There are times when reading the Bible isn’t easy. A dear friend was talking with me recently about the problem he was experiencing in his Bible reading. ‘I just find it boring. It doesn’t matter which bit of the Bible I read. None of it seems to touch me. I can read through a passage two or three times and at the end, I ask myself, “what have I just read?” And I can’t remember.’
It wasn’t always like that for him. He can remember how when he was a younger Christian he looked forward to Bible reading. It was exciting. He was always making new discoveries. He searched his Bible looking for answers to questions and found them. He marked verses that seemed to be just for him. He kept a diary from time to time and wrote about passages that had moved him in a special way. But that was then. This is now.
Well, I listened. And I sympathised. Because his experience has often been mine too. And I suspect it’s been the experience of most Christians who take Bible-reading seriously. There are very few Christians who can say that they always find the Bible exciting. So how do we cope when we find Bible-reading boring and unrewarding? And what can we do about it? In this month’s article, let me start with four don’ts (next month I will discuss three things to remember).
1. Don’t assume that the reason you’ve lost your enthusiasm for Bible reading is because you have grieved the Holy Spirit by some sin.
Some Christians will tell you that that must be the explanation for your struggles. They’ll suggest that you’ve committed some secret sin, that you’re refusing to repent, and that until you do so, you’re going to find that every part of your spiritual life, including your Bible-reading, will be barren.
Well, if you’re finding your spiritual life barren and the Lord never seems to speak to you through the Bible, then it’s certainly right to ask, ‘Is there some sin of which I need to repent?’ It is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit so that he ceases to speak to us through the Bible. When I sin, God uses the Bible to show me my sin and call me to repentance. But what if I refuse to listen? What if I ignore his voice and harden my heart? Is he going to carry on talking about other matters as if there was no problem between us? Hardly.
King David experienced a time of dreadful barrenness after he had sinned and refused to confess his sin: ‘When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin’ (Psalm 32:3-5).
So yes, if God seems to be silent when you read the Bible, do search yourself. Ask yourself whether there is some way in which you have been refusing to obey God’s commands. And if there is, repent. Ask for forgiveness and cleansing. And pray that God will restore to you the joy you once found in his Word.
But it may be that when you do search yourself, you will find that your conscience is clear. The difficulties you’re finding in enjoying your Bible may not be down to unrepented sin at all. And if other Christians try to tell you that it must be, don’t listen to them. Often, the Christians who make such statements have never even tried to read the Bible regularly and systematically. If they had, they might be more careful about making other people feel guilty.
2. Don’t assume that the reason you’ve lost your enthusiasm for Bible reading is because you are in a backslidden spiritual state.
All right, you’ve examined yourself. And you’re sure there’s no particular sin that has led to this loss of appetite for the Bible. But still you’re uneasy. Because you still feel that there must be something wrong with yourself. Surely a godly Christian who was living a life pleasing to the Lord wouldn’t find his book so unappetising? Doesn’t it mean that you’re in a state of spiritual decline — even if you can’t pin down what’s gone wrong?
Well, be assured. The Lord doesn’t deal in generalisations. If there were something fundamentally wrong in your walk with him that needed to be put right, he wouldn’t just be making you feel generally anxious and guilty. He would be telling you very clearly and definitely what the problem was. In fact, you would find the Bible speaking to you more clearly than ever before! Day after day, when you came to read the Bible, he would be telling you what the matter was and what you had to do about it.
A child feels that his Father has changed his attitude towards him. His father deals with him in a way that seems cold and distant. Father never speaks to him, never hugs him, never lets him get too close. The lad’s sure that it must be his own fault. He must be failing his father in some way. But Father will never tell him what’s wrong or what he can do to put things right.
What sort of father would behave in that way? Not the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Not our Father. ‘The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities’ (Psalm 103:8-10). When there’s something about us that’s affecting our relationship with him, he tells us. He doesn’t just trouble us with a general sense of guilt and failure which leaves us crippled and miserable. It’s Satan, the great slanderer, who specialises in that sort of general accusation! Don’t listen to him.
3.Don’t try to make yourself feel what you don’t feel naturally.
It’s an easy trap to fall into. You think that whenever you read the Bible you ought to feel excited — or at least interested! There ought to be moments when you feel joyful, or solemn, or exalted, or loved. Those moments used to come often. Now they don’t. So you think it’s your duty to make them happen. You start your Bible reading time with the thought, ‘Will I feel anything today?’ And instead of thinking about what the Bible passage says, you’re thinking about what you yourself are feeling — or not feeling. Instead of simply taking in the meaning of the story or the proverb or the psalm that you’re reading, you’re busy examining your feelings. As you go through the passage, you’re asking, ‘What should I be feeling here? Or here? Or here?’ and then trying to generate that feeling. You’ve read the passage through once, and then you ask, ‘what did I feel?’ The answer may well be ‘Nothing’. So you read it again, and ask, ‘What did I feel that time?’ ‘Nothing except a sense of frustration because I wasn’t feeling anything.’ You read it through again and again, trying harder and harder to make yourself feel something, and your sense of failure and desperation grows.
That’s the road to despair. Before you start reading, pray that God will speak to you, and that he’ll teach you the things he wants to teach you. Then simply read the passage, short or long, that you have in front of you. And concentrate on the passage. Try to understand what it says. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything. There must be something there you can understand. And then at the end jot down a few lines about the passage. You could write down a three-line summary of what was in the passage. You could make a note of one important truth that’s there in the passage — whether or not you felt its importance. Then close your notebook and thank God that he has spoken to you. You have been reminded of facts and truths he wanted you to know, regardless of what you’ve felt — or not felt — about them.
4.Don’t give up.
Why not? If you’re not getting anything out of it, what’s the point of carrying on? Well, I could give you lots of reasons, but the most important is this. Our chief reason for reading God’s book is not for what we get out of it. Our chief reason for reading his book is to honour him. When we make a priority of reading the Bible we show our respect for God. We are saying to him, to our family, to our friends, to angels, to demons, that we view his words as supremely important. Children honour their parents by listening to what they have to say. If we are God’s children we will enter his presence regularly and ask if there is something he wants to say to us. ‘Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors’ (Proverbs 8:34).
All Bible quotations in this article are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001.
The full version of this article first appeared in the monthly magazine of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.
God willing, next month ET will publish the second and concluding part of this article.
Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.