The following is an excerpt from Julia Roller’s Mom Seeks God. We encourage you to share it with women, small groups, and anyone who could use some encouragement regarding their personal Bible study.
With the possible exception of prayer, Bible study (or the lack thereof) is the discipline Christians feel most guilty about. And despite the time I spent in my Bible for work, I was no exception. Not surprisingly, the Bible tells us that we should spend a lot of time reading and thinking about the Bible. The kings of Israel were explicitly directed to always have a copy of the law nearby and to read it daily. The Psalms get a lot more inspirational about it: “Great are the works of the Lord, / studied by all who delight in them,” wrote the psalmist (111:2, NRSV).
That focus on study, and also the delight, used to come more effortlessly to me. One of the reasons I chose the life path I did was that I wanted to fit Bible study somehow into my career. When I was studying the Bible for my undergrad and graduate classes, I felt that every detail and discovery was interesting not only from a tetchy little academic point of view but also in terms of a life application point of view. Even when I studied or learned things that challenged my faith as I had previously understood it (and this happens to every student of theology), I was still engaged and fascinated by the process. Most of all, I was convinced of the essentialness of the endeavor.
I wanted to get back to that place. Trouble was, it was harder when I wasn’t outwardly motivated by school or work or even a church-led Bible study. Oh, it wasn’t that I didn’t read. One of the most dire warnings I’d ever received about life after baby was that I’d never be able to read again. That hit me harder than all the stuff about lack of sleep and permanent baby weight. I could not imagine my life without reading. And it turned out that I was able to work it in just fine.
And yet it wasn’t my Bible I was carting around the kitchen. It was usually a novel or a magazine. Why didn’t I gravitate more to the Bible? For one thing, novels offered a bit of escapism. I liked reading novels that were similar to my experience—mommy-lit-type stuff where I could relate to the characters but at the same time enjoy their extreme high jinks without having to suffer the consequences, and novels about lives that couldn’t be further from my own—thrillers, police procedurals, mysteries. Both offered a bit of enjoyment and relief. Magazines I read for parenting and home advice and news. The Bible didn’t feel so escapist or, despite my faith, so directly helpful.
Theologian Daniel Hames lists three reasons why Christians don’t read their Bibles. First, we say we don’t have enough time. Second, we expect the Bible to give us tips for life, like a parenting magazine, and fail to appreciate that it is really not about us but about our life with God. Hames’s third reason why we don’t read our Bibles is that we mistakenly believe that Bible reading is for God’s sake, not our own—that God wants us to do it, and so we should. For God.
Hames suggests we should instead think of not reading the Bible as simply missing an opportunity to take advantage of God’s good gift, rather than feeling guilty about displeasing God. That rang true. I realized that I often spent a lot of time thinking about whether I was disappointing God by not practicing more disciplines, especially Bible reading.
So I decided to embark on celebrating more of God’s good gift of the Bible by reading through all four of the gospels and Romans.
How exactly are we meant to make Scripture part of our lives? We place such a heavy emphasis today on individual time alone with the Bible, which is a relatively recent idea in church history. Yet, in Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell points out that nobody ever read the Bible alone in Jesus’ time. They had no printing presses—copies of Scripture were few and far between, so Scripture reading and study were done only as a community. Group study was not only practical, but it was also helpful as a corrective. The combination of everyone’s experiences and perspectives and knowledge helped keep any one person from going too far off the rails in their interpretation. Reading in community helped to keep everyone in balance.
I had never before considered that individual Bible study might not be adequate, but when I reflected on it, I wondered if that was one reason I have always enjoyed Bible study groups, and why group study seems to come more easily and often be more fulfilling than reading it on my own, even for someone as introverted as me.
I continued through the words of the Sermon on the Mount, pausing to reflect briefly on favorite verses about praying for those who persecute you and not worrying about our lives because of the way God cares for the birds and the lilies. One verse in particular had recently become even more meaningful: if we, evil as we are, give our children what they ask for, then what more does God do for us? But this question about individual study became a constant hum in the back of my head. As much as I was a loner who hated working in teams (sad but true), I still didn’t do all that well at Bible study by myself. I truly enjoyed the Bible in all its diversity, trying to put pieces together, see links, and reach new understanding, but I really did those things well only when I was doing them in community with others. That was why I liked taking religion classes in the first place.
Along with concluding that I needed to add some sort of group component to my study practice in the future, I was also realizing just how far I was from my study goal. At this late date, I realized I should have made a study plan instead of just leaving my Bible open on my desk and reading when I took a work break here and there. I’d never been much of an advance planner. Instead, I was a lifelong procrastinator and crammer, and so normally I would have responded to the approaching deadline by speed-reading or pulling a late night.
But that wasn’t the point here, was it? So instead I stopped trying to push myself to go faster and just let myself read what I read.
I moved through the stories of his ministry and that of the disciples, still finding many new things to ponder. Why do I never remember that girl he raised from the dead, but instead remember only the woman who touched his cloak in the same chapter? And I noticed so much foreshadowing of trouble, for example, Jesus’ ominous words to the disciples as he sends them out on their own (how can they possibly be ready? will they ever be? will I ever be?). The people will turn against them, Jesus warns. They will be persecuted, he tells them. And of course, they are. The story was coming alive for me now, the reading coming more quickly. Yet as the month came to a close, I had barely reached the middle of Matthew, far short of my goal of finishing all four Gospels and Romans.
I was not as disappointed about this as I might have thought. What stood out about my month of studying Matthew was how many surprises there were in a story I thought was entirely familiar. I could no longer excuse myself from Bible reading on the grounds that I already knew a lot of it because, obviously, even a book I thought I knew well still held much to ponder and learn. If I’d speed-read through all the gospels as I’d planned, surely I would have missed a lotof those little things. I couldn’t approach the Bible as I did a lot of my reading—speeding through like the book could self-combust at any moment. And rushing through in order to conquer, get through, get done was my MO in more things than just reading. You don’t get to conquer parenting. And no matter how many books you read, there was no guarantee of success. What exactly was success when it came to parenting, anyway?
Maybe I had been right with my initial instinct at the beginning of the month—that what I needed was a more meditative look at brief Scripture passages. But then I wouldn’t have experienced the larger story, the all-important context.
It seemed to me at least a possibility that this month I had studied exactly the quantity God wanted me to.
Julia Roller is an author and editor. Her books include Mom Seeks God: Practicing Grace in the Chaos (Abingdon Press), A Year with God (with Richard J. Foster), A Year with Aslan, and 25 Books Every Christian Should Read. Working with Renovaré, she has also co-authored four spiritual formation guides, including Connecting with God, Learning from Jesus, Living the Mission, and Prayer and Worship. She has written study guides for authors such as Desmond Tutu, Richard J. Foster, Henri Nouwen, Jenna Bush, and Rob Bell. Her articles have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Street Spirit, Group, Rev.!, and Children’s Ministry. She and her family live in San Diego, California. Find her online at JuliaRoller.com.