There is a curious condition I have found among many who regularly attend church. I’ll call it personal, spiritual malnutrition. It is the regular pattern of NOT reading the Bible that many in church experience.
I can’t tell you how many times I have sat down with someone who regularly attends church, knows much about the Bible, who expresses love for Jesus and trust in the gospel, but who doesn’t read their Bible. If pressed, they know they should, and often they have tried to read their Bible, but for a variety of reasons, they have not committed to that spiritual discipline.
This is a perilous condition and one that is “curious” because of how central God’s word is in making a Christian.
James 1:18 says, God saves us by his word: “He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.” Likewise, 1 Peter 1:23 concurs: “since you have been born again, . . . through the living and abiding word of God.” And Romans 10:17 clarifies the picture that this word-generated life comes through the “hearing of the word.” In other words, anyone who professes to be a Christian must have become such by the Word.
Next, the Scriptures repeatedly speak of God’s Word as life-giving nutriment. Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3: “Man does not live by bread alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Matthew 4:4). The Bible is not a trifling thing; it is our life, Moses says (Deuteronomy 32:47). What food is to the body, Scripture is to the soul. A newborn infant cannot live apart from his mother’s milk, and neither can the child of God survive without God’s Word.
And yet, there is a whole category of Christians who survive on secondary sources. A weekly sermon, a favorite iPod preacher, a few memorized verses (usually disjointed from context), a popular book or two, hours of Christian radio, and a variety of other Christian-ish props. But no personal Bible reading.
It is to them (and their pastors) I pen this post.
To Those Who Don’t Read the Bible
As the new year begins and Bible reading plans go out, I worry—yes, worry and grieve and pray for those who pursue personal, spiritual malnutrition. I fear that for those who have decided can’t (= “it’s never worked”) or won’t read the Bible (for whatever reason) may see these plans and calendars as another reason to not read God’s Word. To them, I want to say a three things.
- You don’t have to read the Bible.
- You will die if you don’t feed on the Bible.
- You need to get a taste for the Word before you sit down at the table of God’s Word.
First, you don’t have to read the Bible.
For those who grow up in homes where reading was stressed, *reading* the Bible makes sense and is enjoyable. Bookstores exist because a large part of the Western world enjoy reading. However, not everyone is a “reader,” nor can everyone read (well). Therefore, like asking a man with a broken femur to run, the request is just too much.
I was reminded of this two years ago when I visited a woman in our church whose eyes could not focus on the page. She hadn’t “read” the Bible in years because she couldn’t see well enough to do it. Therefore, every time she heard from me or someone else, “Read the Bible,” she felt frustrated and discouraged.
Imagine the liberating joy she had when she learned she didn’t have to “read” the Bible. I encouraged her to get a copy of the Bible on tape and to listen to it. Do you know what happened? She’s listened to the Bible repeatedly for the last two years. As her husband was dying of cancer, the two of them would listen to Scripture together.
How many people would listen to the Bible, if only we encouraged them to do so? Commuters can listen in their car or on their iPhone. Stay-at-home mom’s can listen to the Bible as they wash dishes or fold clothes. The options are endless and in fact, the person who “listens” to the Bible can read through the whole Bible twice with only 30 minutes a day (see below for more information).
So the first thing to say to those who struggle to read the Bible is DON’T . . . if reading is the problem. Begin by listening to the Word and go from there. (See a few listening ideas below).
Second, you will die if you don’t feed on the Bible.
Stop thinking of the Bible as an assignment to be read. The Bible is not homework. It can be read at home or work (on a break, preferably), but it is not a chore God heaps up on his elect Cinderellas. It is food for the hungry—delicious and nutritious food.
Throughout the Bible, the Word of God is described as “milk” (1 Corinthians 3:2; cf. 1 Peter 2:2), “meat” (Hebrews 5:12, 13), “sweeter than honey” (Psalm 19:10), and food for the soul (Matthew 4:4). God himself is associated with and even described by food. When God revealed himself to Moses and the elders of Israel, he prepared a meal for them (Exodus 24). In the New Testament, Jesus is the bread of life (John 6:35) and the living water (John 4:10; 7:37). Likewise, God commands us to “taste and see that he is good” (Psalm 34:8) and to eat and drink the body and blood of the Son (John 6). Surely, God is not an eternal edible. But make no mistake, God has created human hunger as a way to teach us about himself.
When we read the Bible we are not processing digital data, we are consuming spiritual food. Or at least, we ought to be. The Christian’s experience with God should be informed by the table where we eat, not the tablet we click and swipe. (The fact that we eat on the go with our head in the cloud may be a contributing factor for our spiritual malnutrition, but that’s a topic for another day). When we open the Bible, we should see ourselves opening our mouths for God to fill our souls (Psalm 81:10).
In this way, Bible reading becomes Bible eating. Just like the natural man knows the rhythms of his stomach, the child of God soon learns the rhythms of his soul. Go long without eating the Word and hunger sets in. Reading the Bible becomes a habit because spiritual hunger leads us back to the table of the Lord. At the same time, go too long without feeding and the stomach begins to shrivel, the appetite lessens, and the pull of the world outweighs the pull of the Word.
Like a malnourished infant, the child of God who has gone days without food will put anything in their mouth. If it sniffs of Jesus, it will suffice—be it a sermon from Joyce Meyer or a tweet from John Piper. The malnourished Christian doesn’t have the strength to discern the difference (see Ephesians 4:11–16; Hebrews 5:14). And as it often happens, days without the Lord’s food become weeks become years, until the child of God is stunted and living off the scraps of others. If such a condition doesn’t change, the threat is God’s judgment—not the loss of salvation, but the living proof that any professions of faith were spurious (see James 2).
Third, you need to get a taste for the Word before you sit down at the table.
What do you do, if you or someone you know are in this place?
You DON’T start with a Bible reading plan. Rather, like nursing a starving child to health, you gradually drip life-giving truth into the mouth of the one who cries for help. Don’t miss both parts of this protocol, and the sovereignty of God that undergirds it all. For a malnourished Christian to begin eating again, three things must happen.
- The malnourished Christian must cry out for help, must confess to God their folly in refusing his Word, and plead for him to rescue them.
- The spiritual physician must know what truths from Scripture will induce a child of God to eat.
- God must give grace to both parties for this to happen. For no one comes to the table of the Lord without the Spirit drawing them and giving them an appetite; and no spiritual care-giver can discern the right elixir without the Spirit of God giving wisdom.
So given these conditions, what Scripture might induce a child to eat again? In my estimation, it would be the truths in Scripture that are sweetest. Pure, unalloyed gospel truth is needed. The cross must be heralded. A vision of God who answers the cries of his people must be given.
In this way, I can think of no better place to cultivate an appetite for the Word of God than Psalms 3–17, 18, and 19. Working backwards, if the goal is to feed (again) at the table of the Lord then Psalm 19 is the goal, Psalm that extols the word of God as sweeter than honey and richer than gold. But following an orderly (canonical) reading of the Psalms, it is vital to see that salvation comes in Psalm 18 before the Law is given in Psalm 19. As is always the case with God, he doesn’t answer our cries for mercy with many words. He gives a mediator.
In Exodus 2:24–25, when Israel cried for mercy, God did not give them the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). He gave them Moses—a deliver who brought them out of Egypt and led them to see the power of God. Only after they danced for joy (Exodus 15), did God give them his commands—something the people gladly received.
Psalm 3–19 works the same way. For fifteen chapters (3–17), David voices a chorus of complaints to God: How long, oh Lord, until you save me? Finally, in Psalm 18 God answers his prayer and David’s heart is set free to rejoice wildly in God. It is after that work of salvation, that the Psalmist gives us Psalm 19. As God works throughout redemptive history—deliverance from sin and death always comes before the deposit of God’s Word. This was true in the Exodus and the nation of Israel, true for David and his kingdom, true for Christ and his church, and true for you if you are a stranger to the banqueting table of God.
Friend, what you need is a taste for the Word of God, not a reading plan that tells you how to set the table. Setting the table may come in time, but right now your soul depends on regaining an appetite. And that appetite comes through an encounter with the Living God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ—as laid out in Psalms 3–19 or another place in Scripture that convinces your heart of God’s delicious goodness (e.g., Psalm 118 and 119; Ephesians 2; Titus 3).
Moving Toward Setting the Table
God has promised sweet and tender mercy to anyone who comes to him in repentance and faith (cf. Matthew 11:28–30). But not by accident, faith comes by hearing from the Word. It is my prayer that as you step into 2016 you have heard enough good news in this post and elsewhere to pick up the Bible.
For those who struggle to read, try listening. Here are a few practical ways to do that.
Go to ESVBible.com. There you’ll find a “play” button on the front page. There’s nothing to download. Just pick your passage and go. For something more organized, consider reading the Bible for 5, 15 or 150 minutes a day (from Inspired Media):
Complete Bible Plans (Genesis-Revelations):
> 1 Month Plan Avg. 2.45 hours per day
> 3 Month Plan Avg. 56 min. per day
> 6 Month Plan Avg. 30 min. per day
> 9 Month Plan Avg. 20 min. per day
> 12 Month Plan Avg. 15 min. per day
Old Testament Bible Plans (Genesis -Malachi):
> 1 Month Plan Avg. 2 hours per day
> 3 Month Plan Avg. 45 min. per day
> 6 Month Plan Avg. 23 min. per day
> 9 Month Plan Avg. 15 min. per day
> 12 Month Plan Avg. 10 min. per day
New testament Bible Plans (Matthew-Revelations):
> 1 Month Plan Avg. 45 min. per day
> 3 Month Plan Avg. 15 min. per day
> 6 Month Plan Avg. 7 min. per day
> 9 Month Plan Avg. 4 min. per day
> 12 Month Plan Avg. 3 min. per day
For those who see the perilous state of their soul due to personal, spiritual malnutrition, cry out to God. Using the words of Psalms 3–17 pray for God to deliver you. Reading the Bible is a precious gift—one not enjoyed by every nation today or in the past. Don’t treat it as a trifle. The will to know the Lord is not something we create in ourselves; it is a work of God. If you love to read the Bible, praise God for that desire. If you believe the gospel, but don’t read the Bible, ask him to give you fresh grace to read or listen to the Word.
And then, recruit the help of others. God has given pastors and teachers to the church to help his sheep hear his voice. Go ask your pastor for a reading list of the sweetest truths in Scripture for you to read as you enter 2016. If you don’t have a church, or if you go to a church that only preaches rule-keeping, find another church that preaches the Gospel through expositional messages. Your church should teach you how to read Scripture and show you how to see the sweetness of Jesus from every book of the Bible.
A banqueting feast awaits us in the Word of God. May God be gracious to open our eyes so that we behold the splendor his grace and truth in this coming year and forever.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds