Questions continue to arrive from listeners facing a year of Bible reading ahead. This email is from Jeff. “Hi, Pastor John. Through various seasons of my life I have been ministered through the Bible and through other books, and especially through your books. In 2019, how can I best balance Bible reading with reading other books? Specifically, if I have only one hour a day to read, how would you suggest I allocate my time between the Bible and other books?”
Where to Read?
That’s a nice specific way to ask it, isn’t it? You’ve got one hour, you’ve got your Bible, and you’ve got some other books — tell me what to do. Wow. This is risky though. It is risky to tell somebody how to apportion their time between the Bible — the very word of God — and other books. I will give a very specific suggestion in just a moment. But first a couple thoughts.
“Don’t just read the Bible; read God’s world as well as God’s word.”
When I read this question, I wasn’t sure what kind of books Jeff had in mind. Is he asking about Bible reading versus reading Pilgrim’s Progress, Packer’s Knowing God, Calvin’s Institutes? Or is he asking about reading the Bible versus reading Sports Illustrated, or National Geographic, or a novel, or a manual on how to be a mechanic, or assigned school texts? What is he asking?
Consider the Ant
Let me say a word about Bible reading versus the quest for knowledge in general outside the Bible. Because I can imagine a person saying, “Well, if the Bible is the very word of the Creator of the universe, why would you not just stay with your Bible all day and listen to God? For goodness sake — he’s God!”
The answer to that question is that the Bible tells you not to: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6). In other words, close your Bible and go out and look at anything and learn something from the world. “Consider the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6:28). Close your Bible and go look at some lilies. “Look at the birds of the air” (Matthew 6:26). Close your Bible and go look at the birds of the air. Don’t just read the Bible; read God’s world as well as God’s word.
And of course, the Bible tells us to work with our hands, to provide a living (1 Thessalonians 4:10–12). But you learn how to be a tent maker like Paul, or a doctor like Luke, or a carpenter like Jesus’s father, or a professional fisherman like Peter not by reading your Bible. The Bible doesn’t tell you which stitches hold tents together when the leather gets wet. It doesn’t do that. It’s not designed for that. The Bible says go out and look at the world, listen to wise people, study nature, and figure things out.
So all that just to say that the Bible itself instructs us to learn about the world, learn about people, learn about vocations, learn about society and social processes that God made. It calls us to learn by looking at them. We don’t stop seeing the hand of God just because we’re not reading the Bible.
Fifteen Minutes a Day
Now that’s probably not what Jeff was asking. I think what Jeff is asking is, If I have a good book about God and his ways to read by a godly author, and I have one hour, and I have to divvy up reading that book from reading the Bible, what should my proportion be? He’s asking, If you have Calvin’s Institutes or J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, and you want to read some of that, but you want to read your Bible, how do you do it? So here goes.
“We don’t stop seeing the hand of God just because we’re not reading the Bible.”
Remember that I have no biblical authority for saying this. This proportion is just what I’m going to suggest. I’m going to remind all of our listeners of something I’ve said before, a long time ago.
Suppose you read slowly like I do, about 200 words a minute — which may be this pace I’m talking right now, I don’t know. If you read 15 minutes a day for one year, you’ll read 5,475 minutes in a year. Multiply that by 200 words a minute, and you get 1,095,000 words that you would have read in a year.
Now, an average serious book might have 360 words on a page. I counted a bunch of them. So you would read 3,041 pages in one year during that 15-minute slot a day. A serious book would average maybe 250 pages? Lots of books are just 150 pages, but let’s just say a good, solid, serious theology book would have 250 pages. I just flopped one open yesterday that I got in the mail. It was 250 pages. That’s 12 very substantial books, all in 15 minutes a day for the average slow reader.
Reading to Read the Bible
I’m going to suggest to Jeff that he reads 45 minutes in the Bible — slowly, thoughtfully, meditating, praying, which would get him through the Bible in a year — then that he spend 15 minutes of that hour reading a great, God-centered, Bible-saturated book that will serve his Bible reading. (I’m assuming that Jeff then sets aside another chunk of time for prayer, by the way. That’s another conversation we should have.)
Someone might say, “How could he even dare to suggest that any book intrude itself on an hour that he could spend reading the Bible?” And my answer is that my experience and the Bible itself tells me that other people’s vision of what they have seen in the Bible can be a great means of seeing more in the Bible. I know this is true. If I take 10 minutes in the morning to read John Owen or Jonathan Edwards, I see more in my Bible.
I think if Jeff chooses his books wisely, they will not diminish what he sees in God’s word in that hour. Looking through the eyes of others will increase Jeff’s grasp of the greatest things in the world when he reads his Bible.