Sunday, February 17, 2008

How to be a Self-Feeder

Some time back I wrote about Willow Creek and their desire for their members to become “self-feeders.” Becoming a mature Christian requires learning to feed our own souls just as children must learn to feed their own bodies.

How do we become self-feeders? Make the following activities into a lifestyle.

Read the Bible right.
What is reading the Bible “right?” Read big chunks. Read it in context. Read it all. Read it slowly. Read it carefully. Read it thoughtfully.

Don’t read a Bible verse a day. Don’t hopscotch. Read significant sections (at least a couple of chapters) at a single sitting, and move through a book in order. The Bible is not a bunch of one-liners. Each sentence in each book is a part of a whole that is not properly understood except in relation to that whole.

Don’t camp out in your favorite books. You want the whole counsel of scripture, not just of your favorite parts. Too many stay in Psalms or the gospels and ignore the epistles and the prophets. Or vice versa. Which book of the Bible do you read most? Decide right now you’re not going to read it until you’ve read seven other books.

Read slowly. A useful tool in this endeavor is the reading plan. There are tons of reading plans out there, but many have the same weakness: they want you to read the Bible in a year. That’s not a bad goal in itself; it’s good for general familiarity with the whole Bible.

Self-feeding requires more than familiarity, though. You need to really absorb what you’re reading, and that takes time. So if you use a one-year reading plan, cut it in half or more – take two or three years to read it.

There are other reading schemes out there that don’t have this weakness. One suggests you read the same book repeatedly. Short books can be read every day for a couple of weeks. Longer books can be read in large chunks (a few chapters) until you’ve read the whole ten times.

I recently read about a “plan” where you read one of the Gospels and stop to read each reference from the Old Testament (and the surrounding chapters). I haven’t tried it, but it’s an intriguing approach to getting a broader picture of the Bible much like the next suggestion.

I recommend you try reading the Bible chronologically at least once. If not the whole thing, there are lists of chapters than can be threaded together to get the big picture. There are also some devotionals that help with this including Stott’s Through the Bible, Through the Year.

Read it well. However you read the Bible, remember that you’re not reading for distance. Read to understand. Read to remember, to absorb, to consider. Think about what you’re reading. Engage your imagination too – try to put yourself in what you’re reading. Get into it, and it will get into you.

Don’t just read it. Study it.
If you’ve never studied a book of the Bible all by yourself, now’s the time. I’m not saying there’s no profit in studying with a group, and it’s certainly fun, but self-feeders study when there’s no one else around.

If you don’t know how to study the Bible, there are plenty of resources to learn. I’ve recommended Living by the Book before. There are lots of other good ones including How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, Methodical Bible Study, and Knowing Scripture.

Bible study is generally broken up into observing, interpreting, and applying. All are important, but interpreting is the one that’s the easiest to get wrong. Learn the rules. And get help.

As these works will all tell you, self-feeding does not mean that you never go to another person – especially commentaries, dictionaries, atlases, and theologies. What it means is that you don’t go to them first. Try to figure out what’s going on yourself. Even if you’re wrong, you’ll benefit from the process.

Keep reading. You can get caught up in studying a book for quite a while. To keep from over-emphasizing one section at the expense of the rest of the Bible, I suggest you alternate – study two or three days a week, read from your plan the other days of the week.

Memorize and meditate.
Reading and studying will get the scriptures in your mind. The idea is to keep them there.

What should I memorize? If you’re going to memorize a verse, try to pick the one that best expresses the main idea of the passage it belongs to. If possible, try to do more. I’ve memorized a few paragraphs including small Psalms. I know people who’ve memorized whole books. Some Muslims memorize the whole Koran. With a little work, you can do anything you set your mind to. Once you’ve memorized, you can meditate anywhere. (Before you’ve memorized, you can still do it with the passage in front of you.)

Do Christians meditate? Yes. Christian meditation is not crossing your legs and chanting or emptying your mind. It is focusing on the scriptures.

The idea of meditating is to work the passage over in your mind, coming at it from different angles, focusing on different parts of it, and most importantly testing yourself against it until you’ve thoroughly digested it.

Application: warm fuzzies vs cold pricklies
Finally, the most overlooked part of any Bible study program is application. If you want to self-feed, this is key. If you don’t put what you’ve learned into practice, all you’ve accomplished is to engage in an intellectual exercise.

If you want to be a mature believer, if you want to be more like Christ, you have to get what you’ve read into your life.

Apply it right. Even when we try to apply, we often let ourselves off with a feel-good generalization – I’ll try to nicer. I’ll be more loving. I’ll give more.

I had a professor who really turned the screws on application, and he was absolutely right, so I’ll tell you what he told us:

A good application is personal, specific, measurable, and time-limited.
“We should help our neighbors more” gives you a warm fuzzy. It is general, it leaves you lots of wiggle room, and it’s un-measurable.

“I will cut Mrs. Smith’s grass by Saturday evening” is a cold-prickly. You will know whether or not you cut her grass. There is no wiggle room. Tell someone else about this for even less wiggle room.

Summing it up.
If you want to grow into a mature believer you’ve got to bury yourself in the Bible, get the Bible into you, and then take what you’ve learned and live it. This is a life-long process with the goal of being more like Christ today than we were yesterday.

What about you?
This has been my advice born from my experience. Anyone have anything else they’d like to suggest? Or maybe tips on how to do the above well? We’d love to hear from you.

5 Questions to Help Your Devotions
Never Read a Bible Verse


Frances Clements said...

I really liked this post and plan on linking to it. I found it in the Christian Carnival via 1TrueBeliever.

I have read the whole Bible several times and am always suprised where I find intriguing or pertinent information or insights.

ChrisB said...

Thanks very much for the link and the kind words. I'm always glad when someone finds something here useful.

Anonymous said...

excellent points and the details are more precise than somewhere else, thanks.

- Thomas