Deep Bible Reading Strategies for the Tired and Busy – John Piper
It’s really valuable to attempt to read the entire Bible in a given year. We talked about that last time. But we also need to go deep into particular passages, which leads to today’s question from Mark in New Brunswick, Canada. “Dear Pastor John, I have just finished reading your latest book, ‘Reading the Bible Supernaturally.’ While I found it delightful and challenging in some respects, in other respects I found it overwhelming. Some of the deeper methods you mention in the book (like sentence diagramming and arcing) seem to be very time consuming, and I am wondering how to incorporate some of these into my already very busy life. Working as an office professional for over fifty hours per week, plus having a family and being involved in various leadership functions within my local church, I wonder about my time constraints. Do you ever just read the Bible devotionally without getting into all of the sentence diagramming and ‘digging’ and arcing you mentioned in the book? Is there a more common approach you take in your daily devotional reading each morning?”
The answer is yes. Yes, I do read the Bible devotionally like that. I think I understand what you mean — reading without getting into the actual diagramming and arcing on paper or online. Although once you’ve done enough analyzing of that sort over the decades, it happens fairly automatically in your head.
Yes, there is a way that I approach the Scriptures daily in this more devotional fashion. In fact, there’s a five-minute video over at DesiringGod.org called “A.P.T.A.T. — A Strategy for Daily Bible Reading.” I just saw it yesterday. All you have to do is type in to the search “A.P.T.A.T. — A Strategy for Daily Bible Reading.” I’m not going to go into those details again here.
Oak Trees and Dolphins
What I think will be more helpful here is to paint a biblical picture that might inspire a kind of radical engagement with the Bible for the purposes of radical living for Christ. My goal in writing that book, and in everything I’ve ever done with regard to the Bible, is not to produce a lot of Bible nerds, but a kind of Christian who is so deep and unshakable in their convictions about eternal reality that they are not blown over by the winds of trouble and don’t simply float mindlessly along, conforming to the currents of contemporary culture.
“We need radical, risk-taking, sacrificial, loving, counter-cultural people who make Christ look magnificent.”
I want people to use the Bible to become like oak trees. That’s one image you might use from Psalm 1 — strong trees planted by streams of water that stand in the winds of adversity and give shade to people and bless people.
Another image (one of my favorites) is not to be like a jellyfish floating in the current of culture, but to be like a dolphin who cuts its own path against the current and actually reaches people who are stranded in need. Those are my goals — a kind of radical, risk-taking, sacrificial, loving, counter-cultural people who make Christ look magnificent in this world because they find so much joy in him and have broken free from the selfishness that is so endemic to all of us and to this world.
That kind of Christian, living in that kind of crazy, counter-cultural, uncomfortable way of serving the glory of Christ is not going to come into being by mere natural cause — casual, ordinary encounters with the Bible. Something radically different has to happen in the presence of the Bible for this person to come into being, and to be sustained for sixty or seventy years of spiritual warfare.
Better Than Gold
I’m not looking for a way to say that the pathway into the precious and powerful reaches of Christ is an easy pathway. I’m not trying to make it easy for anybody. It’s just not going to do any good if we only take the easy way. There’s a warring lion — a supernatural warring lion — at every turn in this pathway. And his aim is to keep you from finding the glories of Christ in the Scriptures.
So here’s the picture I want to create. Not the picture of the tree withstanding the winds of adversity, and not the picture of the dolphin cutting through the currents of culture. I love those pictures. But here’s the biblical picture that I want to create, to inspire:
My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. (Proverbs 2:1–5)
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold. (Psalms 19:10)
The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces. (Psalms 119:72)
Therefore I love your commandments above gold, above fine gold. (Psalms 119:127)
So here’s the picture. Suppose you’ve discovered that a thousand years ago your backyard was a burial ground for the greatest treasures of that bygone world. Huge chests of gold and silver are very likely buried not too far beneath the surface in your back yard. And your city has laws on the books; it says anything discovered in property that you own is your property.
“Find a slot once a week where you do some serious digging in the word.”
After a week’s worth of a little poking around and exploration, you have begun to find incredibly valuable treasures — treasures that could put all your kids in college, treasures that could get you out of debt, treasures that could make you a benefactor of a hundred worthy causes, treasures worth hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, like gold and fine gold.
Would you say, “Well, I’m busy. I’ve got lots to do”? I doubt it. It really does come down to a matter of how desperate we are to get rich with true riches — the riches of Christ and the wealth of his glory, and his wisdom and his power for living the kind of radical Christian life this world so desperately needs.
My very practical suggestion is this: find a slot. I’m just talking one now, not seven. Find a slot in your week early before you have to do lots of stuff with the kids or work in the yard. Find a slot, maybe Saturday morning early or Sunday afternoon or Sunday evening, where you do some serious digging in God’s backyard once a week.
But then on most mornings you just give yourself to a more devotional kind of meditation on the word. It’s never one or the other. Never. It’s always both-and.
We need to study in proportion to our gifts and the situation we have in life. But we also need feel the burden of the calling by the Holy Spirit to be a strong, uncompromising, compassionate, persevering, sacrificial, risk-taking, loving kind of Christian. That requires two kinds of encounters with the gold and the silver of God’s word.
“I want to help form a kind of Christian who is so deep and unshakable in their convictions about eternal realities.”
One kind of encounter involves sweat, dirty hands, and an aching back from all the digging in the backyard. The other kind, just as important, is more tender — when you’re holding the gold piece, wiping it off carefully, blowing the dirt off of it, and finding it to be a thousand years old and worth thousands of dollars.
You’re lifting it up to the light, and you’re tilting it back and forth. You’re saying, “Wow, amazing, beautiful, glorious, awesome.” And your heart is feeling zeal and joy and contentment and eagerness over the beauty of this gold you just found.
That meditative, affectionate, tender moment is just as important as all the backyard digging. Both of these are utterly important. And Mark, I will pray with you (and all of us) that God will show you and show me the kind of combined tough study and tender cherishing that we’re going to need to be the kind of Christians that this world so badly needs.