The Best Book to Read

The best book to read is the Bible!
The best book to read is the Bible!
If you read it every day,
It will help you on your way.
Oh, the best book to read is the Bible!

We sang that chorus in Sunday-school regularly when I was a child.  Good advice?  Yes, of course it is.  If we want to grow in our relationship with God it’s obvious.  We need to listen to what he has to say to us each day.  So we read the Bible, his Word.

But there are times when reading the Bible isn’t easy. A dear friend was talking with me recently about the problem he was experiencing in his Bible reading.  “I just find it boring.  It doesn’t matter which bit of the Bible I read.  None of it seems to touch me.  I can read through a passage two or three times and at the end, I ask myself. ‘what have I just read?’  And I can’t remember”.

It wasn’t always like that for him.  He can remember how, when he was a younger Christian, he looked forward to Bible reading.  It was exciting.  He was always making new discoveries. He searched his Bible looking for answers to questions and found them. He marked verses that seemed to be just for him. He kept a diary from time to time and wrote about passages that had moved him in a special way.  But that was then.  This is now.

Well, I listened. And I sympathised. Because his experience has often been mine too.  And I suspect it’s been the experience of most Christians who take Bible-reading seriously. There are very few Christians who can say that they always find the Bible exciting.

So, how do we cope when we find Bible-reading boring and unrewarding?  And what can we do about it? 

Let’s start with four don’ts:

(1) Have I sinned?

Don’t assume that the reason you’ve lost your enthusiasm for Bible reading is because you have grieved the Holy Spirit by some sin.  Some Christians will tell you that that must be the explanation for your struggles. They’ll suggest that you’ve committed some secret sin, that you’re refusing to repent, and that until you do so, you’re going to find that every part of your spiritual life including your Bible-reading will be barren.

Well, if you’re finding your spiritual life barren and if you never have any sense that the Lord is speaking to you through the Bible, then it’s certainly right to ask, “Is there some sin of which I need to repent?”   It is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit so that he ceases to speak to us through the Bible. When I sin, God uses the Bible to show me my sin and call me to repentance.  But what if I refuse to listen?  What if I ignore his voice and harden my heart?   Is he going to carry on talking about other matters as if there was no problem between us?  Hardly.  

King David experienced a time of dreadful barrenness after he had sinned and refused to confess his sin:

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32: 3-5).

So yes, if God seems to be silent when you read the Bible, do search yourself.  Ask yourself whether there is some way in which you have been refusing to obey God’s commands.  And if there is, repent.  Ask for forgiveness and cleansing. And pray that God will restore to you the joy you once found in his Word. 

But if may be that when you do search yourself, you will find that your conscience is clear.  The difficulties you’re finding in enjoying your Bible may not be down to unrepented sin at all.  And if other Christians try to tell you that it must be, don’t listen to them.  Often, the Christians who make such statements have never themselves even tried to read the Bible regularly and systematically.  If they had, they would be more careful about trying to make other people feel guilty. 

(2) Am I backslidden?

Don’t assume that the reason you’ve lost your enthusiasm for Bible reading is because you are in a backslidden spiritual state.  Alright, you’ve examined yourself.  And you’re sure there’s no particular sin that has led to this loss of appetite for the Bible.  But still you’re uneasy.  Because you feel that there must be something wrong with yourself.  Surely a godly Christian who was living a life pleasing to the Lord wouldn’t find his book so unappetising?  Doesn’t it mean that you’re in a state of spiritual decline – even if you can’t pin down what’s gone wrong? 

Well, be assured.  The Lord doesn’t deal in generalisations.  If there were something fundamentally wrong in your walk with him that needed to be put right, he wouldn’t just be making you feel generally anxious and guilty.  He would be telling you very clearly and definitely what the problem was.  In fact, you would find the Bible speaking to you more clearly than ever before!  Day after day, when you came to read the Bible, he would be telling you what the matter was and what you had to do about it. 

A child feels that his Father has changed his attitude towards him.  His father deals with him in a way that seems cold and distant.  Father never speaks to him, never hugs him, never lets him get too close.  The lad’s sure that it must be his own fault.  He must be failing his father in some way.  But father will never tell him what’s wrong or what he can do to put things right.

What sort of father would behave in that way?  Not the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Not our Father

The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103: 8-10). 

When there’s something about us that’s affecting our relationship with him, he tells us.  He doesn’t just trouble  us with a general sense of guilt and failure which leaves us crippled and miserable.  It’s Satan the great slanderer who specialises in that sort of general accusation!  Don’t listen to him.

(3) How can I make it happen?

Don’t try to make  yourself feel what you don’t feel naturally.  It’s an easy trap to fall into.  You think that whenever you read the Bible you ought to feel excited – or at least interested.  There ought to be moments when you feel joyful, or solemn, or exalted, or loved.  Those moments used to come often.  Now they don’t.  So you think it’s your duty to make them happen.  You start your Bible reading time with the thought, “Will I feel anything today?”.  And instead of thinking about what the Bible passage says, you’re thinking about what you yourself are feeling – or not feeling.  Instead of simply taking in the meaning of the story, or the proverb, or the psalm that you’re reading, you’re busy examining your feelings.  As you go through the passage, you’re asking “What should I be feeling here?  Or here?  Or here?” and then trying to generate that feeling.  You’ve read the passage through once, and then you ask, “What did I feel?” Answer.  “Nothing”.  So you read it again, and ask, “What did I feel that time?”  “Nothing except a sense of frustration because I wasn’t feeling anything”.  You read it through again and again, trying harder and harder to make yourself feel something, and your sense of failure and desperation grows. 

That’s the road to despair.  Before you start reading, pray that God will speak to you, and that he’ll teach you the things he wants to teach you.  Then simply read the passage, short or long that you have in front of you.  And concentrate on the passage.  Try to understand what it says. Don’t worry if you don’t understand everything.  There must be something there you can understand.  And then at the end jot down a few lines about the passage.  You could write down a three line summary of what was in the passage.  You could make a note of one important truth that’s there in the passage – whether or not you felt how important it is.  Then close your notebook and thank God that he has spoken to you.  You have been reminded of facts and truths he wanted you to know, regardless of what you’ve felt – or not felt – about them.

(4) What’s the point?

Don’t give up.  Why not?  If you’re not getting anything out of it, what’s the point of carrying on?  Well, I could give you lots of reasons, but the most important is this.  Our chief reason for reading God’s book is not for what we get out of it.  Our chief reason for reading his book is to honour him.  When we make a priority of reading the Bible we show our respect for God.  We are saying to him, to our family, to our friends, to angels, to demons, that we view his words as supremely important.  Children honour their parents by listening to what they have to say.  If we are God’s children we will enter his presence regularly and ask if there is something he wants to say to us.  “And now, O sons, listen to me: blessed are those who keep my ways.  Hear instruction and be wise, and do not neglect it.  Blessed is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors” (Proverbs 8:32-34).

Next, let me give you three things to remember:

First thing to remember 

There are lots of natural reasons why at various points in our Christian life we may find Bible reading difficult or boring.  We’ve already said that it may not be because of sin or backsliding.  So why might it happen?

Well, the first and most frequent cause is simply that we are human – and part of being human is that our physical, mental and emotional states vary at intervals. C S Lewis explains it in a letter from “Screwtape” – a senior devil – to the junior devil he is mentoring:

“Humans are amphibians – half spirit and half animal… As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time. This means that while their spirit can be directed to an eternal object, their bodies, passions, and imaginations are in continual change, for as to be in time means to change. Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation – the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks. If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life – his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down. As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty. The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as you fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merely a natural phenomenon…”

We should not be surprised by this natural “undulation” in all our experiences – including those of Bible-reading.  But there are particular circumstances that may make the troughs more frequent and deeper.  Most of us find that Bible reading is harder and feels less rewarding when we are tired: physically, mentally or emotionally drained.  That’s natural. We are made from the dust of the ground.  There are natural limits to what our bodies can cope with or our minds take in.  When we are tired out, it is hard to think clearly about anything or to take an interest in anything. 

When we’re exhausted: Remember Elijah.  After his extraordinary experiences at Mount Carmel, he fled from Jezebel in panic.  He was emotionally and physically shattered by what he had been through.  The Lord had much to say to him.  But the Lord knew that Elijah wasn’t capable of taking in and responding to his message. 

“Elijah lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, ‘Arise and eat.’  And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again.  And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’ ” (1 Kings 19: 5-7). 

Elijah’s great needs were simply food, drink and sleep.  Only then could he begin to listen to what God had to say to him. 

If you’ve been overworked, missing sleep, on the go constantly, because of matters beyond your control – a new baby, a crisis at work, nursing a sick relative –  it’s unlikely that you will find yourself excited by the words of the Bible.  What you need is not to try harder, but to book a holiday!

Getting older: Most of us find that as we get older, periods of strong excitement get rarer.  A child reacts to everything spontaneously and quickly. She finds little things enthralling or heartbreaking. She can be laughing uncontrollably at one moment and be in tears five minutes later.  A teenager’s first experience of “falling in love” is likely to have an intensity that is rarely felt by someone ten years older.  By the time we’re middle-aged person, we find we can take in his stride events that would once have devastated us.  Talk with elderly people in a care home and you may find it hard to think of any subject that will actually interest them. 

Is that a good or a bad thing?  Neither.  There are advantages and disadvantages in that slowing down of our emotional responses (I could devote a whole “letter from the manse” to that subject).  But what it means is that there’s no point in comparing what I got out of reading the Bible twenty years ago with what I get out of it today.  Perhaps back then, I found it more exciting.  Yes, there were more passages that moved me to shouts for joy or weep for sorrow.  But does that mean that my Bible reading was doing me more good then than today?  Not necessarily.  Unless the joy and the tears that I experienced then actually made me a more obedient, more Christ-like believer, they were no more significant than the easy hurrays and sobs of a six year old who gets the toy he wanted for for his birthday and then breaks it.

I’ve heard it all before: And of course, one of the reasons Bible reading gets harder as we get older is simply that there are fewer and fewer surprises.  Once it was all surprising.  We didn’t know what would happen to Job in the end, or whether Simon Peter would be restored.  We didn’t know what we would find in the book of Isaiah or in Romans.  The first time we found clear prophecies about Jesus in books written hundreds of years before he was born, we were amazed.  Now, we’ve studied them all and we take it for granted.  Once, we had the sheer intellectual challenge of working out the meaning of John’s symbols in Revelation – better than any crossword puzzle.  Now, we’ve got a pretty good idea what they’re about. 

Back then God allowed us these natural excitements in our Bible-reading.  But now he asks something harder from us.  He asks us to study his book and listen to his voice, even when he’s saying things we’ve heard a thousand times before.  We’ve no longer got the excitement that comes when we’re hearing something completely fresh.  But we’ve still got to listen and work out how his words apply to our hearts and lives. 

When we struggle to find interest or relevance in our Bible-reading, let’s accept that that’s God’s providential dealing with us.  Perhaps he’s simply testing our perseverance – and our faith.  Do we still really believe that the Bible is his Word and supremely important when we’re finding ourselves bored as we read it?  Do we still believe that “man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes out from the mouth of God”?

Second thing to remember

Not all the parts of the Bible are supposed to be equally interesting or immediately relevant.  Think about it this way.  A father has a happy, loving relationship with his daughter.  And one aspect of that is that he talks with her – about lots of things, in lots of contexts.  So, there are times when he’s talking to her about her very personal concerns.  She’s growing up and for the first time feeling an interest in the opposite sex.  So dad talks to her about courtship, its dangers, its joys.  He talks about boyfriends, and the pressures they could put her under.  He tells her about his and mum’s hopes and prayers for her.  He tells her how much they love her and how proud they are of her.  And she’s totally gripped by what he’s saying.  She smiles, she shakes her head, tears come into her eyes, and when the conversation’s over, she hugs her dad. 

But not all dad’s conversations with her are like that.  Sometimes he’s just telling her what to do about some practical matter.  “Could you pop into the post office on the way home from school?  Buy a dozen first class stamps and four second-class, post this letter, get some envelopes, pick up a passport application form”.  There’s nothing exciting, or moving about the conversation. But it’s important.  He’s giving her instructions which she needs to remember and act on.

And sometimes when he’s talking, it can be downright boring.  He’s helping her prepare for a German GCSE.  So he’s explaining grammar to her – nominatives, accusatives, genitives.  Boring – boring – boring.  He doesn’t expect her to find it thrilling.  But he expects her to listen.  And she does –  because she knows dad is teaching her things she has to learn. 

Well the Bible is like that.  Some of it is immediately relevant – speaking to our deepest questions and emotions. Some of it is practical – just giving us things to do.  Some of it is stuff that seems irrelevant at present, but which we have to understand if we’re to make a success of the Christian-life long-term.  Romans 5 is immediately thrilling.  For most of us, the book of Numbers isn’t.  But both are part of God’s total conversation with us, his children. 

Third thing to remember  

Private Bible-reading isn’t the chief way in which God speaks to us.  If we have access to the Bible and can read it, then it is an important way and one we should treasure. But when the different books of the Bible were written, they were not written first and foremost for people to read to themselves at home.  They were written to be read aloud (or sung) and explained in public gatherings.  Moses preached the law to the assembly of Israel.  The psalms were sung aloud in the temple.  Paul commanded that his letters should be read aloud in the meetings of the church. 

Many people in both Old and New Testament times couldn’t read or write.  Very few people would have copies of Bible books before the invention of printing.  And yet they could still benefit fully from God’s Word – because they could listen to it being read and taught by men whom God chose for that work.  God spoke to them as they listened to others reading from the Bible.

And that is still true.  The chief way in which God speaks his Word to believers today is in the meetings of the church.  “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it” (Revelation 1:3).  If you belong to a church where the Bible is regularly read and explained, and if you really listen, praying that God will speak to you through his Word, and if you keep what is written in it, putting it into practice – you will be blessed! 

I’d like to think that people who attend this church regularly, get enough Bible in the services to feed them and keep them strong – even if they couldn’t read the Bible at all at home.  Take away what you hear, think about it, meditate on it, discuss it with others, act on it – and you won’t starve, even if you feel you’re getting nothing from your private Bible reading. 

And finally… five tips that may be helpful for some of you: 

Tip no 1:  Check whether you are wasting your emotional energy. 

I think I can best explain what I mean by quoting someone else’s experience.  It will be a long quote but I think it’s well worth thinking about.  Here’s Isobel Kuhn telling her story.

“I was a voracious reader of romantic fiction. Novels gripped me and were my favorite mental escape from trials and difficulties, or from an evening which had to be spent alone. With a good love story I was immediately transported into another world, and if the plot was exciting I could not put the book down until I finished it.

We were living with my brother on his ranch for the summer, and as there were no other young people around I had to occupy many evenings and found a good novel was my first resort. This particular time, it was an exciting story that I could not lay down. I never did read the modern sexy novels, but chose clean, exciting love stories. Very often these were not really true to life. Life does contain moments of adventure, but these times are interspersed with long periods of plain, unvarnished hard work. The real things of life are attained at these monotonous level periods, so to speak, more than they are at the high peaks of excitement. People who in their reading feed on the lurid and melodramatic are not prepared for the long stretches of routine work which fill every life. I believe this is partly responsible for many broken marriages today. Young people think married life should be all moonlight and thrills, and they balk when they find themselves on the level stretches of plain, ordinary working together, which actually are the real life and backbone of a home.

Anyway, I was deep in the excitement of the book. Midnight came and I was so near the end that I could not stop. In fact, it was one o’clock in the morning before I finished the book and took up my Bible for evening devotions. But I got no blessing from it. Never had the Bible seemed so drab and dull. When I tried to pray, the Lord seemed far away. It’s just sleepiness, I told myself, and curled up for slumber.

But the next morning things were little better. God still seemed far away and the Bible stuffy and uninteresting…

Travelling into town by bus gave me time to think. What had happened to me, that the Lord seemed no longer real? And why had the Bible, which I had begun to read through from Genesis to Revelation for the first time in my life—why had the Bible become insipid? I was alarmed. Sitting in the bus, I talked to the Lord about it in my heart.

‘Oh Lord, what is wrong with me?’ I prayed. ‘Why can’t I sense Your Presence now as I have lately? Why has the Bible become dry?’

‘When a child fills her stomach with ice cream and soda pop,’ the Lord seemed to answer, ‘why does she lose her appetite for meat and potatoes?’

‘Lord, do You mean the novel did that to me?’

‘It excited all the fleshly part of your nature, didn’t it? Did it do anything to help you spiritually?’

‘Nothing, Lord. It kept me up so late. I’m tired this morning. Lord, if I promise to give up novel reading, will You come back to me? Will the Bible come alive to me again?’

‘Try it and see.’

From that moment, the Lord was real and present once more and the Word took on new meaning. My spiritual growth could have been traced by the markings in that Bible as I read it from cover to cover. I discovered verses that seemed to spring out of the page as His voice to meet my need at the moment…

I hardly need say that the taper of novel reading, which included magazine stories, was extinguished from that day on. For about fifteen years I never permitted myself to read a love story”.

We have only so much emotional energy.  If we use it up by being caught up in exciting stories (fictional or true), films, soap-operas, adrenalin-packed computer games, or even dramatic sporting events, we may find that we’ve none left for the simple facts, histories, truths, lessons of the Bible.  So check where your energy’s being spent.

Tip no 2:  Find out what is the best time of day for you to read your Bible.

I was always told that I should read my Bible first thing in the morning.  Well, there’s wisdom in that. Listen to God’s voice before you listen to any other.  But it doesn’t work for everybody.  So experiment.  You may find that you’re fresher during a half-hour lunch-break in the park than when you’re still wiping the sleep out of your eyes.  If you’re a night-owl you may find that your best time is when everyone else has gone to bed and the house is quiet.  You may need a different routine in winter than in summer.  You may find that ten minutes of concentrated Bible-reading is as much as you can cope with on week-days but that you can have a more prolonged and relaxed time on Saturdays or Sundays.  Regular habits are important.  But there are times when we have to be flexible.

Tip no 3:  The Bible is full of variety so vary your approach.

There’s no rule that you have to read all Scripture in the same way and at the same pace.  Sometimes I’ve been trudging through a book like Leviticus or Jeremiah.  I’ve taken it slowly because I’ve been wrestling to make sense of it.  But then, I know I need to do something completely different.  So I’ll read through Mark’s gospel at a sitting, or through Acts over two days.  And I’ve been swept along by the pace of the story and by the exciting events it’s describing.  And then I’ll have a fortnight just reading a psalm a day.  And I won’t even try to use the whole psalm – I’ll just pick out one striking, encouraging promise and turn it over and over in my mind.  With a book like Romans I need a notebook and pen at hand – I have to write down an explanation of each paragraph at a time or I get nothing out of it.  But when I’m reading John’s account of the death of Jesus, I find I have to do it on my knees, visualing each scene in turn. 

If you’ve followed a fixed Bible reading plan for the past ten years and if you’re still finding Bible reading a delight, then good for you.  If it ain’t bust, don’t fix it.  But if like me, you find yourself bogged down at times, don’t be afraid to vary the programme!

Tip no 4:  Don’t become over-dependent on helpful writers, but don’t reject them out-of-hand either. 

When you’re reading the Bible you want to hear what God is saying to you.  Not what he said to Matthew Henry or John Calvin.  So I think that normally we should start just with the open Bible, reading it, trying to work out what it means, looking for the lessons we need to learn, before we turn to a set of daily Bible notes, or a commentary.  But there are times when we are simply stuck.  We’ve read through a chapter of Leviticus or Ezekiel and simply haven’t made head or tail of it.  Well, if you’re following a Bible reading course – such as Alec Taylor’s Pilgrim Notes –  it’s at that point that you turn to them and let the expert point the way. Or, if you don’t use such notes, it would be wise to have a good commentary at hand.  There are plenty of reliable evangelical commentaries suitable for daily reading, available from publishers like Banner of Truth, Evangelical Press, or Christian Focus.

And yes, there are times when we need to be spoon-fed.  I’m thinking especially of those times when we’re so tired or at such a low ebb that we can’t think for ourselves.  And then it’s time for us to let nurse prepare the food for us and feed us mouthful by mouthful.  Charles Spurgeon is one of my favourite nurses.  His Cheque Book of the Bank of Faith or his Morning by Morning, aren’t meant to give you detailed explanations of a chapter. He just gives you one verse to feed on, and then offers his heart-warming thoughts about it.  If you’re too weary to do your own meditating, he meditates for you!  Many Christians have found Mrs Cowman’s Streams in the Desert or Springs in the Valley gives them the ready-prepared meals they’ve needed.  Others turn to J C Ryle, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Calvin or Amy Carmichael – you can find books of daily devotional readings by all these authors.  Many Christians have found Daily Light on the Daily Path another great resource.  The compiler of that little book doesn’t offer any comment.  He just gives you half a dozen Bible verses for each day, linked by a common theme so that they throw light on each other.  If you’ve not got the mental energy to search the Scriptures, he’s done the searching for you. 

Tip no 5:  Why not try listening instead of reading? 

Yes, I’m thinking of audio-books.  There are lots of different recordings of the Bible – in lots of different translations – available.  Some are better than others.  Some are heavily dramatised, with different actors and background music.  Others are simply a clear reading of the text.  I wouldn’t choose the more dramatic versions.  I want to listen to what the Lord is saying, not what some BBC radio personality or Hollywood star is making of his Word.  And I wouldn’t recommend listening as a long-term substitute for reading.  You can’t really study the Bible when the words are just flowing past you.  But again, when we’re tired, and Scripture no longer seems fresh to us, then hearing someone else read it can bring back the freshness.  “Oh, I never noticed that bit!  Oh, do you think Jesus said those words in that way?”  I’ve often noticed things in a poem or a story when someone else has read it aloud – things I never noticed when I read it myself.  The same can be true of the Bible.

And final tip – no 6:  Don’t worry.  

I suppose that’s what I’ve been saying all through this letter.  And it’s what the Bible says.  “Be anxious for nothing. But in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, make your requests known unto God”.  

Be anxious for nothing? That’s right, for nothing.  But shouldn’t I be anxious if I’m finding my Bible-reading boring? No. God says “be anxious for nothing”.  He’s in control of that as he’s in control of everything else.  He’s working it together for your good.  So trust him.  Tell him you wish it were different.  Ask him to give you back the delight you once felt – when he decides it’s best for you.  Make this request known to him.  And then wait for him to answer in his own way and his own time.  

Trusting God is easy when we’re hearing his voice clearly every day. It’s harder when he seems to be silent. But that’s what living by faith is all about, isn’t it?

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