In Praise of Reading that draws us deeper into the Word of God

Mar 15, 2024 | READ

Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph. 6:17)

Heaven only knows (and Heaven truly does know) the multitudes who have entered the Kingdom of God as a result of their hearts and eyes being opened as they read a passage of Scripture, or a God-given book or tract.

Back in the early fifth century, Augustine of Hippo, a brilliant Berber philosopher and rhetorician from Roman North Africa had become highly esteemed first in Rome and then in Milan, where he occupied the prestigious position of Professor of Rhetoric in the great court. He had spent the best part of a decade caught up in the cult of Manichaeism which, in those pre-Islamic days, was the main rival to Christianity. Though intellectually stimulated, Augustine lived the life of a libertine hedonist, despite being befriended by the godly Bishop Ambrose who committed himself to witnessing to him. Augustine was impressed, but not ready to yield himself to Christ: ‘Grant me chastity and continence,’ he prayed, ‘but not yet!’

We rarely know all that the Lord might intend through our witness. I wonder if Ambrose might have caught a glimpse of all that Augustine was destined to become? The most influential theologian of his generation, and in many ways the Church’s greatest thinker since St Paul.

The Lord promises us that, when we seek Him with all our heart, He will be found. (Jer.29:13) By the time he was 31, Augustine was experiencing a deep agony of spirit as the spirit of God convicted him of many things. One day he went out into his garden and began to weep uncontrollably, crying out in the words of Psalm 13: “How long, Lord?”

It was at this point a great miracle happened, as they have done in the lives of so many throughout the history of the Church. All of a sudden, Augustine heard in a sing-song voice, the repeated chant ‘Tolle, lege’ – ‘Take up and read.’ He couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl who was singing, but he knew it was the voice of a child. After a moment, it dawned on him that this would be a most unusual thing for a child to chant, and that it must therefore be an angelic voice that was bidding him to pick up and read the Scriptures, which he had to hand. Opening them at random, he alighted on Paul’s challenging admonition to Roman believers:

‘Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in strife dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for gratifying the desires of the flesh. (Rom. 13:13-14).

It was as the result of hearing an unseen voice that the Lord had met with Antony, another Christian from Africa. At a time when he had been going through a time of excruciating pain, he too opened the Bible, where his eyes fell on the text, “Go, sell your possessions and give to the poor . . . follow me” (Matt. 19:21). Antony obeyed and after many spiritual battles, became the father of western monasticism.

In all probability, Augustine received this heavenly challenge in response to the fervent prayers of his mother, Monica, who had prayed as fervently for his conversion as Hudson Taylor’s mother would later do for her son. [See the paragraph in italics quite near the beginning of this account.] From that moment on, Augustine was a different man. As he recorded In his Confessions,

“Belatedly have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new; late have I loved You. You were within me, and I was outside myself and it was there that I sought you and, myself disfigured, I rushed upon the beautiful things You have made. You were with me but I was not with you. They held me far from You, those things which would not exist if they did not exist in You. You called, You cried out and You broke through my deafness, You shone out, cast Your radiance and put my blindness to flight; You shed Your fragrance and I drew breath and pine for you, I tasted you and so I hunger and thirst for You, You touched me and I burn with love of Your peace.” (Confessions 10.27.38)

No one person’s perspective will ever be fully right across every spectrum; Augustine’s certainly wasn’t, but his best-known works (his Confessions and The City of God) continue to be widely read to this day. As the great Bible translator Jerome wrote in a letter to him in 418, “You are known throughout the world; honoured and esteemed as the one who has established anew the ancient Faith.”

May we likewise make the Word of God our passionate aim. Lord God, open our hearts – and the hearts of many – through what we read in Your Word, and in godly books, even as You did for Augustine.

The living and active Word of God sends us living words

Most of us will have known many times when we open our Bibles ‘at random’ when we are in search of an answer to specific issues or questions. The Lord is so gracious, and His word is so powerful that He does indeed often lead us to worthwhile passages and insights. But, just as it is good to sit and eat at leisure with our loved ones, enjoying food and company together, it is good to feast our soul by sitting ‘under’ the Word of God, allowing the Holy Spirit to teach and lead us. What better recipe could there be to keep us from becoming ‘dull of heart and hearing’, and ‘unproductive in our knowledge of the Lord?’ (Heb. 5:11; 2 Pet. 1:8)

Treasuring the transforming power of God’s Word, the poet-psalmist who composed the great Psalm 119, observes the following about the one who runs after God’s Word:

• He will be blessed (1)
• He will not be put to shame (6)
• He will keep his way pure (9)
• He will live a holy life (11)
• He will be given life (25, 37, 40, 50, 88, 93, 107, 149, 154, 156, 159)
• He will receive strength (28)
• His heart will be enlarged (32)
• He will receive understanding (34)
• He will walk safely (45, 133)
• He receives discernment and knowledge (66)
• He receives good (68)
• He is comforted in affliction (71, 76, 82)
• He receives mercy (77)
• Hope in affliction (92)
• He receives wisdom (98)
• He receives understanding (99, 100, 104)
• He receives guidance and direction (105, 130)
• He receives joy (111)
• He is safe (114, 117)
(See Studyandobey.com)

That is what God’s Word does. It is not primarily head knowledge that we seek in the Word of God but rather that we encounter a Person, so that we can know Him better, and be shaped and sharpened by His living Word. As Augustine encouraged people to do, we read the Scriptures with our heart, mind and will.

There are days and seasons when it can feel a chore, or even too much of a risk to read much, because we are reluctant to encounter truths and challenges we do not feel ready to face. To help us overcome any lingering reluctance to open the Scriptures and come face to face with the risen Lord through its pages, as well as to counteract powerful emotions, Sarah Frazer shares in how, before reading, she asks Him to open her eyes, teach her His ways, change her heart and gain wisdom.

Then, having read, she thanks the Lord for the things she has discovered in her reading.

For the Word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It cuts all the way through, to where soul and spirit meet, to where joints and marrow come together. It judges the desires and thoughts of the heart.’ (Heb. 4:12 GNT)

Other versions render these familiar words as ‘quick to discern the attitudes, intentions, feelings and ideas of the heart.’ The Word of God will change us. Moses knew this. He directed Israel to,

Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day . . . they are not just idle empty words for you – they are your life. (Deut. 32:46-47)

A lack of hunger and thirst for seeking God is assuredly an issue for many, but high among the subliminal factors that may be at work is often a lingering doubt as to why God would to want to communicate with me. With such things so often overshadowing and permeating our minds, it is no wonder that we look for ways to distract ourselves by turning to something outwardly more attractive and exciting. If that is in any way your situation, why not take a look at the Pilgrims Guide I wrote on overcoming that sense of shame and unworthiness that holds us back from seeking His face?

Those who have been Christians for a long time can easily fall into the way of supposing that they are so familiar with the Word that they will not gain anything new by coming to it afresh. If that applies in any way to us, we need to examine ourselves to see if there is an underlying arrogance that seriously underestimates what God would say to us from day to day. Familiarity is an excuse that can gain strength every time we put off reading His word. How can we pass on living words to others unless we have first taken time, as Moses did, first to receive them for ourselves, and then to ingest them? (Acts 7:38)

Frank Laubach – an early twentieth century missionary (still to this day the only American missionary to have a stamp printed in honour of his work!) – was passionate about helping people to go deeper in God’s word. His most popular publication was Game with Minutes, which I first heard about in Richard Foster’s brilliant book Freedom of Simplicity. In it, Frank writes:

We shall not become like Christ until we give Him more time. Less than ten minutes a week given to thinking about Christ by one-sixth of the people is not saving our country (America) or our world; for selfishness, greed, and hate are getting a thousand times that much thought. What a nation thinks about, that it is. We shall not become like Christ until we give Him more time. A teachers’ college requires students to attend classes for twenty-five hours a week for three years. Could it prepare competent teachers or a law school prepare competent lawyers if they studied only ten minutes a week? Neither can Christ, and He never pretended that He could. To His disciples he said: “Come with Me walk with Me, talk and listen to Me, work and rest with Me, eat and sleep with Me, twenty-four hours a day for three years.”

That was their college course! “He chose them,” the Scriptures says, “that they might be with Him” – 168 hours a week! (Mark 3:14) All who have tried that kind of abiding for a month know the power of it – it is like being born again from centre to circumference. It absolutely changes every person who does it. And change others too who are prepared to do it. How can a man or woman take this course with Christ today? The answer is so simple a child can understand it. Indeed unless we “turn and become like children” we shall not succeed.

We have a study hour. We read and reread the life of Jesus recorded in the Gospels thoughtfully and prayerfully at least an hour a day. We find fresh ways and new translations, so that this reading will never be dull, but always stimulating and inspiring. Thus we walk with Jesus through Galilee by walking with Him through the pages of His earthly history.

We make Him our inseparable ‘chum’. We try to call Him to mind at least one second of each minute. We do not need to forget other things nor stop our work, but we invite Him to share everything we do or say or think. Hundreds of people have experimented until they have found ways to let Him share every minute that they are awake. In fact, it is no harder to learn this new habit than to learn the touch system in typing, and in time one can win a high percentage of his minutes with as little effort as an expert need to write a letter . . .

The results of this programme begin to show clearly in a month. They grow rich after six months, and glorious after ten years.

Urging people to become like children at heart, Frank encourages people to ‘Find fresh ways and new translations to keep devotion fresh, so that our reading and our seeking need never be dull, but stimulating and inspiring. Thus we walk with Jesus through Galilee by walking with Him through the pages of His earthly history.’

If you are finding your Bible reading ‘dull’ and lifeless, I urge you to ask the Lord to come and speak afresh to the matter. Perhaps He will suggest a different time of day, or a different place. Perhaps He will highlight a different translation. Maybe you will discover the joy of reading Scripture aloud, or to listen to it being read: we will hear things we have not heard before and discover insights we may have not noticed or have forgotten.

Likewise, many have found that copying out the Scriptures brings them to life in new ways. There was a reason why the Lord insisted that kings must copy out for themselves the law of God, (Deut. 17:18) so that the Word of God might become an experience of heart, mind and senses, rather than just a matter of acquiescence. He has woven us all sorts of neural connections into us: what might the Holy Spirit do if we could make better use of all the ‘channels’ in our brain to feed on His Word?

May He give us more of that passion that makes us want to take time to be with Him! (Hos. 6:3; Acts 7:38)

Jesus, You are the ‘Bread of Life’ as well as our friend. In giving Yourself to us, You have given us everything we need: and in giving ourselves to You, and to the study of Your Word, we are feeding on the very same Scriptures that You used to empower Your own walk with Your Father while You were on this Earth. The word of God is our shield and defence, just as it was for You as You took ground for the Heavenly Kingdom.

It is those who wait on You who discover Your richest gems. You are not in a hurry, so we allow Your peace to settle on us now, and to lead us deeper into Your word. For as Augustine discovered, ‘the Bible was composed in such a way, that as beginners mature, its meaning grows with them.’

Come by Your Holy Spirit, so that as we read and listen to Your eternal word, it will penetrate and light up our whole being and bring our hearts and thoughts more fully into line with Yours.

Amen.

Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile on Unsplash

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