3 Ways Not to Study and 3 Solutions
Parts Adapted from David’s Helm’s Expositional Preaching
When I was in Middle School, I was asked by teachers and youth leaders, “If your house caught on fire and you could only take three things with you, what would you take?” (Side note: It’s kind of odd that I was asked this more than once. It must have been the fad in “help them grow in critical thinking” during the early 90s). Anyway, since I grew up in a predominantly Christian subculture, the first, obvious, and “right” choice was my Bible, of course. Even if I didn’t mean it, I knew that I needed to say it first. It was probably followed quickly by my New Kids on the Block paraphernalia and make-up.
Nowadays, I might pick our passports or family photos. However, there is still part of me…all Middle-School self-righteousness aside…that really would pick my Bible. Like you, my Bible is precious to me. This is because my Bible accurately reveals Jesus to me. Through it, he ministers to me. In addition, it is the only authoritative source I have to minister his gospel to others as well. Without a Bible, I can’t rightly understand God, myself, my world, or anything else.
However, as precious as my Bible is to me, it is easy for me to slip into studying it wrongly, especially when I’m preparing to teach. This is surprising because I have had a lot of training in studying it well. During seminary, I learned various processes to help me. They varied in the details, but all of them provided a way to approach my passage that would enable me to draw out of it what the Spirit intended when he inspired it (exegesis). Having a process protects me from reading my thoughts into the text (eisegesis).
Whatever it was, I wasn’t using the tools I’d been given, and it was getting me off track in my understanding of the Bible.
Excited to have this helpful knowledge, I applied what I’d learned to change my process of teaching preparation for three years. I felt pretty good about what I was doing. I felt good, that is, until I began to prepare a passage from Titus for the Simeon Trust. They gave me a worksheet with an exegetical process to follow closely. As I began to study and adhere to it strictly, I blushed as I realized that somewhere along the way I had forgotten some of the basic steps. Maybe I’d gotten too sure of myself? Perhaps it was being busily pulled in many directions? Whatever it was, I wasn’t using the tools I’d been given, and it was getting me off track in my understanding of the Bible.
As embarrassing as it was, knowing is half the battle. So here are three ways of studying the Bible wrongly and what happens when we do.
1. Skimp on Time
You didn’t plan your week well. On Monday and Tuesday, you spent too much time on Facebook and caught up on your favorite show. Now it’s crunch time, and you approach your passage for the first time. You read it quickly, leaning heavily on previous Bible knowledge. This should work out okay, right? Well, the truth is that without slowing down to read it many times, outline it carefully, or understand the context, you and I can easily miss the point of the passage. When you do this, you often make a text merely practical or people-focused, missing what it says about Christ, the gospel, and the true challenge to our lives.
2. See Your Hobbyhorse Everywhere
Do you have a theological hobbyhorse? I bet you do. Maybe it’s sovereignty. Perhaps you emphasize election or that the gospel is for the whole world. One of mine is sanctification by grace. These are often the things that God used in your life to reveal himself to you, so they are particularly dear to you. That’s a good thing.
Here’s the problem: Hobbyhorses can easily become the lens through which you read and teach your passage. Let’s say you’re preparing to teach a Bible study. You read the word “grace” in your passage and decide that you want to teach about that topic. You put together everything you’ve ever learned about grace in a cohesive presentation and teach it. Though your theology may be accurate (and there is a place for teaching the doctrine of grace), you will mostly likely have missed the point of your passage. Just because something is mentioned, does not make it the primary message the Spirit intended.
3. “What it Means to Me”
This one is probably one of the most common problems. It starts with good intentions. You read your passage devotionally, in fellowship with the Lord. He ministers a particular part of it to your heart and to your situation. It helped you, so you want to give the same message to the people you are teaching.
Here’s the problem: Although the Lord may have truly applied a portion of the Bible to you, it may still not be the main point of the passage. It’s hard to admit, but you and I can easily twist God’s word to say what we want to hear. So you could be wrong. But even if you are right, only studying the Bible well will give you the confidence to say, “This is how it ministered to me and, having studied it closely, I can say that this is what the Lord intended it to say to all of us.”
The Solutions to the Problems
So what are the solutions to these? Here are a few thoughts.
- One of the easiest to see, but hardest to do, is to set aside time. There is much grace when legitimate demands crowd out some study time. But overall, it is important to remember that nothing can substitute for time in the Scripture.
- Having a process to follow is necessary. Knowing the genre of your passage, reading it many times, outlining it, understanding its context, and seeing how it ties to Christ will keep you on track.
- Admitting that you and I are fallible and that we are not meant to study autonomously helps us. We should always check “what it means to me” with others and with good study.
Study Well and Teach the Bible
The Bible is precious to us for good reason. And God is willing to reveal the ways that you study wrongly, not to berate you, but so that you can learn to do it rightly, as he did for me. He will provide illumination as you use the tools he’s given you to do it well. As you teach his meaning, you will see your life and the lives of others transformed by his word.