The Bible and Spiritual Formation
This post is by Matt Capps (M.Div., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary). Matt serves as the Brand Manager for The Gospel Project and as a Teaching Pastor at The Fellowship in Nashville, TN.
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Bible Reading and Spiritual Formation
We consume countless messages day in and day out. It has been estimated that the average American is exposed to more than 5,000 marketing messages a day—most of them involuntary. It’s also been estimated that most Americans voluntarily consume 9-11 hours of media a day. That is a lot of information consumed both voluntarily and involuntarily.
The messages we are exposed to tend to shape our thoughts, feelings, and decisions over time. As Christians, we believe that the Bible is the Word of God. Accordingly, it follows that lasting spiritual change comes from the prayerful study of God’s Word as God’s Spirit conforms us to the image of Christ (see Heb. 4:12).
Therefore, it is important that we take time to consider carefully how we ought to listen. I fear that far too many Christians allow God’s Word to pass through their eyes without changing their heads, convicting their hearts, or conforming their hands. So here are three intentional ways to approach Bible reading that will shape your spiritual formation.
Allow God’s Word To Change Your Head
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. – Romans 12:2
In Romans 1, Paul talks of the pagans who exchanged the truth of God for lies and were conformed to the patterns of the world. Implicit in Paul’s argument through Romans is that the present evil age still threatens the formation of those who belong to Christ. That which forms our minds affects our lives.
As our minds are made new as we “discern” God’s will through the study of God’s Word, we thus pattern our lives after God’s will. The first step in reflective Bible reading, therefore, is allowing God’s Word to register in your mind. The command “be transformed by the renewal of your mind” is just that—a command.
We must focus our minds on God’s word so that over time transformation will take place. So when we read God’s Word, our minds must be fully engaged. Being attentive requires self-discipline. If God is speaking to us through His Word, we should listen.
Allow God’s Word To Convict Your Heart
You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. – 2 Corinthians 3:2-3
In this portion of 2 Corinthians, Paul focuses in on the work of the Holy Spirit. In this passage, Paul contrasts the old covenant, in which God wrote on tablets of stone, to the ministry of the Spirit that writes on the tablets of the human heart when the word of God takes root.
The Spirit’s work of changing the Christian’s hearts is a result of the ministry of the Word. There is a spiritual connection between what’s in our hearts and what comes out in our behavior. In Luke 6:43-45, Jesus tells us that we live out of our hearts and uses the example of a tree. There is an unbreakable connection between the roots of the tree (heart) and the fruit of the tree (behavior).
In the Bible, the heart represents the center of our being. Out of the abundance of the heart our lives speak. God’s Word must take root in our heart for change in our behavior to take effect.
Allow God’s Word To Conform Your Hands
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. – James 1:22-25
The central theme of this section in James is everyday Christianity guided by “the word of truth.” James argues that true Christianity is characterized by deeply “hearing” and then decisively “doing” what God’s Word calls for. Being doers of the Word, and not hearers only is the only proper response to the Word of God.
Obedience to the Word is the mark of the true child of God. Looking intently at one’s face in a mirror and then forgetting what he was like demonstrates the foolishness of examining oneself in the mirror of God’s Word and then doing nothing about it. When one sees imperfections (as when looking in a mirror), common sense says something should be done.
If we are honest, there are times that we do not want to be obedient to God’s Word. However, the Bible wastes very little time on the way we feel. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson argues that we can act ourselves into a new way of feeling much quickly than we can feel ourselves into a new way of acting. Being obedient, even when we do not feel like it, will eventually reshape our hearts from seeing God’s commands as mere duty to enjoying them with genuine delight.
Strategies for Spiritual Formation in Bible Reading
There is always something God wants us to do in response to His Word. We must allow God’s Word to change our heads, convict our hearts, and conform our hands. Here are a few strategies to let God’s Word richly dwell in you (Col. 3:16).
Prayerfully take notes as you read. This is an excellent way to stay focused while studying. It is also a valuable aid to memory. The physical act of writing something down helps to fix it in our minds.
Talk about God’s Word with others. We gain added benefit from studying the Bible when we talk about it with someone else. Moreover, working out the implications of a Bible passage in conversation with others can not only help reaffirm those truths in your own mind but can also benefit you by hearing the insights of others.
Allow the Spirit to search your heart as you read. In other words, apply Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns. See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the everlasting way.” While studying God’s Word we should be asking the Spirit of God to search us at our very root, deep in our souls, and reveal sin and teach us godliness.