Let’s talk about reading the Bible in context and why you should stop being a lazy reader

If you would prefer to listen to this article, click the play button.

At this point in time, I have facilitated eleven Bible studies in the span of three years––ten for women and one that was co-ed and co-led with my husband and another couple. I don’t know if that sounds impressive to you or not. But, just in case it does, let me add a little bit of color for you on what these Bible studies actually look like in real life so you don’t make the mistake of thinking too highly of me.

Typically, I am washing the dishes or changing a diaper and the idea pops into my head that I would like to read some random book in the Bible (likely one I have not read before, because reading the Bible consistently is still pretty fresh to me). I quickly deploy a text out to some intelligent and passionate women in a few of my circles and ask if they might be interested in reading this book of the Bible as well. I generally toss the idea out to about fifteen people and maybe seven of them say they are in.

So, then—during nap time or perhaps during one of those moments when I am holed up in my closet seeking some much needed space (introvert here)—I work out some sort of reading schedule, which generally means I scribble random chunks of verses into the tiny boxes in a calendar of some sort.

In the weeks to come, I build up the hype and confirm that these women are indeed going to show up to my house if I pour the coffee. Then I plan for my kids to have early bedtime. I light candles. I make decaf. I set out all the mugs and arrange all the chairs. I might apply some makeup. And then I sit. 

I sit in a circle of empty chairs and watch the minutes tick by and––like a middle school girl at her first big birthday bash––I chew my fingernails and hum until someone finally shows up.

Once they do and everyone gets settled (sometimes awkwardly––me, awkwardly excited), we pray and then we dive in. And, mostly, it’s me getting my mind blown by things I’ve never read in scripture… and sometimes someone else also gets their mind blown… but, mostly, it’s me learning a million things I never knew and asking a million questions and puzzling over interpretation and reveling in the poetry of it all, until finally ending in some sort of mouth-open, starry-eyed dopy gaze––stunned that I am living wide awake in love with a God that loves me too. Eventually, the weeks go by and the study comes to a close and I end up more convinced than I was at the beginning that the Bible is the most miraculous work of literature ever created.

I am currently wrapping up a Bible study in the book of Psalms. The other day I asked the women in my study if they felt like scripture has authority in their lives. They kind of looked at each other and said, “Yeah… I mean, we’re Baptists.” And, there, I recognized the great terrain between how I was raised and how they were raised and why it is so incredibly mind-blowing for us to simply read the Bible in context.

I grew up in a whirlpool of innuendos that suggested that I had authority over scripture. I was taught to use scripture to mystically force my teenage desires upon the world… demanding healing and prosperity and secret spiritual knowledge some called prophecy. 

The Baptists I know grew up (some of them) under the weight of the law without grace. They grew up hoisting the Bible on their shoulders and trying to carry it from one wasteland of works-based salvation to another. They walked around knowing scripture, but not really knowing God.

Until one day they did.

And now their mind is blown by the fact that the God of the Bible is real and my mind is blown by the fact that the Bible is a real book about my real God, and all of us are waking up to the freedom available in a Bible that both leads us to conviction and repentance and dowses us in reminders of a loving, merciful, and near-to-us Savior prophesied since the beginning of time.

Much of what we get out of the scriptures has to do with how we start out. Most of us in the south have thick, leather-bound study Bibles with tiny little reference notes and scholarly introductions we never read or—if we do—it’s because we are distracted during a sermon that lost us at “hello.”

Being an avid reader and a literary scholar, there is one thing I have learned about myself that is true for not all—but most. We don’t really retain what we read until we have to regurgitate it, and because most of us are not Bible teachers or scholars, this rarely applies to the content in those tiny print introductions inserted into our study Bibles (I feel like I just heard a hundred Bible scholars gasp… sorry guys).

I live in a seminary town. Like, there is literally a seminary in walking distance from my house where young Baptist scholars go to learn how to be older Baptist scholars, and so when I confess to the average Joe on the street that I do not know who wrote the book of Phillipians, for example, I am often headed with a quizzical look followed by a quick answer and a smirk of satisfaction… one Bible illiterate taught.

But despite the fact that the most famous disciple of all time—Paul—wrote Phillipians while he was in prison for sharing the gospel of Christ, I will likely not bring this to recollection if I am randomly directed to Phillipians 3:14 in a cheeky Hallmark card that tells me to keep at it and finish the race for [insert whatever activity I am being encouraged to complete here].

The Bible is an incredible, often intimidating literary work displaying the historical memoir of the greatest character of all time—our God. It is worth taking a few minutes to ensure that we are reading the passages in the Bible in the intended context of the work.

Although those few minutes of gathering context can feel like a timewarp to your fifth grade English class, it is worth it and it doesn’t take too much time to complete. Luckily for us, there are in fact many Bible scholars who have done the work for us… we just have to engage with it and I would argue that we must do so before we attempt to extract the applicable meaning of the scriptures to our lives (and, especially, to the lives of others).

Now, you might be thinking that the Bible is the living Word of God and there are times when we can open it to a passage and it speaks directly into our circumstances. So, you ask, are you saying that’s not true? No. I am not—I’ve experienced it. The Bible is the living Word of God and God can use it however He deems best, but here in America where we have access to multiple translations of scripture with built in scholarly context and Google resources galore, why would we choose to be lazy about the most impactful work to ever stand on our bookshelves?

So, yes, I sometimes flip open my Bible and read without looking up context. But I have reaped the deep-rooted benefits of examining the books of the Bible before I dig in, and the benefits are countless for my ability to extract deep truths regarding the character of God and His desires for my life—and it will be for you as well.

Here’s what I’m proposing:

I’ve created this simple little worksheet to help you establish a new type of behavior as you approach your Bible to feast on the Bread of Life. This worksheet is not revolutionary. There are many, many Bible study approaches that guide readers through the contextual questions I have provided. However, I never experienced one of those Bible studies before I was thirty years old and I grew up down the street from a seminary… so, I’m guessing there is a high probability that this might be new to you as well.

Give this a try. Pick a book of the Bible that’s not too intimidating or one you don’t really know much about (say, the book of Job or the letter of Jude) and using the Bible Reading Guide to Establish a Contextual Framework (provided below), take 15 minutes to learn the basic context of that book… and then read the first chapter. What about the context changes or informs your perspective?

Next week I will dive a little bit more into building basic Bible comprehension when reading the scriptures. If you get into the scriptures and you need a little guidance, give me a ping or reach out to your church leaders for assistance. Apart from prayer, I’m not sure there is a better use of our time… so, let’s get started.

Side-note: A lovely person (not from the bible belt) who read the first draft of this article asked how I reconcile the fact that I can meet an average Joe on the street who is a Bible scholar with my claim that the average person (and my reader) is more like me, a little more Bible illiterate. I think that it is one of the many oddities of living right next to a seminary campus. It seems that many people within a certain radius of the campus know a lot about the Bible, but most people a few blocks out know very little… and I will just leave that observation here for you to ponder.

Passive vs. Active Reading of Scripture: How to ignite a passion for the Bible

“The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.”

Proverbs 18:15

__

I may be wrong, but I have a nagging suspicion that most Christian individuals living in the bible belt are passive readers of their Bibles. They may read a portion of scripture every day, but––likely––they are under some sort of compulsion to do so (whether real or imagined), and that compulsion starts them off in the direction of passive readership of God’s holy word. 

A passive reader is someone who reads quickly or nonchalantly, and rarely remembers what they are reading. They are typically selfish readers––whether they are aware of it or not.

Some passive readers focus on speed––their goal is productivity in their reading. I call these “checkbox readers” because their primary goal for reading is to accomplish some sense of pride at having finished the reading, whether or not they retained anything from it. I have found that I am tempted towards this type of readership when I participate in the traditional group bible study method of reading scripture. Don’t get me wrong, I love group bible study––but one of my sin patterns is to submit to productivity rather than laying down my list of hopeful accomplishments in submission to the Lordship of Christ. The temptation to read scripture this way is heavy in our American culture––a culture which values what you do over who you are.

Some passive readers focus solely on affirmation and application of the reading to their personal lives. They often read when they feel they need something from the text. I call these “consumer readers.” You may be thinking, well––is that not active readership? This person wants to engage the scriptures for their personal well-being, don’t they? 

Seemingly, but no. 

This type of passive reader forfeits correct context for what they hope to hear from the scriptures. Often, this type of approach leads to false beliefs about the character of God and our relationship to Him. Imagine that you receive a letter from the White House. Having recently felt unappreciated for any of your contributions to our country’s needs, you open it and quickly skim to the bottom where you read “Thank you for your commitment and loyalty to our country. We would not be the nation we are today without you.” You close the letter happily, encouraged that the President thought to write to you to thank you for being such a special citizen. What you missed entirely was that the letter was a notice of draft into the armed forces requiring your attendance at check-in in two weeks time. You’ve read the letter out of context, and the resulting implications for your citizenship and your daily life are impending.

It is not so much different to approach the holy scriptures seeking personal affirmation and application before considering the context of the text you are reading.

And then some passive readers approach the text only when led by a guide, typically a pastor on a Sunday morning and a guided Bible study. Often, not always, these readers approach the scriptures with unsure trepidation, similar to a foreigner approaching a native to ask where the bathroom might be located or if there is one at all. I call these readers “visitor readers” because they have formed an approach to the biblical text that assumes the text was not written for them, it was written for those who are teaching it to them––they are just visiting during the span of the sermon.

My goal is to inspire you to awaken from passive readership so that you may become an active reader of the one text that I believe is the most important work you will ever engage with in your lifetime.

What is an active reader?

An active reader takes the time necessary to dig into the context of the text they are approaching—considering audience, authorship, time period, cultural happenings, and textual themes. They often read the scripture with pen in hand, making notes on the things they do not understand or those things that engage their thinking on a deeper level. They read the same passage multiple times, and—not always, but often—they read slowly. An active reader reads to understand the text, not simply to benefit from it.

Good active readership requires approaching a text knowing that you stand to be corrected by what you may read. Your assumptions give way to the content in the scriptures, and—although you may wrestle with what you find there—you actually wrestle.

My question to you is:

How are you approaching your Bible today? (If you approach it at all?)

Do you desire to walk away from your reading of scripture––even a small portion of scripture––with a deeper understanding of this God who saves? 

In my last article, I encouraged you to begin to pray that God would give you a hunger for His holy word. Today, I encourage you to reflect on how you are currently approaching scripture. Are you a passive reader of God’s holy word—unsure how to extract more meaningful meaty content from these sometimes confusing and foreign passages? Or are you an active reader of scripture, allowing the living word of God to seep into the crevices of your born again existence?

Over the next few weeks, I will provide some suggestions on how to approach scripture in a way that will allow you to walk away with deep truths about God resonating in your soul, supplying you with His bread of life and leaving you longing for the next moment you can crack open your Bible. 

If this sounds intimidating to you, rest assured the suggestions I will provide are elementary and all levels of literacy can apply these methods to their reading.

There are a lot of reasons to remain a passive reader––none of them good, in my opinion. But there is one good reason to become active in your reading of the gospel—active readership will fuel a life burning with passion for walking the narrow path with Jesus. What could be more exciting than that?

__

Resources:

I highly recommend Jen Wilkin’s Women of the Word for more on how to be an active and informed reader of the Bible. I will be including some of her suggestions that have impacted my relationship with scripture in articles to come.

Scripture as Authority: My search for a solid foundation

“In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”

John 1:1-5

__

Growing up, I was taught to discover God primarily through life experiences rather than through scriptural study. And, truly, experience is a legitimate and good way to discover God. In Romans, Paul writes, “They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them. For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities––his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God” (Romans 1:19-20), and I can attest to this.

Encouragement to seek God through my personal experiences with Him and my observations of His work around me provided me with the confidence to proclaim the presence of a God I knew loved me. Even in my wayward college years, I never questioned the existence of God because I had experienced Him––I heard His voice, I saw His perfection in creation, and I observed His movement in the world in both charismatic and private encounters.

I knew God. 

Growing up, it wasn’t God I questioned.

It was Jesus.

As I was taught Christianity, Jesus was kind of this hand-wavy thing over on the side of an all-powerful miraculous God. I knew about Jesus. I believed He was a real person in history––but I was not completely confident in His divinity.

I fell where I think many bible belt Christians fall on the belief continuum. I was a deist at most who thought of Jesus as that impactful man in history who may possibly,  in some way or another, be the Son of God. But I was unsure.

My lack of confidence in the Lordship of Jesus is what enabled my prodigal years during college. I walked away from Christianity (who am I kidding… I sprinted away from Christianity) in an attempt to find something solid I could stake my flag in. I didn’t want a hand-wavy possibility… I wanted firm truth, even if that firm truth went against all I had previously experienced. I was willing to consider that I may have missed the mark on who God is and who I am in relationship to Him.

I searched for my solid foundation in books. I read voraciously and devoured every critical perspective: postmodern, marxism, feminist, post-colonial, queer, deconstructive theory and more. I began to wonder, is it possible to be something other than seasick in the ocean of personal discovery?

It wasn’t until after my college years and into my early married years that I faced the God I had experienced in childhood and began to seek the answers from Him, and that is when I found redemption and a Savior. I was reintroduced to Jesus entirely by faith, which is really all it takes for a life restored by Christ.

But, still, not fully certain. 

I am the Christian who has prayed time and time again “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”

Then, over one inconspicuous dinner, my faith was bolstered by a very simple question. My friend sat calmly on the other side of a steaming plate of baked chicken and said, “I think the meaningful question to ask yourself is ‘do you believe scripture has authority’?”

Up until that point scripture was most often presented to me as some sort of highly suggested self-help guide, although rather than “five points to a better life,” the Bible felt really difficult to apply and therefore difficult to open at all.

I longed to know the answer… do I believe scripture has authority? 

I was recovering from an emotional block towards the Bible that caused me to hold the scriptures at a firm distance during my young adult years. In all my reading, I never included my Bible in my critical study. I was so emotionally confused by the use of the Bible as a method for claiming prosperity promises from God that I just felt it best to keep it sidelined for most of my academic career.

But that season was over, and I had claimed my faith in Jesus, although still searching for my solid foundation, so I began to intentionally read the Bible. I approached the Bible as a literary text: in context, holistically and as separate distinct written forms. I began to ask the question “who is this text about?” and discovered––to my surprise––that it wasn’t about me at all. The Bible is a book about God.

My Savior. The one I have experienced my whole life through creation, in private prayer, and in my wonder at His miraculous power. I was reading the Old Testament and seeing descriptions written thousands of years ago that matched the very character of the God I knew.

And that God and those scriptures continuously asked me to consider the divinity of Jesus.

From the beginning of creation, through the early years of Israel, in the laments during the Israeli oppression, and in the warnings of the prophets I read one consistent theme––the Messiah is coming. And in the very detailed accounts in the New Testament I read that Jesus answers every longing for that coming Messiah.

A mantra began to form solid and secure within me: Jesus has been prophesied since the beginning of time, and He is now alive in his human body sitting at the right hand of the Father as the Son of God ruling over all.

Over time––guided by scripture––Jesus, the living Word of God, took His place as the authority over my life. Everything just kind of clicked into place once that was cemented.

I no longer feel seasick in the search for my identity––I am a child of God, completely unworthy and fully redeemed, created for a purpose, placed in this time for His glory, called to simply and steadfastly follow in the footsteps of Jesus my Savior and the Lord over my life. The Bible is now the cement that solidifies my firm foundation in Jesus. What a joy it has been to open the scriptures and discover more about the character of my Savior!

Friend, I want that joy for you as well. If you are one of the many who struggle to approach the Bible, I want to help you open this journey into the scriptures. You don’t have to be a literary scholar, an expert in Hebrew, or a staunch legalist to find meaning in the Word of God. You can be you. The scriptures are not mystical or unapproachable. They were written for you by the One who created you about the One who created you.

If you read that and think Yes, I want to know about the One who created me! then you are my audience over the next few weeks.

But, look, you don’t need me. You need Him. So although I will share about reading in context, building biblical comprehension, and establishing a regular meditative practice with the scriptures, you really only need to do one thing to get started in scripture today.

Pray.

With no exaggeration, anytime I have approached God with the request to help me read His Word, He has responded by setting my heart on fire for His holy scriptures. God is willing and eagerly waiting to answer.

Scripture does have authority. It is life-giving and transformative. It reveals our shortcomings leading us to repentance before a loving Father––a God who wins us over with kindness (Romans 2:4). And, yes, the scriptures are ancient and long and sometimes seem culturally irrelevant or confusing, but the scriptures also breathe life into our existence by setting us right on who this whole thing is about and how much the God of all Creation is willing to fight for our redemption.

Paul writes that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  

If you struggle to understand how that Bible on your shelf may be useful, you’re not alone. Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing a few simple steps and tools that have helped me approach and understand this beautifully written gift of truth from our loving Creator. My hope is that, like me, you will find a solid foundation to bolster a life-giving faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

But it starts now with a simple hello to our heavenly Father, followed by a request for His help in opening the scriptures to us. I can’t wait to dive deeper with Him.

For This Girl from the Bible Belt: This One Realization Changed Everything

reagan reynolds, reagankreynolds, southern authors, bible belt, the bible, spiritual writing

“The Lord, the Mighty One, is God,

and he has spoken;

he has summoned all humanity

from where the sun rises to where it sets.”

Psalm 50:1

I’m going to say something that may feel like a slap in your face at first, but it might save you from one of those theoretical spiders crawling up your cheek.

The Bible is not about you.

I’m not the first one to say it—I know. Brilliant and humble people have been speaking this truth for years. Some preachers yell it from the pulpit, and others just assume you know. But I didn’t. I simply didn’t know.

I grew up thinking the Bible was a map for how to live my best life—or, in some seasons, it was just a bit of “extra” that God sprinkled on the world to help us out (even though I rarely could make up or down of most of it, so not actually very helpful).

And, look, I’m by no means ranked with one of the best readers out there–but I have done my fair share of literary study, and so I know that if the fact that the Bible isn’t about me wasn’t apparent to me, it may not be apparent to you.

Friend, the realization that the Bible is not about me literally changed everything. Things that didn’t make sense about the Bible suddenly were brought to light. Passages in scripture that I banged my head against for years became the very core of the pillars that uphold my faith today. I’ve since walked away from my fight to be centerstage, and to do so has given me great freedom.

You see, reading the Bible as if it was about me resulted in:

  • confusion about the role of and the relevancy of the Old Testament in my life (which led to complete avoidance of it),
  • sporadic reading of random chapters or verses in order to extract some application to my current need,
  • leaving my Bible on the shelf for days, weeks, months, years… while I searched for a means to experience God,
  • a complete obsession with figuring out my calling,
  • a rejection of Christianity altogether because it didn’t seem like I was the main character of the Christian story, which caused me to doubt whether it was true at all.

Life after realizing the Bible is not about me (or you) produced in me:

  • a voracious hunger to learn more about the most dynamic and virtuous character ever portrayed in history—our God;
  • a desire to read scripture in context and feast on it as a means to align and wake up to truth, and witness the vitality of the greatest story ever told still playing out today;
  • a true love for the Bible, which is now my favorite book of all time (surpassing even Little Women), and one I read again and again;
  • a very real desire to witness God moving in the lives of those around me, and watching Him work in my own life in complete awe and wonder that the Ancient of Days is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (as proved in scripture);
  • a solid and unwavering—although imperfect—surrender and devotion to Jesus Christ, the King over all the earth.

All of that from the simple realization that the Bible is not about me.

It is about God. And humanity plays a role in this grand story, yes. But we are not the heroes of the story. The story that God is writing with humanity is a beautiful act of redemption, which glorifies the Author of it all. God is writing His memoirs with us—and, let me tell you, the story does not disappoint. 

So, there. You’re not the main character of the Bible… or of your life. God is the main character in it all. You don’t have to conjure up a legacy or a purpose, or try to seek your name etched somewhere in the folds of scripture. God is writing you into His story, so all of the work of how, when and why you show up in it belongs to Him.

He is inviting you to participate in this beautiful adventure—for you to look to Him to lead and for you to willingly follow.

So, let me end with a question–

Maybe you’ve never heard this before and you’re unsure of the theology behind the statement. I encourage you, then, to open your Bible—just start at the very beginning—and read a passage or two and ask yourself this one simple question, “What does this passage say about who God is?” 

Let me know how it goes. If anything, I welcome the opportunity to revel in the scriptures with you and I’m available, if it helps to have a friend read along.