The Bible Is a Lifelong Project
Article by David Mathis, Executive Editor, desiringGod.org
Typically the new-year call to audit our habits arrives none too early. But this was 2020. We remain in a global pandemic — and we need the audit all the more this year.
As you’ve been locked down — and locked out of normal, human gatherings like athletics, concerts, special events, schools, even churches — what has happened to your habits?
This unexpected year has sifted us. It has been a great revealer. It has widened some painful gaps. Some limp to the new year heavier than ever, more lethargic, more caught up on Netflix and sitcoms than they would have ever dreamed. Others, perhaps too few, leveraged the extra time to get in better shape, learn a new skill, study more, or even meet the needs of others in fresh ways.
With all the challenges that came with this year, even as many of us lost precious Sundays in person with the people of God — and rightfully feel the effect on our spiritual health — amazingly, none of us was locked out from the very words of God in the Bible, or locked down without them. We were not barred access by civil authorities from the Scriptures or from the throne of grace in prayer. Yet, how did 2020 affect you?
Hear God’s Voice
Whatever 2020 looked like for you, now a new year dawns and reminds us of the opportunity each new day affords. Whether you are spiritually the better for 2020, or worse, what will 2021 hold?
If I could broadly commend a single spiritual discipline, or “habit of grace,” that might be the most important next step that many could take into this new year, it would be hearing God’s voice in his word. The word of God is the first and most fundamental means of God’s ongoing grace to his people; other habits are born and built out from there. And specifically here on the cusp of 2021, I’d like to offer one bit of perspective as you dive back in for another year: the Bible is a lifelong project.
Learn to Read It for Yourself
Through college ministry and seminary and pastoring, I’ve seen firsthand that the best way to learn to read the Bible is to read the Bible for yourself. Good supplements and helps abound. And humble, faithful preaching informs, illumines, and shapes our reading of the Scriptures. We can learn much about the Bible in books and classes and conversations, and gain valuable viewpoints to bring with us when we open the Scriptures for ourselves. But there’s no way to avoid actually sitting down, blocking out distractions, and giving your full mind and heart to reading, and lingering over, God’s words for an unrushed season each day.
To be clear, a quick, five- or ten-minute speed-read of a passage, then off to the next thing, will have a pretty limited effect. Our swiping and scrolling and surfing on our phones may be teaching us some bad, if not terrible, reading habits. Not only may this hurried reading be of minimal or no value; it may even prove detrimental, distancing us from the hidden treasures rather than helping us see them.
The Bible, of all books, is one to be read slowly, unhurriedly, we might even say leisurely. Some call it “meditation.” Psalm 1 declares blessing on the man who “meditates day and night” on God’s teaching. But the blessing is not for those given to rushed and rapid Bible reading.
Half an Hour Daily — for 50 Years
What if you thought about Bible reading as not merely a new resolution for 2021 but a lifelong pursuit?
Let’s say you set aside about half an hour each day to make your way, unhurriedly, through some modest Bible reading plan (enjoying it, applying it, and praying it for yourself and others). If it takes 10,000 hours, as some suggest, to master a valuable skill, that means it would take 30 minutes daily for fifty years. That’s about the average extended adult lifetime, from age 20 to 70 — a full life to explore God’s full written revelation in this age.
Consider, God could have given us a very small treatise. But instead he gave us 66 books — some small indeed, and some sizable — knit together in a veritable library reasonable enough in length to all fit together under one cover today (about 775,000 words in English). This is one Book from God, able to be read in a year in about 12 minutes/day at normal speed. God’s book is both large enough to keep us humble and happily discovering new depths for a lifetime, and limited enough that we might actually make some real headway in knowing and enjoying God himself in Christ.
The vastness of God’s word ensures that we will really never master the Bible. God gave us a Book that will last us our whole lives long, and well beyond. And as we seek to grow in knowledge and competence with God’s word, we humbly ask, what hope might we have for being mastered by his word year after year, decade after decade?
First Readings Matter
In advocating that you think of the Bible as a lifelong project, I am not saying that your first reading, or second or third reading, of any given passage is insignificant. You can’t read a passage for the twentieth time, if you didn’t really read it the first time, the second, the third. Beyond that, first readings matter because God’s word is accessible and understandable enough that many have become “wise for salvation” on a first read (2 Timothy 3:15), not to mention all the other teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness that can come on a first read (2 Timothy 3:16).
One value you might remind yourself of on those mornings when your devotions seem unideal and dry is that, in addition to whatever else God is doing for you in it, you are now at least better prepared for your next reading. However, it must be stressed that whether you are new or an old-timer to reading Scripture, you can, God helping you, discover true riches right now. Many of the sweetest discoveries come with time, even as some of the most transforming can happen on a first or second read. New discoveries await you in 2021, not just years from now.
And you can take it to the bank that the vast majority of the riches God’s word holds for you in this lifetime you won’t be able to get to in 2021.
Stocked with Treasures
Still, and again, the Bible is expansive enough that you can read it all, year after year, and still come across details, even passages, you don’t quite remember reading before — and make connections between passages you had not yet seen.
Just recently, I was reading through 1 Peter, while working on a sermon on Psalm 34, and was struck by the connections between the two. Lingering in Psalm 34 helped me to better understand how much the psalm relates to the whole of Peter’s letter, not just 1 Peter 3:10–12 where he quotes it. And then 1 Peter helped me better understand Psalm 34 and how its second half relates to the first. And the charge to “do good” in Psalm 34:14 opened my eyes to how much 1 Peter emphasizes “doing good” in hard times (1 Peter 2:14–15, 20; 3:6, 11, 17; 4:19).
It is good news to learn that the Bible gives up some of its richest treasures as we reread it and reread it and meditate on it year after year. God doesn’t mean for us to understand all the layers of meaning in his Book right away. Or after a year or two. In fact, it is a mark of his divine fingerprints in the Scriptures that we come along so slowly, and that so many glories await our discovery later on. The depths and riches and textures and subtleties of Scripture are such that they are designed to be explored and enjoyed for a whole lifetime.
Peak in Your Golden Years
Perhaps it would help you, as it does me, to consider that Bible reading is not like athletics, where you peak in your twenties. Rather, it is like singing and public speaking (preaching included) where the skill (and its subtleties) mature over a lifetime to the “golden years” when one’s head is gray and mind is still sharp.
I know an old man like this. He’s been reading his Bible through each year — not in a rush, but slowly, unhurriedly, even leisurely — for fifty years now. His mind is still sharp, and he has half a century of Bible saturation in him. The Bible has been to him a lifelong project. It’s amazing to see it embodied. How priceless to have a friend or pastor like that.
I desperately want to be like that when I’m seventy, if God gives me the years. Would you join me?
Let’s not overlook 2021. What we will find in the Bible this year alone is enough to motivate a clearheaded Christian. Then dream beyond that as well. Think how the riches will keep unfolding time after time, year after year. We won’t read the Bible as well in 2050 without the investment of 2021. The lifelong project starts now.
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines.