Six GROWTH practices: Go, Read, Obey, Witness, Trust, Humble Yourself
Read God’s Word for You
God’s Word comes in two forms. One is the familiar Bible of almost 800,000 words over about 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 thousand years of the Old Testament. The New Testament is only one-fifth the total length and is easier, covering only about seventy years. I don’t recommend spending much time on the Old Testament. After all, it was the Old Deal God made with his people. That didn’t work. So God gave us the New Deal focused on Jesus, the long-awaited Messiah.
I also don’t recommend reading the Bible from cover to cover, either. 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, books which were not meant to be taken literally. Every 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.
Stay with that keyword “inspired,” meaning in-Spirited. It reflects the Word as the creative force that dwells among us. It is the Word through which all things were made. Jesus was that Word when he lived among us. Ascended, he and the Father now delegate that creative force to his Spirit, who dwells among us today. The writers of the various book were moved by the Spirit to convey God’s truths as that was revealed to each.
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.” (1 Cor 3: 18).
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. Add to this by carefully 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 still cannot read well. After all, reading is a learned skill. Also, some are dyslexic. My barber once told me it took him a whole hour to read a magazine article. The usual advice to just ”read the Word” has limited value.
Sermons can be productive. But too often they stay focused on conveying information. The payoff is the application, which many preachers don’t get around to. As a preacher, I earlier thought my job was to announce biblical truths. Over the years I have grown to more conscious of the need to offer practical illustrations and applications, and I admire preachers who do that well. Preaching for formation is an advanced skill.
My own approach to the formative Word is unusual in that I enjoy and am trained to be analytical—trying to figure out how something works. After writing books about understanding church leadership, I felt called to figure out how the Spirit works in churches. This I did for two years, working through Paul’s 169 references to the Spirit as studied by Gordon Fee in his book God’s Empowering Presence. After writing three books on the Spirit, I was in-Spirited to turn those insights into these short essays. I love the challenge of writing blogs like they engaging and, I hope, easily understood.
Bottom line: Find a way to experience God’s Word that you enjoy. Don’t slavishly follow someone else’s technique. If it doesn’t fit, you probably won’t do it long. Let the Spirit guide you into what works to get yourself where the Spirit can transform you.