(Note: The following is adapted from a Sunday School Course I am currently teaching on “Reading the Word.”)
It should go without saying that every Christian who is able should make an effort to read through the entire Bible at least once. With sustained and planned reading, each Christian in fact should be able to read through the Bible several times throughout his or her life. Let’s take a few moments, then, to talk about three different kinds of reading you might do as a reader who intends to make Bible reading a regular part of your spiritual diet. The three types of reading that I perceive are reading for conquest, reading for devotion, and reading for study. Please note that there is going to be a natural overlap between each of these kinds.
To read for conquest is to read intentionally in order to complete your reading of the whole Bible. Most of the Bible reading plans available favor this kind of reading approach. They organize the Bible into sections of text for daily reading which you follow. The reading might be arranged into one-year or two-year plans. Some Bibles even physically rearrange the text within so that the reader can work from page one to the end, reading different sections each day, but reading them page by page.
Reading for conquest has the advantage of exposing a reader to large sections of text at a time. It forces us to read passages and books we might otherwise skip, and prevents us from hovering in our reading on our favorite passages. It means that some reading will be difficult (like the lists of names in 1 Chronicles), but some will be surprising (I’m always finding new things in the Prophets). The danger of this kind of reading is that sometimes in our desire to accomplish our daily goal, we don’t take the time to read deeply enough. The spiritual benefit of conquest reading can be scattershot—a piece here, a piece there. And while by covering a lot of ground we can be exposed to the big picture of the Scriptures, we can also lose some of its devotional sting in the process.
This leads to the second kind of reading, reading for devotion. In this kind of reading we read with a special eye to the spiritual benefit of the passage in question. We are not reading “just to get it done,” but because we are convinced that there is some spiritual benefit in all the words of this book. When we read devotionally, we are more likely to read with an ear attentive to “God’s word for me today.”
Devotional reading like this requires a certain kind of listening. In the tradition of Spiritual reading, there is a more formal name for this: lectio divina (Divine reading). With this kind of reading we read slowly, taking in the words as they come to us. We reject haste, or the spirit of conquest, and patiently attempt to hear what God is saying to us in a given passage. Another term used for this process is the Latin word ruminatio. Ruminatio is the word which describes the way a cow chews grass—slowly, meditatively. When we read with a spirit of ruminatio we read slowly until a certain word or phrase strikes us. Then we pause at that place and consider what struck us, praying through it. When we have prayed and thought for a bit, we can continue reading until we are struck once again. (Note that Lectio Divina and Ruminatio both find their roots in Benedictine spirituality.)
Of course, while we are reading for “God’s word for me today,” we must keep in mind that God’s word for me today may or may not be an encouragement—it might very well be a challenge! Reading devotionally means having the ears of our hearts open to whatever God’s voice has for us in the text. In this way, it also means reading with an attention to special obedience.
A third kind of reading is to read for study. This kind of reading might be motivated by personal study or by the need to prepare a lesson for a group. Either way, here you would want to read the Bible in more than one translation, side-by-side. What are the different nuances brought out by these different translations? A quality study Bible can also provide excellent study notes which offer information about the culture and history of books and individuals within the Bible. Additionally there are a host of commentaries and guide books for each of the books of the Bible, ranging in level from beginner to advanced. Keep in mind, of course, that the Bible has the final word on the Bible, and that all study notes, commentaries, and guide books are subject to the errors and biases of the authors.
When you read for study in order to lead a Bible study, you are faced with a series of choices. Undoubtedly, if you begin to research the culture, history, and context of the Scriptures, you will discover and enormous wealth of information—far too much to unload on your fellow students! This means that good Bible teaching is a matter of faithful study married to faithful editing. It is not that you share everything you have learned, it is that you share what you think will help your fellow readers to read the Bible best. In fact, that is an important point to make—we study outside the Bible in order to make the Bible more readable and more accessible. If our study begins to crowd out the Bible itself, then something is out of balance.
Please note the overlap between all three kinds of reading. There can be a study aspect to conquest, and a devotional aspect to study, and even a long-term conquest aspect to devotion (“I’m reading through the entire Bible slowly!”). None of the three kinds of reading is exclusive, and each Christian will dabble in each kind of reading at different times in the life of faith.
As a final word, you should know that the Bible takes approximately 80 hours to read out loud at a speaking pace. This means that reading the whole Bible in a year would take you less than 15 minutes a day. Chances are, you’ve got fifteen minutes a day, so what keeps you from reading the entire Bible is not time, but priorities. So make a plan to conquer the Bible. Download an audio copy and listen to it during your morning commute. Find a “daily-reading” Bible and start to work your way through. Pick up the Bible you already own and begin to work your way through that. Remember, you don’t have to read all the books in order—you’re free to jump around (although I would recommend reading only one book at a time). Make a plan, stick to it, and see what the Lord does in your life!