The Bible is our primary tool for spiritual formation. Yet for many of us, the Bible is not a source of comfort or encouragement. For some, the Bible is boring. Others will find the Bible confusing with little relevance for living today. Most of us, in one season of life or another, have found it difficult to read or learn from the Bible.
As followers of Christ, how can we engage what’s written in the Bible in ways that spark life and inspiration, spiritual growth and transformation? How can we relate to the Bible so that it is a source of our flourishing and not of our yawning? I suggest that what needs to change is not content or commentary, but our personal motivation behind reading the scriptures.
How do we usually approach what we read?
We are often taught to read the Bible as a source of information, as a component of our religious education. Not to tarnish information, education, or study-study of scripture is in fact an important part of growing in our faith-but reading for information is not the same thing as reading for formation.
Reading scripture for the sake of formation means that we start to relate to the Bible differently. No longer just words, ink and pages, or facts of historical or religious importance, scripture can be a window or mouthpiece opening up into our everyday lives. We put ourselves in a receptive, listening posture, a readiness to encounter the living God who reaches through that window and speaks through that mouthpiece right to where we live. This characterizes what we may call a contemplative approach to scripture-where we use scripture-reading to turn our awareness to the One who can turn lifeless words into a life-giving Word for our souls.
Whether we refer to it as contemplative reading, devotional reading, or formational reading, these terms point to the same attitude about the text. We read not as experts, academics, or theologians, but as people hungry and thirsty, as devout listeners, and as lovers; we read anticipating an encounter with the voice of God and our own spiritual transformation. Although we are often taught to engage a text as an object to figure out, in formational reading we let go of our control over the text and our own agendas for reading it, allowing ourselves instead to be the object that is worked on, sifted, and weighed. We surrender ourselves to whatever God might want to do or say.
When we read the Bible with formation in mind, we desire both to understand, say, at an intellectual or cognitive level, but also to experience personally, intimately, and affectively the reality of the text for ourselves. Likewise, reading formationally carries with it the expectation that transformation does and will happen, not because we learn new facts or make God do something for us, but because God is already present and proactive in using scripture as a doorway to him.
Across two thousand years of Christianity, a number of approaches have engaged believers with Scripture contemplatively or formationally. Through such practices we learn to surrender ourselves to God through what we read and then let God do the rest. I include three practices here: Lectio Divina, imaginative prayer, and praying the Psalms.
“Instruction from your lips is better for me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.” Psalm 119:72
Different Approaches to Formational Reading
A. “Lectio Divina” - This approach, which means “divine reading,” is about slowly reading a short Bible passage four times, each time reflecting differently on what has been read. Before you begin, choose a passage from one to four verses in length. Portions from the Psalms work well for this, as do Jesus’ statements about himself. The selected verses in Calvary’s prayer handbook, Praying the Day, work well too.
i. Listen. To begin, read the chosen passage aloud and slowly. Listen to it. Give it time to sink in. Sit with it in silence for a few moments.
ii. Ponder. Read aloud the passage again. Engage the passage with your mind. Ponder. What in the text is standing out to you or being highlighted in your thoughts, like a specific word or phrase in the passage itself, or what might be arising in you in response to the text? Sift and weigh that word, phrase, or image as you return to silence for a few moments.
iii. Respond. Read aloud the passage yet again. With whatever has been surfacing in you from reading, respond to God in personal prayer. Open to God in faith that whatever has stood out to you or has risen in you is meant as a gift for you: a message, a comfort, an encouragement, a direction. Present this back to God. Then take a few more moments to be silent.
iv. Enjoy. Read aloud the passage a fourth time. Sit in silence, and simply bask in God’s gift to you, whatever his specific word, challenge, or inspiration might have been. You don’t have to figure anything out. Perhaps nothing “happened,” yet for these final moments of silence, this is time simply to savor the Giver.
B. Imaginative Prayer - This approach relies on our imagination to sink into the text.
Read a passage about Jesus’ life [reading about a miracle or a specific event works better than a monologue or a parable.] After you read it the first time, read it again and at the same time go there in your imagination. Be there in the story. Observe, hear, experience, interact and take part. Feel free to change the perspective or change your role-are you an onlooker, a disciple, or the one Jesus is talking with? When you are finished, think about how you feel, what were your observations, and what surfaced in you as you were contemplating Jesus in Scripture?
C. Praying the Psalms - In this approach, we use the Psalms as our personal prayerbook.
While we can approach scripture as a mouthpiece by which God speaks to us, we may also use it as a mouthpiece that we use to help us speak to God. The Psalms have been a platform for prayer well before Jesus’ lifetime. As a devout Jew, Jesus would have used the Psalms for daily prayer, and we read of Jesus referring to the Psalms several times in the Gospel accounts. Following Jesus’ example, his followers for two thousand years have not just read the Psalms, they have prayed them.
Just like when we sing hymns and songs in church services, and singing the songs helps us voice our own personal prayers to God, when we pray the Psalms, we recite them aloud to find our own voices within those ancient words. The Psalms did not begin with us nor will they end with us, but we are apprenticed by them as we pray them as our own.
Give it a try by praying one psalm each day. Or pray a psalm around each meal time (i.e. three times a day). Stretch yourself by praying all 150 psalms in a month. See what happens!