Do you read the Bible?
If yes, pause for a minute and think before you answer this: why do you read the Bible? Is it to tick a box on your daily to-do list, to ease your conscience, to accumulate knowledge, to prepare sermons, to find out how to be successful and blessed by God...? What is your reason?
You may be familiar with this popular little song that is usually taught in Sunday schools, "Read your Bible, pray everyday". And it goes on to say "if you want to grow".
Well, this is true. But it is only partly true. Reading the Bible is good, but if it was enough, every Christian who reads the Bible would be a spiritual giant - which we know is not the case.
Of course, it must be coupled with prayer. Prayer is essential and would be the topic of a different article. But here, let us focus on the right approach to reading the Bible, which is also essential.
We know that the Bible is God's Word, and as children of God, it is our necessary daily bread to remain spiritually healthy.
All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
(2 Timonthy 3:16-17)
But, if we do read the Bible everyday, then are those benefits (teaching, reproof, correction, instruction) automatic? Do we automatically grow and progress spiritually?
When you read the Bible, can you hear the voice of the Lord speaking to your heart as you read? Do the words impact your daily life? Do they make you draw closer to God? Are you experiencing change in your mindset and in your life?
Or does it feel dry and fruitless and you don't really take pleasure in it? If this is the case, make sure you read on (if not, read on anyway😊).
Have you ever wondered why so many Christians who do read the Scriptures regularly - and sometimes have done so for many years - seem to stay stagnant in their faith? They go round in circles instead of growing leaps and bounds spiritually and their minds are not renewed by the Truth but remain conformed to the world. This is not the will of God for us.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
You may be puzzled to find out that simply reading the Bible in many instances, is close to a waste of time and can even be counter-productive!
Why am I saying this? The reading of Scripture without the Holy Spirit to give us understanding, without the humility to receive its reproofs and without the wisdom to apply it to our lives, is just an accumulation of head knowledge which eventually will lead to hypocrisy (think of the Pharisees who knew the Scriptures very well, yet were far away from God).
This means that we can be reading the Bible day in and day out - even studying it or listening to countless sermons - without it having the effect that it is meant to have on our life.
I was shocked when I learned that most Bible translators do not actually believe the Bible. These are Bible scholars who have spent years studying the Bible. They have a expert knowledge of it and are fluent in its languages. Yet, usually they approach it from a distance and treat the Word of God as mere study material. They do not allow it to speak into their life.
This is knowledge without life. Just like in the garden of Eden, there was the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life, today we have a choice between feeding on knowledge or feeding on life.
It is the Spirit who gives life. The flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit and are life.
An accumulation of knowledge only feeds the flesh. The Holy Spirit gives life and He wants to use the Word of God to communicate that life. Our reading of the Bible must become spiritual, and not merely carnal.
So, what effect should God's Word have? His Word is supposed to change us by the power of the Spirit. It is meant to produce good fruit in our lives so that we may walk righteously and do the works that the Lord called us to do (see 2 Tim 3:16-17 above). In other words, so that we may live right. It should deeply affect our lives.
so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.
The above verse is true of God's Word. Yet, the parable of the sower (see Matthew 13:1-23 & Luke 8:4-15) shows us that it is possible for God's Word to be without the desired effect (ie. the seed sown along the path). God's Word can also only have a partial effect (ie. the seed sown in the rocky or thorny soils). Only the seeds that were sown and received in good, fertile soil produced fruit. In the same way, only the Word received in a "good" heart will be productive.
But the seed on the good ground are those who, having heard the word, keep it in an honest and good heart and bear fruit with patience.
So, it seems like a "good heart" is the necessary requirement to be a proper recipient of God's Word. We need to approach His Word with a "good heart". Do you have a "good heart"?
Before you answer, we need to understand what a "good heart" actually is; and how to develop and remain in this attitude of a "good heart"...
A POWERFUL SEED
But first, I see another question coming: Isn't God's Word powerful? Is it not able to have an effect whether it is sown in a good heart or not?
I believe the answer is yes... and no...
Genesis 1 tells us that it is the Word of God that created the heavens and the earth (and all that is in them). The Word of God creates, it "calls those things that do not exist as though they did" (Romans 4:17), it makes things come to pass, it sustains life. It is alive and powerful!
The Word of God does many things that do not depend on us as human beings, and that affect us whatever we do and whether we like it or not. It is supreme and rules over all creation.
On the other hand, the Word that God speaks to us, individually or as a specific group, acts differently. Jesus compares it to a seed sown by a sower in the Gospels (see parable of the Sower again) and it needs to find fertile ground. That Word needs to penetrate our heart and has the power to transform us inwardly.
Therefore, the Lord gives us a choice there. He knocks at the door of our heart. Do we really want to be transformed by His Word? Or are we choosing for it to bounce back on our heart without the expected effect?
So, yes God's Word to us is powerful. But it does not force itself on us. We are free to ignore or reject it. We are free to not embrace the teaching, reproof, correction and instruction it has to offer. We are free to say "no" to it with our actions - even when we seem to be saying "yes" with our reading.
And I believe too many times, we deceive ourselves into thinking we are embracing the truth of God's Word in our life, when in fact we are rejecting it. Because the truth is sometimes hard to swallow, it is easy to avoid facing it altogether and convince ourselves that we are fine.
A GOOD HEART
As we read earlier, the words that God speaks to us are Spirit and life. They are our spiritual food (see Matthew 4:4). So, why don't many of us experience the transforming power of the Word of God as we read it?
We found out that something must happen to our heart. The key resides in the attitude of our heart. It must be a "good heart".
Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life.
What is a good heart?
No matter how good the seed is, the farmer would not expect his field to produce a good harvest unless the soil was of a good quality and had been ploughed beforehand. Neither should we expect God's Word sown in our heart to produce results unless our heart has been prepared. A good heart is a prepared heart.
What kind of preparation does our heart need to be ready for God's Word?
At the beginning of the New Testament, John the Baptist was going about preaching "prepare the way of the Lord" - in other words, "prepare the way of the Word made flesh". He was pointing to the way people should prepare their hearts to receive the Messiah, Jesus, and so receive His Word.
How? Through repentance. Repentance may be called the ploughing of the heart.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’
Therefore, to properly receive the Word of God, we need to be ready to change our minds (this is what repentance is). We need to be prepared to re-evaluate our beliefs, our views on various issues, our lifestyle, our way of doing things, etc.. and be challenged as we are enlightened by God's perspective on things.
The key word here is 'CHANGE'. We need to be ready and willing to change. What we will receive from God's Word is not necessarily what we expect or what we want to hear. But nevertheless, it is the Word of God; and if it doesn't fit our expectations, it is not the Word that needs to change, but us.
A good heart is a heart that welcomes change. It has an attitude that is open to accept God's opinion on things and conform to it, no matter how foreign to its thinking that opinion may be. God's ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts.
For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.
As we read the Bible and discover God's ways and thoughts, we have a choice either to hold on to our own, or to embrace God's.
Repentance implies renouncement. We need to be ready to renounce the things in our life that do not glorify God. God, through His Word, will many times point out things in our lives that displease Him and it will always be easier and more comfortable to ignore, to not take the necessary steps to make adjustments in our life, or simply procrastinate (a very common trap).
We may have things that we enjoy and love; things that we find pleasure in... but when God says otherwise, will they go or will they stay? With our knowledge that the Lord knows best and that His Word is true, the answer should be obvious. But sadly, many consistently make the wrong choice.
So, in a nutshell, the attitude with which we need to approach God's Word, is not to be set in our ways, but open to real change.
If we want more insight into what a "good heart" is, what better example than King David, who was "a man after God's own heart". Let's see how he approached God's Word. What was it about his heart attitude that pleased the Lord and enabled him to receive His Word?
King David wrote the longest psalm in the Bible, psalm 119. This psalm - a poem of 176 verses - is entirely dedicated to the praise of God's Word. Following the Hebrew alphabetical order, David passionately lists all the wonderful qualities of God's Torah (God's Law) and expresses his desire to obey it wholeheartedly.
With my whole heart I seek You; do not allow me to wander from Your commandments. Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You.
(Psalm 119 v.10-11)
By reading the whole psalm, it is easy to understand that David had a high view of the Word of God and was determined to obey it. A good heart is a heart that values God's Word and that is submitted to its authority.
Obeying the Word is a decision that must be made in our heart before we come face to face with its rebukes and corrections. If we wait until we read a passage and come accross a rebuke to make that choice, it will usually not happen. We will only obey those hard sayings of Scripture when we have already made a firm decision in our heart to do so.
Your testimonies are my inheritance forever, for they are the rejoicing of my heart. I have inclined my heart to perform Your statutes always, even unto the end.
(Psalm 119 v.111-112)
David had clearly made that decision. Have you?
He also had a deep love for the Word, which is rarely found even in Christians today. People do not see the beauty and awesomeness of God's Word, they do not realise how precious it is, and therefore are not inclined to truly receive from it. If we do not see its worth, we will not hunger for it.
David treasured the Word of God in his heart. It was more precious to him than the greatest riches, and therefore he longed for it. As born-again believers, we have an innate love for the Word given by God, but it is our responsibility to maintain that affinity and even cause it to increase, so that we can say with David:
Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.
Those who truly love God, will love His Word and will love to meditate on it. If this is not yet the case for you, make it a priority request in your prayers, because without this you will not grow spiritually. When we ask according to God's will, we receive; but we need to ask.
As newborn babies, desire the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow
(1 Peter 2:2)
Desiring the Word is actually a command from God. But if that desire isn't there, let the Lord put it in your heart by His Spirit. He wants to and He will if you ask Him. Your part is to meditate on His Word. The more you meditate on it, the more, like David, you will begin to see its beauty.
Meditation is not an emptying of the mind - as eastern religions teach us - but it is filling your mind with God's Word. The idea is to reflect or ponder upon it in your mind. To meditate is to have your mind dwell on the Word. You may only do that with small amounts at a time; but as you chew on it, you let it speak to you and draw out more and more of its riches.
David's desire included the desire to be taught and instructed by the Word. He repeatedly asked the Lord to teach him through His Word.
Teach me, O Lord, the way of Your statutes, and I shall keep it to the end.
Like little children, we must desire the Word of God because we want to learn. This is the food we need for growth, and without it we stagnate, and eventually backslide.
A good heart is a teachable heart.
There would be much more to say about David, but let's just mention one more important thing. David feared God's Word.
My body trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments.
His heart not only loved God's Word, but had a deep reverence for it. He had a true fear of the Lord, and that translated into a fear of His Word. Every one of God's commands and precepts was regarded with the highest respect. This deep reverence is what the Lord is looking for.
But to this man I will look, even to him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembles at My word.
The opposite attitude would be that of someone who approaches God's Word with arrogance and pride, satisfied in their own wisdom and despising God's counsel. Surely, God will never reveal the treasures of His Word to such a person.
Trembling at His Word talks of humility. A good heart is also a humble heart.
This is the kind of heart that is necessary and that we should desire as we approach God's Word. By His grace, the Holy Spirit creates in us this kind of heart and is able to move on it to produce godly transformation.
On the other hand, handling Scripture with the wrong kind of heart can be dangerous.
Today, there are countless sermons and Bible tools online and many Christians have a great knowledge of the Bible. This is wonderful. However, that knowledge can become a tool for the enemy.
The more we know, the more we become accountable for the knowledge we have. When the Holy Spirit convicts us in the light of God's Word, and we decide to ignore His warnings, we begin to harden our hearts and resist God.
Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.
This is compromise. When we know what we should not be doing, but stubbornly do it anyway, or when we know what we should be doing, but consistently do not; it is a dangerous position to be in. God must discipline His people for this, and He will. It may take time, because He is patient; but He is not mocked.
Compromise often leads to hypocrisy. Like the Pharisees, we may eloquently teach others to obey the Word, while we persist in disobedience ourselves - the essence of hypocrisy. And we know that the Lord Jesus strongly rebuked the Pharisees while on earth...
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and greed. You blind Pharisee, first cleanse the inside of the cup and dish, that the outside of them may also be clean.
When we accumulate knowledge of the Word of God without allowing it to change us, we direct the light of God's lamp towards others and we can see everything that is wrong with them. We point to their sins and their shortcomings, and we criticize them. We can afford to severely judge others without judging ourselves, just like pointing out to the speck in our brother's eye without seeing the plank in our own eye. How sad!
So, you see how the enemy can use even God's Word as a trap for Christians. After all, he is the accuser of the brethren. When we find ourselves accusing our brothers and sisters, we are actually doing his job. And he is all the more pleased when we use God's Word to do it.
Of course, I am not saying that we should never rebuke our brethren with God's Word. Sin should be dealt with in love, and as the Lord leads. But, the Word of God should first be used as a mirror and applied to our own life, before we can even begin to think about correcting others. We are people under authority - the authority of God's Word.
May we be led by God's Spirit, so that His Word - which is the sword of the Spirit - never becomes a destructive weapon in the hands of the enemy of our souls.
So, let us examine our heart as we approach God's Word.
If we read the Bible only to acquire head knowledge, let us remember that the devil will always be ahead of us in that game. He has had thousands of years of experience and he knows the Bible really well.
It is not so much the Bible we know, but the Bible we obey that matters. The enemy becomes powerless in the face of obedience, because he himself knows a lot, but he never obeys. The Lord is not impressed by our much reading, preaching or memorizing His Word, but He is impressed by our obedience.
Abraham, walking in faith, obeyed God. And God was impressed - not by his head knowledge, but by his simple obedience.
But the angel of the Lord called to him out of heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not lay your hands on the boy or do anything to him, because now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your only son from Me.”
The "now I know" from the Lord only happened after Abraham's act of obedience. God was fully satisfied when Abraham believed and obeyed.
Jesus taught the importance of obedience in the parable of the two housebuilders (Matthew 7:24-27). The foolish man built his house on the sand. He represents those who hear the Word - and therefore have knowledge of it - but do not obey it. The result is that his house crumbled down when the storm came. His house represents his spiritual life. When trouble comes, he is not able to stand strong in the Lord and is defeated.
How many Christians today are just like that? Too many just melt under the pressures of life because, even though they know, they have neglected to practically apply the knowledge they have to their daily life. They have taken a casual approach to God's Word, not allowing it to change their heart and life.
The wise man, on the other hand, has the right approach. In humility, he has prepared his heart so that he hears and obeys the Word, and can therefore stand strong in the face of adversity. The wise man has a good heart.
My prayer is that the light of the Word of God would be allowed to shine over our own heart, to reveal and cleanse the dirt, and to produce good fruit as we are changed daily from glory to glory by the precious Holy Spirit.