For many, the early days of the new year mark the first shaky baby steps toward fulfilling their resolutions for 2014. While some take the occasion to shed a few pounds, stop a bad habit, or start a good one, others resolve to read the entire Bible, embarking on a journey of spiritual development and exploration.
But the Bible can be an intimidating text – thick, to be sure, its 66 books comprising nearly 800,000 words – and to keep the task from dying on the vine in the first week, as many resolutions do, there are a few important things to keep in mind.
Small bites, longer chew
The Rev. Colby Cuevas, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Tupelo, said to complete the book in 365 days, a person would need to read about four chapters each day. While certainly a doable pace, Cuevas cautioned against losing focus.
“It’s easy to get into a rhythm where you’re reading it just to do it,” he said. “I would probably suggest try doing it in two years. Taking it in smaller bites lets you chew and savor the text more deeply.”
Father Lincoln Dall, priest at St. James Catholic Church, agreed. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, reading smaller pieces makes it easier for the exercise to become a cherished daily ritual for a person, like a morning cup of coffee.
“The day is very busy, so as soon as you wake up or the moments right before bed might be good times,” Dall said. “It’s better to digest just a few verses that really affect your life than to just rush through it. Find a slow enough pace to really ruminate on what you read.”
Equally important, said Bishop Clarence Parks, pastor of the Temple of Compassion and Deliverance, is to read the word for the right reasons.
“Don’t study to prove others wrong or anything like that. Read it,” Parks said. “To enrich your life.”
Ultimately, Parks said, once a person gets on the right path, they should then become a teacher and beacon to others.
Where to start?
Cuevas also noted the Bible does not read like a normal book, in that it is not always structured in linear, chronological order. The downside to such a format, he said, is it can be challenging to read straight through. But the upside is, it lets the reader trace a particular theme or issue throughout the whole scripture without having to reread the entire book each time. Most Bibles contain a concordance, or an index of topics and related scriptures, to facilitate such study.
“For instance, lots of Bible guides will point you to an Old Testament passage, a New Testament passage, and a psalm that all correlate to one another, but aren’t right next to each other in the text,” he said.
For Parks, the best place to start reading is the gospels, with Jesus’s birth. “You really want to know about Christ,” he said. “He’s the most important thing.”
Then, he said, flip back to Genesis and read straight through the Old Testament.
“The Old Testament is mostly about people, our history, how we got to where we are,” he said.
Pastor of Smithville Baptist Church, the Rev. Wes White, said each Testament had its merits, but he said there is no substitute for an old-fashioned cover-to-cover reading.
“I think there’s something to be said for starting at the front, experiencing it as it was laid out by the divine spirit,” he said. “It’s also a great idea to read it in seasons, for instance, at the end of the Advent season, you could start with Matthew and be right there with the lectionary cycle used by many denominations.”
Set up for success
“But the most important thing I tell people is to start,” White said. “How fast you go and where you begin is less important than just getting in there and reading.”
As with any goal, Parks said, having a plan is crucial, but not one so strict that it becomes discouraging.
“So many people put limits on themselves, but then a whole lot of things come up and get them off track,” he said. “Detoured and frustrated, they stop reading completely. Don’t be so hard on yourself, just remember to come back to it.”
Additionally, the pastors advocated making the most out of resources to enhance the understanding and context of the Bible. These range from full scriptural commentaries to varying styles of Bibles crafted to encourage study.
“The first time I read Shakespeare, I knew I was reading something good, but I didn’t understand it,” White said. “The Bible can be like that, and the extra context really goes a long way in interpreting scripture.”
But the most important resource may be in fellow readers of the Bible.
“Especially for someone who might be a new Christian, I’d advise them to get with someone they trust who knows the Bible well,” Parks said. “They will be there to talk out questions, and help you through dark spots.”
Cuevas advocated reading the Bible with a group of around three or four others. Not only does that provide encouragement, a group reading also offers different perspectives a reader might not have considered on their own.
“The Bible was written in community,” Cuevas said. “So I think it makes sense it’s best read in community as well.”