When the resurrected Lord rebuked the church of Ephesus for leaving its first love, he was also serving notice to Christians of all times that they must work hard not to lose the passionate commitment and joy that attends our conversion. This should remind us that the Christian life has many temptations, none of which are more insidious than leaving our “first love” (Rev. 2:4).
The temptation lurks around the corner for every Christian, but perhaps more so for “professional Christians” such as pastors, professors, and seminary students. Perhaps it is such a temptation for us because we study and teach the Bible for a living. Gradually, and without notice, we slip into the habit of viewing it more as an object to be dissected than a living Word to be received.
As an antidote to this temptation, I offer a four-fold pattern of Scripture intake that helps us to avoid treating Scripture as an object, so that we can receive it as the living word of a living Lord. The four-fold pattern—read, reflect, pray, obey—is an adaptation and modification of an early church practice.
- Read the Scriptures
The first step is to read the Scriptures. Now, if you are a seminary student or pastor, you might read this point and utter to yourself, “Thank you, Captain Obvious. As an evangelical, if there is anything of which I do not need to be reminded, it is that I should read the Scriptures.” In response, I offer that what we try to pass off as Scripture reading often is not worthy of the name.
We err when we read the Scriptures in a hurried or distracted manner.
In our hurried age full of Twitter and Facebook notifications, text messages, Instagram photos, phone calls, voicemails, blogs, and a myriad of other distractions, our Scripture reading is often hurried. But if we wish to be attentive to the word of the Lord, we must make preparations to be unhurried and undistracted.
We err when we view the Bible as an object to be mastered.
Additionally, in our scholarly attempts to read the Bible correctly and with scholarly precision, we sometimes unconsciously begin to view the Bible as an object to be mastered. But the Bible is not an object to be mastered, but the living words of a living Lord who wishes to master us.
We must take countermeasures in order to hear the word of the Lord.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that I succumb to both temptations—to read the Bible as an object and to read it hurriedly in the midst of distractions. In fact, I am so easily tempted that I have determined to take some countermeasures.
The first countermeasure is to turn off my computer and my phone, so that the Lord does not have to compete with emails or social media. He does not deserve to be put on par with social media, having as it were to compete for our attention with Bill Gates’ Outlook inbox or Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook.
The second countermeasure is to imagine that the Lord Christ in the room with me, speaking the words of Scripture to me. Doing so helps me to realize that, in my reading, I should be listening attentively. Scripture is replete with imperatives to the effect of “Hear the word of the Lord.” And that is what we should do. Listen attentively to the living words of a living Lord.
- Reflect on the Scriptures
After we have listened attentively to the word of the Lord, we should reflect on it. In doing so, we move from hearing the Lord’s word to entering into his word. In this stage, we emplace ourselves into the context of the whole Bible.
Although the Bible is composed of 66 books written in a variety of genres by many authors, its books and genres come together to form one master narrative. This narrative is the true story of the whole world. Although evangelicals might be tempted to view the American founding narrative, or the Fox News narrative, or some other narrative as the world’s master narrative, those stories are in fact “bit players” within the true story of the world.
For that reason, when we reflect on Scripture, we should allow ourselves to be absorbed into the biblical story. We should soak ourselves in Scripture, letting it feed us like water feeds the roots of a flourishing plant (Ps. 1). To switch the analogy, we should receive God’s word so deeply in our hearts (Ezek. 3:10-11) that it touches the inner strings and sets them to vibrating.
- Pray the Scriptures
Scripture and prayer go hand-in-hand. God intends for prayer to accompany our hearing of his Word. God teaches us, rebukes us, corrects us, and trains us in righteousness by his Word (2 Tim 3:18-17). For this reason, because the Lord is working in and through Scripture in so many ways, our Scripture reading should be dialogical.
As the Lord teaches us to walk the straight path, we thank him for revealing this path to us. As he rebukes us, showing us how we’ve swayed from the path, we respond with repentance. As he corrects us, putting our feet back on the path, we ask him to continue to illumine it and to prod us if we begin to stray again. As he trains us in righteousness, thoroughly equipping us to walk in the truth no matter the situation, we inquire further into his will and seek more insight for living in this world.
When we pray the words of Scripture back to God, “riffing” off of them as we do, we ensure that the Lord’s word is at the center not only of our listening but also of our response. We receive the word as a gracious gift, we ruminate on it and embrace it, and then offer it back to the Lord in thanksgiving. We allow the living Lord to decenter us so that he can regain the center of our lives.
- Obey the Scriptures
The final step in our four-fold pattern is to allow Scripture to shape our words, actions, and attitudes. After reading, reflecting, and praying the Scriptures, we now allow the Lord’s word to remain present with us in this way throughout the day. It should be present with us not only in our devotions, church attendance, and private morality, but also in our public lives.
I’ve found it helpful to consider the way Scripture should shape my callings. After reading, reflecting, and praying, I ask how his word shapes my commitment to the redeemed community (church), to the people most near to me (family), to the activity that takes up the majority of my waking hours (work), and to my place in the town, state, nation, and globe in which I live (community).
The significance of this last step can hardly be overstated: it is the finishing touch and the coming together of God’s revelation and our response. If we do not obey the Scriptures, then the first three steps are nearly useless. Scripture is not an object to stare at, but the living words of a living Lord. It is not something we can master, but something that should “master” us.
There is nothing novel about this four-fold pattern, because it is merely an adaptation of a reading habit cultivated by many Christians over many centuries. Also, it isn’t magical, because it does not offer a sure-fire technique that guarantees a close walk with the Lord.
Instead, it is a biblically based pattern for listening attentively to the Lord’s voice so that we can offer it back to him in praise in the form of prayer and obedience. If reading Scripture puts the Lord’s word into our mouths, reflections chews on it slowly, prayer discerns and gratefully acknowledges its flavors, and obedience digests it for nourishment.