When the resurrected Lord rebuked the Ephesian church for leaving its first love, he was also serving notice to Christians of all times that they must labor to not lose the passionate commitment and joy that attended their conversion. This should remind us that the Christian life has many temptations, none of which is more insidious than leaving our “first love” (Rev. 2:4).
This temptation lurks around the corner for every Christian, but perhaps more so for “professional Christians” such as pastors, professors, and seminary students. It’s a unique temptation for us precisely because we study and teach the Bible for a living. Gradually, and without notice, we slip into the habit of viewing Scripture more as an object to be dissected than a living Word to be treasured.
As an antidote to this temptation, here is a fourfold pattern of Scripture intake to help us avoid treating Scripture as an object, so that we can receive it as the living Word of a living Lord. The pattern—read, reflect, pray, obey—adapts and modifies an early church practice.
1. Read the Scriptures
The first step is to read the Scriptures. Thank you, Captain Obvious, you may think. As an evangelical, if there’s anything I don’t need to be reminded about, it’s that I should read the Scriptures. But what we try to pass off as Scripture reading often isn’t worthy of the name.
We err when we read the Scriptures in a hurried or distracted manner.
In our age of Twitter and Facebook notifications, text messages, Instagram photos, phone calls, voicemails, blogs, and myriad other distractions, our Bible reading is often hurried. But if we wish to be attentive to the Word of the Lord, we must prepare to be unhurried and undistracted.
We err when we view the Bible as an object to be mastered.
Additionally, in our scholarly attempts to read Scripture with precision, we sometimes unconsciously view it as an object to be mastered. But the Bible isn’t an object to be mastered; it’s the living words of a Lord who wishes to master us.
We err when we fail to take countermeasures to hear from God.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize I succumb to both temptations—to read Scripture hurriedly and to treat it as an object. In fact, I’m so easily tempted I’ve determined to take some countermeasures.
The first is to turn off my computer and my phone, so the Lord doesn’t have to compete with emails or social media.
The second is to imagine the Lord Christ in the room with me, speaking the words of Scripture to me. Doing so helps me to realize that, in my reading, I should be attentively listening. Scripture is replete with imperatives to “hear the word of the Lord.” And that’s what we should do: Listen attentively to the words of our Lord.
2. Reflect on the Scriptures
After we have listened attentively to the Word of the Lord, we should reflect on it. We move from hearing his Word to entering into his Word. In this stage, we emplace ourselves in the context of the whole Bible.
Although the Bible is composed of 66 books written in a variety of genres by many authors, its books and genres come together to form one master narrative, the true story of the whole world. Although some evangelicals may be tempted to view the American founding narrative, or the Fox News narrative, or some other narrative as the world’s master narrative, those stories are just “bit players” within the true story of the world.
Although some evangelicals may be tempted to view the American founding narrative, or the Fox News narrative, or some other narrative as the world’s master narrative, those stories are just ‘bit players’ within the true story of the world.
For that reason, when we reflect on Scripture, we should allow ourselves to be absorbed into the biblical story. We should soak ourselves in Scripture, letting it feed us like water feeds the roots of a flourishing plant (Ps. 1). To switch the analogy, we should receive God’s Word so deeply in our hearts that it touches the inner strings and sets them vibrating (Ezek. 3:10–11).
3. Pray the Scriptures
Scripture and prayer go hand-in-hand. God intends for prayer to accompany our hearing of his Word. God teaches us, rebukes us, corrects us, and trains us in righteousness by his Word (2 Tim 3:18–17). Because the Lord works in and through Scripture in so many ways, our reading should be dialogical.
As the Lord teaches us to walk the straight path, we thank him for revealing this path to us. As he rebukes us, showing us how we’ve strayed from the path, we respond with repentance. As he corrects us, putting our feet back on the path, we ask him to continue to illumine it and to prod us if we start to stray again. As he trains us in righteousness, thoroughly equipping us to walk in the truth no matter the situation, we inquire further into his will and seek more insight for living in this world.
When we pray the words of Scripture back to God, “riffing” off of them as we do, we ensure the Lord’s Word is at the center of not only our listening but also our response. We allow him to decenter us so he can regain the center of our lives.
4. Obey the Scriptures
The final step is to allow the Bible to shape our words, actions, and attitudes. After reading, reflecting, and praying the Scriptures, we allow the Lord’s Word to remain present with us throughout the day. It should be present with us not only in our devotions, church attendance, and private morality, but also in our public lives.
I’ve found it helpful to consider the way Scripture should shape my callings. After reading, reflecting, and praying, I ask how the Word shapes my commitment to the redeemed community (church), to the people nearest to me (family), to the activity that takes up the majority of my waking hours (work), and to my place in the town, state, nation, and globe in which I live (community).
I ask how the Word shapes my commitment to the redeemed community (church), to the people nearest to me (family), to the activity that takes up the majority of my waking hours (work), and to my place in the town, state, nation, and globe in which I live (community).
The significance of this last step can hardly be overstated; it’s the finishing touch and coming together of God’s revelation and our response. If we don’t obey the Scriptures, then the first three steps are nearly useless.
Neither Novel Nor Magical
There’s nothing novel about this fourfold pattern; it’s adapted from reading habits cultivated by many Christians over centuries. It’s also not magical; it is not some sure-fire technique guaranteeing a close walk with the Lord.
Instead, it’s a pattern for listening attentively to the Lord’s voice so we can offer it back to him in the form of prayer and obedience. If reading Scripture puts the Lord’s Word into our mouths, reflection chews on it slowly, prayer discerns and gratefully acknowledges its flavors, and obedience digests it for nourishment.
Editors’ note: A version of this article appeared at Christianity for the Common Good.