Do You Read the Bible Like a Nonbeliever?

The most basic prayer we can pray about reading the Bible is that God would give us the desire to read this book. Not just the will — that would be next best — but the desire.

That is what the apostle Peter said we should have: “Like newborn infants, desire the pure spiritual milk” (1 Peter 2:2). Similarly, the psalmist said that the righteous person delights in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1:2). And why wouldn’t we, since God’s words are “more to be desired than gold” and “sweeter than honey and drippings from the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10)? Why wouldn’t we? Because our hearts tend to become cold and dull and hard and blind.

All of us know what it is like to read without seeing “wondrous things.” We have stared at the most glorious things without seeing them as glorious. We have seen marvels without marveling. We have put God’s sweet kindness on the tongue of our soul without tasting sweetness. We have seen unspeakable love without feeling loved. We have seen the greatest power and felt no awe. We have seen immeasurable wisdom and felt no admiration. We have seen the holiness of wrath and felt no trembling. Which means we are “seeing without seeing” (Mattew 13:13). This is why we must continue to weave the thread of God-dependent prayer into our reading: “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18).

That’s the most basic reason we need to pray about our Bible reading. We drift away from the desire to do it. Few prayers have I prayed more often than this — Lord, keep me from drifting away from your word! “Incline my heart to your testimonies” (Psalm 119:36).

Reading Like Atheists

Over the years in my pastoral ministry, many people have complained to me that they do not have motivation to read the Bible. They have a sense of duty that they should, but the desire is not there. It is remarkable how many of those people feel that the absence of the desire is the last nail in the coffin of joyful meditation on God’s word.

When I ask them to describe to me what they are doing about it, they look at me as if I had misunderstood the problem. What can you do about the absence of desire, they wonder. “It’s not a matter of doing. It’s a matter of feeling,” they protest. The problem with this response is that these folks have not just lost desire for God’s word, but they have lost sight of the sovereign power of God, who gives that desire. They are acting like practical atheists. They have adopted a kind of fatalism that ignores the way the psalmist prays.

Evidently, the psalmist too felt this terrible tendency to drift away from the word of God. Evidently, he too knew the cooling of desire and the tendency of his heart to incline more to other things — especially money. Otherwise why would he have cried out, “Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain”? He is pleading with God to give him desire for the word. He knows that ultimately God is sovereign over the desires of the heart. So, he calls on God to cause what he cannot make happen on his own. This is the answer to fatalism. This is the answer to acting like an atheist — as if there were no God who rules the heart, and can restore what we have lost.

Fighting for Our Lives

I cannot stress enough how our real spiritual helplessness should be accompanied by the daily cry to God that he would sustain and awaken our desire to read his word. Too many of us are passive when it comes to our spiritual affections. We are practical fatalists. We think there is nothing we can do. Oh, well, today I have no desire to read. Maybe it will be there tomorrow. We’ll see. And off to work we go.

This is not the way the psalmists thought or acted. It is not the way the great saints of church history have acted either. Life is war. And the main battles are fought at the level of desires, not deeds. When Paul said, “Put to death what is earthly in you,” he included in the list “passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Colossians 3:5). These are the great destroyers of desire for the word of God. What did Jesus say takes away our desire for the word? “The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word” (Mark 4:19). Paul tells us to kill those “desires for other things” before they kill us! He does not encourage us to be passive or fatalistic. He encourages us to fight for our lives. That is, fight for your desire for God’s word.

And the first and most decisive blow we can strike against “the desires for other things” that “choke the word,” and take away our desire for God’s word, is the daily cry to God that he would “incline” our hearts to his word and “not to selfish gain.” Don’t wait until you have lost the desire before you start praying for this desire. If the desire is present, give thanks and ask him to preserve it and intensify it. If you sense that it is cooling, plead that he would kindle it.

And if it is gone, and you do not feel any desire to pray, do what you can. Repent. Tell him you are sorry that your desire for his word is dead. Tell him just how you feel. He knows already. And ask him — this is possible without hypocrisy because of the “imperishable seed” (1 Peter 1:23) that remains in his children — ask him to give you the desire that right now you can barely even muster the will to ask for. He is merciful.

Christ Died for Your Desires

The reason we can pray like this, expecting mercy with confidence, is that this desire for the word of God is what Jesus died to purchase. He died for you so that this prayer would be answered. At the Last Supper he explained, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). By the shedding of his own blood, Jesus obtained the new covenant for his people. It secured the forgiveness of sins for all who trust him (Acts 10:43).

On the basis of this forgiveness, the other blessings of the new covenant flow to God’s people. And these blessings relate mainly to the change of our desires — particularly our desires for God and his word: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33; see also Deuteronomy 30:6; Ezekiel 11:19–20; 36:26–27).

Jesus died so that our prayers for renewed love to him and his word could be mercifully answered. We are not asking him for fresh desires for his word on the basis of our merits. We are asking him on the basis of Christ’s blood and righteousness. We don’t argue with God that he owes us anything in ourselves. He doesn’t. Everything we receive is a free gift of grace.

When we pray, “Incline my heart to your testimonies” (Ps. 119:36), we are admitting we deserve nothing — a cool heart toward infinite beauty is an infinite sin. We are confessing our helplessness and sinfulness. And we are looking away from ourselves to Christ.

Our plea is: O God, for Christ’s sake! For the sake of your dear Son! For the sake of his infinitely precious blood (1 Peter 1:19), hear my cry and restore to me the joy of my salvation (Psalm 51:12) and the delight I once had in your word (Psalm 1:2). Restore to me the fullness of my love for you (Deuteronomy 30:6). Grant me to say again from the bottom of my heart, “Oh how I love your law!” (Psalm 119:97).