Why you should read the Bible over and over
As we return to Scripture year after year, we are better prepared to see what has been there all along.
I did not grow up going to church every week. My parents did not have family worship every evening, or ever that I recall. No adult that I was around on a regular basis read their Bible conspicuously, but even as a kid I knew that my grandmother (“Mamaw” to us) did.
One of my early memories is riding with my mother to pick up Mamaw’s Bible from a bindery where it had gotten a new cover. I didn’t know what bindery was, but I figured out that its cover had gotten worn out because of lots of use, and that knowledge must’ve settled down deep inside me, for it imparted a respect for reading the Bible that I couldn’t explain at the time.
When I was 16, I started going to church and, at a Centrifuge camp in Tennessee, responded to an invitation and shortly thereafter began a humble and halting habit of reading the Bible. That was 1993. I could try and pretend I read every day without failure, but that would only be pretending. Yet after a quarter-century of semi-disciplined reading, I’ve come to value the benefit of long-term Bible reading and want to meditate on it here to encourage other start-stop readers.
Why re-read it over and over?
What’s the point of reading and re-reading the Bible over the span of one’s lifetime? Why is there particular value in investing so much time, which really is the most precious thing we have, on reading and not on some more outward-focused activity?
For one thing, the daily experience of merely living as a sojourner in this world has a calcifying effect on our minds. “Calcification” may not be a word we use often, but vascular surgeons and plumbers use it regularly. Calcification refers to constriction that occurs over time. After 30-40 years, a quarter-inch pipe or your arteries are likely to have a reduced capacity due to the accumulation of “stuff” on the inside.
It’s the same with our minds and hearts.
Simply by living in our world, we accumulate a lot of stuff. Consider your average week: how many disparaging conversations do you overhear? How many sarcastic remarks? How many tempting scenes do you encounter on television, movies, web searches, etc.? How many self-focused thoughts do you fight, some that you win and some you lose? Arguments, frustration, hurt feelings, kids that won’t stay in bed, road rage, arguments with your spouse, arguments with your customers, not to mention the banal things that snatch at our attention.
What effect do these situations have on you? How do they cause you to struggle with gratitude? How do they affect your contentment? How do they shape your devotion? What do they do to your worship? Your heart? Here’s where developing a long-term habit of Bible reading is so vital. Being regularly exposed to the word of God reminds us of what God declares to be true and interprets our experience in the world.
What surrounds us subtly shapes us in ways we may not always appreciate or detect. Slowly, we drift. Regular Bible reading serves as an anchor to ultimate reality. It also serves as a purgative to a world-saturated mind. Regular Bible readers have continual reminders of God’s meticulous works of providence, Jesus’ present lordship, and the Spirit’s real leadership.
Read it all
Spend time in the Old Testament historical narratives and you realize the long-term and extensive consequences of flirting with worldly power structures. Return often to the wisdom literature for regular reminders that this world and all of its beautiful things are really temporary. Develop a habit of reading the Psalms to enrich and expand your vision and vocabulary of prayer. Go to the prophets often to see the consequences of ignoring, or oppressing, the widow, the stranger, or the poor.
Come often to the Gospels to behold Jesus clearly and be transformed into his image. Visit the epistles to remember how to live well in our homes, in our churches, in our conversations, to stir our faith, to direct our hope. Read the Apocalypse to anticipate the marriage supper of the Lamb.
What might happen if we regularly allowed the pure water of the Word to saturate and purge our minds?
We are always changing, but the Word does not
What are the reasons many Christians develop a life-long pattern of Bible reading? One reason is so obvious that we may look right past it — we are not the same people we were last time we read the Bible and thus our encounter with the never-changing Word is vital. At minimum, you have simply gained more “mileage” in your walk. Things you were unprepared to catch or know at an earlier point in life will now stand out.
Teenagers may not appreciate the celebration of the blessings of old age that seems so very distant, but when you encounter such passages in your 40s, they command more attention. If you are reading the Bible as a single 20-something, passages celebrating marriage will be no less true but perhaps more opaque than reading them after your first year of marriage or your 21st year of marriage. As you grow in experience in your job, and receive promotions and more responsibility, you must continually be reminded that your fundamental call is to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus. You must be reminded that the path of servanthood really is the true path for leaders.
These examples are merely representative. I don’t want to suggest that the Bible is shaped by our own reading, but only that as we return to Scripture after years and decades, we are probably better prepared to see what has been there all along.
Our knowledge of Scripture is ever-changing as well. Let me speak candidly as one entrusted with the instruction of the word of God to others similarly entrusted — to Bible college and seminary students, teachers, professors, and pastors of all kinds. Because our calling puts us in regular proximity to the Bible, we must be especially cautious not to rest on our training and past experiences and avoid fresh encounters with the word itself. These past readings have formed us to be who we are today, but we “press on toward the upward goal” (Phil. 3:14).
We must practice the habit of reading the Bible long-term to ensure that we are always submitting ourselves to the searching and penetrating Word of God. He desires to use our disciplined, long-term reading for the beauty of his bride and the good of our neighbor. Prayerfully, our theology still being deepened and our hearts molded after God’s glory with each successive pass.
Read, don’t skim, and write notes
Of course one of the main hurdles to long-term Bible reading is actually reading and not merely using a few keywords to jog our memories and skimming the text. One strategy that has helped me in this regard is to read aloud, often sub-vocally, with a pencil or an extra-fine point pen in hand. I don’t follow a set form of marking my Bible, although inductive Bible study teachers have developed helpful approaches. Rather, I make marginal notes, identify key ideas, or select passages for memorization that stand out today.
By preserving these notes now, I begin to read at a deeper level of attention, moving between reading and meditation, and this approach helps me listen to what the Spirit is saying through this passage to my circumstances today. Invariably, however, I’ll forget today’s insight. But the next time I peruse my marked Bible, reading this text again, I have a way to trigger my recollections.
I remember a particularly diligent student asking how he could come to know the main point of every chapter in the Bible. I remember answering him something like this, “well, you could memorize all 1,189 chapters in the Bible or you could read it for the next 20 years and that would work well too.” Five years after giving that answer, I haven’t changed my mind. The student’s question was genuine. I am sure he wanted to foster a deepening knowledge of the Bible. What I wanted him to see, what I want you to see, and what I need to remember is that God has chosen to sanctify us over time. Long-term Bible reading is part of that sanctification.
My Mamaw’s rebound Bible now belongs to me. It sits unread in a China cabinet in my basement. This thick black Scofield King James Reference Bible shows all the marks of a lifetime of Bible reading. Words are underlined, paragraphs marked, undoubtedly reminders that she wanted to impress upon her GAs.
I don’t know what these notes and underlinings mean, but she did, and a lifetime of Bible reading shaped her deeply. Although rebound, its aging pages testify to the memory of a life spent reading the word of God.
Occasionally, when I am reading one of my older Bibles, I wonder if one day my own grandchildren will flip through its pages, amused at my notes and scribbles. If they do, I hope they will be able to think back on a granddad that modeled the faith, hope, and love these pages bear witness. I hope the same for you.