“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4
Who hasn’t had a love affair with junk food? Those enticing cellophane-encased delights whose appearance, smell and taste hold all the promise of a deliciously satisfying meal but none of the nutritional benefits…Oh, for the simple days of my nutritional ignorance, those blissful years of HoHo’s and Ding Dongs, when the words “partially hydrogenated”, “high fructose” and “trans fat” were part of some beautiful secret code I had no interest in cracking. But then some Johnny Raincloud broke that code, translating junk food labels into a recipe for diabetes and heart disease. And the unthinkable happened: Cheetos lost their binge-appeal. According to food activist Michael Pollan, these tasty morsels were not food, but “edible foodlike substances”.
Well. When you put it that way…
Yet some days I still find myself thinking, “How could something that tastes so good be wrong?” Yes, junk food seems right unto Jen, but the end thereof is nutrient-starved obesity.
Lately, it seems everyone is a nutritional code-breaker. Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter all buzz with the clean food convictions of their users. Lately, eating well is practically a religion.
Which brings me to my point: We take great care to ensure the nutritional content of our daily bread, but how concerned are we about the nutrition value of our spiritual food? Specifically, how hard have we thought about the content of our Bible studies?
There are endless shelves of them in the local Christian bookstore. They all promise to satisfy our hunger, but how can we know whether we are staring at shelves of Twinkies or organic purple kale? How can we tell which ones are solid spiritual food and which are “edible foodlike substances”?
Much like junk food manufacturers, Christian writers have been known to appeal to our senses to garner popularity. But the stakes for dining on spiritual junk food are high: like real junk food, superficial studies sabotage a healthy spiritual appetite and create cravings for teaching that appeals to our feelings or preferences. These are not studies so much as “study-like inspirational musings”. Yes, palatable para-studies seem right, but the end thereof is theology-starved spiritual flabbiness.
So take a minute to analyze the nutritional content of your current Bible study by asking these questions:
- How much does it rely on storytelling? Humor? Empathy?
- How much of the process of discovery is your responsibility?
- Does it ask you to think hard, or just to feel deeply?
- Does it emphasize theology or just morality? Does it point to the gospel?
- Does its appeal lie in who wrote it, or in what it teaches?
- Does it attach scripture to a topic, or does it address a topic as it arises in scripture?
- Does it foster navel-contemplation or God-contemplation?
- Does it include a preponderance of pithy quotes from other authors?
- Does it rely heavily on paraphrases (the Message, the Living Bible, etc) instead of translations (ESV, NASB, RSV, etc)?
- Does it deliver short bursts of inspiration or long brush-strokes of understanding?
- Does it teach study skills or just deliver commentary?
Don’t miss my meaning: I am not implying that good Bible study never touches our emotions. Quite the contrary – I believe that the message of the Word is so beautiful that its faithful study will move you deeply and often. Without embellishment. Storytelling and humor do have their place, but their place must never be to manipulate. Their place must never be central.
If you’re beginning to suspect that your Bible study diet has been extremely flavorful but nutritionally lacking, be prepared for a bit of an adjustment when you move to healthier choices. Consider again the physical parallel: When we begin to eat healthy things we find them to be bland at first. But over time we learn to prefer their taste to unhealthy options. The same is true of good Bible study. At first, we may still crave that touching story to drive home a point. We may not like finishing our study of a passage without a neat summary to tie up all the loose ends. But over time, we begin to appreciate the simple pleasure of applying ourselves to comprehending, interpreting and applying the Word.
So the next time you go shopping for enticing cellophane-encased delights at the Christian book store, do your nutritional research. Look for studies that hone your own skills as a student and that teach the beauty of the Word undiluted by sentimentality. Develop a taste for inductive Bible study. Treat yourself to a topical study for dessert after you’ve had a healthy meal of line-by-line instruction.
Here’s to your health.