‘Reading the Scriptures is not an activity discrete from living the gospel but one integral to it. It means letting Another have a say in everything we are saying and doing. It is as easy as that. And as hard.’
(Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book, p. xii)
I was a nerd when I was a kid, well before nerds were geeky-cool. And I was nerdy in every sense of the word: bookish, indoorsy and excited by superheroes (what I wouldn’t give for an adult-size pair of the Batman gym boots I had when I was eight!). Shopping for school supplies at the start of each new year made me giddy and a library membership held as much promise for me as a limitless credit card. By the time I was fourteen, I had obtained the requisite large round glasses and shiny braces of the eternal dork. (Let’s pretend there aren’t any pictures of me from that era.)
I brought this bookish zeal with me to the quiet times I spent praying and soaking up Scripture. Because Bible study fit snugly with my personality, it wasn’t something I ever felt forced to do. It was easy for me to make it a priority, just as it was easy for me to create charts that I’d fill out when I finished reading a chapter or had memorised a set number of Scripture verses. I loved formulas and study plans, checklists with boxes to cross off each day, and helpful acronyms that broke down my prayer time into specific units allocated for praise, for intercessory prayer, for thanksgiving, for personal needs, and singing.
I was constantly trialing new methodologies. I dare say I read as many “how to study the Bible” guidebooks as I actually read of the Bible. If I fell behind in whatever Bible-reading plan I was using, I’d obsessively read extra chapters until I caught up, even if my brain started to get a little blurry on the details of what I was reading.
But somewhere between the ages of about 12 and 25, the nerdy joy in Project: Devotional Zeal was replaced by nerdy anxiety. I guess that’s the thing about continuously working a project: when you put that much energy into some illusory endgame or achievement chart, eventually you start looking for a report card. And I’m not sure just what straight A’s look like when it comes to Bible study. For me, success hovered indefinably in the feeling and the takeaway. If I felt close to God and I had a little tidbit of relevant knowledge or guidance to take with me into the day, wielded before me like a light saber, then I was happy. Mission accomplished.
What, then, of those days when I couldn’t feel close? Or when those long double-columns of words failed to offer up anything compactable into a cliché or a promise or a goal? On those days, I felt I had failed, that I wasn’t doing it right. Because of course devotion to God is quantifiable, and there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things – right? So I chased perfection, switching things up in the hope that somehow I’d get nearer to the ideal devotional time. What’s more, by doing things right, I was certain (even if subconsciously) that God was more likely to hear me, and that I’d have more magical breakthroughs in my faith life. It’s only logical, surely.
The thing about perfection, though, is that it is unattainable – perhaps even more so when you have created your own fantasy of what perfection looks like. And my imaginary perfect devotional time had a tendency to suck the joy out of spending time with God. Without realising it, I was once again making God’s grace something I had to earn for myself, in this case by working through my list of perfect methodologies. But when do we ever have to get it right before we approach God? When has His grace been contingent on our perfection?
One of the most wondrous aspects of the gospel is that it is God approaching us, perfection seeking out imperfection, the flawless seeking out the flawed. It’s precisely because I cannot get it right that God has made it right, through the imperfection-eradicating death and resurrection of Christ. I cannot study the gospel without bearing the gospel with me, the knowledge that without God working in me, I wouldn’t even want to know Him. It is all God.
This truth, the unforgettable truth that I’m actually quite good at forgetting, can change how I approach the study of the Scriptures. Once again I’m reminded that it’s not actually about me, and it’s certainly not about whether I get this right. This simple understanding, then, sets me free from unhelpful expectations or a sense of self-centred achievement. Yes, formulas can help me work through the Scriptures. Yes, reading the Word can make me feel closer to God. Yes, some days I will come across a text that is so right and so specific that I know the Holy Spirit has orchestrated that moment. But the Holy Spirit is at work in all of Scripture. It is the book, the book of God, the word of God to the humans buzzing about on this planet, and first and foremost I can read it simply because it is His.
In this way, reading the Bible becomes not a chore, an item on the to-do list, or a rung on the ladder that will eventually make me good enough to approach God. Rather, at its most basic, it is an act of worship. Psalm 103:13 reminds us that God is like the father of little children; He has compassion on we who fear Him, and He remembers our mere humanity.
This is a liberating truth. The Bible is God’s word to us. Let’s study it, yes. Let us use it as our guidebook for living. Let’s rely on it to draw us closer to Him. But first and foremost, let us worship Him by sitting at His feet and listening to His stories. We don’t have to be or achieve anything in order to do this. The duty is its own reward.