I sat down with a brand-new journal and my Bible. The blank page of the journal looked back at me asking to be filled with insights, meditations, and action steps.
I knew in the back of my head—if I was going to do devotions “right”—then I absolutely had to have a clear action step to walk away with. There had to be something in the text in front of me that I had to put into practice and obey. I didn’t want to be the guy James talks about that’s just a hearer of the word, but not a doer (Jas. 1:22).
As I read the selected text for me that day, I struggled within my head about what to do with what I read. Where was the deep “aha!” moment that came as the Spirit illuminated the text and gave me fresh inspiration about the meaning and actions I should take?
WHEN YOU CAN’T FIND THE APPLICATION
Certainly, I had prayed before opening my Bible. I pondered. I outlined the passage. I restated it. I read it in a different translation. In other words, I did the whole “do a good job of understanding the meaning of the text so you can apply it” bit. The “action step” just wasn’t there for me.
Now, I say all that to point out that the problem was within me, not the Scripture itself. I was asking the Bible to give me something I had been conditioned to expect when, with this particular passage, the text wasn’t going to render an application unless I made it do some funky exegetical gymnastics.
The Bible is useful in our everyday lives. However, if we come to the Bible with a utilitarian “the Bible is an instruction manual for life” approach, we will find ourselves frustrated when we can’t find the next action step.
I think this is why so many people struggle to read the Bible with frequency and freedom. We feel we have to pull something out of Scripture to go and do when that's not explicitly what the Bible's function is. Yes, there are commands in the scriptures that we must obey; there are actionable imperatives that instruct and direct our behaviors. We cannot neglect those.
But I don’t believe that’s how we should primarily read and engage Scripture on a day-to-day basis. Christianity isn’t a new list of actionable items to be distinguished from the old set of actionable items we’ve all failed to live up to (e.g. The Ten Commandments).
ONE THING IS NECESSARY
Consider the passage that has been in my mind as of late. Jesus is over at the house. His disciples are with him, and the hostess wants to make a great impression. She’s in the kitchen clanging around and working hard doing all she can to serve and bless Jesus. She’s got the list of items to take care of right in front of her. Then there’s her sister. She’s not doing anything. Mary's camped out right at Jesus' feet listening. Just listening. This infuriates Martha. She's out barking at Jesus, "There's a lot to do here! Tell my sister she's got to get up and serve! Tell her to help!"
Jesus responds with a clear point: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion which will not be taken away” (Luke 10:38-42).
One thing is necessary: listen.
I may be guilty of a little exegetical gymnastics here myself, but I believe Jesus is on to something when it comes to our engagement of the Bible. Instead of trying to wring out of the text what we are to be doing or the action step we are going to take, perhaps we should aim at just listening. Instead of trying to pin down "what is God saying” or “what am I going to do" paradigms we expect the scriptures to unfold for us, we should rest in simply hearing the voice of God.
Maybe there isn't an activity for us to do or a step to take, other than to hear the Scripture itself under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit impressing truth and life on our hearts.
THE GOOD PORTION
I'd like to create an "Inaction Bible." Actually, I think it's out there already. It's a Bible that tells us the story of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation in Christ. It calls us not first and foremost to action, but to reflection. It tells us to sit and learn; to be still. This Bible shows us how great Christ is, and all he has done for us. It tells us to live by faith and not to try and earn our salvation by our doing. It tells us to rest in a Good Shepherd who instructs, cares, directs, and provides for his sheep (John 10:11-15).
It tells us the good news that we don't have to have it all together. Christ is our hope!
One thing is necessary . . . Maybe that’s the part I’m missing—sitting and listening rather than scripting out what I’m going to do. Maybe the Bible would be much fresher for us if we read, listened, and let Christ be formed in us. Simply drawing near to him is the portion that won’t be taken away.
Jeremy Writebol is the lead campus pastor of Woodside Bible Church in Plymouth, MI and the Executive Director of Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He is the author of everPresent: How the Gospel Relocates Us in The Present and a contributing author to several other publications. He writes personally at jwritebol.net.