“Pastor John, my name is Jeremy, and I’m a college student living in Arlington, Texas. I love the word of God, and it often takes a long time for me to read through a book of the Bible. In episode 127, you mentioned slowing down in the rose garden, which has been so beneficial and wonderful. However, as a Christian who did not grow up in the church, I am not familiar with all the Bible. So how do I both stop and enjoy God’s truth, one verse at a time, but also satisfy this desire to know the Bible as a whole?”
I love his desire. Amen. I have something to suggest to Jeremy, but first let me say a word about depth and breadth, because we all struggle with this: the balancing (if that is even the right word) between going deep with the Bible and going broad with the Bible. But what do we even mean by that? I want to just say a word about that and then give a concrete piece of advice.
Read for Depth
Take depth. What do I mean by depth? I will just give an example. Say you are reading along at a pretty good clip, trying to get through a chapter or two in the morning. And you read 2 Thessalonians 2:12, which says, “[They] did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” And as you are reading along real quick, what registers is: Okay, those are two things to avoid. Don’t be disbelieving in the truth, and don’t take pleasure in unrighteousness. On to the next verse.
And what I mean by depth is that you stop. You actually don’t go on to the next verse. You stop and you ask questions. This takes time. You can’t be reading the next verse when you do this. You stop and ask questions like: What is the relationship between not believing the truth and taking pleasure in unrighteousness? Why did Paul make them alternative? Why didn’t he say, “They did not believe the truth but believed a lie”? He did not say that. Why didn’t he say, “They did not take pleasure in righteousness but in unrighteousness”? Why didn’t he say that? He didn’t say that.
He said, “[They] did not believe the truth but [as though it were an alternative] took pleasure in unrighteousness.” Odd. Why juxtapose unrighteousness and truth and belief and pleasure? What is going on here? This is what I mean by depth. And I think you say, “Hmm. Didn’t I just read the word truth back in verse 10?” And you go back and look at verse 10: “They refused to love the truth.” Oh, now you have got “love the truth” not just “believe the truth,” and love sounds sort of like taking pleasure in truth. And now you are into a series of thoughts that take you down deep into the very nature of faith, which has to do with what you rest in, what you embrace, what you treasure, and not just what you think is true.
Now that may take you ten minutes to do what I just did there, or longer. And you might jot it down in your journal. And as you are writing in your journal, two new thoughts about pleasure and unrighteousness come to your mind. And suddenly you filled up your morning half hour and you have only read one verse. So there is the struggle, right? If you are going to do that every day, it will take you eighty years or more to read your Bible. I am a great believer in slowing down and thinking, thinking, thinking.
Read for Breadth
However, on the other hand, I believe in breadth. “All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). And here is an example: By breadth I mean reading broadly enough so that you take in the entire five-hundred-year period, say, of the divided kingdom in Israel, from Rehoboam right down to the end of the exile. In 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, we have king after king after king rising, falling, succeeding, failing, good and evil, evil, then good, a rotten father followed by a good son, a good father followed by a rotten son and on and on.
I don’t know of any other way but reading through those books broadly to get the profound sense of both the repeated failure and rebellion of God’s people over centuries and the extraordinary mercy and patience of God. You can read about the great patience of God in the New Testament, and you will have certain affections and feelings and responses. But when you take a month to read these four books, 1–2 Kings and 1–2 Chronicles, you just come away saying, “Good night! Why in the world did God tolerate such rebellion?” And then you look in the mirror and realize how many times God has been patient with you. There is just no other way to quite get what God has to give us if we ignore the broad, doing only the deep that I described earlier.
Never Stop Reading
So my answer to Jeremy is: mix deep and broad in various ways that suit your mind and your life. So here is a concrete suggestion. What about this, Jeremy? Set aside a block of time in the morning to go deeper. You will take a smaller passage of Scripture, and you will perhaps memorize one of the verses in the Scripture. You will open a journal and you will write down some thoughts about what you saw in the verse you memorized or some other verse. This may mean that you only cover a paragraph in the morning or two verses in the morning. And the encouragement is you are going to have grown remarkably when you do that. You will.
Then set aside a time, maybe just before you go to bed — because it is okay to fall asleep at the end of this or maybe halfway through — set aside some time in the evening to do the big block reading. And here you don’t have your journal open, and you are not trying to memorize anything. You are just trying to get the sense of the whole as you read more quickly and more broadly. That is one possible way of mixing up the deep and the broad.
Another would be to take a month and do only deep, or a month and do only broad — or a year. You might say, “This is the year I am going to get through the whole Bible, and so I’ll read four chapters a day. I am not going to worry about depth. I am going to get the whole thing read.” Or you might take a whole year and say, “All in Philippians,” or “All in Romans,” or something like that.
And I might mention one other thing if you are not familiar with the Bible. It sounded like Jeremy might have come out of a background where he is not familiar with the stories. So here are two suggestions: Get a book like Vaughan Roberts’s God’s Big Picture. Or get a good study Bible like the ESV Study Bible, and walk through the whole Bible reading the introductions to the biblical books, or reading some of those really good essays that summarize the whole Bible.
Don’t think that you have to do everything inductively, just reading it for yourself. Do that, by all means, but there are great helps out there. And just always remember: whatever you do never stop reading. This is God’s very word. Broad or deep, it is his transforming voice.