I’ve always been amazed by Jesus’ response to Satan’s first temptation: “if you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matthew 4:3). I picture Jesus there, looking at the stones. His ribs are poking out, and his body is worn away after 40 days of fasting. But even in extreme hunger, Jesus prioritizes spiritual food above our physical food: “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).
In other words, Jesus’ response is not simply a rejection of Satan’s offer, but a reorientation of his condition. I might expect Jesus to say, “man shall not disobey the Lord even when he dies of hunger.” Instead, he says, in effect, “even now, as my body wastes away, even here my deepest need is not bread but the Word of God.”
One of the issues that comes up most often frequently when I am discipling others in the church is the struggle to do daily Bible reading. And it doesn’t necessarily get easier for those of us who are in ministry or study the Bible in an academic context—in fact, I think many pastors face the temptation of their teaching ministry from the Bible to crowd out, or altogether replace, their own personal devotional reading of Scripture. But if Christ claims that daily Bible reading is more important to us than daily food, we can’t neglect our own nourishment, even while seeking to feed others.
As I have tried to help guys struggling in this area, and also remain vigilant and creative and fresh in my own Bible intake, I’ve come up with a couple basic ideas that some have found helpful.
1) Plan a regular time and place into your daily schedule
I have found that amid the pace of life, Bible reading (like so many other things) tends to eclipsed unless it is structured into our daily schedule. I used to try to do it first thing when I wake up, but there is a glaring problem with this strategy: I drink coffee. This means that my brain is not at its best when I first wake up. Also, having kids who wake up at different times makes my morning routine less predictable. So I have switched to taking the first few minutes when I first walk into my office. I wait to turn on the computer, and I close the door. If I know there will be a lot of people wanting to talk, I go to the park or a quiet spot in the sanctuary.
Some people have personalities or schedules (or both) that are not conducive to daily time sitting down and reading. So one piece of advice I have given to people in this circumstance is to get the Bible on audio on your iPhone, and then listen to it on your drive to work, or when you go to the gym. But one way or another, it really helps to have a set time each day that is set apart for it. This helps ensure it will actually happen, and also creates a sense of rhythm and regularity to it.
2) Do it with someone else
I don’t mean actually reading the Bible with someone else in the room with you (though that can work, too). I mean have someone else who is on the same schedule as you, and whom you see somewhat regularly in the course of life so you can check in about how it is going, and what you are learning.
Over the past several years, when younger guys confess that they struggle with doing “quiet times” regularly, I have started to plan out my own devotional schedules and then going through it with them. It has been an awesome experience: not only does it provide some built-in accountability, but it also gives the opportunity to dialogue and engage about what you are learning. It is much more motivating to read carefully when you know you are going to have a conversation with someone about what you are reading, and it is also opens up doors to see new things in the text you never would have seen on your own.
I have started doing devotions guides for our church, organized around our sermon schedule, to widen out this experience to the entire church. It is really helpful when many different people are engaging with the same biblical texts and topics: it generates a lot of synergy and conversation.
3) If you are new to it or bad at it, keep it simple and short
Sometimes people struggle with doing daily devotional Bible reading because they work it up in their mind as more than it needs to be, just like people avoid going to the gym because they feel intimidated and out of place because of all the super healthy there. I have found that some people feel liberated by the reminder that it does not need to be super long, or super in-depth and scholarly. If you struggle to do daily Bible reading, and you’re trying to get better, don’t start with commentaries or huge chunks of text. Start with simplicity, and then build from that point.
For example, just reading and praying about one verse for five minutes each day is way better than doing nothing, and it’s a good starting place to build from. Just like 20 minutes on the treadmill three times a week is not going to put you in league with any Olympic athletes, but it can still make a huge difference in your health. A little is much better than none, and it gives you a place to build from.
4) Have a system for summarizing and remembering what you learn
Bryan Chapell talks about the “3:00 AM test” for sermons: imagine someone wakes you up at 3:00 AM and asks you what the sermon is about. Can you remember? If not, the sermon is probably half-baked.
When I stop halfway through the day and I cannot remember what I did for devotions that morning, I know I am rushing through my devotions too quickly, over breakfast or on the run or something, and not really digesting God’s Word. For me, it is especially easy with longer narrative texts to simply move on with my day and forget what I have read, so I have found I have to find a system to summarize and remember what I learn from it. I find it often helps to write down a brief summary of something God teaches you, and then repeat it and pray about it throughout the day.
Right now I am reading through I and II Kings, and I read a chapter a day. Because it is not always obvious how to summarize each chapter, I write down one brief sentence that encapsulates something I’ve learned from the text. So for I Kings 1 it was, “God chooses leaders contrary to human wisdom.” Not the most profound or deep idea, and not the only thing in the text. But its something that stood out to me from the process of Solomon being chosen over Adonijah. It gives me something tangible to hang onto later in the day when I think back on the story. And then I will see it again the next day to take me into I Kings 2, so it also helps build continuity from one day to the next.
5) Implement a structure for prayer and application
It is not always easy to know how to apply various passages of Scripture to the gospel, and to ourselves. For example, if your morning schedule puts you on the old prophet at Bethel in I Kings 13, you mind wonder how in the world this story fits in with the larger biblical narrative, or what is going to come at you in your day.
There are lots of ways to try to integrate each individual text into the larger context of redemptive history, and systematically in relation to the gospel, and in the finer points, this is a complicated task that no one ever stops growing in. But I believe every Christian can make real progress by bringing a basic gospel structure to each biblical passage. For example, here are two questions that can be a very helpful launching point, and which I once again draw loosely from Bryan Chapell’s Christ-Centered Preaching:
- what does this passage reveal about human nature that needs redemption?
- what does this passage reveal about God’s nature that provides redemption?
That is not all you need to do, but it is often a good starting point for prayer and application. Suddenly, when I’m in I Kings 13, for example, when I’m starting to see new insights about the crookedness of sin, and the binding nature of God’s word. I start thinking about how much of my own inconstancy and fickleness I see in the characters of this story. I remember from yesterday’s reading the promise that “a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name” (13:2). I feel the weight of the relative darkness of this time in history, the desperate need of God’s people for a king and savior—ultimately, a greater Josiah. I reflect on all that has happened in redemptive history since this passage.
I find myself more aware of how deeply I need Christ. I think about where the world now would be if Bethlehem had never happened. I think about all that Hebrews says about what Christ has fulfilled, all that has already happened in redemptive history. I take time to thank him, and ask that he would help me see more of his direction and providential leading in my life, as the greater High Priest and King who is now saving and leading God’s people.
Even in I Kings 13, and in every other little corner of the Bible, however obscure, there is some unique contribution to the revelation of the gospel. There is no wasted space in the Bible. In fact, if we take Jesus at his word, “every word … comes from the mouth of God”—and is more important to us than our daily food.