“Nothing has a greater impact on spiritual growth than reflecting on Scripture.” Such is the conclusion of a massive study that gathered data from participants in 1,000 congregations of a cross-section of Protestant denominations.
Note the keyword “reflection” on Scripture. God’s Word comes in two forms. One is the familiar Bible of almost 800,000 words and over 1,000 pages. The other is the Word that was God expressing himself in creation and becoming flesh in Jesus. This Word is the creative force that changes lives today.
There are two ways to read the Bible. One is for information. The other is for formation. The amount of information is overwhelming, especially those covering the 1,500 years of the Old Testament. The New Testament is only one-fifth the total length and is more manageable, covering only about 100 years. It also focuses more on grace-centered living.
While reading the Bible is basic, the key to spiritual growth is reflecting on what you read with the question, “What does this mean for me now?” This is reading for formation. Reading for information amounts to preparation for the formation payoff.
In reading Scripture for formation, the four Gospels are easier to apply to a person’s life today because they tell us what Jesus did and the way he guided and challenged those around him. We can imagine ourselves in their place. Within the Gospels, Jesus’ parables are the easiest to apply to my personal life now. One of the most popular is the proud Pharisee bragging about what he did for God and the humble Tax Collector who simply said, God have mercy on mercy on me, a sinner. Where have you been proud of what you are doing for God? How and where could you be more humble in your daily walk? That’s formation.
Will You Be In-Spirited?
The 800,000-word Bible presents divinely inspired truth. Inspired means in-Spirited. The creative Spirit was at work among the various authors whose words we read. That creative Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Now ascended, he and the Father delegate that creative force to his Spirit, who dwells among us today.
Here’s the issue. Will the readers of the 800,00 words be creatively “in-Spirited” also? They will if they are willing to move beyond reading for information to reading for formation. This amounts to being shaped by the Spirit.
Paul urged that his readers “be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is” (Romans 12:2). We add, his will for you. It is certainly true for all people. But when you are reading for formation, the emphasis is on what this creative Word means for you personally. How will your life be transformed by what you are hearing from God? Elsewhere, Paul described how “we are being transformed into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor 3: 18).
The Bible is not meant to be read cover to cover. Most readers get bogged down in Leviticus and Numbers and give up. It is a collection of God-inspired writings of different types of literature, including the poetry of the Psalms and the symbolism of Revelation, parts of which were not meant to be taken literally. Each book needs to be interpreted according to the type of literature it is. Yet Scripture is infallible in what it teaches about the relation between God and his people.
How to Absorb God’s Word
How do you read God’s Word in order to be shaped by the Spirit? Slowly and with the realization that the Spirit comes at his initiative. What you can do is take the initiative to place yourself in the Spirit’s workshop. Reading by yourself is a good start. To Scriptures themselves, add reading a well-written devotional that interprets a passage and applies it to daily living. But the best workshop is where the Word is being shared and applied by others around you. That happens especially in small groups that discuss the meaning of a particular Word for them personally.
Traditionally, most believers absorbed God’s truth through listening to sermons. In earlier centuries most believers were illiterate. Still today in our developed society many cannot read well. It is a learned skill. Also, some are dyslexic. The usual advice to just ”read the Word” has limited value to those for whom reading is a challenge.
Sermons are most productive when they move beyond conveying biblical information. The payoff is the application, which many preachers don’t do well. As a preacher, I earlier thought my job was simply to announce and explain biblical truths. Over the years I grew more conscious of the need to also offer practical illustrations and applications, and I admire preachers who do that well. Preaching for formation is an advanced skill.
I have felt in-Spirited to think and write about the role of the Holy Spirit in personal and church life. This kind of inspiration is not at all on the level of the inspired writers of the Scriptures. But I am convinced the Spirit has been at work in me and through my words in the lives and ministries of others. What a privilege!
Has Christ’s Spirit inspired you to take some action or speak some words that had a spiritual impact on others? Almost certainly. We in traditional churches have had many experiences of the Spirit. But we have not been taught the meaning. Let the Spirit do more of his formative work in you. When you are not sure you are hearing the Spirit right, seek the perspective of mature Christians who know you. Pray for the courage to follow where the Spirit is leading.
Paul told the Corinthians that he gave them milk, not yet solid food. What is the solid food he had in mind? I used to think it was doctrinal information in ever greater detail. But now I see it is about how to live together in a fellowship of Christ. There is ever more to learn about relationships in church communities and how these can be more fruitful through formation by the Spirit.
Practicing “mindfulness” has become a popular term, typically in the context of counseling. Psychologists are re-discovering the value of mindfulness in coping with the challenges of modern living. The current version traces its origins to Buddha. But we Christians have a longer heritage, going back to the psalmist whose delight is in the law of the Lord, on which Word he meditates day and night.
The modern practice of mindfulness teaches how to focus on a single word or phrase, called a mantra, for as long as possible. God’s people have been focusing on certain Bible passages since the beginning. Their mantras can be seen on wall plaques in the home or heard in phrases in a conversation. Some are: I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In all things, God works for the good of those who love him. Those who hope in the Lord will soar on wings like eagles. Such focus is basic to formation through the Word.
Theologically trained preachers tend to make the biblical Word complicated. The Bible has so much information. Most believers, in my experience, keep it simple in living out their daily relationship with God. Strengthen their core convictions with care, so they are slowly formed by the in-Spirited Word, not just exposed to biblical information that passes them by.
Do you read the Bible more for information or formation? How have you received a Word that the Spirit used to inspire you to take some action or speak some words that had a spiritual impact on others? Do you meditate on God’s Word?