In his little book, Make Your Bed: Little Things that Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World, former Navy SEAL and Admiral William H. McRaven offers his readers ten pieces of hard-earned wisdom, each culled from the rigors of life as one of the U. S. military’s most elite soldiers. Making one’s bed first thing in the morning, McRaven suggests, is a discipline that sets the tone for the rest of the day. Why? Because “sometimes the simple act of making your bed can give you the lift you need to start your day and provide you the satisfaction to end it right.”1 By beginning the day with a task completed, we establish a pattern that will enable us to accomplish larger tasks during the day.
This is sound advice, and I am happy to receive it as a gift of common grace. But there is another discipline that is infinitely more important when it comes to setting the tone for our day, even if our bed remains slightly disheveled.
Why Must We Make Bible Reading a Priority?
When we talk about the discipline of Bible reading and meditation, the first question we need to ask is why we should make this practice such a priority. The most important reason is that the Bible is the place where God reveals Himself (see 1 Sam 3:21). In order to behold the glory of Christ and fellowship with our God, we must meet Him in his Word.
But what about Bible reading and its relationship to prayer? Is one more important than the other? It is probably not wise to draw such a dichotomy between these three disciplines. Asking the question the way I did above actually presents a false choice.
Nevertheless, it is helpful to understand the dynamics at work between our Scripture reading and our prayer life. We are unable to pray rightly without feeding on Scripture (Matt 4:4; Matt 6:7-15), but we must pray for God to feed us and open our eyes to Scripture (Ps 119:18). So, I would say these three disciplines go together, but Scripture must have a logical priority. That is, we must both pray and be in the Word, but if we are not in the Word, it is likely we won’t pray. And if we do continue to pray while neglecting Scripture, it will be uninformed prayer that centers on our desires and our thoughts rather than God’s desires and God’s thoughts.
Consider Jesus’ warning before He teaches His disciples (with his Word) how to pray:
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this…”Matt 6:7-9
Also, if we continue to pray without Scripture, it may increasingly become the case that we are unable to pray with faith, for true faith is only sustained by the Word of God (Rom 10:17). These comments are not meant to downplay the role of prayer. Indeed, prayer is one of the primary means of fellowship with our Creator. However, when it comes to our communion with God there seems to be a logical and intrinsic priority to the Bible because (1) the words of Scripture are what brought us into relationship with God and enabled us to call out to Him for salvation in the first place (Rom 10:17); (2) Scripture teaches how to pray (e.g., Ps 119; Matt 6:6-15); (3) Scripture kindles our affections for God; (4) the Bible is God’s infallible Word; prayer is our fallible response to this Word.
There are countless incentives presented in Scripture for why we should make it our priority to read it. When the words of Scripture are received into a believing heart, they provide us with the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:5), create life (John 6:63), give hope (Rom 15:4), expose our sin (Heb 4:12), strengthen our faith (Rom 10:17), guard us from spiritual danger (Prov 2:1-22), reveal the glory of Christ (2 Cor 4:1-6; Eph 1:17-18; 3:1-6), prepare us for useful ministry (2 Tim 3:16-17), revive and encourage our souls (Ps 19:7), give us wisdom (Ps 19:7), supply us with joy (Ps 19:8), and give us freedom (John 8:32), to name only a few benefits. Like the Psalmist we should long to mine these treasures from God’s Word (Ps 19:10-11).
Receiving the Word through Personal Bible Reading
There are many ways we might receive God’s Word. One of the primary ways God has ordained that we receive the Word is through the Lord’s day sermon. This is a vital means by which we receive the Word, and we must not neglect it. There is something particularly powerful about preaching that facilitates spiritual conviction and growth, and our personal time in God’s Word should not be viewed as a replacement of the Sunday morning sermon, but as a natural supplement to it. Another way we hear the Word is through corporate Bible studies. Both of these are legitimate, even vital, means of receiving God’s Word. In this article, however, I am focusing on the practice of personal Bible reading.
At this point, I want to offer you what I’ve found to be a tremendous encouragement in this task of Bible reading. You might be intimidated by the prospect of regular Bible reading because you think you need formal training in biblical studies and interpretation in order to understand Scripture. And while it is true that God has given us teachers to help us safely and effectively navigate His Word, it is also true that the best interpreters of the Bible are simply the best readers.
To say that the best Bible interpreters are the best Bible readers means that the basic skill that must be constantly exercised and honed in biblical interpretation is the skill of reading. Isn’t that encouraging? If we want to know what a text says and what it means, we must read the text. In his recent book on the discipline of Bible reading, John Piper helpfully notes,
I will say in a nutshell here that I do not intend to discuss the different guidelines for reading different kinds of writing in the Bible, such as narrative, proverb, parable, poetry, and many more….My approach is based on the simple observation that before anyone can discern from a text what kind of writing it is, one must be reading. Which means that there are important general strategies of reading that take place before you can let a certain kind of writing determine how you read….Most of what I have seen in Scripture has come not from learning rules for each kind of writing, but rather from the more basic discipline of looking hard at what is really there.2
We will be wise to remain teachable and seek to learn from the best Bible teachers (Prov 9:9; 10:17; 12:15; Eph 4:12). And rightly handling the text of Scripture with sound principles of interpretation is vital. But above all, we must read if we want to understand and profit from Scripture.
Are We Commanded to Read the Bible Every Day?
Before we talk specifically about the practical aspects of Bible reading, we also want to ask: Are we commanded to read the Bible every day? This is an important question. We want to avoid legalism and the addition of man-made commands even when it comes to something as important as reading Scripture.
Personally, I don’t see daily Bible reading as a direct command for at least three reasons. One, I am unable to locate an explicit command in Scripture for Christians to read the Bible every day. Two, not every believer in church history has had access to a Bible or even been able to read. It seems foolish to conclude that these Christians in the past were in sin, or those in places where Scripture is currently scarce and illiteracy common are walking in sin because they presently have no way of reading the Bible every day. Three, there are Christians who are seriously ill and unable to read the Bible every day. It seems cruel and unnecessary to require that they read their Bibles every day. (Indeed, rather than chiding these dear Christians, better to find some time to read the Bible to them).
But for those of us who can read and do have access to Bibles, I believe Scripture would strongly encourage us to make Bible reading a daily priority for the following reasons.
(1) The Immense Benefit We Derive From It. Given the essential place the Word of God is meant to have in our lives and the massive benefits derived from spending time in it (see above), it seems natural that we would not only desire to read Scripture but that we would discipline ourselves to be regularly in it.
(2) Our Need for Daily Spiritual Food. Scripture is our spiritual sustenance (Matt 4:4). We need to eat every day, so it makes sense that we need to feed spiritually every day. Yes, we can go for a few days without eating, but when we do, we eventually become physically weak, less alert, and less able to attend to our daily tasks. Similarly, we can go without spiritual food for a time, but we will soon grow weak in our ability to effectively fend off sin, walk in the Spirit, and minister well to others.
(3) Our Need to be Equipped for Battle. We know how easy it is to drift from faith in and obedience to the Lord and how quickly the influence of the world can infiltrate our spiritual defenses. We need constant refreshing and re-equipping for the battle (see Eph 6:10-17). In order to prepare for a full day on the front lines, we need to daily gather new stores of supplies and clean and recalibrate our weapons.
(4) The Example of the Old Testament King. In Deut 17:19-20, we learn that Israel’s future king was responsible to (a) have an authorized copy of the law, and (b) read it every day. This daily reading would enable the king to keep the law and keep his heart from becoming proud toward his countrymen. In other words, daily Bible reading helped the king to obey the Lord and remain humble. Although this was a command for the king of Israel (and not specifically for New Testament saints), I think we can derive valuable instruction from it.
(5) It Helps Us with Meditation. We are expected to regularly meditate upon the Word of God. Daily reading aids us in keeping this command (see Ps 1:2; 119:15, 23, 27, 48, 78). We can read slowly and meditate as we read, or we can memorize what we are reading in order to meditate later.
(6) Bibles Are a Precious Gift and a Serious Stewardship. I occasionally hear the following implicit objection for why we shouldn’t trouble ourselves to daily read the Bible: “It is only relatively recently that people have owned individual copies of Scripture. Because the early church and nearly all Christians prior to the Reformation did not have personal copies of the Bible, we shouldn’t feel compelled to read the Bible every day.” I believe this line of reasoning helps us to see that daily Bible reading shouldn’t be viewed as a divine command, as I noted above. But to use such reasoning to help people feel better for neglecting their Bibles is like telling a cancer patient they shouldn’t feel bad for ignoring current medical treatment because folks in the 1800s weren’t as fortunate. Full copies of canonical Scripture are a precious gift from the Lord, and we must make use of this gift.
“To whom much is given, much will be required.”Luke 12:48
(7) We Will Be Better Prepared for When We Won’t Have Our Bibles. There may come a time when we won’t have such easy access to Scripture. Due to persecution and imprisonment, we may someday find ourselves without a Bible in our hands. I tremble at this possibility, but I don’t think this is the wild-eyed speculation of a religious conspiracy theorist. We know that persecution is promised in the New Testament (John 15:20; 2 Tim 3:12); how that persecution occurs in our individual lives is something only the Lord knows. For some, their experience of persecution won’t include having their Bible taken from them. For others, it might. Best to prepare well now.
So, while we aren’t commanded explicitly to read our Bibles every day, I think Scripture on the whole would say that it’s a really, really good idea. In light of the stewardship we’ve been given, we certainly don’t want to be found guilty of neglecting our Bibles.
I now want to offer you a few ideas to help you build Scripture reading and meditation into your regular routine.
Come to Scripture with the Right Attitude
The first item of business when we come to the Bible is to approach it with the right heart posture. God won’t yield the riches of His truth to those who are harboring known rebellion in their hearts or who are only willing to give Scripture the most effortless skim. John Feinberg explains:
But giving Scripture only a cursory reading, or reading it with a resistant frame of mind won’t likely result in finding answers to our problems. Is the problem with Scripture? Not at all, for if we read anything that intends to answer our problems with such negative attitude, we won’t likely find other answers useful either. Scripture will do you little good if you read little of it, read it with a disengaged mind, read it with a resistant or skeptical attitude, or read it thinking that Scripture must solve your problems immediately or it is useless.3
Bible reading is not a magic ritual that will bestow blessing upon us for just going through some quick, mindless motion. While it is true that God uses His Word to expose our sinful attitudes, it is equally true that nursing a sinful attitude as we read Scripture will insulate our heart from receiving the spiritual benefits God desires to provide us in His Word.
Set Aside Time, and Pray for God’s Help to Establish a Severe Discipline
Why must Bible reading become a severe discipline? Because Scripture offers such spiritual power and spiritual benefit that our flesh, the world, and the spiritual forces of darkness will seek to keep us from being in it. Nearly every time I’ve personally heard of a Christian’s spiritual downfall or apostasy, I’ve learned that their scandalous sin or departure from the faith was precipitated by a neglect of personal time with the Lord. They did not treat the twin disciplines of Bible reading and prayer as matters of life and death. We can’t make the same mistake. Bible reading is a severe discipline like a soldier embedded in an active war zone makes cleaning and checking his rifle and scope a severe discipline. Neglect it often enough, and you’ll probably end up dead.
In other words, remaining in the Scripture is a necessity. That is, if we neglect the Bible, we are failing to feed ourselves spiritually. “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4).
We might object and say, “I am always compelled by physical hunger to eat, but I am not always compelled by spiritual hunger to feed on Scripture. I don’t have to make eating a severe discipline; it just happens.” True enough. But we have to consider the fact that it often takes discipline to eat well and to eat healthily. Some people get so wrapped up in their work or school that they fail to eat regularly or eat a balanced diet.
Actually, there is potential to feed spiritually all day long because we are constantly barraged with truth/worldview/religious claims during the entire course of our day (from television, friends, billboards, coffee cups, Netflix, blogs, etc.). To feed ourselves healthy spiritual food (from the Bible) requires a severe discipline in the same way that feeding ourselves with healthy physical food requires care and attention and a willingness to say no to certain foods in order to say yes to food that is better for us. We should not conclude, however, that “severe” implies that we are only applying our own will power. The pursuit of any discipline—particularly this vitally important discipline—is always empowered by the Holy Spirit. Indeed, discipline is a form of self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23).
Don’t Overwhelm Yourself
It is important to follow the last bit of counsel with this qualification: don’t overwhelm yourself. Once we’ve been encouraged to discipline ourselves for the purpose of spiritual growth and fellowship with Christ, we may be tempted, in our zeal, to cast off the restraint of wisdom and load ourselves with unrealistic disciplines. “I now see clearly the significance of spiritual discipline,” we say to ourselves. “I am going to read my Bible and pray two hours every morning before work.” No, you’re not. Or, at least not for very long—especially if you haven’t been regularly reading and praying up much to that point.
Instead, we should do what is reasonable and what works best for us in our present situation. Be willing to make sacrifices, but also ask God for wisdom to rightly assess your circumstances. The spiritual disciplines of Bible intake, prayer, worship, and ministry are vital, but they are not the only things we should be doing. Better to start small and maintain consistency than to begin with grand plans that never make it past the first week.
Do What Works for You
In the first several years of my life as a Christian, I often found myself stymied into inaction because I couldn’t decide how to structure my devotional time. Some folks I knew read three chapters in the Bible, prayed, then read a devotional-type book. Others would read ten chapters in the Bible and pray. Others would pray, then read a couple chapters, then pray again. Some would go for fifteen minutes; others for an hour. What should I do?
Since then, I’ve encountered Christians who complain of a similar struggle. The best advice I’ve received and the advice I pass on to others is this: Do what works best for you. This counsel is not intended to give you an excuse to spend the least amount of time possible in the Word and in prayer. Rather, it is to release you from the confinement of a particular structure so that you can create a routine that fits with your particular circumstances.
The next few items, then, are merely suggestions. I am throwing out ideas across the grid of your life. Keep what works; toss what doesn’t. Ask God for wisdom.
Find a Specific Location
I’ve found it helpful to set aside a specific place for prayer and Bible reading. Often the location is in my study at my desk. This place is furnished with my Bible, some devotional books, my journal, pens, and pencils. When I come into this place in the early morning, I am reminded that this is where I take time specifically to think upon the Lord, read His Word, and pray to him. There’s nothing inherently sacred about a location, and we should be ready to pray at any time at any place (see John 4:23; 1 Thess 5:17). But establishing a specific place for Bible reading and prayer time with the Lord helps me maintain these disciplines.
Occasionally Change your Location for Refreshment
Nevertheless, although it has proved useful to me over the years to have one primary place for Bible reading and prayer, I’ve also found it helpful to change my location now and again for the sake of refreshment. It’s amazing what a simple move to the living room or family room can do to reinvigorate my Bible reading and prayer time. Walking outdoors for a time of prayer and meditation is also a good idea.
Have “One” Bible
This suggestion may sound like the pleadings of a man stuck in the glory days of physical books and bound copies of Scripture. Nevertheless, I think there are still advantages to owning and using a physical Bible. One advantage that has proved itself to me over and over is being able to really “know” a particular Bible. Over the past couple decades I’ve owned many Bibles. There are presently over twenty Bibles on a bookshelf near my desk! But during this same time, I’ve only had four primary Bibles. About four years ago I purchased the one I currently use. As I have been reading and studying this Bible over the past few years, I’ve become very familiar with it: I can scan through portions of Scripture in my mind and I can “see” where certain verses and passages are on a given page. Memorization seems to be easier, and the ability to locate texts when I can’t remember the reference is enhanced.
I don’t think the digital Bible will ever be able to provide the reader with a full visual breadth of Scripture like physical Bibles can. I can thumb through my Bible, meandering from book to book, refreshing my mind with large swaths of Scripture—from Genesis to 2 Kings to Malachi to Matthew to Romans to Revelation. I’m not reading every word, but I am seeing these texts and being reminded of their content as I flow from book to book. I am unaware of a digital format that is presently able to replicate this experience.
My encouragement to you is to have one Bible that you use most of the time. Yes, by all means take advantage of the digital resources at your disposal (see my next suggestion), but I think you will find both intellectual and spiritual benefit in getting to know that particular Bible really well.
Occasionally Read from Different Bible Formats and Versions
Yet, I also think it is spiritually profitable and intellectually stimulating to read from other Bible versions and formats. Therefore, I will occasionally dip into other physical Bibles or Bibles a digital device for my daily reading. I may supplement my ESV by pulling out my NASB for a while, or I might pull out my ESV Readers Bible for a time to see the text afresh without verses, chapter titles, or subheadings. These occasional changes can, like several of these other suggestions, help keep our minds refreshed.
Be Alone with God
Given your living situation, you may find it difficult to get alone with God. Children may be afoot, or roommates may be sleeping or studying in the same room with you. Nevertheless, it is important, even in these situations, to get alone with God. This may require that you ask your roommate not to bother you for the next twenty minutes, or to have your children play by themselves for a period of time while you meet with the Lord. Husbands, make sure that you are providing your wife with time to be in the Word and prayer by caring for the children while she is alone with the Savior.
Pray While You Read
The disciplines of prayer and Bible reading are meant to go together. While we read the Bible, we should pray for open eyes (Ps 119:10) and for understanding (Ps 119:27; 34; 110). We should pray that God would teach us His Word (Ps 119:12, 26, 29, 33, 64); and that our heart would be inclined to it (Ps 119:36). We can use the Scripture to prompt us to pray for others and for ourselves. We can turn to the Psalms if we need to confess sin (Ps 51) or if we need to lament our present circumstances (Ps 6). Prayer should begin our Bible-reading time and be the natural fruit of it.
Consider a Bible Reading Plan
In the case of Bible reading plans, I believe it is best to know yourself and be aware of what works for you. If you’ve never read through the Bible then I would encourage you to use a Bible reading plan. You may find it difficult to make your way through the entire Bible without the accountability of a Bible-reading plan, or you may simply need help with keeping track of where you’re at.
Personally, I’ve read through the Bible more than once, so I don’t use a Bible reading plan anymore. I read every day, some days I read ten chapters, some days, five, some days, three, and some days, one. On the whole, however, I am able to read each day without a Bible reading plan, and I am continuing to make my way through the entire Bible. If this isn’t you and you need a plan, then use one.4
Read in Several Places in the Bible
When it comes to choosing a plan or deciding how you will read through the Bible, I recommend that you read in several different places throughout both testaments. For example, I presently have six different book marks in six different sections of the Bible: (1) the Pentateuch; (2) the historical books; (3) the wisdom books; (4) the Prophets; (5) the Gospels and Acts; and (6) the Epistles. I usually try to read one or two chapters from each of these sections. By constantly reading in different places, my mind is refreshed and motivated to make progress. It is helpful, for example, to be able to look forward to the Psalms when I am in the middle of 1 Chronicles 1:1- 9:44.
Use an Audio Bible
Finally, it may be helpful to use an audio Bible along with your regular Bible reading. If you have a smartphone, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to have an audio version of Scripture with you at all times (the ESV Bible app has an audio feature built in, and it’s free!). Listening to an audio version the Bible helps us see new things in God’s Word, to pay attention to the text in a fresh way and we are helped with memorization.
Study Scripture in the Context of the Local Church
We would be missing a fundamental component of this personal discipline of Bible reading if we sealed it off from the life of the corporate church. Those who attempt to read and study the Bible without maintaining a vital connection with a local Bible-teaching congregation will find it easy to drift into theological error. “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment” (Prov 18:1). By neglecting the church in favor of personal religion, these folks are cutting themselves off from God’s ordained means of doctrinal and spiritual protection. Through the local church we learn how to better read, study, and apply the Bible.
1. William H. McRaven, Make Your Bed: Little Things that Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2017), 9.
2. John Piper, Reading the Bible Supernaturally: Seeing and Savoring the Glory of God in Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 227.
3. John Feinberg, Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 708.
4. You can find several excellent Bible reading plans at https://www.ligonier.org/blog/bible-reading-plans/.