A common mistake in the world of Bible study is to confuse Bible reading with Bible study. There is, of course, some overlap. After all, you have to read the Bible to study it! But if you treat them as synonymous, you can overwhelm yourself during your Bible reading time, and fail to get the most out of both activities.
What is Bible Reading?
When I refer to “Bible reading,” I’m thinking primarily of devotional reading — what you would typically do during your “quiet time.” A lot of people assume this should be Bible study. In fact, Adam Deane, although technically differentiating between the two in his book, Learn to Study the Bible, puts a little too much of a burden on the reading, expecting the reader to understand all that he reads. This is asking too much of a simple reading.
One should, of course, read slowly enough to actually take in the words. I’m not suggesting you fly through it without noticing what you read. But parts of the Bible are hard to understand without really digging in, and if you get bogged down in trying to understand the harder parts, you’ll miss out on the benefits of reading.
We read to get familiar with the Bible, which requires moving through it quickly enough to eventually get through it — hopefully multiple times over the years. And we read to take it in as large chunks, in order to better grasp the context of the passages we read or study.
It’s all right if you don’t understand everything you read. As long as you are also engaging in Bible study, you’ll gain understanding there, and the two activities will feed each other — the familiarity and context gained through reading enriching your study, and the study helping you understand more of what you read.
Tips for Bible Reading
Keep moving. Because the idea of reading is coverage, you’ll want to keep moving through the text. There’s no need to rush — go at whatever pace you need to, look up a word in the dictionary if necessary, etc. — just don’t get bogged down in answering tougher questions.
Take notes. One good way to avoid getting “stuck” is to take notes. Keep paper and a pen or pencil handy, and you can jot down your thoughts as you go. Make a note of anything that jumps out at you from the text.
Also make a note of any questions you have or topics/passages you’d like to study in depth later. That way you can keep moving through the text, but also be sure you can answer the tougher questions through your Bible study at another time.
Use a reading-friendly copy. You can do your Bible reading from any copy of the Bible. But if it feels awkward, consider finding a copy that has features more similar to other books, such as a paragraph format rather than a format with every verse separated. I also like to sometimes read from an inexpensive paperback copy that’s smaller and feels more like a regular reading book in my hands.
Focus yourself. If you find it difficult to read without your mind wandering, try using a simple not-quite-study technique to keep your mind focused.
One thing I’ve done is choose a particular theme for a given read-through, such as “family,” and then watching specifically for that theme to pop up in my reading. (I use an inexpensive paperback copy for this, and highlight that theme throughout the copy with colored pencils.) This provides just enough of a goal to keep me focused, without being so complicated it distracts from the reading.
Another method, suggested in Learn to Study the Bible, is to underline your single favorite verse in each chapter. As you finish up a book, choose which of the underlined verses is your favorite and circle it.
What is Bible Study?
Bible study is a bit different from simple Bible reading. You will need to read the text you’re studying, of course, but the purpose of Bible study is to examine the text more closely to gain a deeper understanding of it.
There are a variety of ways to approach the study of a portion of Scripture, but most use an underlying foundation of what we call “inductive Bible study,” or observation, interpretation, and application.
Observation is simply paying attention to what is in the text: who’s speaking? To whom? Does it mention a location? etc.
Interpretation is considering what the things that are said mean, given their context, genre, etc.
Application is asking why that meaning matters for our lives and putting it into practice.
Tips for Bible Study
The single best tip I have for Bible study is to do it. You don’t need to be nervous about “doing it wrong”; just do your best. Like any skill, it can be awkward at first but you get better with practice.
If you have a knowledgeable friend or pastor who will teach or mentor you, don’t be afraid to reach out to them, either.
I previously reviewed Andy Deane’s book, Learn to Study the Bible, and this is an excellent introduction if you need to learn specific skills for studying the Bible. (If you have a friend who’s willing to help you learn, but doesn’t feel confident about teaching you, this can be a great resource to go through together.)
Bible reading and Bible study are different activities, with different, complementary purposes. So at any given point in time, you should have a Bible reading plan and one or more topics for study.