Last week, my brother Andrew shared that he has been trying to read through the gospels and is having a hard time focusing. While I don't doubt for many of us, a big reason we have difficulty reading the Bible consistently is a mixture of heart and discipline issues, I think for people who have been Christians for a long time, reading the gospels pose a different problem.
I've gone to church since the second grade, and between that time and now I've probably heard, read, or encountered in some way every story in every gospel at least a dozen times. I suspect this is true of many people reading this note. So when we decide to read Matthew or Mark or Luke again, we get bored. What am I supposed to get out of this? I know these stories backwards and forwards!
The truth is, familiarity breeds negligence. As soon as our eyes graze the heading, "The Calling of the First Disciples", "Jesus Calms a Storm", "The Parable of the Lost Son", we recall all we know about the story and then just read through it on auto-pilot. So we zoom through it, not carefully taking time to note the details and to savor each sentence or word. Because we've read it so many times, we think there's nothing left for us to learn from Scripture!
Well, right now as I prepare a sermon series on Mark, I realize that we are all SO WRONG! Our familiar style of reading the gospels (or really anything in the Bible we think we know well) is just POOR READING. It's a careless, haphazard, missing-many-details habit that we have to change or else risk never growing and never encountering the Bible in a deeper manner.
The truth is, right now I'm only beginning to learn to develop right habits of reading and asking the right questions. "Why did the author put this story in between these two stories?" "How come the author included this detail about Jesus?" "Why does Jesus take only these disciples with him?" It's really a discipline of productive reading that is applicable to any literature, not just the Bible. And, to risk being unscientific, I would even claim that part of the reason why we don't have good habits of reading is because of our TV and internet culture, where the goal of new products and applications is to make things as accessible as possible (hence, as brainless as possible).
If God is really the God about which Paul extols, "Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge!", and Scripture is his Words, then how can we possibly ever declare (even in our subconscious) "I've learned all I can from this passage". It is intellectually prideful and downright wrong. What we need to do is learn how to humbly approach the Word of God and have our spiritual ears opened. "He who has ears to hear, let him hear". How do we do that? We must prayerfully approach our Bible reading. We must avoid being in a rush, or treating it like an item on your to-do list that you are seeking to check off. We must avoid approaching the text too academically, like a reading for a class that you must work through. But at the same time, we have to approach it with right techniques to understand the meaning in the text.
Ultimately to do this, it's about time, persistence, and humble, prayerful, willingness. It requires that you do acknowledge that the Bible is the inspired Word of God and that it was written for you. It requires that you acknowledge that it is first and foremost, His Word, and that you must let it speak to you instead of you probing around for your own answers.
Try this exercise. The next time you go over a gospel, instead of just reading through it blindly, pay particular attention to one aspect of the stories. Pay attention to the different factions of people (the Pharisees, the disciples, the evil demons, the crowds) and how they view Jesus as the story progresses. Try to get your head around this complex interplay of recognition and confession from each of the groups. Have you ever paid attention to that before? What does that teach us about our hearts and how different people recognize Jesus differently?
If you develop right habits of reading, every time you read the Bible, you will learn something new. It's a practice, one of eternal spiritual value, and one that doesn't come naturally but must be worked at.