In last month’s ET Stephen Rees set out four things we shouldn’t do if we find that our Bible reading is becoming boring. Here, in the second and concluding part of his article, he sets out three things to remember and six tips to help.
1. There are lots of natural reasons why at various points in our Christian life we may find Bible reading difficult or boring.
We’ve already said that it may not be because of sin or backsliding. So why might it happen?
Well, the first and most frequent cause is simply that we are human – and part of being human is that our physical, mental, and emotional states vary at intervals. C. S. Lewis explains it in a letter from ‘Screwtape’ – a senior devil – to the junior devil he is mentoring: ‘Humans are amphibians – half spirit and half animal… As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for to be in time means to change.
‘Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation – the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life – his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon…’
We should not be surprised by this natural ‘undulation’ in all our experiences – including those of Bible-reading. But there are particular circumstances that may make the troughs more frequent and deeper. Most of us find that Bible reading is harder and feels less rewarding when we are tired: physically, mentally, or emotionally drained. That’s natural. We are made from the dust of the ground. There are natural limits to what our bodies can cope with or our minds take in. When we are tired out, it is hard to think clearly about anything or to take an interest in anything.
Remember Elijah. After his extraordinary experiences at Mount Carmel, he fled from Jezebel in panic. He was emotionally and physically shattered by what he had been through. The Lord had much to say to him. But the Lord knew that Elijah wasn’t capable of taking in and responding to his message. ‘He lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.”’ (1 Kings 19:5-7). Elijah’s great needs were simply food, drink, and sleep. Only then could he begin to listen to what God had to say to him.
If you’ve been overworked, missing sleep, on the go constantly, because of matters beyond your control – a new baby, a crisis at work, nursing a sick relative – it’s unlikely that you will find yourself excited by the words of the Bible. What you need is not to try harder, but to book a holiday!
Most of us find that as we get older, periods of strong excitement get rarer. A child reacts to everything spontaneously and quickly. She finds little things enthralling or heartbreaking. She can be laughing uncontrollably at one moment and be in tears five minutes later. A teenager’s first experience of ‘falling in love’ is likely to have an intensity that is rarely felt by someone ten years older. By the time we’re middle-aged, we find we can take in stride events that would once have devastated us. They no longer have the same emotional impact. Talk with some elderly people in a care home and you may have to work hard to stir their interest in anything.
Is emotional slow-down a good or a bad thing? Neither. There are advantages and disadvantages in that slowing down of our emotional responses. But what it means is that there’s no point in comparing what I got out of reading the Bible twenty years ago with what I get out of it today. Perhaps back then, I found it more exciting. Yes, there were more passages that moved me to shout for joy or weep for sorrow. But does that mean that my Bible reading was doing me more good then than today? Not necessarily. Unless the joy and the tears that I experienced then actually made me a more obedient, more Christ-like believer, they were no more significant than the easy hurrays and sobs of a six-year-old who gets the toy he wanted for his birthday and then breaks it.
And of course, one of the reasons Bible reading gets harder as we get older is simply that there are fewer and fewer surprises. Once it was all surprising. We didn’t know what would happen to Job in the end, or whether Simon Peter would be restored. We didn’t know what we would find in the book of Isaiah or in Romans. The first time we found clear prophecies about Jesus in books written hundreds of years before he was born, we were amazed. Now, we’ve studied them all and we take it for granted. Once, we had the sheer intellectual challenge of working out the meaning of John’s symbols in Revelation – better than any crossword puzzle. Now, we’ve got a pretty good idea what they’re about.
Back then God allowed us these natural excitements in our Bible-reading. But now he asks something harder from us. He asks us to study his book and listen to his voice, even when he’s saying things we’ve heard a thousand times before. We’ve no longer got the excitement that comes when we’re hearing something completely fresh. But we’ve still got to listen and work out how his words apply to our hearts and lives.
When we struggle to find interest or relevance in our Bible-reading, let’s accept that that’s God’s providential dealing with us. Perhaps he’s simply testing our perseverance – and our faith. Do we still really believe that the Bible is his Word and supremely important when we’re finding ourselves bored as we read it? Do we still believe that ‘man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4)?
2. Not all the parts of the Bible are supposed to be equally interesting or immediately relevant.
Think about it this way. A father has a happy, loving relationship with his daughter. And one aspect of that is that he talks with her about lots of things, in lots of contexts.
So there are times when he’s talking to her about her very personal concerns. She’s growing up and for the first time feeling an interest in the opposite sex. So Dad talks to her about courtship, its dangers, its joys. He talks about boyfriends, and the pressures they could put her under. He tells her about his and Mum’s hopes and prayers for her. And she’s totally gripped by what he’s saying. She smiles, she shakes her head, tears come into her eyes, and when the conversation’s over, she hugs her dad.
But not all Dad’s conversations with her are like that. Sometimes he’s just telling her what to do about some practical matter. ‘Could you pop into the post office on the way home from school? Buy a dozen first class stamps and four second-class, post this letter, get some envelopes, pick up a passport application form.’ There’s nothing exciting, or moving about the conversation. But it’s important. He’s giving her instructions which she needs to remember and act on.
And sometimes when he’s talking, it can be downright boring. He’s helping her prepare for a German GCSE. So he’s explaining grammar to her – nominatives, accusatives, genitives. She finds it boring – boring – boring. But she listens because she knows Dad is teaching her things she has to learn.
Well the Bible is like that. Some of it is immediately relevant, speaking to our deepest questions and emotions. Some of it is practical, just giving us things to do. Some of it is stuff that seems irrelevant at present, but which we have to understand if we’re to make a success of the Christian life long-term. Romans 5 is immediately thrilling. For most of us, the book of Numbers isn’t. But both are part of God’s total conversation with us, his children.
3. Private Bible-reading isn’t the chief way in which God speaks to us.
If we have access to the Bible and can read it, then it is an important way God speaks to us and one we should treasure. But when the different books of the Bible were written, they were not written first and foremost for people to read to themselves at home. They were written to be read (or sung) aloud and explained in public gatherings. Moses preached the law to the assembly of Israel. The psalms were sung aloud in the temple. Paul commanded that his letters should be read aloud in the meetings of the church.
Many people in both Old and New Testament times couldn’t read or write. Very few people would have had copies of Bible books back then (remember, no printing presses). And yet God’s people could still benefit fully from God’s Word. How? By listening to it being read and taught by men whom God equipped for that task. God spoke to them as they listened to others reading from the Bible.
And that is still true. The chief way in which God speaks his Word to believers today is in the meetings of the church. ‘Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it’ (Revelation 1:3). If you belong to a church where the Bible is regularly read and explained, and if you really listen, praying that God will speak to you through his Word, and if you keep what is written in it, putting it into practice – you will be blessed!
In any evangelical church, those who attend regularly should get enough Bible in the services to feed them and keep them strong even if they aren’t able to read the Bible at all at home. Take away what you hear, think about it, meditate on it, discuss it with others, act on it – and you won’t starve, even if you feel you’re getting nothing from your private Bible reading.
And finally… six tips that may be helpful for some of you.
1. Check whether you are wasting your emotional energy.
I think I can best explain what I mean by quoting someone else’s experience. It will be a long quote but I think it’s well worth thinking about. Here’s Isobel Kuhn telling her story.
I was a voracious reader of romantic fiction. Novels gripped me and were my favorite mental escape from trials and difficulties, or from an evening which had to be spent alone. With a good love story I was immediately transported into another world, and if the plot was exciting I could not put the book down until I finished it.
…This particular time, it was an exciting story that I could not lay down… I was deep in the excitement of the book. Midnight came and I was so near the end that I could not stop. In fact, it was one o’clock in the morning before I finished the book and took up my Bible for evening devotions. But I got no blessing from it. Never had the Bible seemed so drab and dull. When I tried to pray, the Lord seemed far away. It’s just sleepiness, I told myself, and curled up for slumber.
But the next morning things were little better. God still seemed far away and the Bible stuffy and uninteresting…
Travelling into town by bus gave me time to think. What had happened to me, that the Lord seemed no longer real? And why had the Bible, which I had begun to read through from Genesis to Revelation for the first time in my life—why had the Bible become insipid? I was alarmed. Sitting in the bus, I talked to the Lord about it in my heart.
‘Oh Lord, what is wrong with me?’ I prayed. ‘Why can’t I sense Your Presence now as I have lately? Why has the Bible become dry?’
‘When a child fills her stomach with ice cream and soda pop,’ the Lord seemed to answer, ‘why does she lose her appetite for meat and potatoes?’
‘Lord, do You mean the novel did that to me?’
Isobel knew she had to give up reading the love stories which were draining her emotional life. And she testified, ‘From that moment, the Lord was real and present once more and the Word took on new meaning. My spiritual growth could have been traced by the markings in that Bible as I read it from cover to cover.’
We have only so much emotional energy. If we use it up by on exciting stories (fictional or true), films, soap-operas, adrenaline-packed computer games, or even dramatic sporting events, we may find that we’ve none left for the simple facts, histories, truths, lessons of the Bible. So check where your energy’s being spent.
2. Find out what is the best time of day for you to read your Bible.
I was always told that I should read my Bible first thing in the morning. Well, there’s wisdom in that. Listen to God’s voice before you listen to any other. But it doesn’t work for everybody. So experiment. You may find that you’re fresher during a half-hour lunch-break in the park than when you’re still wiping the sleep out of your eyes. If you’re a night-owl you may find that your best time is when everyone else has gone to bed and the house is quiet. You may need a different routine in winter than in summer. You may find that ten minutes of concentrated Bible-reading is as much as you can cope with on week-days but that you can have a more prolonged and relaxed time on Saturdays or Sundays. Regular habits are important. But there are times when we have to be flexible.
3. The Bible is full of variety so vary your approach.
There’s no rule that you have to read all Scripture in the same way and at the same pace. Sometimes I’ve been trudging through a book like Leviticus or Jeremiah. I’ve taken it slowly because I’ve been wrestling to make sense of it. But when I’m finished, I know I need to do something completely different. So I’ll read through Mark’s Gospel at a sitting, or through Acts over two days. And I’m swept along by the pace of the story and by the exciting events it’s describing.
Then maybe I’ll have a fortnight just reading a psalm a day. And I won’t even try to use the whole psalm. I’ll just pick out one striking, encouraging promise and turn it over and over in my mind. With a book like Romans I need a notebook and pen at hand. I have to write down an explanation of each paragraph at a time or I get nothing out of it. But when I’m reading John’s account of the death of Jesus, I find I have to do it on my knees, meditating on each scene in turn.
If you’ve followed a fixed Bible reading plan for the past ten years and if you’re still finding Bible reading a delight, then good for you. If it ain’t bust, don’t fix it. But if like me, you find yourself bogged down at times, don’t be afraid to vary the programme!
4. Don’t become over-dependent on helpful writers, but don’t reject them out-of-hand either.
When you’re reading the Bible you want to hear what God is saying to you. Not what he said to Matthew Henry or John Calvin. So I think that normally we should start just with the open Bible, reading it, trying to work out what it means, looking for the lessons we need to learn, before we turn to a set of daily Bible notes, or a commentary.
Of course, there are times when we are simply stuck. We’ve read through a chapter of Leviticus or Ezekiel and simply haven’t made head or tail of it. Well, if you’re following a Bible reading course – such as Alec Taylor’s Pilgrim Notes – it’s at that point that you turn to them and let the expert point the way. Or, if you don’t use such notes, it would be wise to have a good commentary at hand.
And yes, there are times when we need to be spoon-fed. I’m thinking especially of those times when we’re so tired or at such a low ebb that we can’t think for ourselves. And then it’s time for us to let nursie prepare the food for us and feed us mouthful by mouthful.
Charles Spurgeon is one of my favourite nurses. His Cheque Book of the Bank of Faith or his Morning by Morning, aren’t meant to give you detailed explanations of a chapter. He just gives you one verse to feed on, and then offers his heart-warming thoughts about it. If you’re too weary to do your own meditating, he meditates for you!
Many Christians have found Mrs Cowman’s Streams in the Desert or Springs in the Valley gives them the ready-prepared meals they’ve needed. Others turn to J. C. Ryle, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Calvin, or Amy Carmichael – you can find books of daily devotional readings by all these.
Many Christians have found Daily Light on the Daily Path another great resource. The compiler of that little book doesn’t offer any comment. He just gives you half a dozen Bible verses for each day, linked by a common theme so that they throw light on each other. If you’ve not got the mental energy to search the Scriptures, he’s done the searching for you.
5. Why not try listening instead of reading?
As I said earlier, the great majority of Bible books were intended to be heard rather than read silently. So why not stop reading for a while and start listening. Yes, I’m thinking of audio-books.
There are lots of different recordings of the Bible (in lots of different translations) available. Some are better than others. Some are heavily dramatised, with different actors and background music. Others are simply a clear reading of the text. I wouldn’t choose the more dramatic versions. I want to listen to what the Lord is saying, not what some BBC radio personality or Hollywood star is making of his Word.
I wouldn’t recommend listening as a long-term substitute for reading. Most of us would find it hard to study a book when the words are just flowing past us. But again, when we’re tired, and Scripture no longer seems fresh to us, then hearing someone else read it can bring back the freshness. ‘Oh, I never noticed that bit! Oh, do you think Jesus said those words in that way?’ I’ve often noticed things in a poem or a story when someone else has read it aloud – things I never noticed when I read it myself. The same can be true of the Bible.
And final tip…
6. Don’t worry.
I suppose that’s what I’ve been saying all through this article. And it’s what the Bible says. ‘Do not be anxious about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God’ (Philippians 4:6).
Don’t be anxious for anything? That’s right. But shouldn’t I be anxious if I’m finding my Bible-reading boring?
No, God says ‘don’t be anxious about anything’. He’s in control of that problem as he’s in control of everything else. He’s working it together for your good. So trust him. Tell him you wish it were different. Ask him to give you back the delight you once felt – when he decides it’s best for you. Make this request known to him. And then wait for him to answer in his own way and his own time.
Trusting God is easy when we’re hearing his voice clearly every day. It’s harder when he seems to be silent. But that’s what living by faith is all about, isn’t it?
All Bible quotations in this article are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001.
This article first appeared in the monthly magazine of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.
Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport