The Christian has a threefold duty towards a daily interaction with Scripture; to read, to search (John 5:39; Acts 17:11) and to memorize/meditate (John 15:7-8; Colossians 3:16; Joshua 1:8; Proverbs 2:1-6, 7:1-3; Psalm 119:11). The needs are very simple for this spiritual discipline; a copy of the Scriptures, an ability to read, and time and energy (spiritual, intellectual and physical).
This seems simple enough, and yet too many Christians struggle with this daily routine. The most obvious reason for this struggle, of course, is the fact that this is a spiritual battle. Also, we live in a culture that does not promote quiet thoughtfulness. Our culture is addicted to constant motion and white noise.
I would suggest another significant reason. As conservative evangelicals with a high view of Scripture, we allow ourselves to be squeezed into idealized or unreasonably high expectations—a “one size fits all” Bible-reading schedule. The idea is that if you’re not reading your Bible through once a year, then you’re not being faithful to Scripture. Let’s think about this (and a few other dangers to an effective devotional life). While all may have easy access to a copy of the Scriptures (perhaps in multiple formats), there are too many variables in reading ability, mental capacity, time and energy to demand a “one size fits all” Bible-reading schedule, and to make it the measure of spirituality.
On December 30th 1842, Rev. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a pastor in Dundee, Scotland, devised a reading plan for his own congregation. The plan consisted, for the most part, of four chapters of Scripture per day which would take the reader through the Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice every year.
M’Cheyne had many admirable reasons for his reading plan, especially so in the context of his own congregation. M’Cheyne’s plan has benefited many people, and I’m not suggesting we trash it. However, we need to be careful not to impose a scheme of Bible-reading that becomes a burden and a hindrance. In the letter that introduced this scheme to his congregation, M’Cheyne identified almost as many dangers as would outweigh the benefits of such a scheme—“If there were so many dangers,” he asked, “why propose such a scheme at all?”
His concerns were, first, formality, a fixed rule degenerating into a lifeless form. Second, self-righteousness, a sense of self-accomplishment when the set reading has been completed. Third, careless reading, so large a portion may cause some to weary and to read “in a slight and careless manner.” Lastly, “a yoke too heavy to bear.” On this last concern, M’Cheyne reasoned, some may be “dragg[ed]…though the appointed task without any relish of the heavenly food.” “If this be the case with any,” M’Cheyne wrote, “throw aside the fetter and feed at liberty in the sweet garden of God.”
We should not ignore these warnings. Like any area of Christian living, our choice of a daily reading schedule, is subject to misuse and abuse—we need wisdom. Let me offer some further warnings against a misguided daily Bible-reading scheme.
- Don’t idealize daily devotions. I’ve often thought about the popular images of private devotions—an open Bible with a cozy cup of hot coffee and a pen and notebook, or sitting cross-legged on an easy chair in the soft glow of a table lamp or a flickering fire. I’m not sure how realistic—or biblical—these stereotyped images are of devotional reading. So often our closet is a place of wrestling with God over an open Bible, with an aching heart and teary eyes, smarting under the rebuke of his Word, awestruck at His grace and glory, humbled to the dust by his speaking Word, or speechless at the profundity of His revelation.
- Don’t be deceived or distracted by study-aids that promise to revolutionize your Bible-reading. The Devil is smart. While study-aids can be helpful, and we don’t advocate a “Bible alone” simplicity, yet, nothing will ever replace a simple copy of the Scriptures. How many start the year depending on the latest method of Bible study, smartphone app or piece of computer software, for a successful and effective Bible reading. Too often these clutter our vision and distract rather than aid in our spiritual walk.
- Don’t live someone else’s thoughts or be bound by someone else’s ideals. Develop your own spiritual walk. Your identity is in Christ, not in any other individual, theologian, Christian writer or celebrity, and not in any organization. Read the Bible for yourself. Let it live, warm and fresh in your own heart. Let the Word of God grip you, run after you, bind you and let it lead with “free course” in your life.
- Don’t burden yourself with the unrealistic expectations of others. Identify your own efficiency level in Bible-reading and study, and discipline yourself in it.
- Don’t allow the demands of “finishing a chapter” rush you past a verse that has gripped your attention. Pause and follow the thought through. Prayerfully develop the thought in your mind. Take time to hear the Lord speak.