently reading through a famous preacher’s study Bible, and I’m in awe of the massive amount of work and time he put into it. I’m grateful for those who have the gift of teaching, including a passion for research.

One pastor suggested we might want to diagram the sentences in the epistle we were studying. The exercise appealed to me as an English teacher, but I gave up in frustration. Sentence diagrams work well for the English language, but Hebrew and Greek don’t follow English rules of grammar. It’s like a two-dimensional object when you try to make sense of syllables and letters strung together. We would have to immerse ourselves in the original languages in order to truly understand the depth of the teaching.

The Western mind loves books like Romans and Hebrews because they fit neatly into an outline, but most Scripture does not. The African or Eastern reader would never think to box in a story using an outline. He would see it in three dimensions or four. The Bible has depth, layer on layer of meaning. Paul’s letters are not meant to be categorized and outlined, but to be read as emotional thoughts that randomly entered his head.

Obviously, there’s a need for scholarly textual analysis, but all the study in the world won’t replace the need for devotional reading. What good does it do to dissect a book into outlines, verb usage, sentence structure—if you don’t apply the words? Maybe our goal, instead, should be “how to live the Bible.” Now there’s a novel thought.

A 2021 Update. I’m in the middle of listening to a 204-episode podcast called Bema Discipleship by Marty Solomon, who teaches Scripture through the lens of a historical, Jewish perspective; and I’m slogging my way through the notes in the Jewish Study Bible. I’m excitedly learning a ton of new information, but in the end, the only benefit to me is when I live out the text.

What’s your favorite method of study?

Group Prayers

Journal 2010. I learned the conventions of prayer at my daddy’s knee. Family devotions looked like this: 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Bible reading and prayer, no skipping for any reason. Starting with the youngest, everyone read a daily portion of the Scripture (Genesis to Revelation and back again)—just a verse when we were very young and learning to read; more when we were older. Next, each person in the family took a turn praying, beginning with the youngest (me). If we ever reversed the order from oldest to youngest, I’d have to be prompted on my turn because my mind had long ago checked out.

My parents’ prayers were like droning bees to my young ears—same tone and inflexion every time, same topics. Mom always began, “Our loving, heavenly Father” and ended with the sing-song, all in one breath, “In-Jesus’-name-amen” as if it were one word. Dad mumbled so much we couldn’t hear or understand him too well, and when he read, he skipped words or mispronounced them, but his heart was pure, and that’s what mattered. Our childish prayers always began with “Dear Jesus,” followed by “thank you for–” and “God bless–” or Dad would prompt me to say, “Help me, Lord, not to fight with Paul and Grace Anne . . .” (Not sure God answered that one till after we grew up!)

Last night I met with a group to dedicate a new church building. The prayers were specific but global—e.g. asking God’s direction and safety, peace upon “all those who come into these rooms” or “we pray for all those who are struggling with [whatever].” I left feeling a little dissatisfied. Global prayers don’t have anything to attach to visually. They don’t negate the prayer, but a picture would help me.

Does one prayer at one time cover all the bases from now till the Lord comes or the building collapses? God knows our heart and intent, and if our words don’t come out all polished and smooth, He can figure out what we mean. But choice of words is important.

In regular conversation, we try not to interrupt someone’s conversation until it’s an appropriate moment, but we might jump in on each other’s words to agree, disagree, or question. We wouldn’t do that when someone else is praying. We’re too polite. Group praying, for me, can be distracting, boring, or uplifting. It takes discipline to stay focused and listen. Some people are good conversationalists, and I can stay engaged. Others I check out mentally when they open their mouth. Wonder if others do that when I pray? Another issue I have is doing two things at once. If I’m listening, I can be agreeing, putting my “amen and so be it” onto their words. But when it comes time for me to pray aloud, I have to form my thoughts before I open my mouth, and so I end up not listening to the one praying.

When a woman is in labor, Lamaze teaches her to find a focal point to help her manage the pain. God is my focal point when I’m laboring in prayer. What if last night we’d prayed, “May Your glory fill these rooms; may Your presence here be felt by all who enter”—focusing more on Him than on us. What if I changed the focus and attention of my prayers away from the people and the need and drew my focus and attention onto God instead? What if instead of asking for money, we asked God to receive glory and honor by our godly choices and responses? Or invite Him to display His power. Instead of demanding that He heal every ache and pain, we could ask how He wants to proceed and ask for courage to get in line with His will so the nations will be drawn to Him.

Your thoughts?

2009. My sister Grace and I in front of a church that faithfully supported our parents