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Have you ever marveled at the uniquely human ability to read? My training as a literacy teacher and researcher has challenged me to understand what actually happens in the mind while eyes are gazing at words on a page or screen. Reading to understand words is a complex orchestration of brain activity. Indeed, reading reflects the wonderful gifts of language, visual processing and sense-making that God has given humankind—gifts that we should put to good use to learn more about God and His creation. 

Unfortunately, too many students would rather avoid reading, especially if it feels difficult or unproductive. Choosing not to read results in fewer opportunities to learn from texts and grow. Since reading is such a vital part of our spiritual lives as Christians (and life in general), it is important to consider how to make Bible reading more efficient and meaningful.

As noted in Joshua 1:8 Joshua 1:8This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; but you shall meditate therein day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success.
American King James Version×
, God has shared His Word to help us prosper. A bit more detail can be found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 2 Timothy 3:16-17 [16] All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: [17] That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished to all good works.
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: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” This means that we have different reasons for reading the Bible—different goals depending on our needs at different times. And they’re all for our benefit. 

Some of these goals include: 

  • Getting to know God better
  • Understanding laws and commandments
  • Visualizing things that have happened and anticipating what is predicted
  • Receiving answers to important questions
  • Communing with God to receive wisdom, comfort, hope and strength

Recommendations for Better Reading

What follows are a few recommendations I’ve come across in my research. My hope is that these will help you develop as a Bible reader and allow you to get more out of your time spent with God’s Word.

1. Start with a goal

We should come to a text with a personal quest for the reading. We commonly spend more time on aspects of texts that pertain to our predetermined goals (known as the “relevance effect”). Without a goal, reading can become an aimless or mindless task. Essentially, putting in time reading the Bible is not the same as gaining understanding from it. It works better to set personal goals for your reading. Praying for help to meet a reading goal can also enhance the whole process.

It should be noted that starting with a predetermined goal does not mean starting with a predetermined outcome. Our goal should be to better understand what Scripture means, not just find a scripture that supports a thought we already have.

Studies have also shown that we read differently when our goal is to learn something new than when we read for entertainment. Even young children attend to texts differently when asked to read to understand how and why, instead of when reading for details or general information.

Goals to start with:  

  • Gain information about historical context 
  • Receive correction from God 
  • Learn spiritual principles 
  • Develop deeper understanding 
  • Be encouraged, edified or inspired

Exercises to try:  

  • Read to answer how and why questions, not just for who, what and when details. For instance, read Genesis 18:22-33 Genesis 18:22-33 [22] And the men turned their faces from there, and went toward Sodom: but Abraham stood yet before the LORD. [23] And Abraham drew near, and said, Will you also destroy the righteous with the wicked? [24] Peradventure there be fifty righteous within the city: will you also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein? [25] That be far from you to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from you: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right? [26] And the LORD said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes. [27] And Abraham answered and said, Behold now, I have taken on me to speak to the LORD, which am but dust and ashes: [28] Peradventure there shall lack five of the fifty righteous: will you destroy all the city for lack of five? And he said, If I find there forty and five, I will not destroy it. [29] And he spoke to him yet again, and said, Peradventure there shall be forty found there. And he said, I will not do it for forty's sake. [30] And he said to him, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak: Peradventure there shall thirty be found there. And he said, I will not do it, if I find thirty there. [31] And he said, Behold now, I have taken on me to speak to the LORD: Peradventure there shall be twenty found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for twenty's sake. [32] And he said, Oh let not the LORD be angry, and I will speak yet but this once: Peradventure ten shall be found there. And he said, I will not destroy it for ten's sake. [33] And the LORD went his way, as soon as he had left communing with Abraham: and Abraham returned to his place.
    American King James Version×
    to understand why or how Abraham pleaded with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. This could result in a different understanding than reading the account just to rehearse what happened. 
  • Read from different perspectives. For example, have you read the verses in Matthew 14:22-33 Matthew 14:22-33 [22] And straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him to the other side, while he sent the multitudes away. [23] And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone. [24] But the ship was now in the middle of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. [25] And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went to them, walking on the sea. [26] And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. [27] But straightway Jesus spoke to them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid. [28] And Peter answered him and said, Lord, if it be you, bid me come to you on the water. [29] And he said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. [30] But when he saw the wind boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink, he cried, saying, Lord, save me. [31] And immediately Jesus stretched forth his hand, and caught him, and said to him, O you of little faith, why did you doubt? [32] And when they were come into the ship, the wind ceased. [33] Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth you are the Son of God.
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    , which describe Peter walking on water at Christ’s behest, from the perspective of Christ versus Peter? We can ask, as Christ did, why did Peter doubt? We can also consider, how did Christ respond? Another productive comparison of perspectives could be that of Jacob versus the Being with whom he wrestled in Genesis 32:22-32 Genesis 32:22-32 [22] And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok. [23] And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had. [24] And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. [25] And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him. [26] And he said, Let me go, for the day breaks. And he said, I will not let you go, except you bless me. [27] And he said to him, What is your name? And he said, Jacob. [28] And he said, Your name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince have you power with God and with men, and have prevailed. [29] And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray you, your name. And he said, Why is it that you do ask after my name? And he blessed him there. [30] And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved. [31] And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose on him, and he halted on his thigh. [32] Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is on the hollow of the thigh, to this day: because he touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank.
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Bible resting on a beach overlooking the sea

2. Seek out the main idea or gist

Good readers seek coherence, or knowing how parts of a text inform the whole, which happens to be a major goal when studying the Bible. Just opening to a page to start reading or skimming isn’t as effective as building a mental model of the gist—what a text is mostly about. The sense-making work of mindful readers makes the experience more memorable.

For example, Psalms 88-93 share examples of feeling estranged from God and then taking refuge in His care. Noticing the transition from despair to hope helps a reader to pay attention to important aspects of mental anguish and godly trust. In contrast, we might read 2 Chronicles 29 as an account of how a young king, Hezekiah, established a call to action to re-establish the temple and national commitment to God. The main idea in this case is more about discerning Hezekiah’s actions and motives, rather than understanding his emotions.

Something to look for:  

  • Many Bibles provide chapter headings or a brief synopsis of the scriptures that follow. These resources can help you grasp the context and establish a main idea that affords more attentive reading. (Of course, not all headings or summaries are accurate. Be sure to use multiple sources and double check with a parent or minister when questions come up.)
Woman's hands at a table with a notebook and a Bible

3. Pay attention to the structure of the text and use visual cues 

Rather than reading straight through a text, skilled readers visually attend to aspects of text that help them comprehend. Studies show that proficient readers fixate on and regress to parts of a text that help organize the message. These elements include headings, indentations, topic sentences and pictures. 

This is one reason that holding a book while reading can improve memory of the text, more so than when reading on a screen. The limited visual space and two-dimensional presentation of screens hamper reading comprehension. Screen reading is also more fatiguing and shallow, which means readers make fewer personal connections to the text and don’t remember it as well. Relying on technological platforms for Scripture reading may not yield as deep an understanding or appreciation of the collective Word. 

A point to remember is that as readers of the Book, we should include time reading the printed version, as there are verified differences between reading the page and reading a screen.

Maximize your time with the Word:

  • Good readers know not to race through a reading; they actively interact with texts. One recommendation is to try a variety of reading practices and mix up your strategies.

Activities to add to your routine:  

  • Talk to God specifically about what you’re reading and ask for greater understanding.
  • Respond to the text by taking notes, writing a response, drawing a picture or discussing the topic with others. 
  • For some variety, consider reading some parts of Scripture—prayers, psalms of praise, commandments—aloud with expression to reinforce their wording and imprint them visually and aurally in your memory.

God has granted us the intellect to be able to read, a special skill set available for us to learn about God, His plan of salvation and how we can prepare for the future He has planned for us. Thus, reading is an integral activity for developing Christians. Plus, as the Bible is the most ubiquitous book in the world, we generally have no excuse for not reading it. Indeed, Bible reading should be a commitment for seeking daily spiritual nourishment. As noted in Job 23:12 Job 23:12Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food.
American King James Version×
, “I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my portion of food” (English Standard Version). 

May you read and prosper!  CC

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