Many Bible scholars and pastors argue that in order to truly grasp the Bible, the reader must return to the original text, learn Hebrew or Greek, and probably know some ancient history. This is wise encouragement. But as a mom to two very young children, I’m daunted by the prospect of trying to do anything else. We (I am speaking for mothers) are happy when we get in any quiet time of study.
Though mothers of young children may not be able to spend hours studying each day, we can still grow in our understanding of the Word without attempting to take up Greek.
Kathleen Nielson—author, speaker, wife, mom, grandmother, and director of women’s initiatives for The Gospel Coalition—has been teaching women the Bible for 30 years and writes a series called “Living Word Bible Studies” (P&R). In this interview, Kathleen offers some advice to young moms on how to maximize our time in God’s Word.
What is your approach to reading the text and interpreting, or how would you encourage women who aren’t scholars to study the Bible?
This is such an important question, and one I get asked a lot. First, I usually give full disclosure that I’ve never been to seminary or formally studied Greek or Hebrew. Those activities are wonderful as God enables them, but God’s Word is not just for Greek scholars; it’s for everyone. It’s how God speaks to us, in living and active words. Scholars help us, yes, but God calls each one of us to listen and to “tremble at his Word.” We have so many longings and empty spots inside us—we forget somehow that we were made to commune with God, to hear and respond to his words to us. His Word fills us, by the Spirit. This is not a purely academic subject; it’s an intensely and infinitely personal one.
The “reading and interpreting” part of this question demands a longer answer—but the answer starts with taking time to read! We’re used to fast food and sometimes think we can “drive by” the Scriptures and pick up a few tasty truths wrapped up and ready to go. If I had to summarize the study process, I’d start with reading and re-reading, then asking questions of the text to find out what it’s saying, and then applying it. This is a great process to learn in a group or one-on-one.
One more piece we too often forget: prayer. It makes all the difference in the world to talk to God about what you’re taking in. With a steady prayer-soaked diet of the Word, year by year, you get a taste for it, a delight in it. You begin to share it. Before long you’re teaching others in one way or another.
How did you get study in as a young mom to young kids?
I joined a church Bible study group and made it a priority to participate—with the encouragement and support of my husband, Niel. We had lots of other jobs and pressures, but our commitments to Bible study in various contexts helped keep our souls alive and together in the midst of it all. Of course none of us does this perfectly; there will be hard days and weeks, and sometimes hard Bible studies. It’s so important to connect ourselves locally and concretely with the people of God, so that we can receive and give encouragement along the way.
We’re all incredibly busy, no matter what our roles in life. But it seems to me that the things we really really want to do, we do. We want to eat. Many of us want to exercise. We want to get our hair cut and our teeth cleaned. We want to spend time with friends. Or read blogs! And so we simply make time for these things. And we teach the next generation to do these things. Reading and studying the Bible? It’s really a question of importance and desire. It’s finally a question of how much we really believe God is real, God is there, and we’re headed right toward meeting up with him. Then we won’t want to miss his words any more than I would have missed reading the letters Niel sent to me the year we were engaged but lived in two different cities. No way.
Are there any tools you use to assist you in Bible study? Anything that would be accessible to the average mom?
Yes! Lots. First I’ll say that in studying a passage or a book I’ll always start with reading the English text several times carefully, marking it up, asking questions, making notes. But there is a place for good tools. A few examples: I often look up Greek and Hebrew interlinear translations on www.biblos.com. A website like that gives you all kinds of parallel translations, word study access, and cross references. I have developed favorite commentators through experience and the wise counsel of others: Alec Motyer on Isaiah, Dale Ralph Davis on Old Testament narrative, Derek Kidner on the wisdom and poetic literature, Don Carson on John, and so on. The “Resources” page of TGC’s website is full of great helps. There’s nothing like asking questions and discussing at home, if your situation allows that, and at church with godly teachers and pastors.
Would you take us through a verse and walk us through how you would read it?
Last week Niel and I came to Ezra 7 in “For the Love of God” (available through TGC). Here are some possible steps in reading and digesting one meaty verse that stood out to me: “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).
1. Take it apart. I like to outline thoughts. Here there’s a subject, one action, and then three aims.
- The subject is Ezra, so I have to be straight on who he is. In chapter 7 I’ve met Ezra as a Jewish “scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” (v. 6) serving under Persian King Artaxerxes in the period just after the exile has been declared over.
- The action is “had set his heart.” This is definitely good for some meditation. Ezra didn’t just happen to be this way. Interesting that it doesn’t just say he was good at these things. He desired and aimed for these things because of what was in his heart.
- The three aims are beautiful: to study, to do, and to teach the Word of God. I’ll do some thinking and praying here about how any one of these aims by itself doesn’t work—and how these aims work together fruitfully.
2. See the context. The previous verse (9) concludes: “for the hand of his God was on him.” How helpful! We could make Ezra 7:10 into a moralistic duty—but in context we see that Ezra’s heart and action were due utterly to the grace of God. God was working out his redemptive purposes. In fact, looking further before and after this verse, I’ll find multiple mentions of God’s hand on Ezra and his people. Hmmm. This must be key for this book. Indeed, in the larger biblical context, Ezra and Nehemiah show God’s faithfulness to his people; his promises do not fail. God foretold the exile, but he foretold the return from exile—just as the book’s opening verses explain. According to all his promises the Lord was working out a huge redemptive plan through the seed of Abraham, and this book—this verse—let us glimpse that plan at work in one crucial moment of redemptive history.
3. Pray and Apply. Yes, I will pray to be like Ezra in the set of my heart and the scope of my aims, particularly in relation to the Word. But I will do so acknowledging God’s hand and God’s grace in my life, his huge redemptive purposes at work, his good promises all ultimately fulfilled in Jesus my Savior. With those acknowledgments, by God’s grace my heart will be set free to study and do and teach the Word with a kind of holy abandon. God’s hand is directing kings and nations and the course of history—and me! God’s hand is on his people!