Richard Foster argues in Celebration of Discipline that many believers do not experience transformation because they will not, don’t know how, or for whatever reason have not taken up the discipline of study. Even a person who honestly seeks to follow Christ may struggle with persistent areas of defeat because they will not take up this primary tool that God uses to transform our minds, which is another way of talking about whole life transformation.
As a young believer, I was often mystified by how I was to make spiritual progress. I attended worship, prayed, read Christian books, went to revival services, led worship, and even served on a church staff. However, I did not seem to make discernible progress toward growing in my love for God or my love for people, nor did I see much progress in the growth of the fruit of the Holy Spirit within my soul. Two primary spiritual disciplines made a substantial difference, both which I began to practice in my late twenties. One of these was the discipline of bible study.
I’m not talking about a small group bible study, or using a bible study guide as important as those things are. Rather, I am speaking of the systematic study, usually of a book of the bible over several weeks, primarily using just my bible and a notebook, or now my bible study software and a word document. I learned a simple verse by verse analysis method of study from a book written by Rick Warren in the mid 80’s.
The method has five steps:
It’s often said that the difference between bible study and bible reading is a pencil, in my case a computer. Writing down observations and thoughts possesses surprising power. So I actually write a brief summary, either a paraphrase or a simple sentence diagram. Then I write observations. At this stage, I am asking, “what does the text say?” It’s not safe to answer what it means until I’ve looked carefully at what it says. Once I’ve done that step, then I can begin to interpret, asking the question, “what does the text mean?” I do this by bombarding the text with questions, which I write down and seek to answer if I can. Even if I can’t answer them immediately, there is value in writing down the question. Then I look up some cross-references for the verse and paste them into my notes, to seek to allow scripture to interpret scripture. Finally, I ask, “how does this text apply to my situation?” Often when a person reads the bible, they are jumping straight to this step. I believe that God often blesses our bible reading with encouragement, challenge, or insight. However, if we never study at a more deliberate level, we are in danger of only engaging the text at a superficial level or worse, taking a text out of context and applying it to our lives in inaccurate ways.
This process seems to "make a movie of the text in my mind." I don't make the Bible come alive, it is alive, it makes me come alive. This process doesn't make the bible relevant for me now, it is relevant. This process of study more often not, makes the relevance evident to me in a way that transforms my life. For the past 20 plus years, the above steps have been my primary approach to studying a passage, whether for my own personal study or for preparing sermons. I hope to follow this post in two days with a recent example of a brief study I did and its results as I spoke with a group about the value of written bible study.