Thursday, April 19, 2012

why transformation eludes us

“When all your favorite preachers are gone, and all their books forgotten, you will have your Bible. Master it. Master it.” - John Piper

I meet with women all the time who are curious about how they should study the Bible. They hunger for transformation, but it eludes them. Though many have spent years in church, even participating in organized studies, their grasp on the fundamentals of how to approach God's Word is weak to non-existent. And it’s probably not their fault - unless we are taught good study habits, few of us develop them naturally.

Why, with so many study options available, do so many professing Christians remain unschooled and unchanged? Scripture teaches clearly that the living and active Word matures us, transforms us, accomplishes what it intends, increases our wisdom, and bears the fruit of right actions. There is no deficit in the ministry of the Word. If our exposure to it fails to result in transformation, particularly over the course of years, there are surely only two possible reasons why: either our Bible studies lack true converts, or our converts lack true Bible study.

I believe the second reason is more accurate than the first. Much of what passes for Bible study in Christian bookstores and church resource libraries just isn't: while it may educate us on a doctrine or a topic, it does little to further our Bible literacy. And left to our own devices, we pursue a host of unsavory (and un-transformative) self-constructed approaches to “spending time in the Word”. Here are several that I encounter on a regular basis:

The Xanax Approach: Feel anxious? Philippians 4:6 says be anxious for nothing. Feel ugly? Psalm 139 says you are fearfully and wonderfully made. Feel tired? Matthew 11:28 says Jesus will give rest to the weary. The Xanax Approach treats the Bible as if it exists to make us feel better. Whether aided by a devotional book or just the topical index in our Bibles, we pronounce our time in the Word successful if we can say, “Wow. That was touching.” The Problem: The Xanax Approach makes the Bible a book about us. We ask how the Bible can serve us, rather than how we can serve the God it proclaims. The thing is, the Bible doesn’t always make us feel better. In fact, quite often it does just the opposite (feeling awesome? Jeremiah 17:9 says you’re a wicked rascal). Yes, there is comfort to be found in the pages of Scripture, but context is what makes that comfort lasting and real. The Xanax Approach guarantees that huge sections of your Bible will remain unread because they fail to deliver an immediate dose of emotional satisfaction.

The Pinball Approach: Lacking a preference or any guidance about what to read, you read whatever scripture you happen to turn to. Hey, it’s all good, right? You’ll just ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you through whatever verse you flip to. Releasing the plunger of your good intentions, you send the pinball of your ignorance hurtling toward whatever passage it may hit, ricocheting around to various passages “as the Spirit leads”. The Problem: The Bible was not written to be read this way. The Pinball Approach gives no thought to cultural, historical or textual context, authorship, or original intent of the passage in question. When we read this way, we treat the Bible with less respect than we would give to a simple textbook. Imagine trying to master Algebra by randomly reading for ten minutes each day from whatever paragraph in the textbook your eyes happened to fall on. Like that metal pinball, you’d lose momentum fast. And be very bad at Algebra.

The Magic 8 Ball Approach: You remember the Magic 8 Ball – it was able to answer even your most difficult questions as a child. But you’re an adult now and you’re wondering if you should marry Bob, get a new job, or change your hair color. You give your Bible a vigorous shake and open it to a random page. Placing your finger blindly on a verse, you then read it to see if “signs point to yes”. The Problem: The Bible is not magical and it does not serve our whim. The Magic 8 Ball Approach misconstrues the ministry of the Holy Spirit through the Word, demanding that the Bible tell us what to do rather than who to be. And it’s dangerously close to soothsaying, which people used to get stoned for. So, please. No Magic 8 Ball.

The Personal Shopper Approach (AKA the topical Bible study): You want to know about being a godly woman or how to deal with self-esteem issues, but you don’t know where to find verses about that, so you let [insert famous Bible teacher here] do the legwork for you. The Problem: The Personal Shopper Approach doesn’t help you build “ownership” of Scripture. Much like the Pinball Approach, you ricochet from passage to passage, gaining fragmentary knowledge of many books of the Bible but mastery of none. Topical studies serve a purpose: they help us integrate broad concepts into our understanding of Scripture. But if they’re all we ever do we’re missing out on the richness of learning a book of the Bible from start to finish.

The Armchair Quarterback Approach: This approach involves reading books about the Bible instead of reading the Bible itself. If you can quote Piper more than you can quote Paul, you may be the Tim Tebow of the armchair quarterback approach. I don’t actually know anything about football, so that metaphor may make no sense at all. The Problem: We’re called to love the Lord our God with all of our mind, not John Piper’s mind. Get in the game. You’ll get way more out of Piper if you read the book he loves above all others.

The Jack Sprat Approach: This is where we engage in “picky eating” with the Word of God. We read the New Testament, but other than Psalms and Proverbs we avoid the Old Testament, or we read books with characters, plots, or topics we can easily identify with. The Problem: All scripture is God-breathed and profitable. All of it. Women, it’s time to move beyond Esther, Ruth and Proverbs 31 to the rest of the meal. Everyone, you can't fully appreciate the sweetness of the New Testament without the savory of the Old Testament. We need a balanced diet to grow to maturity.

Why do these six habits of highly ineffective Bible study persist in the church today? Why does Biblical ignorance continue to dog the church, despite the good intentions of leadership to obey the Great Command to make disciples? I believe the answer lies in our definition of a disciple.

A disciple is, literally, a learner - “one who follows another’s teaching”. But the modern church has shown a tendency to define a disciple as a “doer” instead of as a “learner”. We have been asked to do service projects, join home groups, find an accountability partner, get counseling, fix our marriages, sing on the worship team, get out of debt, help in the nursery, hand out bulletins, go on mission trips, give to the building fund, share the gospel at Starbucks – but we have rarely been challenged to pursue the most fundamental element of discipleship – earnest study of the Word. Yes, a disciple is decidedly a doer, but one motivated to act by a love of the God proclaimed in the Word.

I don’t know how long it will take the church to return to a love of the study of Scripture, but why wait? Disciple, stop waiting for your community of believers to call you to be what Christ already has. Be a student. Be a good student. Read repetitively and in context, line by line. Keep the God of the gospel at the center of your study. Strive for comprehension before interpretation. Give application ample time to emerge from a passage. Watch ignorance flee and transformation flourish. Study the Word. Master it, master it.

Related posts:
How Should We Approach God's Word? - audio
Dangerous Bible Study and Puffy Christianity
Albert Mohler: The Scandal of Biblical Illiteracy

Need some good study resources to get started? Try these:
ESV Study Bible
NavPress LifeChange series
Precept Ministries
...or any of the studies linked on my blog


  1. Excellent observations. Insightful, creative and well written.
    Todd Sorenson, President, High Tech Ministries

  2. You nailed each approach with a perfect description! It's so interesting how it seems women especially fall for the teacher rather than THE Book. Thankfully, we have some awesome leadership at our church that has really spurred our body on to studying Scripture! The growth happening is fantastic!
    Thanks, Jen! I so appreciate your writing!

  3. Being a learner of the Bible is something I have been convicted and challenged by the Spirit recently. Are there any references you would recommend for scripture study?

    1. Sure. I'd start by getting a good study bible like this one for personal study:
      Then I'd read up on good study methods. You could start with this:
      or check out the introductory material to any of my online workbooks, or the audio link at the end of the post.
      Then I'd get into a good inductive bible study in my church or community.

  4. There's so much to like here-excellent points, good resources-but I think another part of the problem is what Dallas Willard identifies as the magical thinking that goes on in evangelicalism, the belief that just by hearing the Word preached or by studying it we will be changed. We must also engage in a correct understanding of the spiritual disciplines. A good resource is the series of lectures by John Coe of the institute for Spiritual Formation at Biola.

  5. I have always had some of these same thoughts but just didn't know how to word them; you're correct on all point.