When We Best Learn the Bible
If you have ever had to learn a skill, you will probably remember the frustration that accompanies it — the feelings of inadequacy, the monotony of repeating a process until you have learned it, the strong desire to quit or to find an easier way. Learning to study the Bible well introduces all of these same feelings, which is why we must study with patience.
Our culture believes that patience is a hassle and looks for ways to keep us from ever having to exercise it. Television shows resolve conflict in thirty minutes or less. Restaurants serve us food almost as quickly as we can order it. The Internet delivers any and every purchase we could conceive of in under forty-eight hours. Music, ebooks, and movies are available instantly.
The concept of delaying gratification can be difficult to learn and practice in a patience-optional culture that celebrates immediate satiation of every desire.
The Cumulative Effect
So it isn’t surprising that the desire for instant gratification can even creep into our study of the Bible. We approach our “time in the Word” like the drive-through at McDonald’s: “I’ve only got a few minutes. Give me something quick and easy to fill me up.”
But sound Bible study is rooted in a celebration of delayed gratification. Gaining Bible literacy requires allowing our study to have a cumulative effect — across weeks, months, years — so that the interrelation of one part of Scripture to another reveals itself slowly and gracefully, like a dust cloth slipping inch by inch from the face of a masterpiece.
The Bible does not want to be neatly packaged into three-hundred-and-sixty-five-day increments. It does not want it to be reduced to truisms and action points. It wants it to introduce dissonance into your thinking, to stretch your understanding. It wants it to reveal a mosaic of the majesty of God one passage at a time, one day at a time, across a lifetime. By all means, bring eagerness to your study time. Yes, bring hunger. But certainly bring patience — come ready to study for the long term.
Patience for Our Progress
Being a student of any subject requires effort — the process of gaining understanding is not easy and can often be frustrating. Depending on the subject, learning may be enjoyable, but it will not be effortless. Learning requires work.
This is as true of learning the Bible as it is of learning algebra. We think that learning the Bible should be as natural as breathing in and out; if knowing God’s word is so good for us, surely he would not make it difficult for us to do so. But learning the Bible requires discipline, and discipline is something we don’t naturally embrace. Because learning the Bible is a discipline, patience will play a much-needed role in our progress.
Do you expect to be met with frustration when you study the Bible? How do you react to the dissonance you feel when your understanding is not equal to a passage? As adults, we no longer must stick to a course of study because a teacher or parent is holding us accountable. If we give in to impatience with the learning process, we tend to react in one of two ways.
We give up. When we find that studying the Bible is too confusing, many of us think “this must not be my area of gifting,” and we move on to aspects of our faith that come more naturally. We allow sermons, podcasts, books, or blogs to be our sole source of intake for the Bible. We may read the Bible devotionally, but we assume that we are just not wired to learn it in any sort of structured way.
We look for a shortcut. Wanting to remove as quickly as possible our sense of feeling lost in a text, we run to the notes in our study Bible immediately after reading it. Or we keep a commentary handy so we can consult it at the first signs of confusion. And thanks to the Internet, help is never far away. If we read something confusing, there is no need for tears of frustration — we can simply read what the note in our study Bible says or look up an answer to our question online. But is having interpretive help readily available as helpful as it seems? Or do we end up like those kids in high school English who never actually read a book because the CliffsNotes or the movie was easily available?
In reality, using a shortcut is only marginally better than giving up because it does not honor the learning process. By hurrying to eliminate the dissonance of the “I don’t know moment,” it actually diminishes the effectiveness of the “aha moment” in discovery.
The Good Confusion
Contrary to our gut reaction, feeling lost or confused is not a bad sign for a student. It is actually a sign that our understanding is being challenged and that learning is about to take place. Embracing the dissonance of feeling lost, rather than avoiding it (giving up) or dulling it (looking for a shortcut), will actually place us in the best possible position to learn.
We must extend ourselves permission to get lost and have the patience to find our way to understanding. That’s when we best learn the Bible.