We may not often recognize it, but there are wrong reasons to read and study the Bible. It may seem obvious when stated blatantly, however we hardly treat Scripture reading as something people can approach with wrong motives. And certainly we have never studied the Bible for the wrong reasons.
Often the reasons we approach Scripture are blurred or muddied together with good and bad motives. I would posit at least five motivations that cause us, as Christians, to read our Bible’s for reasons not altogether befitting a Book of its magnitude.
The first, and likely most common, is guilt or obligation. It is likely that most of us are nodding our heads in agreement at this point. We’ve all felt the nagging at the heart that if we were better people – better Christians – we would read the Bible more. Guilt is a powerful motivator, as the common proverb goes. And many of us, out of guilt, pick up our Bible and begin reading for precisely this reason and quickly become bored. This boredom, often a result of our original guilty motivation, adds more guilt to our conscience. After all, a better Christian would find joy in reading the Bible and not get bored within 5 minutes.
The second poor motivator for reading Scripture is legalism, and it is very similar to – and often flows from – guilt or obligation. Legalism comes into Bible Study when we make quantity a priority in our Bible Reading. A famous theologian once said that a Christian who doesn’t read through the entire Bible each year isn’t worth his weight in salt. This is legalism at its finest. For a long time, I thought the ultimate goal of a Bible reading plan was to get throught the whole thing – all 66 books – in 365 days.
Any goal we set in regards to Bible reading can quickly become legalistic if it becomes all about achieving that goal. Rigid legalism is a poor motive for regular consumption of God’s Word.
We’ve all felt, at one time or another, the desire to have all the answers. In response to some questions about theology, or the Bible, or life, or death all we can honestly say is “I don’t know.” Or we offer some Christian cliché we’ve heard others say, not even knowing where the cliché originated from. Worse yet, we just make something up based on our own opinion and experience. All of these lead us to feel a sense of shame and a loss of respect.
So we study the Bible more in order that we might get all of the answers. Then everyone will come to us with their questions. They will tell us how smart we are, and praise us for our insights. But the Bible teaches that those who do things for the adoration of men will receive their reward when men praise them, but those who do it for God will receive their reward in heaven (Mt. 6:2-4).
This one makes sense, and on the surface it seems harmless. After all, we are called to teach others the truth about God in the Bible (Dt. 6:6-9). What can be the harm in approaching the Bible to find teaching material for our next small group/sunday school/sermon/family devotional? The issue here is primarily this: the Bible is meant to lead us into a deeper relationship with our God and Savior. If we are only looking to the Bible for how it can help us teach others, we miss the life-change that was intended for us in the process.
It has often been said that you teach best that which you need to learn most. However, approaching the Bible looking for something that others need to hear and learn often causes us to miss those things that we need to learn most.
PROVING A POINT
Related very closely to Status/Respect and Teaching Material, proving a point is probably more obviously a bad motive for studying Scripture. But it is not an entirely incorrect use of God’s Word. We are called to give a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pt. 3:15), and Apologetics is an entire branch of theology that relies upon reason, logic and argumentation to defend the Christian faith. Approaching the Bible with the sole purpose of proving a point or proving yourself right, however, is extremely dangerous.
It is this motive that most significantly lacks the humility required to be molded by the Word of God. It lacks the discipline of rightly dividing the Word of Truth necessary to understanding the whole teaching of Scripture (2 Tm. 3:15-16, Mt. 28:20). And it lacks the maturity needed to properly build up the body of Christ.
For these reasons, this approach to Bible Study has produced the majority of heresies throughout church history, especially those prevalent today. In addition, it is a breeding ground for church division and disunity. It is a dangerous motive indeed, but one that many of us have experienced from time to time.
HUMILITY: THE ANSWER
All five of these motives have positive and beneficial qualities to them when submitted to a humble study of God’s Word. These motives can be tough to recognize and tough to combat because they are so close to being true, noble and beneficial. When we examine these motives, we can see behind them all one overarching theme: pride.
The guilt of not being good enough and the ‘I-can-do-this-on-my-own’ mentality of legalism stem from pride in our hearts. Desiring status and respect from our peers over eternal reward is a result of pride. Studying for truths that others need to hear is pride telling us we don’t need to hear truth ourselves. And pride puts being right as more important than knowing God and knowing His truth.
Pride is an unfit motive for studying and reading God’s Word.
Fight pride with humility.
Few people realize we have the choice of humility, but even fewer realize the importance of humility in approaching God’s Word. The Bible is the literal words of a holy God given to sinful men so that they might know how to live in relationship with Him. What response other than humility is befitting of such a book?
When you feel the guilt or obligation to read the Bible, don’t just set it aside because your motives aren’t pure. Rather, humbly ask God to purify your motives and grant you the joy that can be found in His Word.
Don’t avoid setting Bible Study and Bible Reading goals for fear of legalism. Rather, ask for God’s input in your goals, humbly recognize that you cannot achieve your goals on your own, and ask God to help you maintain your focus on knowing and loving Him, not on acheiving your goals.
When you feel the need for status, respect or to prove yourself right, ask God to fill you with the satisfaction of His eternal favor. Ask Him to fill you with the knowledge that He is enough.
And when you’re preparing a devotional, lesson or sermon, ask God to keep your eyes open to what He would like to teach you, and trust that He alone is responsible for the truth that will impact His flock. Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the Word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart.” (HCSB) Let us treat God’s Word with the respect and dignity it deserves, and humbly approach the Bible with our motives in proper alignment.
“But [God] gives greater grace. Therefore He says: God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore, submit to God.”
James 4:6-7, HCSB
Scripture reading and Bible Study are very noble things, and regardless of our motive when we approach His Word, it has the power to radically transform our lives.