For followers of Jesus, Bible study is fundamentally a spiritual activity, not an academic one. We don't study the Bible to satisfy intellectual fascination but out of a yearning to know God and be transformed by him. Engagement with Scripture is a primary means of caring for the soul. Through prayer, the heart opens itself to the work and presence of God's Spirit. Thus, a prayerful posture is an essential element of Bible study.
We are dependent on the Holy Spirit when studying the Scripture to reveal truth (John 16:13), to give spiritual discernment (1 Corinthians 12:11), and to soften our hearts. The enemy of our soul is looking to snatch away the Word sown in our hearts (Mark 4:15) and prevent us from bearing fruit. In prayer, we welcome the Spirit's work in our souls and fight the spiritual battle that ensues whenever truth goes forth. Since hardheartedness is as much a danger for the believer as the non-believer, we need the Spirit to soften our hearts and expose our blind spots. To cultivate a posture of prayer in Bible study, I suggest prayer before, during, and after the study.
Prayer before studying settles our hearts and minds so that we can become mindful of God's presence. It is often helpful to tell God about the things we are worried about and release those concerns to him so that we can be fully present and alert to his Word and his Spirit. When our enthusiasm for Bible study is low, we pray that God will increase our passion for his Word. We ask the Spirit to bring us wisdom and insight, and to give us soft hearts. If we are studying in a group, it's helpful to pray for a spirit of love and the ability to listen to each other well.
Prayer while studying is the most neglected spiritual practice in Bible study. It's as if we start the journey with God but go it alone until we meet up with him at the final destination. A posture of prayerfulness includes staying actively connected to the Spirit in the midst of studying. This usually looks like short "arrow" prayers sent up as we seek to interpret Scripture. These prayers can range from praise ("Jesus, this is so cool.") to petition ("Help! I don't understand."). I particularly recommend that groups stop and pray when the discussion feels stuck or clarity isn't coming. It is amazing what 30 seconds of silence in the midst of study can do to the group dynamic and understanding of the text. Likewise, asking God, "What am I missing?" or "Is there anything more you want me to see?" during the study expresses humility and openness to God's work in our lives.
In the application phase of Bible study, we are listening for an invitation from the Lord. Rather than rushing into discussion about how the passage connects with our lives, we ask the Spirit to guide us. As Eugene Peterson observes, "God does not put us in charge of forming our personal spiritualities. We grow in accordance with the revealed Word implanted in us by the Spirit." God knows exactly what we need (and what he has prepared for us). Listening to him for how he would have us respond to the Scripture is a way that we seek his will and allow him to shepherd us.
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