Spiritual Disciplines, Part 3: Bible Reading: Some Practical Suggestions

So far we’ve seen that spiritual discipline is essential to our spiritual growth and that discipline is not a burdensome alternative to spiritual spontaneity, but is actually a means to it. We’ve also seen why Bible reading should be a priority in our lives. In this post, I want to offer you a few ideas to help you build Scripture reading and meditation into your regular routine.

(1) Set aside time, and pray for God’s help to establish a severe discipline.
Why must Bible reading become a severe discipline? Because Scripture offers such spiritual power and spiritual benefit that our flesh, the world, and the spiritual forces of darkness will seek to keep us from being in it. Nearly every time I’ve personally heard of a Christian’s spiritual downfall or apostasy, I’ve learned that their scandalous sin or wholesale departure from the faith was precipitated by a neglect of personal time with the Lord. They did not treat the twin disciplines of Bible reading and prayer as matters of life and death. We can’t make the same mistake. Bible reading is a severe discipline like a soldier embedded in an active war zone makes cleaning and checking his rifle and scope a severe discipline. Neglect it often enough, and you’ll probably end up dead.

(2) Don’t overwhelm yourself
It is important to follow the last bit of counsel with this important qualification: don’t overwhelm yourself. Once we’ve been encouraged to discipline ourselves for purpose of spiritual growth and fellowship with Christ, we may be tempted, in our zeal, to cast off the restraint of wisdom and load ourselves with unrealistic disciplines. “I now see clearly the importance of spiritual discipline,” we say to ourselves.” I am going to read my Bible and pray two hours every morning before work.” No, you’re not. Or, at least not for very long—especially if you haven’t been regularly reading and praying. Do what is reasonable and what works best for your present situation. Be willing to make sacrifices, but also ask God for wisdom to rightly assess your circumstances. The spiritual disciplines of Bible intake, prayer, worship, and ministry are vital, but they are not the only things we should be doing. Better to start small and maintain consistency than to begin with grand plans that never make it past the first week.

(3) Do what works for you
In the first several years of my life as a Christian, I often found myself stymied into inaction because I couldn’t decide how to structure my devotional time. Some folks I knew read three chapters in the Bible, prayed, then read a devotional-type book. Others would read ten chapters in the Bible and pray. Others would pray, then read a couple chapters, then pray again. Some would go for fifteen minutes; others for an hour. What should do? Since then, I’ve encountered Christians who complain of a similar struggle. The best advice I’ve received and the advice I pass on to others is this: Do what works best for you. This counsel is not intended to give you an excuse to spend the least amount of time possible in the Word and in prayer. Rather, it is to release you from the confinement of a particular structure so that you can create a routine that fits with your particular circumstances.

The next few items, then, are merely suggestions. I am throwing out ideas across the grid of your life. Keep what works; toss what doesn’t. Ask God for wisdom.

(4) Find a specific location
I’ve found it helpful to set aside a specific place for prayer and Bible reading. Often the location is in my study at my desk. This place is furnished with my Bible, some devotional books, my journal, pens, and pencils. When I come into this place in the early morning, I am reminded that this is where I take time specifically to think upon the Lord, read his Word, and pray to him. There’s nothing inherently sacred about a location, and we should be ready to pray at any time at any place (see John 4:23; 1 Thess 5:17). But establishing a specific place for Bible reading and prayer time with the Lord helps me maintain these two disciplines.

(5) Occasionally change your location for refreshment
Nevertheless, although it has proved useful to me over the years to have one primary place for Bible reading and prayer, I’ve also found it helpful to change my location now and again for the sake of refreshment. It’s amazing what a simple move to the living room or family room can do to reinvigorate my Bible reading and prayer time. Walking outdoors for a time of prayer and meditation is always also a good idea.   

(6) Have “one” Bible
This suggestion may sound like the pleadings of a man stuck in the glory days of physical books and bound copies of Scripture. Nevertheless, I think there are still advantages to owning and using a physical Bible. One advantage that has proved itself to me over and over is being able to really “know” a particular Bible. Over the past nineteen years of my Christian life, I’ve owned many Bibles. There are presently over twenty Bibles in my closet! But during this same time, I’ve only had four primary Bibles. About two years ago I purchased the one I currently use. As I have been reading and studying this Bible over the past couple years, I’ve become very familiar with it: I can scan through portions of Scripture in my mind and I can “see” where certain verses and passages are on a given page. Memorization seems to be easier, and the ability to locate texts when I can’t remember the reference is enhanced.

Frankly, I don’t think digital Bible will ever be able to provide the reader with a full breadth of the whole Scripture like physical Bibles can. I can thumb through my Bible, meandering from book to book, refreshing my mind large swaths of Scripture—from Genesis to 2 Kings to Malachi to Matthew to Romans to Revelation. I’m not reading every word, but I am seeing these texts and being reminded of their content as I flow from book to book. I am unaware of a digital format that is presently able to replicate this experience.

(7) Occasionally read from different Bible formats and versions
However, I also think it is spiritually profitable and intellectually stimulating to read from other Bible versions and formats. Therefore, I will occasionally dip into other physical Bibles a digital device for my daily reading. I may supplement my ESV by pulling out my NASB for awhile, or I might pull out my ESV Readers Bible for a time to see the text afresh without verses, chapter titles, or subheadings. These occasional changes can, like several of these other suggestions, help keep our minds refreshed.

(8) Be alone with God
Given your living situation, you may find it difficult to get alone with God. Children may be afoot, or roommates may be sleeping or studying in the same room with you. Nevertheless, it is important, even in these situations, to get alone with God. This may require that you ask your roommate not to bother you for the next 20 minutes, or to have your children play by themselves for a period of time while meet with the Lord. Husbands, make sure that you are providing your wife with time to be in the Word and prayer by caring for the children while she is alone with the Savior.

(9) Pray before, during, and after you read
Although I am going to discuss prayer specifically in a subsequent post, both disciplines—prayer and Bible reading—are meant to go together. While we read the Bible, we should pray for open eyes (Psalm 119:10) and for understanding (Psalm 119:27; 34; 110). We should pray that God would teach us his Word (119:12, 26, 29, 33, 64); and that our heart would be inclined to it (Psalm 119:36). We can use the Scripture to prompt us to pray for others and for ourselves. We can turn to the Psalms if we need to confess sin (Ps 51) or if we need to lament our present circumstances (Psalm 6). Prayer should begin our Bible-reading time and be the natural fruit of it.

(10) Consider a Bible reading plan
In the case of Bible reading plans, I believe it is best to know yourself and be aware of what works for you. If you’ve never read through the Bible then I would encourage you to use a Bible reading plan. You may find it difficult to make your way through the entire Bible without the accountability of a Bible-reading plan, or you may simply need help with keeping track of where you’re at.

Personally, I’ve read through the Bible more than once, so I don’t use a Bible reading plan anymore. I read every day, some days I read 10 chapters, some days, 5, some days, 3, and some days, 1. On the whole, however, I am able to read each day without a Bible reading plan, and I am continuing to make my way through the entire Bible. If this isn’t you and you need a plan, then use one. There are multiple plans to choose from here and here.

(11) Read in several places in the Bible
When it comes to choosing a plan or deciding how you will read through the Bible, I recommend that you read in several different places throughout both testaments. For example, I presently have six different book marks in six different sections of the Bible: (1) The Pentateuch, (2) the historical books, (3) the wisdom books, (4) the Prophets, (5) the Gospels and Acts, and (6) the Epistles. I usually try to read one or two chapters from each of these sections. By constantly reading in different places, my mind is refreshed and motivated to make progress. It is helpful, for example, to be able to look forward to the Psalms when I am in the middle of 1 Chronicles 1:1-9:44.

(12) Use an audio Bible
Finally, it may be helpful to use an audio Bible along with your regular Bible reading. If you have a smartphone, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to have an audio version of Scripture with you at all times (the ESV Bible App has an audio feature built in, and it’s free!). Listening to an audio version the Bible helps us see new things in God’s Word, to pay attention to the text in a fresh way, and helps with memorization.

In the next post, we will consider specifically the discipline of biblical meditation.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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