Saturday, December 30, 2017
More Is More
There is a very popular article trending right now on The Gospel Coalition web site entitled "3 Ways I Plan to Read the Bible Less in 2018." It doesn't take a genius to understand why this is a popular article: anything that gives us permission to do less in the area of spiritual disciplines (while achieving more!) is going to be popular. Like "Great Abs in 3 Minutes a Day." And we all know how that turns out.
I think the article makes some good points but that its broad conclusions and prescriptions are not the most beneficial. The author writes about reading cursorily, plowing through a daily reading just to check it off his to-do list, never (never?) finishing his read-the-Bible-in-a-year plans. He reminds us of the purpose of reading God's Word (adding a great D.A. Carson quote: "No one drifts toward holiness"). All of these are not only valid concerns, they were warned against by the granddaddy of all reading plan writers, Robert Murray M'Cheyne. In other words, they are nothing new. But here is something I learned in 2017 by reading 104 books as I conquered Tim Challies' reading challenge.
There are different kinds of reading with different aims and different results and benefits. Everything we read can't be meditated upon thoughtfully or we will only read a few verses a month or a book or two a year. Meditation is very important, but so is a deluge of Scripture -- a sort of bathing in God's Word without pausing to dwell deeply. That deep consideration is vital to a Christian's growth, but reading -- even quickly, almost cursorily -- provides its own type of benefit. Less significant, no doubt, but life can't be all kale and broccoli. We need less nutritionally dense foods too -- bananas and brown rice (much less nutrient dense than the aforementioned green vegetables) are a part of a very healthy diet, too.
When I was plowing through Challies' program I did not have time to pause to savor some of the chewier works that I was reading -- books by Puritan authors, for example. Yet, fast reading has benefits. First, I was exposed to books that I'll want to come back to when I have the time to concentrate and ponder. More importantly, though -- it's surprising how things stick, even when you don't think they will. Little snippets of things I read quickly asserted themselves when I was conversing about a particular subject. Apparently we are not as stupid as we think we are -- just being exposed to things can have at least a mild effect.
Here's the thing: when it comes to Scripture (and things of God generally) less is never more. More is more. We DO have time. If you literally waste no time in a day and have no extra moments to spend in God's Word -- well, to be honest I can't even imagine that. I think anyone who makes that claim is a liar (maybe even deluding himself). We can -- we just choose not to.
I think the best idea is to plan on two types of reading in 2018. First, the daily devotional reading that we do and, second, the reading of subjects that we are going to dig deeply into and study and meditate on and mull over. (There is often overlap, of course.) I've never thought that my daily Scripture reading was going to take the place of study.
Reading cursorily should not mean that we don't realize and recognize what we are privileged to be holding in our hands. The Bible -- all of it, including Malachi, the genealogies, the arcana of sacrificial law -- is God's truly precious gift to humanity. Reading something quickly without pausing to meditate on it does not -- should not -- mean that we consider it less important or not worth our time. On the contrary -- it is so important that we want to bathe in it even while we are also studying deeply one section or topic at a time. The solution to thinking of a daily reading as something on a to-do list is not to stop the daily reading -- it's to alter one's attitude toward the activity.
If we don't follow a reading plan there are parts of God's Word that we'll never get to. Let's face it: the average person is unlikely to decide to embark on a close study of Nahum. We're going to study the gospels or Romans or maybe the Psalms. Not Leviticus. But all of God's Word is all of God's Word. As M'Cheyne wrote, "If we pass over some parts of Scripture, we shall be incomplete Christians." Because "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable..." A reading plan ensures that we take advantage of the "all." (To be fair, the author of the TGC article says he reads the Bible through every year, albeit without a formal reading plan. I just don't think most people are wired in such a way as to do this without guidance.)
There are read-the-Bible-in-two-years plans if something like M'Cheyne seems too ambitious (with M'Cheyne you read the whole Bible in one year and the Psalms twice and the New Testament twice). But I am not a fan of giving people permission to be slackers. We do that fine on our own -- instead believers should be held to a higher standard and encouraged to do more, study more, learn more. Remember that Carson quote above: we have to discipline ourselves to becoming holy; it is not something that "just happens." When I teach sanctification to third- and fourth-graders I always tell them that it is the one part of the salvation process that is 100% God's work and 100% our own. We participate in our sanctification through the power of the Holy Spirit. If this is not so, then Paul wastes a lot of time telling us to do thus-and-such and not to do this-and-that.
So this year: resolve to follow some sort of Bible reading plan, ambitious or otherwise. And resolve to dig deeper into and study and meditate upon one particular book, subject, chapter, etc., at a time. It's not either/or -- it's both/and.
Today I will read the second-to-last chapter in II Chronicles, the second-to-last chapter of Revelation, the second-to-last chapter of Malachi, and the second-to-last chapter of John. Tomorrow I will finish each book and then the next day I'll start Genesis, Matthew, Ezra, and Acts. I will also embark on a close study of the book of Ecclesiastes. Both/and.