Not that I’m an expert, but I thought it good to share some practical ideas to help improve your study, or devotion time. These are all things that I have found useful in my own experience. Of course there are no real rules to study and devotion preparation, but I think there are some things that can help. I sometimes use all of these together, but more often just employ some of them, depending on my situation. Almost none of these are my idea; most of them came from folks far my qualified than myself to instruct. Consider each carefully, perhaps you will find good fruit in them just as I have.
1.Devotion is a lifestyle, not an activity.
Among the first mistakes I made when learning to spend time with the Lord was to think that I could section my time with him off into some portion, which is then defined as a “devotion”. But as a Christian, than makes little sense. I have been brought back to life, and my whole life is now in Christ. I cannot consecrate only a thirty-minute portion of my day to the Lord, but all day and every day. When I am in that mindset, I am best suited to tangibly spend time in a devotion. If I have only a short time to go deep into God in his Word, then I will not get very far. But if I have all time to go deep, then the time I spend specifically with his Word, I will go very deep.
2.First thing in the morning is best.
I’ve gone back and forth and I definitely don’t always do this, but I think that the church fathers throughout history were onto something with this one. “I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning” (Psalm 59:16). I’m convinced that this is not just an antiquated idea that it is good to be up early in the morning and bad to be up late at night, but I think there is an important principal embedded here.
Some of my most fruitful days begin with my mind and heart in the Word. To begin my day, first thing, with the Word of God helps set things on a course of godliness. It helps to ripen conviction for sin and helps me to notice approaching sin before it has passed and guilt can set in. In addition to that, my comprehension of the Word is improved. I, like many, am generally not a morning person. I’ve said many times before, that if I read first thing wouldn’t get much out of it. But therein lies a mystery, because I do. Almost always.
3.Consistency is key.
I’m a pretty firm believer in that we sabotage ourselves when we are convinced that every time we sit down to study or devotion that our minds and hearts must be blown away. I think this expectation mostly just breeds discouragement. While we should always attempt to approach scripture with a tender heart ready to be impacted, the fact is, sometimes (for some, even often) we just won’t. If this fear, or expectation, prevents us from even beginning to sit and read, or pray, then the enemy has already gained a foothold.
When folks who are discouraged or struggling with their spiritual life come to me, or around me, with complaints like that, my advice is always the same. I tell them to read the Word consistently, regardless of the way they feel. Even if that is only as much as one chapter per day. Just don’t miss a single day, keep reading the Word. Feel no further obligation beyond whatever has been decided. In my own walk, in times of struggle and discouragement, this has frequently helped to bring me back to good spiritual health.
Always read the Word every single day.
I know a lot of folks who have very little organization in their study and devotion. In study I think this is more important, but the principal works in devotions too. Many jump around, or use the close-your-eyes-and-flip-to-page approach. You’re not going to go too deep into scripture if you’re just randomly picking stuff to read. It’s unlikely that you’re going to get too much out of what you’re reading, or even worse, you might string together the wrong set of verses and come to the wrong conclusion about scripture and God altogether. I used this approach at one time and it was rarely, if ever, fruitful.
Develop a pattern of some kind. It doesn’t mean you can’t break out of the pattern sometimes, but something general to keep you organized. Maybe it’s one chapter per day, from the same book, until the book is done. Then move onto another book. I know some people who read one whole new testament book every day for a week, then move onto another book. Some people go through a bible reading plan, like bible-in-a-year, or a chronological plan. One of my favorite methods I call A-B Days is reading through the Old Testament on “A” days, then reading through the New Testament on “B” days. It’s all good stuff, just stay organized.
5.Keep a journal.
Some people feel like keeping a reading journal means writing down insightful, inspiring, or profound thoughts based on what you’re reading. That’s just not true. You might sometimes write things like that down, but that’s not always the point. Sometimes when reading scripture, you’ll come across something that just doesn’t make sense to you. That’s okay. You shouldn’t feel obligated to understand right then and there. But you do a disservice to yourself by just forgetting about it. Keep a journal that will allow you to jot down questions, or scripture that doesn’t quite make sense to you. Even if you don’t actively seek out answers, you’ll be surprised how many questions are answered just by continuing to read scripture. Keeping a journal can also help you stay consistent, even if every entry is something as simple as “4/24/08 – Today I read Ephesians 4:1-11”.
6.Get a grasp on theology.
Theology is not something man-made. It’s not a box that people put God into. Theology, good theology, comes from scripture, it is the whole of scripture. It is some understanding of God, and for hundreds of years the Church has learned about it and taught it. Today, it stands to help you learn. Time may simply not permit you to read huge chucks of scripture every day and because of that, many biblical concepts may seem muddy to you. Do you want to know what scripture says about suffering? Learn something about the theology of suffering, and it will help make reading the bible and seeing for yourself what it says about suffering much easier.
7.If your environment is too loud, use white noise.
People make fun of me for this one one all the time. But it really is useful. If you can’t go somewhere quiet, use white noise. After a few minutes of listening to it, it’ll blend into the background and you won’t even notice it anymore—you also won’t notice the TV in the other room, or the radio on in the kitchen.
Here are a few you can download for free. You just need a way you can loop them; like an ipod or windows media player. Each one of these mp3’s is about 30 – 45 seconds long and is set up to loop seamlessly.
(right click, save-as to download)
8.Read out-loud, or listen.
In very long texts, like Old Testament stories, or long winded treaties, such as Romans or the Corinthian letters, hearing what is written may help you to connect larger ideas in the text. For example, in the book of Ephesians, you’ll find many intricate and beautiful ideas. However, in reading quietly and slowly, you may miss the larger theme of encouragement. I have found in listening to the bible on CD or reading it out-loud to myself, it’s much easier to pick up on the larger themes.
I’ve found this highly affording MP3 bible in the ESV version, under 20 bucks.
9.Use study tools!
There are tons of awesome resources available for free, or very inexpensive. When there’s something you need some help understanding or grasping more clearly, make use of the tools that some good organizations make available for free. Here are just a few that you ought to give a shot.
- Commentaries: Well studied men of God have gone before you, and much like asking your pastor today, they can help to give insight into the meaning of a verse or several verses. While no one person can be the end all of all understanding—except for Jesus—they can help. If you want printed material, check out Monergism for some good printed stuff.
- Bible Dictionary: Some stuff we’re not going to understand as well unless we can grasp some of the cultural stuff surrounding it. Want to know why John is always talking about “vines”, it might help to know something about ancient Roman agriculture. A bible dictionary can help. In print, I have the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, under 20 bucks.
Try: NETBible for a free online bible dictionary.
- Online Bibles: Using a digital bible can make study much easier. Especially when it comes to cross references. You might find yourself reading something that reminds you of another passage you read recently. Using a keyword search will make it easier to find the verse you’re looking for. Plus, some digital bibles have a vast number of translations available making it easy to line them up next to each other.
- Interlinear Bible/Lexicon: Sometimes the depth of meaning of scripture is diminished in translation. The Greek language has way more words than English does. I’m not a Greek scholar and you probably aren’t either. But that’s alright, to help us out with that are Lexicons and Interlinear bibles. They can help us to understand the original language without having to know it. It won’t replace actually learning Greek or Hebrew, but it will help the rest of us. In print Lexicons can get pretty expensive.
Try: Crosswalk.com for a free interlinear bible and lexicon.
10.Under no circumstances should you be without your bible.
I had a friend a while back who I really admired. He always carried a backpack, even if he was just going to 7-11 or something. Sometimes all that he would have in it was a notebook and a bible. Eventually I adopted the practice. You’d be surprised how often you end up having to wait in line somewhere, or sitting at a red light and think of a verse you need to look up. For these occasions and more, it’s indispensable to carry a bible with you everywhere. Think about it, of all the things you won’t leave your house without: cell phone, wallet, keys, ipod, whatever, and yet you leave home the sword of the Spirit? (Ephesians 6:17). So my advice is to carry it with you everywhere, at all times. Even if it’s not often used, it will you keep a mindset of constant readiness, and that is of ultimate importance.