You’re Not Too Busy for the Bible
Along with everyone else, I made typical resolutions for the New Year. I’ve committed to eat better and exercise more. (With The New York Times publishing articles on the advantage of physical fitness as we age, those have begun to feel more necessary, especially now that I'm 40.) And like most, I regularly fail at such resolutions. I ditch the gym and overeat, always promising to do better tomorrow.
But there’s one habit that has stuck with me for more than twenty years: I read the Scriptures every day.
Before you enumerate the reasons you’ve given up on Bible-reading plans and can't make the daily commitment, let me assure you I’m not extraordinarily disciplined, and I don’t belong to some higher spiritual caste. I yell at my kids and gossip and suffer incurable greed. I'm as ordinary as the rest of us. My "success" at this discipline is owed to good advice given to me when I was a teenager—and lots of grace.
At 16, my life altered irreversibly at summer camp when I pledged everything to Jesus. When the preacher advised we all return home and read our Bibles every day for six months without fail, I did it. (According to recent research, this was more than enough time for developing the consistent habit.)
The months became years. The years became decades. There have been, of course, intermittent seasons of foregoing my morning Bible reading for sleep. (I do have five children). But for the better part of my adult life, I've stuck with it. Not because I have to—but because I want to.
Research commissioned by the American Bible Society shows that more than half of Americans want to read the Bible more often. Only 15 percent read our Bibles daily. (The oldest Americans and those living in the South are doing better than most.) While more than 60 percent aspire to greater diligence, we all cite the same reason for our laxity: we're too busy.
There may be good reasons for reconsidering the resolution to read the entire Bible this year, but citing "busyness" as the reason for not attempting any daily Bible reading is, in vernacular of my twelve-year old son, "a dumb old" excuse. So why aren't we reading? And how can we make a more enduring resolution to read the Bible in 2015?
To state the obvious, we’re distracted by other, seemingly more urgent reading in our clamorous world. In a recent article, "The Unending Anxiety of an ICYMI World," Teddy Wayne reminds that a 24-hour news cycle buries us in "must read" links. This content overload also poses a problem for writers, who Wayne says are left to wonder, "Can you hear my whisper in these howling winds?"
His formulation reminded me of 1 Kings 19, where Elijah, exhausted after his victorious showdown with the prophets of Baal, is convinced that he alone is left of the faithful. "Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord," God instructs him. Listen. At first, there's a strong wind. But God doesn't speak in the wind. And then there's an earthquake. But God doesn't speak in the earthquake. Next, there's a fire. But God doesn't speak in the fire. Finally, there's a holy hush. A whisper. This is the sound of the Living God.
God won't amplify his voice, and the Scriptures won't beg for our attention like breaking headlines. They don't vie for our company like social media. But they will speak—if we quiet ourselves to listen. For us to hear God’s voice, we have to turn down the volume of the media noise. And this illustrates a crucial point about the nature of commitment and change. In order to do, we must leave undone.
In this way, every successful resolution is a renunciation. We are busy people. Never busier, perhaps. And it isn't likely that we'll successfully add to our daily madness the resolution to read the Bible without subtracting something else. If we want to stick with the Scriptures in 2015, something has give. Will it be 15 of the 40 minutes most of us spend daily on Facebook? Could we spare time from the four and a half hours we're watching television every day? What trade-off are we willing to make to spend more regular time in the Scriptures?
Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism, understands the necessity of trade-offs, a concept our culture has long dreaded. "The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing… Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities."
Today, it's easy to live by the lie that we can do it all. But maybe the resolution to read the Scriptures survives because we courageously acknowledge our limitations. We can't read the Bible and listen to Serial and catch up on the past five seasons of The Walking Dead and keep our day jobs. It sounds straightforward, but it’s true: If reading the Bible becomes our priority, we'll do it first. Then, with the time remaining, we'll find room for what we can.
It can feel like work to read the Bible. Some of us wonder for what reward. But it's difficult to measure the slow, incremental change the Bible affects in the short-term. Our spiritual growth mirrors the development of a child. I rarely notice my own children growing. Their grandparents, however, who see them much more infrequently, are the first to remark on their changes. Similarly, we're too close to our own selves to appreciate the good work the living and active word of God does in us (Heb. 4:12). But we're growing—even when we can't see it.
I anticipate those who will raise the cry of "legalism." God loves us no matter how regularly we read the Scriptures or how regularly we fail! And yes, thank God for the marvelous grace that suffers our inability to do the good we would resolve to do. Reading God's word does not earn his favor; that would make the sacrifice of Christ unnecessary. But habits that begin by discipline (even dread) can become our desire.
And besides, I can't ever imagine regretting having kept company with God.