How to Take the Bible to Heart

I realize now I’m a recovering rationalist when it comes to the Bible.

In God’s great kindness, I was taken in by a vibrant campus ministry in my college years. It was a group that loved both robust theology and aggressive mission. I learned to share my faith and enjoy Bible study. Looking back, I now see how academically I engaged the Bible as a college student and young adult. It was my own immaturity — no fault of the ministry that nurtured me so well.

In several senses, I suppose, this should be no surprise. Perhaps it’s unavoidable for a twenty-year-old collegiate. Not only was I carrying the emotional and spiritual immaturities of emerging from adolescence, but also I was a fulltime student, after all. The life of the mind was my vocation, first as an undergrad, then later as a seminarian. How could I not incline to reading the Bible with a cerebral bent?

But I am thankful now that as I’ve weathered a little bit of adulthood into my mid-thirties, I’ve learned how important it is to read the Bible to my heart.

Awaken the Affections

In his remarkable book on prayer, Tim Keller notes that the evangelical notion of a “quiet time” often has leaned toward being more cerebral than affectional.

The late-twentieth-century evangelical Quiet Time tended to play down the more experiential aspects of prayer. Interpretive Bible study was stressed, including outlining a passage and paraphrasing it, and looking for literary structures of composition. . . .

The effect was to promote a method of daily inductive Bible study aimed more at interpreting the text than at meditation and experience of God. After this kind of Bible study came prayer, but this more cognitive study did not lead very naturally to adoration. Prayer, then, was dominated by petitions for needs and confession of sins.

Many have found the traditional evangelical Quiet Time — with its emphasis on interpretive Bible study and petitionary prayer — to be too rationalistic an exercise. (Prayer, 244)

I can resonate. I spent most of my twenties, it now seems, mainly gathering information for my mind and hammering out the contours of my theology, rather than hunting daily food for my soul. No doubt, such cerebral engagement with the Scriptures has had its benefits over time. Kindling must be in place to set the fire ablaze. However, I would love to help others catch on quicker than I did about the importance of reading the Bible not only with and for our minds, but also with and for our hearts.

Slow Down and Steep

I’ve learned to slow down, trying my best to carve out a respite in the midst of a hectic life as a husband, father of four, and pastor, to have an unhurried season steeping my soul in the Bible, reading at a more reflective and enjoyable (even “leisurely”) pace — rather than rushing through to cover as much ground as possible.

What I found over time is that such speed-reading, at least for me, is a mirage. Mere reading is not comprehension, and mere comprehension in the mind is a far cry from life-transforming meditation in the heart. We do eventually reap in soul what we sow in morning devotions. Rushing through Bible chapters at a hare’s pace may fill your mind with information, and get the boxes checked, but it will fail you miserably in forming, shaping, and nourishing the heart.

New Mercies Every Morning

Still I find it easy to fall back into the mindset of “I have to get through all these passages today, so I can get through the whole Bible in a year.” Reading through the whole Bible in a year can be a wonderful endeavor. It is perhaps especially beneficial to pastors and teachers who are regularly making public claims in writing or speech about God and his word, and need to stay fresh on as much of the full terrain of divine revelation as possible. But I should not let that big-picture goal distort 365 daily opportunities to feed my soul in God’s word.

“We do eventually reap in soul what we sow in morning devotions.”

Far more important than racing through the Bible in a year is learning to simply “gather a day’s portion every day” (Exodus 16:4). Like God’s people in the wilderness, I need to focus on feeding on today’s manna, rather than trying to gather up data for tomorrow, next week, or future reference — or trying to make up for missed time yesterday. Let the reading I missed yesterday be left to the past, and focus my heart instead on feeding today.

Jesus says, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). That’s the perspective I need each morning, seeking to feed my hungry soul with today in view, rather than trying to make up for yesterday, or merely forge my theology for a lifetime. God’s mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22–23).

Three Steps to the Heart

To remind myself of the daily importance of reading the Bible to my heart, I’ve learned to lean on a simple three-stage process in morning devotions: begin with Bible, move to meditation, polish with prayer.

I begin with Bible because I want to start with God’s voice, not mine. He is God; I am not. He should speak first; I should listen. First sounds his word; later comes my response in prayer. So after just a brief prayer asking for his help, I start in on my readings for the day, reminding myself that the goal is to find food for my soul, with the accompanying pace. I’m trying to read the Bible to my heart, and I’m on the lookout for a place to pause and go deep in God’s goodness.

When I find a fresh biblical statement of his goodness, I move to meditation and seek to lodge the truth into my mind and heart. Meditation means chewing on some truth, and savoring it, seeking to apply it to the heart, to feel its significance for myself. Meditation has become for me the highpoint of daily devotions, when the real-time of Bible reading goes into slow motion, even into freeze-frame, and I linger over some glimpse of God’s goodness breathed out in his word.

“Read the Bible not to gather information or hammer out the contours of theology, but to hunt for food for your soul.”

Finally, having walked the bridge of meditation, I polish with prayer. Meditation naturally connects hearing God’s voice in the Bible with responding to him in prayer. Over time I’ve found it most helpful not to immediately turn to a prayer list, but to let the content of that day’s meditation set the direction for my prayers that morning in praying for family, friends, church, ministry, and God’s global cause.

At the heart, then, of my daily season of soul-recalibration is the heart. As tempting as it can be to keep our Bible reading at the level of the intellect and mere theology-building information gathering, we will be much stronger and happier in the long run if we learn to read the Bible to our hearts.