Our Bible Experience

Maybe your new year Bible resolutions have already started to fade?  What we really need this year is not a renewed habit.  What we really need is to unleash God’s Word into our lives and experience all that God wants to do in us.

If our experience of interacting with God in our Bible times is going to really count for anything, then it has to be in the context of real-life struggles that the Bible has something to offer us.

Psalm 143 is a great passage to ponder as we think about our Bible experience this year.  It starts where life is at its toughest, then goes on to describe David’s experience in such an illuminating way for us.  Actually, Psalm 143 is not one of those passages that speaks directly about the Scriptures.  What it does is speak of David’s experience, which can also be our experience as we engage with God through the Scriptures.

In the first four verses David is crying out for God to answer his prayer, but to do so in faithfulness and mercy.  He doesn’t want God to be acting as judge, otherwise he, like all of us, would be in real trouble.  David is troubled by his own sin, and also by opposition from the enemy (see v3).  Verse 4 describes a wiped out David – a man with nothing left to give.  Sometimes that is where we find ourselves: either through our own sin, or the opposition of the enemy, we feel like we have had the stuffing knocked out of us and our spirit faints within.  David writes that his heart is devastated, or laid bare.  He feels like he has nothing left to give.

And so what do we do when life hits us like that?  Where do we turn?  Do we look within, or turn to a philosophy, or throw ourselves into a career or hobby, or perhaps just numb the pain with a substance?  The world really has nothing to offer us.  Of course, as we all know, we should turn to God.  And so from verse 5 David’s experience is described in such a way that it can reflect what our experience could be as we engage with God through the Bible.

I want to share five things that unleashing God’s Word into our lives might bring this year.  Before I do, a comment about Bible character envy.  Perhaps you struggle with this envy at times.  It goes like this: if I had David’s experience of defeating Goliath, or heard God’s voice on the mountain as Moses did, or met with the LORD as Abram did, then I would not struggle in my spiritual life today.  Really?

Perhaps we could reverse the situation.  Imagine we could travel through time and organise a conference for all the Bible characters to attend.  Imagine we could tell them that after their time, in the future the Messiah would come, and then his followers would write more books, and then all the books from the Law, the Prophets, the Writings, and the apostles, would all be gathered together and freely available in many languages. I suspect that would be a room full of Patriarchs and Kings and Prophets who would be jealous of us!

So what does unleashing the Bible into our lives offer us?

1. We are rooted in the reality of God’s greater story. In verse 5, David speaks of memory, meditation and musing on God’s past activity.  He had his own story, and he had the stories passed down from his ancestors.  And as we read our Bibles we will be lifted out of the one square metre of our own experience and struggles.  We will be reminded that we are part of a much bigger story that stretches across all centuries and all continents, from eternity past to eternity future, a story that is being written by God himself.  We need that because life has a habit of sucking us into the vortex of our own struggles.

2. We are reminded that our greatest need is God. In verse 6, David describes his awareness of his own great need.  His soul was like a parched land desperately thirsty for God.  Even in our greatest struggles, we have an innate ability to assume we are just being unlucky.  If God would just give us that promotion, or a lucky lottery ticket, or a perfect spouse, or a new spouse, or a new job, or whatever … if we could just get a fair set of circumstances then we would be able to succeed in life.  Really?  When we spend time in God’s Word we are reminded that actually what we need is not financial or circumstantial, it is profoundly spiritual.  We need God.  Desperately.

3. Our responsiveness to God is stirred by His steadfast love. In the beginning of verse 8 David refers to God’s steadfast love – perhaps the key theme of the Old Testament.  You can find references to this proactive, selfless, loyal love on page after page of the Psalms.  And as we read the Bible we are stirred to respond to that love as we see God’s faithfulness to his people, God’s self-giving for those he loves.  We cannot work up faith within ourselves, but as we glimpse God’s steadfast love, then a response of trust is stirred within us.

4. We are redirected to live our lives by God’s good Spirit. The second half of verse 8 speaks of being shown the way to go. In verse 10 David asks for God to teach him to do God’s will, and for God’s good Spirit to lead him on level ground.  When we are convinced of God’s favour toward us then the next step is not only trust, but also obedience.  It may be that unleashing God’s Word in your life this year will mean God takes you to levels of obedience you never thought possible.  Maybe areas of your life that you have tried and failed to fix, and now are ingrained in your rhythms of life, and you feel defeated and resigned to living with the secret shame…maybe that is where the light of God’s Word might shine in the coming days!  Trust Him, and be willing to obey.

5. We are revived by our encounter with God. In the final two verses, David is clearly concerned about his life.  So the request is translated as “preserve my life” in verse 11.  Essentially the “preserve” is supplied by the context, but what he asks for is life.  Whether asking for preserved life or revived life, God is the right person to be asking.  As we engage with God in His Word, the deep cry of our parched souls for life can be answered because God is a God of steadfast love toward us.

Don’t make this another year of Bible reading as an attempted habit.  Make it a year in which you unleash God’s Word into your life and you encounter God in the Bible as never before!

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7 Ways Preachers Read the Bible

ReadingBook2Preachers tend to read the Bible like preachers.  We can’t help it.  But this is neither automatically good nor bad, it all depends what we mean.

Here are three wrong ways to read the Bible like a preacher:

1. Always look for a sermon when you read.  Some texts are easily preachable, others more challenging for sermon construction.  Don’t settle for an outline or struggle for an outline, read the text and look for what it is saying to you about God.

2. Always look for the sake of others, but not hearing the message for you first.  Your listeners need you to be hearing and responding to God in your life, not just hunting on their behalf.

3. Always force the text into some sort of sermonic shape – i.e. looking for the “third point” when the passage may not be structured that way.

And here are four right ways to read the Bible like a preacher:

4. Always expect the Bible to communicate because God is a great communicator.  Don’t quit trying to make sense of it just because it isn’t immediately obvious.  Trust that God knew what He was doing and that studying the text will be worth any effort involved.

5. Always anticipate inherent unity in a passage, rather than chasing down every tangent that the details might bring to light.

6. Always look for order and progression in the text to see how the author develops his thoughts.  Is he explaining, proving, applying, or moving onto a new, but connected thought?

7. Always be sensitive to the author’s intent and tone, as well as his content and structure.  He was writing for a particular audience and wrote in a loving way for their sake.  Don’t treat the Bible as mere data, but as heartfelt communication.

If you are a preacher, then hopefully you read your Bible.  When you do, you will read it like a preacher, but be sure to make that a positive thing!

 

Resolved: Read God’s Heart

resolved2Three years ago I wrote a post that really polarized readers.  I wrote a critique of a famous Bible reading plan.  If you want to see that post, click here.  As we start a new year, many of us, and many in our churches, will be making the determination to read through the Bible.  For some it will be the first time.  For many it will be a repeat attempt.  Sadly, for many, they will have failed more than they succeeded.

Here’s the bottom line for me – I want people to be reading their Bibles.  Whatever else goes into the mix of a personal devotional life, being exposed to the Scriptures is a critical ingredient (really it is the “without this, nothing” ingredient in the recipe for relationship with God).  Now it may be that someone you know is not a confident reader for whatever reason . . . know the audio options and be ready to promote them (even good readers would benefit from listening to the Bible too!)

Motivation Issues – I know the motivation of reading plans is to help give some structure and sense of progress to readers.  That is great.  My concern is that the plan can easily become both the focus and a taskmaster.  We should be concerned when there is a lack of motivation for God’s Word – both in our own lives, and those we care about.  A lack of motivation is not an irrelevant emotional blip that can be overcome by our great diligence, determination and accountability.

Motivation Matters – Let’s treat a lack of motivation as a flashing light on the dashboard of our lives.  When the oil light flashes I don’t “obey” it and choose not to drive the car.  Equally I don’t disregard it and press on.  I address the issue.  It is the same with a lack of motivation for Bible time . . . don’t simply obey it, nor ignore it, but address it.

Addressing Motivation – The best way I have found to address this motivation issue is to talk to God about it.  Be honest.  Out loud.  Tell him what is more attractive to you than His self-revelation.  That will typically be convicting and bring us back in humility with brokenness and renewed, albeit weak, hunger to hear from Him.

Best Motivation – The best motivation for Bible reading is a hunger to know God more.  Therefore the best motivator for stirring others to read their Bibles is to know God more and be infectious with it.  When you are captured by a person, others will want to know Him too.  This is a far cry from language of diligence, duty, discipline and so on.

Marital Accountability? – I don’t ask my friends to hold me accountable to pretend to love my wife and listen to her.  I may ask them to point out if they see me rationalizing a drift from healthy relationships though.  It is the same with the Bible reading.  I don’t need someone to crack the whip to make me do it, but I am wide open to hearing from a friend that I seem touchy or less excited about God than is normal.

I would love our churches to be filled with people eager to hear God’s heart as they chase Him in His Word.  I know that for our churches to be filled with this kind of people we will need our pulpits filled with this kind of preacher.

 

Read Your Bible in 2014?

BookTwo years ago I wrote a post that seemed to polarize readers.  I suggested that the famous reading plan of a certain famous Christian was not a good idea.  If you want to see that post, click here.  Let me offer some thoughts on this as we head toward a new year and probably a fair few resolutions for preachers and non-preachers alike.

I am a huge fan of getting people to read the Bible.  While there are numerous ways to walk devotionally with our God, every other option surely must be undergirded and shot through with exposure to the Bible – God’s primary means of self-revelation and input into our lives.

If a reading plan is the only way to motivate someone, fine, so be it.  But I am concerned whenever I sense a lack of motivation in myself or in others.  I think that too often we treat a lack of motivation as a normal emotional problem to be overcome by diligence, accountability and determination.

I would suggest that we treat a lack of motivation as a flashing light on the dashboard of our lives.  When the oil light flashes I don’t obey it and choose not to drive the car.  Equally I don’t disregard it and press on.  I address the issue.  Same with a lack of motivation for Bible reading . . . don’t simply obey it, nor ignore it, but address it.  The best way I have found is to talk to God about that lack of motivation.  Be honest.  Out loud.  Tell him what is more attractive to you than His self-revelation.  That should prove to be convicting and bring us back in humility with a brokenness and renewed, albeit weak, hunger to hear from Him that we might respond as we should.

The best motivation for Bible reading is a hunger to know God more.  Therefore the best motivator for stirring others to read their Bibles is to know God more and be infectious with it.  When you are captured by a person, others will want to know Him too.  This is a far cry from language of diligence and discipline and so on.

I don’t ask my friends to hold me accountable to pretend to love my wife and listen to her.  I may ask them to point out if they see me rationalizing a drift from healthy relationships though.  Same with the Bible reading.  I don’t need someone to crack the whip to make me do it, but I am wide open to hearing from a friend that I seem touchy or less excited about God than is normal.

So next time I will come back to the reading plan issue and share some thoughts.  None of this is intended to stir up the hornets nest again, just to stir our thinking as we head toward a New Year and probably a lot of renewed motivation to be consistent in Bible reading . . .

Can I Tread on Some Special Toes?

It is coming up to the time of year when people are making resolutions.  One of the big ones in churches is to read the Bible through in a year.  So perhaps you are thinking of encouraging people to do this by suggesting a reading plan.  Here’s where I am going to tread on some special toes.

 “I don’t think the Robert Murray M’Cheyne reading plan

is a good idea.”

There, I said it.

His plan, which is still widely promoted by various big names, essentially involves reading four chapters per day.  This takes people through the whole Bible plus a bit of repeating (NT & Psalms, I think) in a year.  I think it is great to help people get into the Bible, and I know many have been helped by it, but I don’t think this is the best way to go.

Essentially the problem with the plan, and others like it, is that the reading is segregated.  So readers start in Genesis, Ezra, Matthew and Acts all on day one.  I don’t want to stir up a sanctified riot, but I don’t think this is a good idea.  Why not?

1. It treats the Bible chapters as vitamin pills rather than the feast that they are.  That is, it creates a sense of “balance” without encouraging readers to really savour the taste of the text as it flows.

2. It hinders the reader from reading the text in context.  In a busy life it is hard enough to keep track of one flow of thought, let alone four.

3. It doesn’t encourage the reader to get “in the zone.”  I don’t know anyone that would advocate reading four novels at a time, a page from each, each day.  How much better to invite people beyond the first few minutes of distracted reading and into the zone where they get gripped by the narrative and don’t want to put it down?

4. It promotes a tick-box approach to Bible reading as a discipline, rather than an overt opportunity to engage with God’s heart as revealed in the epic revelation.  So many people view Bible reading as a laborious discipline that they must force themselves to do.  But the people I know who delight in the Bible tend to be people who devour it, rather than dipping into it.

Suggestion?  Why not encourage and invite people to read the Bible aggressively and relationally, as if God has a personality and is personal.  That is, by reading His Word with a passion to know Him, readers/listeners might get to know His personality and grow in their personal relationship with Him.

Perhaps it is worth pondering how to encourage people by enthusiastic invitation, rather than by affirming the “difficulty” and “trudgery” of “getting through the Bible” in a year or three.  Here is a link to my friend Ron’s article on Bible reading – as “Bible presenters” lets be sure to be genuine Bible enthusiasts that do more than try to fire up the so-called disciplined wills of our listeners!

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The Tension in Involving People

Some churches, especially larger ones, never allow anyone to participate from the front unless they are thoroughly vetted first.  At the other extreme there are churches that really have little choice who is up front – whoever is willing!  But for the rest, in between the extremes, there is a tension.

On the one hand, it is good to involve people and give them opportunity to grow, as well as giving the church opportunity to hear different voices.  On the other hand, it can be a challenge to maintain appropriate standards from the front.  Actually, perhaps the real challenge is to find the right balance.

Here are three ways people get “involved” and some comments on the tensions faced:

1. Bible Readings – Often this is seen as an ideal place for people to overcome “public speaking fear” because all they have to do is read the passage in front of them.

The balance needs to be found.  After all, the public reading of God’s Word is actually a critical event.  It is easy to read into a microphone . . . dispassionately, monotonously, haltingly, without clarity, etc  There are times when it might be worth hunting for the best public reader, rather than settling for participation alone.  On the other hand, listeners will sometimes concentrate more for someone obviously uncomfortable than they would for an overly polished “performer.”  The balance needs to be found.

2. Personal Testimony – Everybody expects the usual participants to have a certain testimony, but it can be very effective to hear from “normal” people during the service.  It can make a real impression to hear somebody’s personal experience of God’s grace in their lives.

The balance needs to be found.  Testimonies do make a real lasting impression, so it is worth trying to make sure that impression isn’t heretical or misleading.  How many times have well-meaning testimonies stated, “Of course I can’t prove any of this is true, but that’s what faith is, isn’t it, a leap in the dark!” Include testimony, but pre-screen or coach appropriately. The balance needs to be found.

3. Special Event Preaching – It seems the obvious place, as far as some churches are concerned.  For someone to “cut their teeth” as a preacher, it seems set up: a shorter message, freedom to choose the passage, longer time for preparation, no expectation of fitting in to a series running at that time.

The balance needs to be found.  All the positives are agreed, but what about the other side of the coin … it is hard to speak at Christmas since it feels like it’s all so familiar.  It is hard to speak on Mother’s Day, just because it is.  What’s more, special occasions are prime time for guests to visit … what experience do you want them to have of the preaching at your church?  The balance needs to be found.

Involving people is a great idea, but enter into it with eyes open and make sure it is the right occasion, the right role, the right timing.

Word Process the Reading

If you have a Bible reading that stands distinct, either within the sermon or before it, then consider using a word processor.  Why?  Because it is so hard to read well in public.  Simply pasting the text into a document and then breaking it into appropriate phrases can make a huge difference.  A few minutes of work, a little thought and some practice.  You can make sure there are no hanging prepositions, no unnatural intonation, no sentences that surprisingly demand an extra breath.

A reading well read can be powerful.  Poorly read and it is a liability.  (I know it is tempting to use the reading to give others “easy” opportunity to participate, but be careful, for their sake as well as the listeners!)

Don’t take the reading of a Bible text for granted.  Don’t let your Sunday service sound like a poor Christmas carol service, only with unfamiliar readings.  Give a few minutes of preparation so the text can be read well.  The text is powerful.  As Spurgeon once said in reference to defending the Bible, it’s like a lion, so just open the gate and let it out.  A good reading lets the text out, and it surely is a thing of power!