Have you ever been reading along and suddenly realized you have read a sentence or two, a paragraph, an entire page… and have no idea what you have just read? I am embarrassed to think how many times my mind has drifted off while reading…anything—including the Bible. Reading for a better understanding begins with better reading, strategic reading.
Let’s consider five strategies that can help target your reading toward a better understanding.
1. Read whole texts
The chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles are wonderfully helpful for finding a specific passage… but that is about all they are good for. On the downside, those divisions (along with our sound-bite media culture) have trained us to approach Scripture with a sort of sound-bite mentality, as though the Bible is an anthology of great sayings, bits of wisdom to be digested one snippet at a time. However, Paul did not tweet out Romans one verse at a time over several months. He sent a whole letter.
When you get a letter in the mail from a dear friend (does anybody still write or receive real letters?), do you read a couple lines then set it aside until the next day, then read a few more lines? Might you then forget about it for a day or two and only later remember to pick it up again and read a few more lines? That would be absurd. A letter is meant to be read as a whole, all of its parts contributing to the whole, and none of them to be taken without respect to the whole.
This is the way we should approach Scripture, taking in whole units of writing: whole letters, whole psalms, whole prophecies, etc. That’s not to say we can never read less or that it is inappropriate to only read a single chapter, paragraph, or verse. But it is to say that along the way—in the regular rhythm of our Scripture reading—we need to read whole texts.
Reading a short letter like Philemon or 2 John is no problem, but reading Romans or 1 Corinthians in one sitting may seem daunting to some. Yet it is worth the time set aside for such a task. For much longer texts, it may help to take two or three sittings to read through entirely. The point is simple… read whole texts. Andy Naselli offers the following encouragement, including a chart of reading time for each book of the Bible. What you find may surprise you!
Have you ever read the Gospel according to Matthew straight through in one sitting? Or Romans? Or Job? Or Revelation? If not, you’re missing out. That’s the way they’re meant to be read. A book like Nehemiah would generally take about one hour. Ephesians would take 20 minutes. Here’s a full list of the approximate times it would take to read each book in our English Bible.
I understand the objection: “There’s no way I could possibly find time to do this.” But aren’t there other activities you do in life for prolonged periods of time? Do you read other books for a few hours at a time? Do you ever spend an hour watching a TV show or two hours watching a movie or three hours watching a football game? Why not prioritize lengthy, undistracted time in the life-giving word?
2. Read again and again
I can say without hesitation that the most fruitful time spent in God’s word has been when I have stayed in one portion of Scripture, reading and rereading the same text many times, over many days, through several weeks, even months. Often, it is not until the eighth or tenth or fifteenth time reading through a passage that I begin to see and grasp what is being said—not because Scripture is so hard to understand or that it’s true meaning is hidden but for at least two reasons:
First, Scripture is so rich. It makes beautiful and vital connections across its pages and history; it presses in deeply and addresses hard questions maturely. It is simply nourishment for the soul that is meant to be savored, not gulped.
Secondly, Our minds and our hearts are so dull. We are all surrounded by distractions—both necessary and frivolous. (How many times have you checked your smart phone in the last hour?) And even if we can get away to a quiet place for a time, our minds can be flooded with thoughts, plans, anxieties, conversations, etc.
Thus it takes deliberate strategies to bring our hearts and minds into the thought patterns of Scripture. Certainly not everyone is wired the same, so I do not assume that what works for me must work for you. Nevertheless, I have yet to meet a believer who has not profited from a long stretch in a single portion of Scripture.
3. Read aloud
No doubt you have heard Scripture read aloud by another—a pastor, worship leader, friend. But have you ever, while alone, read Scripture out loud for your own ears? The word of God is meant to be heard as well as read, as Scripture itself exhorts,
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
—Revelation 1:3 ESV
When you move from silent reading to reading aloud, you have immediately multiplied your experience. Your pace is necessarily slower, you are now hearing spoken words. Sadly, even reading aloud, my mind has drifted to other places. It seems the human brain has an amazing capacity for distraction (at least mine does). Reading aloud does not solve the problem but it does go a long way toward focusing attention and facilitating better reading comprehension.
4. Read actively
That is, engage yourself fully in the process of comprehension. Markup the text, take notes, make observations, ask questions. The early lessons of this course will help you build and refine some of these skills. Personally, I like to print out the text of Scripture on paper so I can step away from technology and take pen(s) in hand and markup the text. If you prefer to use electronic formats, Biblearc has wonderful markup tools available. A Path Course specifically on Markup is also scheduled for development.
5. Finally, read prayerfully
I say “finally,” but this is certainly not the last activity we should employ in our Bible reading. Neither is it just a box to check before we read. We should be giving ourselves to prayer throughout our reading and study.
How should we pray as we approach and dig into the word of God? John Piper has often mentioned a pattern of prayer that has been wonderfully helpful to him.