From time to time I will pick up The Message and read a book or two or a few passages in order to get a new feel for a section of Scripture or to breath fresh air into something I have read a million times, or even memorized. I enjoy The Message more than any other paraphrase version in large part because it makes such a wonderful devotional tool. Reading it recently, I began to reflect on the differences between devotional reading and reading for study.
Good paraphrases are a great tool and they ought to fill a niche for believers. Too often, however, paraphrases and devotional works are the sole Scriptural tools that Christians have in their belts. When the average believer attends to the Word, they do so with a devotional mindset of “what does this have to say to me today?” And after years of being a part of the Church and paying pretty close attention to ministers, I am afraid that a lot of ministers have the same mindset. I think that when a believer lacks the discipline of study (at least some level of biblical study), they miss out on a sizeable chunk of God’s revelation.
There are advantages and disadvantages to devotional reading. One advantage is that at least people are reading Scripture. This may not be much in some cases, but it is something. Another advantage may be that people are trying to be attentive to God’s voice either through the words on the page or through God’s living Spirit among us. On the other hand, devotional reading has the distinct disadvantage of eliminating a vast quantity of Scripture from the sight of the reader. Who would read the minor prophets devotionally? (If you say you have, it is probably because you have actually studied them or had to read them for some kind of a yearly Bible reading cycle.) How much of Isaiah is really useful for an American’s day-to-day living? Not much, if you approach it devotionally.
Another disadvantage to limiting yourself to devotional reading is that it is inherently selfish. Even though the devotional reader is trying to be attentive to God’s voice, they are interested in what God is saying to them about their lives at this particular moment. There is nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to listen to God’s direction and wisdom for our lives, but we can easily become wrapped up in ourselves and loose sight of God.
I believe that the discipline of study is crucial to the life of a well rounded disciple. To begin with, I am not arguing that every believer needs to go out and buy the latest commentary series or learn Greek and Hebrew so they can judge the relative merits of the KJV and the RSV. What I am saying is that people should learn to approach Scripture in a way different from devotional reading. And honestly, buying some kind of commentary or serious book about Romans, for instance, never killed anyone.
The discipline of study has some distinct advantages. First, it opens the entirety Scripture to the reader. No longer is the believer limited to passages that can be easily applied to the question of whether I should do drugs. Now, they have the entire revelation of their God in front of them and they are beginning to approach it in such a way that they will be attentive to all of it instead of just little snippets. Secondly, it works against the selfishness that is a danger with devotional reading. Instead of approaching Scripture looking for what is says to me, I will now approach Scripture looking for what is says about God. There is a universe of difference between the two approaches.
Overall, I do not want to dissuade believers from their devotional reading-what I do want to do is encourage them to develop another kind of habit when they open their Bibles. I think when we look for God in all things, especially Scripture, we find that the benefits include finding ourselves and the strength and wisdom we so often long for.