Last year I challenged our adult Sunday School class to try reading the Bible in a year. In anticipation of starting this process I spent our Sunday School hour discussing some of the challenges that arise when following Bible reading plans or daily devotionals.
One thing I discovered is that everyone in the class could relate to having started a Bible reading plan only to have a sense of drudgery set in a few weeks, or months, after starting the plan. Most could identify with switching plans just to break out of the monotony that had developed from following the initial plan. In light of this discovery I’ve decided to give a few suggestions to help guard against the drudgery that often comes with trying to follow a Bible reading plan or a devotional.
1. Avoid Reading Just to Read – There’s No Prize for Reading Words
When I was in junior high, our youth leaders decided to give us a challenge. If we read all thirty-one Proverbs in a month we would get free tokens to a local, small, amusement park. They had mini-golf, go-karts, and a few other small rides. The whole month I never touched my Bible. However, as the day of the event grew closer, I realized I needed to get to work. So, I sat down three days before the event, and started reading Proverbs. I read every word. My eyes glazed over every letter, every sentence, and every verse. But when asked if I had “read” the book of Proverbs, I could say, “Yes!” and get my prize.
Unfortunately, unless you’re in a youth group that’s going to an amusement park sometime soon, there’s no prize for just reading (glossing over) words. Oftentimes, I find that people who start a Bible reading plan will, at some point in the process, zip through a section of Scripture just so they can say, “I read the Bible in a year.” Sometimes it happens when they wake up late and discover that today’s reading is more chapters or verses than they had planned. As their thirty minutes of devotional time runs out, they quickly speed through a chapter, or two, just so they can check the box and say they “read” it.
It should be no surprise that after doing this for a few days people start thinking, “Why am I even doing this?” They start to feel like they “have to” read it, and abandon the plan altogether because they feel the plan is restricting them. Whatever the plan you’re following may be, don’t ever forget that the goal of Bible reading is to discover Christ and what he has for you. Most of us are not in Sunday School anymore. You’re not going to get a gold star on Sunday for completing your daily reading. Abandon those elementary things. It’s okay if it takes you two years to complete the one-year reading plan.
2. Always Pray First – Ask God To Open Your Heart and Mind to His Word
One of the problems with a reading plan is that people get so focused on completing the daily reading that they forget why they are reading in the first place. Before we approach God’s Word we need to get our hearts right. A proper understanding of how God speaks to believers through his Word acknowledges that we need the illumination of the Spirit to help us discern the deep things of God.
If we hope to walk away with anything from our daily reading, we must first recognize that we are utterly dependent on the Spirit of Christ to instruct us in his Word. Before you pick up God’s Word, pray and ask him to reveal himself through what you’re about to read. Far too often we approach the Scriptures as a bunch of know-it-alls. We start to read a story and we think, “Oh yeah, I know this story.” Worse, when we come to a passage we’ve never read before, we think, “What is the point of this passage?” Rather than looking for what Christ may be trying to teach us in the difficult passages, we just read until we find something we’re familiar with. There’s a certain level of arrogance in this process that, if we were honest, we all deal with from time-to-time.
The answer to this arrogance is a dependance on the Spirit for illumination as we read. Strip yourself of what you think you “need” for today, and look for what Christ is trying to show you. How many times have I heard of people turning to the Scriptures for a solution to this problem or that? They read for thirty minutes and complain, “God didn’t give me an answer to my problem.” Wrong, he probably gave you an answer for your arrogance, self-righteousness, or ignorance of him but because he didn’t come to you on YOUR terms you think he didn’t show you anything. Humility requires we come to the Word asking, and believing, that God has something for us in his Word. When we pray for illumination, we must pray with confidence, and read with earnest expectation.
3. Mix It Up a Bit – Change Time, Location, and Reading Plan
Time – There is a common misconception out there that if you don’t do your Bible reading before you go to work in the morning, you’re somehow less spiritual than those early birds who get up at 3:00 a.m. and read for two hours. First, there is no right or wrong time to read God’s Word. I know there are some who say, “You have to start the day right, so you should read in the morning.” I used to buy into that thinking until I worked from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. for four years. My morning was 10:30 p.m.!
The most important thing when choosing a time, in my opinion, is picking a time when you are most apt to be conscious, and least likely to be distracted. For me, morning just doesn’t work. It never has. As an aside, 2:00-3:30 p.m. would not work either. For some reason I’m always a little weary around that time. However, for me, in the evening, after the kids are in bed, is a great time to sit down and commune with God.
One of the things that contributes to drudgery in devotional life is too much routine and legalism. I would encourage you, if you’re experiencing a bit of drudgery in your routine, to mix it up a bit. Start by picking a different time. Try doing it at a different time every day. Lunch-time, morning, before dinner, after dinner, before bed, etc. Be intentional about it, but mix it up.
Location – Location is another key element in removing the drudgery. I discovered that sometimes I start to doze off, especially when I’ve try to do my devotions in the morning. One trick I learned is going to a public place. What’s kind of eery about studying in a McDonald’s, Denny’s, Starbucks etc. is that even though you are in a public place, it’s strangely private. If you know a lot of people who frequent the location you’ve selected, this might not work. I’ve found, though, that people don’t interrupt you if you’re reading by yourself. Also, the public nature of the venue keeps you from falling asleep and drooling on yourself (or your Bible).
If you’re facing some drudgery, change up WHERE you read your Bible and pray. Try reading in the car one day. Leave early for work and do your reading in the parking lot before you go in. Try a public venue like McDonald’s, Denny’s or a local diner. Do you have a local library? Some public libraries have cubicle-like desks where you can read privately. The nice thing about a library is that it’s usually quiet, but you’ll be less likely to doze off or be distracted.
Reading Plan – Sometimes the best thing to do when you’re stuck in a rut with a Bible reading plan is to abandon it altogether. I know for those of you who set New Year’s resolutions this may produce a sense of failure or guilt. Listen carefully, there’s no Bible reading plan in the Bible! So if it helps a little, your Bible reading plan is extra-biblical. There’s nothing wrong with these plans, but they do end up producing a false sense of guilt, or pride, depending on the circumstances.
For those who are trying hard to read God’s Word according to a plan, you may feel as though you have failed God if you don’t complete the plan. That’s foolishness. However, do you want to know what’s even more foolish? Thinking that because you read through the Bible in a year, completed a plan, and checked off all the boxes, you’re some sort of success. Reading the Bible through seventeen times in your life will not get you a closer seat to Christ in Glory. I don’t want to take away from those who regularly read the Bible through, but as I said before, there’s no prize for mere reading.
The prize for reading God’s Word…is God’s Word. God reveals himself to us as his Spirit illuminates our minds and excites our hearts with the truths of who he is, who we are, and what he is doing. When we start looking at reading God’s Word as a chore, or a means to end, rather than the end itself, drudgery is sure to set in. Break up the monotony by mixing things up, remember to always pray first, and do whatever is necessary to keep from reading just to read.