We cannot truly read the Bible without patient and rigorous engagement of our minds. That’s probably obvious to us. But we will not have read it well, not as God intended us to read it, without eager, even relentless, engagement of our hearts. It requires more faith, effort, prayer, humility, vulnerability, and often time to read God’s word with our hearts, but that’s because the heart is precisely where God wants his word to land.
What does it mean to read the Bible with your heart? Before I explain, I’ll point to an example, because a good example is often a great explainer. And the example comes from the Bible itself.
With My Whole Heart
Psalm 119 is a (long) song of wholehearted love and desire for God. And if you read it with an engaged mind, you’ll hear the psalmist sing of how and why he received God’s word with a relentlessly, even desperately, engaged heart. It’s worth reading the whole psalm, but here are a few tastes:
“Blessed are those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with their whole heart” (Psalm 119:2).
“With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!” (Psalm 119:10).
“Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (Psalm 119:34).
“I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).
“Your testimonies are my delight; they are my counselors” (Psalm 119:24).
“I find my delight in your commandments, which I love. I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love, and I will meditate on your statutes” (Psalm 119:47–48).
When we read Psalm 119, two truths are unmistakable: the word of God is for the heart of man, and the way to the heart is through the mind.
Treasure to Be Loved
In Luke 10:27, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, where Moses says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Any time, however, the Gospels record Jesus quoting this text (see also Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30), Jesus adds the word mind, which Moses didn’t include. Perhaps this is because the Hebrew hearers of Moses’s day understood implicitly that affections included reason, while the Greco-influenced mixed crowds of Jesus’s day needed the clarification.
“We read the Bible with our minds to see the glory of God, and with our hearts to savor the glory of God.”
Whatever Jesus’s reason for adding “mind,” it is clear that both reason and affections are crucial to loving God. But there is a hierarchy. God wants our hearts, because, as Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). God is not merely an idea to be pondered, but a person to be loved — the supreme treasure to be supremely treasured.
God’s way to our affections (heart) is through our understanding (mind). So, when we read the Bible, we read it with our hearts engaged, because God’s word is primarily for our hearts.
Read to See Glory
As Christians, we rightly stress the importance of reading the Bible. In stressing this importance, however, we can easily fall into a subtle, deceptive misunderstanding of why it’s important. The subtle misunderstanding goes something like this: if we read the Bible regularly, God will be pleased with us, and therefore we can expect his blessing. As if the act of reading, rather than the purpose of reading, warrants God’s favor.
What’s deceptive about this is that it bears such a close resemblance to the truth. Regular, disciplined reading of the Bible is a means of great blessing from God. But not because performing the act of reading merits his favor. If we read the Bible this way, it’s not much different than the Muslim who practices the disciplines of the Five Pillars to merit Allah’s favor. This is apparently how many leaders in Jesus’s day approached the Scriptures. Listen to Jesus’s rebukes:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27–28).
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39–40)
“God is not merely an idea to be pondered, but a person to be loved.”
God is not interested in our Bible reading as some kind of ritual to perform as proof of our piety. He wants us to read the Bible so that we will see him! God wants us to see his glory, again and again.
The Bible is where the most important glories of the triune God shine brightest and clearest — especially the glory of Jesus Christ (John 1:14), who is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15) and through whom comes “grace and truth” (John 1:17).
This makes the Bible itself shine with a peculiar glory, worth mining deeply because of the priceless wealth it contains. As John Piper says,
In all the details and particulars of what we find in the Bible — Old Testament and New — the aim of reading is always to see the worth and beauty of God. Notice that I say “in all the details and particulars.” There is no other way to see the glory. God’s greatness does not float over the Bible like a gas. It does not lurk in hidden places separate from the meaning of words and sentences. It is seen in and through the meaning of texts. (Reading the Bible Supernaturally, 96)
God’s glory is seen in and through the meaning of texts. That’s why we pray, “Make me understand the way of your precepts” (Psalm 119:27). Because understanding God’s word is the means of God’s word getting stored up in our hearts (Psalm 119:11).
Don’t Read Just to See
God wants our hearts in Bible reading, not just the attention of our minds. As important as seeing God’s glory is, it’s not enough. God wants us to see his glory so that we will savor his glory. And “if there is no true seeing of the glory of God, there can be no true savoring of the glory of God” (96). Charles Spurgeon said it this way:
Certainly, the benefit of reading must come to the soul by the way of the understanding. . . . The mind must have illumination before the affections can properly rise towards their divine object. . . . There must be knowledge of God before there can be love to God: there must be a knowledge of divine things, as they are revealed, before there can be an enjoyment of them. (100)
The “love to God” and “an enjoyment of divine things” are what God most wants us to experience as a result of reading our Bibles, and neither happens without knowledge. Knowledge is for the sake of love and joy.
“The word of God is for the heart of man. And the way to the heart of man is through the mind of man.”
When I said the word of God is for the heart of man, I meant it is for, to borrow from the hymn, the “joy of every longing heart.” Bible reading “in all the details and particulars” is frequently rigorous work. It can be quite difficult. At times it can even be disturbing. When we deal with the Bible, we’re dealing with the infinite and mysterious mind of God. His thoughts are not our thoughts; his ways not our ways (Isaiah 55:8–9). But ultimately, if we really understand why God has given us a Book, reading his word becomes a hedonistic pursuit. What we’re after is the pleasure our souls are designed to enjoy most: the savoring of God’s glory.
Read Until You See and Savor
Those who have known God best, and loved him most, have understood the crucial importance of savoring God deeply through seeing God clearly in his word.
George Müller, when reflecting on his remarkable, demanding life of prayerful dependence on God for the sake of the Bristol orphans, recalled an important moment early in his ministry: “I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord” (100). He was speaking about his daily, disciplined Bible reading and prayer each morning. This was his oasis of refreshment. Time in the word functioned like a ballast keeping his ship upright in a life of significant stress and at times turbulent storms. “Unless some unusual obstacle hindered him, he would not rise from his knees until sight had become savoring” (100).
George Müller read the Bible like the psalmist who wrote Psalm 119: with a rigorously engaged mind and a relentlessly engaged heart. And so must we. We read the Bible with our minds to see the glory of God, and with our hearts to savor the glory of God. We pass the Bible through our minds to store it in our hearts, because our hearts are with our treasure. And if possible, we don’t stop looking until our hearts are “happy in the Lord” — until we feel fresh joy in some aspect of who God is and what he has done for us in Christ.