Written by Dr. John B. MacDonald
Authentic Christian living is the lifelong process of becoming more like Jesus Christ. This dynamic progression toward maturity in Christ means that followers of Jesus begin with the basics. Metaphorically, we learn to crawl before we walk. We drink milk before graduating to solid foods.
Among the basics for spiritual growth is developing a knowledge of the whole Bible—the story of God’s presence toward and with humanity. The text of the Bible reveals the triune God, orients us to a life that pleases God, energizes our praying, and so much more.
If there is one significant impediment to maturing in Christ, it is not knowing God’s story. In a piece titled “Shocking Statistics on Bible Reading,” Faith Today reported in May 2014 that, “Since 1996 there’s been a dramatic decline in regular Bible reading (from 28% reading at least weekly to just 11%).” The latest study, reported in January 2020, now pegs it at 10.2 per cent, with 3.7 per cent of Canadians reading the Bible daily, and just 14 per cent reading it at least once a month. Similar statistics prevail in the United States, Australia-New Zealand, and Europe.
Yet how can we live God’s story if we do not know God’s story?
Consider one of the best-selling novels ever written—Tolkien’s popular trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. I cannot imagine reading only the third book, Return of the King. Even though it may be the most satisfying, how can we understand it without the first two-thirds? The audience would be plagued with questions: who is the king, where did he come from, and why is he important? What are the Rings of Power? Who is Sauron, or Gandalf, or Gollom?
This is not unlike how many of us read the Bible. The New Testament is the climax and resolution of the whole story, but what about the first two-thirds—the Old Testament? Who is the King, where did He come from, and why is He essential? What are our origins? What is God’s desire for us?
We need to know God’s story so we can live His story. In a blog post titled “Bible Reading Leads to Spiritual Growth,” Professor Ed Stetzer writes: “There is much research that shows the correlation between spiritual maturity and reading the Bible. In Brad Waggoner’s book The Shape of Faith to Come … and in George Guthrie’s Read the Bible for Life material, we see that reading the Bible is the best predictor of spiritual maturity. In other words, if you are in the Bible, you are growing spiritually.”
A way forward
As we listen to or read the Bible, we begin hearing, seeing, and touching His story—and it isn’t long before we climb into it.
We get a sense of the plot—God is at work reconciling humanity to Himself. We recognize what is happening to people as they live their imperfect lives.
We discern God’s values and goals—for hearts and lives to become clean, free, and joyful in a renewed relationship with the Creator through Jesus Christ.
We experience His purpose—forgiven people becoming more and more like Jesus Christ.
As we live in God’s story, we begin to find that it increasingly shapes our thoughts, words, and behaviour. We find ourselves desiring to walk as Jesus walked (1 John 2:6). The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) becomes less a fanciful, unreachable, unreasonable standard for super-saintly living, and more an expression of real Kingdom life here and now.
There are many good programs and other resources to help us read the Bible. For example, thebibleproject.com provides a reading plan supplemented with videos.
Over the years, I have developed a project called the Historical Backbone of the Bible. It involves reading 370 chapters of the Old and New Testaments in community. The goal is to become familiar with the basic plot of God’s story. This approach has worked well with groups of five to fifty. Like a cross-country bicycle tour, riders of different abilities journey together. The collective enthusiasm and commitment mean participants do not want to be left behind.
The group chooses the pace (the number of chapters read per day). Everyone is part of a smaller cell of three or four for mutual encouragement and accountability. Every second Sunday, after a light lunch, a competent teacher gives an overview of what has been read over the previous two weeks with opportunities for questions and comments. Find out more information about this project.
A complete and careful reading of the holy and ancient text of the Bible develops within us a sacred familiarity with God’s story. From that foundation, we can embark on the practices of other spiritual disciplines as we cooperate with the Spirit of God in His ministry of transforming us more and more into the image of Jesus Christ.