How do you read the Bible?
If you’ve grown up in the church, like I have, this might strike you as an odd question. After all – don’t you just… open it and start reading? For anyone who knows how to read, it seems like a simple enough activity.
And yet the Bible is not as simple as a novel or an encyclopedia. It is an ancient library made up of 66 books, written across centuries by many authors in many different countries. As anyone who has taken Disciple Bible Study will tell you, understanding the political realities, cultural norms, religious history, and purpose of each book makes everything clearer. Like any good story, the backstory illuminates everything.
Does that mean you need a seminary degree in order to make reading your Bible “worth it”? No! While context and background information is always helpful, God is ready to connect with you in the Bible whenever you open it.
So how can we connect with God through reading the Bible?
In the 1100s, the Carthusian monk Guigo II wrote a “letter on the contemplative life” called The Ladder of Monks. In this letter, he talks about four key spiritual exercises that form a kind of “ladder” that leads us from earth to heaven. These four exercises are reading, meditating, prayer, and contemplation. Here’s how he describes it (emphasis mine):
Reading seeks for the sweetness of a blessed life, meditation perceives it, prayer asks for it, contemplation tastes it. Reading, as it were, puts food whole into the the mouth; meditation chews it and breaks it up; prayer extracts its flavor; contemplation is the sweetness itself which gladdens and refreshes it. Reading works on the outside, meditation on the pith, prayer asks for what we long for, contemplation gives us delight in the sweetness which we have found.Guigo II, The Ladder of Monks: A Letter on the Contemplative Life
Reading the Bible, it turns out, is a lot more meaningful when we don’t just literally read the Bible like any other book. It takes repeated reading, meditation, and prayer, to get us to a place where we can contemplate and receive God’s word.
The practice of lectio divina (or “sacred reading”) guides from the words on the page to the heart of God by leading us through repeated reading and reflection on the same passage. Here’s how you do it:
- Take a deep breath.
Invite God to be part of this time of sacred reading.
- Read a short passage of scripture,
out loud if possible. If you’re doing lectio divina with a group, ask a different person to read the scripture each time.
- Pause after reading the scripture, to reflect on it.
If you’re doing lectio divina by yourself, write down your reflections after each reading, to keep yourself in a slower, more reflective mindset.
- Repeat steps 2 and 3,
reflecting on the scripture in different ways each time.
Use these questions to guide your time of reflection:
- First reading: What is a word or phrase that touches your heart?
- Second reading: Where do you hear or see Christ in the text?
- Third reading: How is Christ calling you forth into doing or being?
- Close by praying,
asking God for that which you found in the scripture.
It’s really that simple: read the scripture, meditate on it by reading it a few times through and thinking through some simple questions, and then close in prayer and contemplation. Don’t get intimidated by the text, or worried about the scholarly details. Just like the Jewish practice of Pardes (which means “garden” or “orchard”), this practice of lectio divina helps us find the fruit God has to nourish us, within the orchard of the text.
If you are new to the practice of lectio divina, start with a narrative piece of scripture out of one of the Gospels, like the story of Jesus healing a paralyzed man in Matthew 9:2-7. You can do lectio divina with any piece of scripture, but using a familiar narrative will make it easier the first few times. Use these reflection questions to guide your first venture into lectio divina, as you read the scripture four times:
- First reading: Narrative
Look at what is happening on a narrative level in this passage. Make sure you understand the who, what, when, where, and why of this passage. Just get clear on what’s going on.
- Second reading: Allegory
Look for images, symbols, or other connections in the scripture. Does this remind you of another story? What does this passage remind you of?
- Third reading: Contemplation
This is where you connect the text to your own life. How are the characters like you (or not)? Do you relate to a situation or mood in this text? Are you facing a similar dilemma? Have you experienced similar actions, experiences, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, or desires? Be gentle with yourself in this reading, just noticing the connections.
- Fourth reading: Invitation
In the final reading of the text, look for where God is calling you. Maybe God is reminding you to take a certain action, or inviting you to learn more about a particular topic, experience, or idea. Maybe God is calling you to pay attention to something or someone, or inviting you to act in a way more aligned with your values. Again, be gentle. God’s grace is here, in this reading.
When you finish these four readings, pray over the meaning and invitation that you have found in the scripture.
We believe that the word of God is in scripture, and also lives among us, and within us, by the power of the Holy Spirit. May the practice of lectio divina guide your reading, so you hear God speaking to you more and more clearly.