The alarm goes off, and I slam the snooze button. After I roll over and make some grouchy morning noises, I slide my Bible off the nightstand, feel for the bookmark, and flop the heavy pages open onto the bed. My eyes stubbornly refuse to believe I’m awake, so I rub them open again. It’s another day.
I started this journey nineteen days ago. The pages of my Bible hold a freshly printed, crisply folded reading plan, and a pencil rests on my nightstand, a reminder of my eagerness to check each day’s box as I read. Was it really less than three weeks ago that I was so confident in the power of this morning routine? That I opened this book and breathlessly waited to hear from the word of God? How naïve. I haven’t felt the brush of any Holy Spirit since day four. What is wrong with me? Or – dare I ask it – with God?
At the end of 2016, most Americans (61%) admitted they don’t read the Bible as much as they would like. At the same time, however, Bible use has remained the same – not increasing at all – among the majority of Americans (66%). Why, if Bible reading is a goal for many of us, does it never seem to actually happen? Busyness and the weight of life’s responsibilities are the most frequently cited reasons, but even when someone has accomplished the impressive feat of scaling back distractions to clear fifteen or twenty minutes of the morning’s schedule for Bible time, the return on investment doesn’t always seem worth it. We are regularly confronted with experiences like my own, asking, “Where is God?” We make the appointment and he always seems to flake.
The Secret to Success
Every Christian experiences spiritual dry spells, periods when they don’t feel God’s presence, but what we do during that time determines whether we will succeed or fail. Many people, when they see no immediate results, get discouraged and drift away from God. The seed of faith that was in their hearts shrivels up and dies. The truth is, like any seed, God’s word in us takes some time to germinate under the surface. We can stop watering it and it will certainly die, or we can continue to tend it in the hope that one day it will sprout above the ground.
As a child, I read a story about a young girl who wanted to grow peanut plants. She planted the seeds and watered them every day. She watched the plants grow and eagerly waited for the day when she would see peanuts among the beautiful green leaves. Weeks passed and the branches never produced peanuts. Finally, she angrily grabbed handfuls of the healthy leaves and yanked the plants from the ground to destroy them. There, to her amazement, were clusters of ripe peanuts among the roots – they had been growing all along, but she never knew where to look for them! Jesus said something similar: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how” (Mark 4:26-27). We don’t know how God is working deep within our hearts, but we should keep giving our souls the good food of God’s word.
This is the secret that makes me reach for my Bible on day nineteen when I was bored with it all on day four: Dry spells are inevitable in the Christian life, and they are as much a part of the growth process as the mountaintop experiences. In fact, I think they are better.
The most important thing for our time with God is not gaining some valuable insight, noticing a new intertextual reference, or even feeling energized for the day. It’s opening the Bible and reading it even when it feels like a total waste of time. If we do that repeatedly, day after day, we will begin to feel the nearness of God we hoped for at the beginning. My childhood guitar teacher used to tell me, “Practice makes permanent.” Repetition is powerful, and even when we don’t feel its effects, we can be certain they are there. The truth is, God always shows up.
How to Read the Bible
Even after years of this practice, I sometimes find myself obediently opening the Bible and then wondering, “What should I do now?” while I awkwardly flip through its pages. I’ve found reading the Bible is both easier and harder than I think; easier because it doesn’t require any special knowledge or training, but harder because I rarely want to sit down and simply read. That is what is required, though, and it’s not as bad as it sounds.
The Bible confused and fascinated me when I began reading it in my early teens. It was like entering another culture – and in fact the Bible is set in a specific, Eastern cultural context that is very different from what we experience in the modern West. At first I was lost among the strange words and place names, but as I kept reading I noticed patterns in language and ideas. With some help from the notes of a study Bible I had bought, I eventually felt comfortable in this different culture and I have come to love it. It takes time to become familiar with any new culture, so we shouldn’t be discouraged if we don’t immediately understand everything we read. It’s a journey all Christians make, and the Bible often has something new to say even to those who have read it for a lifetime.
Aside from the cultural barrier, there is another notion that prevents many people from successfully maintaining a daily Bible reading habit: We think Bible reading is Bible study. I have often tried to wrench meaning from a Bible passage by mercilessly underlining and cross-referencing until I’ve unraveled the secret significance hidden beneath the words. This method helped me quickly become acquainted with the Bible’s contents and I highly recommend making time to seriously study portions of the Bible. However, daily Bible reading time is typically not the time for intensive Bible study.
Recognizing the distinction between “Bible study” and what some people call “meditation” on the Bible was a breakthrough for me. This recognition freed me to read the Bible as the word of a wise loved one as well as a textbook to be analyzed in the classroom, highlighters in hand. During my Bible reading, or meditation time, the goal is to reflect on what the Bible is saying to me and to improve my friendship with God. While there is a lot to gain from Bible study, we should understand that before (and while) we study the Bible, we should learn to love it and love its author. Only then will God’s word begin to change our lives. That is what we’re striving for when we come to the Bible every day.
It Takes Longer than 21 Days
According to conventional wisdom, it takes 21 days to form a habit, but frankly it’s as difficult for me to open the Bible on January 21 as it is on January 19. Like all habits, reading the Bible comes with many, many repetitions and much discipline – two qualities that are difficult to muster up some days. Opening the Bible can feel like wasted time, but it’s more rewarding to push through in the long run. Often, I’ve found myself exploding out of a dry spell with some exciting new understanding of God or of what he asks of me, and I can attribute this growth to the daily discipline of reading a chapter or two of the Bible through bleary morning eyes. A bit of the Bible followed by a few minutes of prayer – it’s likely the least glamorous thing you will do all day, but also the best spent time. This isn’t a 21-day challenge – it’s the beginning of a relationship rich enough to last a lifetime.