Growing up I attended “non-denominational” evangelical Protestant Christian churches, and one thing that I was constantly told was, “Read your Bible!” Bible reading was, rightly, presented as an extraordinarily important spiritual discipline and integral to spiritual growth.
Yet Bible reading was treated like it was one of the easiest activities in the world. I was told that instead of mindlessly scrolling through my social media, I should instead open my Bible and let the Holy Spirit wash over me as I take in the inspired word of God.
I wish it were that easy.
As anyone who has tried the Bible app’s “Read the Whole Bible in a Year” plan knows, reading the Bible is not always a simple affair (once you get to Leviticus, that Bible app plan starts seeming a lot more challenging). In my experience, reading the Bible is hard.
Many Christians would disagree with me. They would argue that all you need to do is open your Bible, diligently read, and read and read, and eventually you will be able to understand the mysteries of God because God has revealed himself to us in simple ways.
I would be inclined to agree that, yes, God does reveal himself to us in a way that almost everyone can understand and thus have a saving relationship with him, but I would disagree that one can just pick up the Bible and read it like the latest John Grisham mystery novel.
The Protestant Bible contains 66 books with approximately 40 different authors and a host of different literary genres such as poetry, historical narrative, prophecy and prose. Some of these genres, like the apocalyptic literature in Revelation, are completely different than almost any other type of literature.
The book that we call the Bible is a diverse collection of ancient texts, which were not addressed to modern American readers. As Old Testament scholar John Walton put it: “The Bible was written for us, but it was not written to us [modern Christians].”
The most recent portions of the Bible were written almost 2,000 years ago, in a cultural context that is far different from our own. This group of books is not the newest Nicholas Sparks novel; it is a complex collection of texts written in a very different time.
Despite the difficulties involved with reading the Bible, Christians are called to study it because it is the inspired word of God. Yet we should not shame our fellow believers who may have a hard time reading and interpreting the Bible. In fact, we should all make sure we take the time to diligently read, study and wrestle with the ancient texts in which God has revealed himself.
The Bible itself tells us that we must be careful readers and attentive students. In Joshua 1:8, God instructs Joshua, “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful” (NRSV). Note how the verse ends with a promise; if we carefully study the Bible and deeply think on it day and night, there will be great benefits.
We should not continue claiming that the Bible is easy to read and that Christians who struggle with their Bible reading must not be trying hard enough. Instead, let us acknowledge that the immeasurable depths of God’s Word can be challenging to navigate. There are many scholarly resources available to help us understand and interpret the Bible.
Rather than being stubborn and prideful readers who insist on pushing through the difficulties found in the biblical text, we should encourage all Christians to faithfully and carefully study God’s word using the many different aids available to us, such as commentaries, theology volumes, cultural background studies and Bible atlases.
Yes, we should all read our Bibles, but let us not continue with the illusion that reading the Bible is “easy.” If you can pick up the Bible, read it and then have it all figured out, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, because I’d love to ask you a few questions.
For the rest of us, let us press on through the confusing passages of the Bible, taking care to meditate on it, knowing that it won’t be easy, but that that is OK.
In my opinion, reading the Bible should not be easy.