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, God has shared His Word to help us prosper. A bit more detail can be found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “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 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, 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.
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.)
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, “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