CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

On the Reading of Scripture (Or the Lack Thereof)

Oct 2, 2008

There is no question that the church of Jesus Christ in Australia (and in much of the Western world) is not exactly in great shape. The church is very far away from where it is supposed to be. And it is certainly not having the impact that it should be having.

There are of course many reasons for this. But one clear reason has to do with our lack of devotion to the word of God. This fact was even picked up in the secular press not long ago. It involved a large study of Australian Christians and their Bible reading habits. It turns out there is not much of a habit at all. Regular reading of God’s word seems to be on the decline. Here is how one press account explains the situation:

“Of those Australians who go to church, 21 per cent read their Bible daily, 14 per cent open it a few times a week and 6 per cent once a week. But 24 per cent said they read their Bibles only occasionally, 18 per cent hardly ever and 17 per cent said they never read the Bible on their own as a private devotional activity, according to the research, which is based on the 2006 National Church Life Survey of 500,000 people who attended church from 22 denominations.”

It continues, “The most diligent Bible readers are Pentecostals, with 72 per cent saying they read the holy book daily or a few times a week, followed by Baptists (62 per cent), Anglicans (46 per cent), Lutherans (41 per cent) and Uniting (43 per cent). Dragging down the other denominations are Catholics, of whom 59 per cent confess they rarely consult their Bibles.”

Well that explains a lot. If we are not reading the word of God on a regular basis, then we will not be functioning the way we are meant to be. Indeed, we will be going backwards, spiritually speaking, if we neglect the Bible.

The Bible itself speaks much about the importance of regularly dining on God’s word. The old truism certainly applies here: we become what we feed on. And if Scripture is not the main source of our nourishment, then it will obviously be something else. One hates to think what is taking its place.

But one can imagine all the usual suspects: Christians, like non-Christians, probably consume huge amounts of time on brainless entertainment, especially television, movies, DVDs, music, video games, and so on. Of course there is a place for that. But one suspects that most believers are spending far more time on such pursuits than they are on God’s word.

And what will be the effect of such habits? If we are spending say 10, or 20, or 30 times more attention to soap operas, music videos and computer games than we are to God’s word, then that will have an impact. Instead of displaying biblical values, beliefs, ideas and worldviews, we will just be reflecting those of the surrounding secular culture.

Soaking up all that secularism has to offer us, while ignoring the very source of spiritual nourishment, is a recipe for disaster. And that is just what we are getting. Even secular commentators have pointed this out. Back in 1985 Neil Postman penned a book entitled Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it he bemoaned the fact that we are dumbing ourselves down and destroying our souls by living on TV and other entertainment junk foods.

But this is really nothing new, unfortunately. The Romans promised ‘bread and circuses’ to the masses to keep them complacent and manageable. Our spiritual enemy today is quite happy to employ the same tactics. Give us our daily bread, and heaps of brainless entertainment, and we believers will be rendered absolutely useless in terms of extending the Kingdom of God and showing a lost and needy world the beauty of Christ our Saviour.

The importance of the Word

As I mentioned, Scripture speaks much about the importance of keeping close to God through his revealed word. A few passages – out of many – come to mind here. Psalm 119 is the longest of the 150 Psalms, and it is also the one most devoted to the importance of God’s word. Here are just a few of its many verses which speak to this theme:

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word” (v. 9)
“I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word” (v. 16).
“Your statutes are my delight; they are my counsellors” (v, 24).
“I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free” (v. 32).
“Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge” (v. 54).
“The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.” (v. 72).
“Your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction” (v. 92).
“Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long” (v. 97).
“I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes” (v. 99).
“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (v. 105).
“The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple” (v. 130).
“All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal” (v. 160).
“Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble” (v. 165).

Finally, verse 37 is most appropriate, given what I said above: “Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word.” All the worthless things we devote our attention to certainly do not preserve our lives, but destroy them.

As CS Lewis says in his Reflections on the Psalms, “The Order of the divine mind, embodied in the divine Law, is beautiful. What should a man do but try to reproduce it, so far as possible, in his daily life? His ‘delight’ is in those statutes (verse 16); to study them is like finding treasure (verse 14); they affect him like music, are his ‘songs’ (verse 54); they taste like honey (verse 103); they are better than silver and gold (verse 72). As one’s eyes are more and more opened, one sees more and more in them, and it excites wonder (verse 18). This is not priggery, nor even scrupulosity; it is the language of a man ravished by a moral beauty. If we cannot at all share his experience, we shall be the losers.”

The New Testament is equally clear on the overwhelming value of being immersed in God’s word. Jesus told us that “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). He also said, “If you abide in My word then are you truly My disciples” (John 15:7).

And with so much falsehood, deception and lies scattered throughout our world, we need the solid rock of truth to be able to navigate our way through it all. Jesus assured us that God’s word is truth (John 17:17). It is not just deception from without that the word helps to guard us against, but self-deception as well. In Heb. 4:12 we are told that the word of God is “living and active … it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”.

We need the Word to equip us for the jobs we are meant to do for Christ. Paul reminds us in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

Spiritual maturity is based on a solid understanding of God’s word. New believers certainly need it, as Peter reminds us: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation (1 Peter 2:2). And we need solid doctrinal teaching from the word to keep our faith intact. As Paul says, “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14).

We are told that the Bereans were more noble than those at Thessalonica because “they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily, [to see] whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Indeed, we are to study to show ourselves approved, properly handling the word of God (2 Tim. 2:15).

The armour of God which we all need includes the “sword of the spirit, the word of God” (Eph. 6:17). Faith itself is dependent on the word of God. Says Paul, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

Conclusion

Much more can be said about what Scripture itself says concerning the importance of the daily study of, and meditation on, the word of God. There is no way a believer can grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ without regular, disciplined reading and study of Scripture.

The church is in a rather dreadful state today, and much of that must be put down to our aversion to, and avoidance of, Holy Scripture. We have become spiritually blind, so that we do not see how vital the word is for our very spiritual sustenance. We do not see that we are withering away spiritually when we do not regularly commune with God and his word. We are slowly but surely killing ourselves, because we have allowed the cares and entertainments of this world to block our love relationship with God as we come to know him by means of reading, studying and praying through his Word.

It is hoped that the next time a major survey is undertaken concerning the Bible reading habits of believers, that there is a trend, but an upward trend, not a downward trend. The word of God is one of the most precious and vital elements of the Christian faith, and we ignore it at our own great peril.

www.smh.com.au/news/national/confession-fewer-know-their-bible/2008/09/09/1220857547474.html

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16 Responses to On the Reading of Scripture (Or the Lack Thereof)

  • Could not agree more with what you’ve said. When I get slack in not having a daily quiet time, I notice that I’m more tempted to do the wrong thing, and less aware of compromises that I’m making.

    It also follows that I pray less, and my focus on the ‘race’ is a little hazy.

    Tracy Smith

  • Years ago I was invited by a cell group to lead their Bible study. I’m not sure whether they combined a few groups that night, but for a cell group it certainly was a big group – about 30 people, age between 18-40. After a short prayer, with an all-serious look on my face I asked everybody to turn to the book of “Minimiah”. About half the people looked confused. A couple asked, did I meant Jeremiah. The rest were busy trying to find “Minimiah” from the index. Finally someone asked, “Is it in the Old or New Testament?” I told them its BETWEEN the Old and New Testament. I lie to you not – there were actually people turning their Bibles, until someone said that there’s nothing between the Testaments! Just to test if everyone has caught on to my little mischief, I said, “Never mind. Lets go to ‘Maximiah’ instead.” Guess what? there were actually a few trying to find ‘Maximiah!’

    Is it any wonder that so many people today are being misled by false prophets? Encouraging people to read the Bible is not enough because people by nature prefer to do things that do not require much efforts – like sitting in front of the TV. Most people find reading the Bible an effort, and therefore boring. I know because I was once such a person, until I met someone who took the trouble to teach me how to make the Bible interesting to read – and that changed my life completely. He didn’t just encouraged me to read the Bible. He built a permanent intrinsic motivator into me that makes me WANT to read it.

    There’s a theory that when the butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, it causes a thunder storm in Boston. This is called “The Butterfly Effect”. The theory is that when there is a change in the atmosphere in one part of the world, no matter how slight, it could cause a major weather change somewhere else in the future. The weatherman can tell you this. So it is with our lives. When we take the trouble to become a little butterfly and flap our wings in the life of other people, we could trigger a change in their lives. I know because someone came into my life and flapped his wings – and he changed a old, boring Book into my source of inspiration. Somewhere somehow someone, without our even knowing it, flapped their wings in our lives and we become who we are today. Freely we have received, shouldn’t we freely give in return?

    Dare I urge your readers, Brother Bill, to do likewise?

    Eddie Sim

  • Interesting how the Pentecostals and the Baptists lead the field in Bible study. When Jim Wallace went down to Tasmania to campaign against homosexuality, he said that these are the 2 groups that came out to help him most. Intersting co-incidence that.
    The devil says “don’t touch that book”. God says “man must live by every word which procedes out of the mouth of God”. Who are we going to listen to/obey?
    Ian Brearley

  • Thanks guys

    There is an old saying about the Bible that goes something like this: “Sin will keep you from this book, and this book will keep you from sin”. The less we are into the word, the more easily we will fall into sin. And the more we dwell in sin, the less likely we will be to go to God’s word. Thus the importance of, and necessity for, daily soaking up the living word of God.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Ian, I also remember hearing Jim Wallace several years ago tell a group of us how when he was speaking at a well known Pentecostal megachurch and he got to the point in his presentation where he mentioned that abortion was something that Christians needed to oppose, that there were quite a lot of people who gave him surprised looks. Having spent over 15 years in the Pentecostal church movement I would observe that whilst a high percentage of Pentecostal Christians do read the Bible and do profess to believe it, they are still mostly silent on culture war type issues.

    Ewan McDonald.

  • Thanks again Bill for another timely article. Scripture refers to itself as the Sword of the Spirit — Christians who don’t read the Bible are trying to fight the enemy without weapons. As the Book of Common Prayer says, we have left undone those things we ought to have done, and done those things we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.

    Television is the god of many Christian homes, demanding sacrifices at the appointed hour each day. Better to put an axe through the TV and enter into life via prayer and repentence than to be cast into the flames with a fully working set.

    Btw, people don’t come ‘down’ to Tasmania; they come south. Saying ‘down’ suggests the speaker knows which way is ‘up’ in space. AFAIK, Scripture contains no teaching on that.

    Michael Watts

  • Ewan, re your comment on the disconnect between reading the Bible and making application to the current culture.

    I suspect (from past times in the pentecostal area) that there is a significant problem with anti-intellectualism, appearing in two forms:
    a) “we walk by faith not by sight”, “we are under grace, not under law” and “we live in the age of the Holy Spirit, which overrules the soul/mind” so anything ‘rational’ must be suspect
    b) intellectual study is seen most often in the traditional churches (= ‘dead’ parts of Christendom) and the Roman Catholic church (portrayed too often as the enemy within the camp)

    This infection is not necessarily everywhere, but it appears to hold sway over the most active parts.

    Sadly, this problem manifests the symptom of what Schaeffer described as the isolation of faith from reason, and the consequent loss of such absolutes as objective truth.

    John Angelico

  • The other observation I would make, given my experience of Pentecostalism (around 25 years), is that there may be a disconnect between what Pentecostals are reading and what they’re understanding. Poor hermeneutic practices are unfortunately common. It would appear that many pastors, when preparing a sermon, have a thought about what they want to say, then go Scripture hunting to find justification for their ideas, rather than reading the word and then seeking Holy Spirit-guided understanding of it.

    Stephen Frost, Melbourne

  • …many pastors…go to Scripture hunting to find justification for their ideas

    As John Locke (1632-1704) put it, we must be wary of those who “choose to use and pin their faith on such expositors as explain the sacred scripture according to those opinions they have before hand voted orthodox.”
    Michael Watts

  • Great stuff Bill,

    Love your work mate, the word is so powerful and it seems only when I give myself to each day studying it do I feel I actually know his will in my life.

    May God continue to bless your ministry!

    Dean Pannell, CEO – Ebermedia

  • Here is text that I have just sent to the ABC, re ignorance of the Bible that they demonstrate on radio.

    Society’s Low Regard of the Bible, and especially of the words of Jesus of Nazareth

    From time to time I come across instances where people should give credit to the Bible for the wisdom they quote, but they do not. For example …

    Heard on ABC Radio National

    Background Briefing:- Population control – 21 September 2008

    Kirsten Garrett: There were also some personal questions. One member of the audience pointed out that Shakespeare said that before we look at the faults of others, we should face our own.

    Did Shakespeare really say that?
    He may have, but so far I have failed to find a reference to it.

    Dear people,
    I suppose I am rather unusual. I am an Atheist who finds wisdom in the Bible.
    I am concerned by the general low regard that the Bible is held in society.
    I believe it is extremely poorly promoted by the Church.

    Why do I raise this, you ask?
    I am concerned when quotes that should be credited to the Bible are credited to others.

    I have searched two Shakespeare websites, and also made some general Google searches.
    (eg http://www.shakespeare-online.com/.search?query=fault+others+ourselves+before&hits=10&offset=10 fault others ourselves before)
    All to no avail. I don’t recall ever having come across it in my acquaintance with Shakespeare. And to me, it doesn’t sound like the sort of thing Shakespeare wrote. As I understand him, he mainly wrote shrewd observations on life and love, but was not renowned as a moral philosopher.

    (You might ask a researcher to check if this really is a recognised quote of Shakespeare.)

    I can, however, quote the words of Jesus of Nazareth …

    “”Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Matthew 7:3-5 (Also in Luke)

    At the very least, doesn’t Jesus deserve credit over Shakespeare as the earlier author?

    And I might point out, this is not some trivial subject.
    Let us accepts that what is important is
    1) Not whether or not one has certain faults, but whether or not one is prepared to deal with them
    2) If one considers what is required for people to get along, surely this is a very important idea – dealing with ones own faults before trying to fix up other people.
    Arguably, this should be taught in school, AND credit given to Jesus, NOT Shakespeare.

    So, dear Kirsten, this is my point…
    One of the MOST IMPORTANT IDEAS OF ALL,
    Attributed to One of the MOST SIGNIFICANT HUMANS OF ALL (Jesus of Nazareth)
    In One of the MOST IMPORTANT BOOKS OF ALL (The Bible)
    And you didn’t know it.
    And I’ll bet no-one else on your team (or in the Audience) knew it either.

    But the Bible is held in such low regard in this Society that quoting from it causes one to be treated with suspicion.

    My guess is that the original person attributing the quote to Shakespeare DID know it was from Jesus, but found out the hard way that to quote Jesus brought scorn on one. So they decided it was safer to attribute the statement to someone else, such as Shakespeare.

    Think about it.

    (Some other examples…
    Jon Faine once told of how for a long time he used to believe that it was possible to convince anyone of the truth, but eventually he found there are some people one cannot reason with.
    Congratulations Jon, you have rediscovered
    Proverbs 9:7-9
    7 “Whoever corrects a mocker invites insult;
    whoever rebukes a wicked man incurs abuse.

    8 Do not rebuke a mocker or he will hate you;
    rebuke a wise man and he will love you.

    9 Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still;
    teach a righteous man and he will add to his learning.

    On NewsRadio one of the presenters said something like …
    “I’m rather old fashioned. I believe you should let other people praise you, not praise yourself.”
    Not just “old fashioned”, but Biblical …
    Proverbs 27: 2 Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
    someone else, and not your own lips.)

    Modern society just does not give the Bible the credit it deserves.

    … And people wonder why Islam is on the rise.

    David Cohan

  • PS To my post on this subject.
    re the statement.

    “Shakespeare said that before we look at the faults of others, we should face our own.”

    If there are any experts on Shakespeare in the readership of this column, I would really appreciate if they could clarify whether or not such a statement is attributed to Shakespeare.

    (Of course we know the true author is Jesus (Matthew 7:3-5 (Also in Luke)))

    Thank you

    David Cohan

  • Thanks David

    There is no question that society at large is woefully ignorant of the Bible. Even if considered only a great work of literature (although I of course believe it is much more than that), there is widespread Biblical illiteracy in the West.

    But the really worrying thing is that so many Christians are also ignorant of their own Scriptures.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • This is making the rounds on the Internet and is appropriate here:

    Cell phone vs. Bible
    Ever wonder what would happen if we treated our Bible like we treat our cell phone?
    What if we carried it around in our purses or pockets?
    What if we flipped through it several time a day?
    What if we turned back to go get it if we forgot it?
    What if we used it to receive messages from the text?
    What if we treated it like we couldn’t live without it?
    What if we gave it to kids as gifts?
    What if we used it when we traveled?
    What if we used it in case of emergency?
    This is something to make you go….hmm…where is my Bible?
    Oh, and one more thing.
    Unlike our cell phone, we don’t have to worry about our Bible being disconnected because Jesus already paid the bill.
    Makes you stop and think, where are my priorities? And no dropped calls!

    Hazel Perry

  • Hi David
    Thanks for your amazing defence of the Book of Books. I turned to reading the Bible regularly almost seven years ago and have not stopped. Since then I have become a believer in Jesus and the Bible as God’s Word. As it seems you know, I have discovered that so much of our language, phrases and concepts are derived from the Bible but the Bible itself is largely ignored by an increasingly secular society. If our Bibles were tattered, our lives would not be. Let us somehow bring the Bible into our society to be embraced rather than disgraced.
    Alex Parer

  • I read this article and I find it more than anything convicting in my life. I see where I have strayed away from Gods word and I have seen the outworkings of that in my life in a negative way. I thank you for posting this article and really bringing awareness to this whole issue.

    The scriptural evdence is mind blowing, especially as I think of how the Christian church today totally blows off the reading of the bible in many ways. The bible is not a works based thing, it is out of our desire to know God more. I feel right now that God wants me to know him more intimatly and he is using this article to call me to the word of God.

    Thanks Bill

    Ben Soleim

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