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Reading and Meditating on the Bible as Spiritual Disciplines for Pastors

Pastors must care for their own souls before they can care for the souls of others. This looks like reading the Bible and meditating on it.

Pastors cannot care well for the souls of others if they neglect the care of their own souls. So pastors, how do you care for your soul and go about “building yourselves up in your most holy faith” (Jude 20)?

The means God has provided for this are typically called the “spiritual disciplines.” They are the personal and interpersonal practices found in Scripture through which we experience God, become more like Christ, and grow in grace.

The two most important personal spiritual disciplines (the subject of these articles) for all Christians—including pastors—are the disciplines of the Word and prayer, in that order. It’s more important for us to hear from God through His Word than for God to hear from us in prayer.

The disciplines of the Word are—in ascending order of difficulty—hearing, reading, studying, meditating on, memorizing, and applying the Scriptures. I elaborate on each of these in chapters two and three of my Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (NavPress, 1991/2014). In this brief article, I want to emphasize two: reading and meditation.

Reading the Bible

Pastor, have you read the entire Bible? In His temptation experience in Matthew 4, Jesus responds famously to Satan’s first temptation by quoting Deut. 8:3, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Notice “every word.” How can you live “by every word that comes from the mouth of God” if you have never even read “every word that comes from the mouth of God”?

How can you preach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 4:27) if you’ve never read “the whole counsel of God”?

Since “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, emphasis added), shouldn’t we read it all?

Because the home and church in which I was raised emphasized daily Bible reading, I may have read the entire Bible before I finished seminary, but if I did, it wasn’t “systematic.” That is, I didn’t follow an organized plan to take me through the entire Bible. It wasn’t until the summer after my graduation that I became convicted about this and established a Bible reading plan. By God’s grace, I’ve continued this practice at least annually ever since, and it has been the most influential habit of my entire personal life and ministry.

Only in exceptional cases should there be anyone under our spiritual leadership who has read through the Bible as many times as we have (unless, of course, you are a very young minister). And as we’ve emphasized in the first two articles, since pastors are called to be “examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3), can we expect our people to consistently read “every word that comes from the mouth of God” if we do not?

We have the responsibility to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:2), teach from it, and lead by it. God’s Word is the authority behind all our work, the guide for all our ministry, and the means by which we conform to the Shepherd of the sheep. All this requires an ongoing saturation in all of God’s revealed truth.

This series of articles for pastors is founded on the apostle Paul’s admonition to Timothy—a minister—in 1 Tim. 4:7, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” In the pursuit of godliness, no factor is more influential in making us more like the Son of God than the Spirit of God working through the Word of God. If you want to become more like Jesus Christ and lead His people as He would, discipline yourself to read the Bible. All of it. Regularly.

“In the pursuit of godliness, no factor is more influential in making us more like the Son of God than the Spirit of God working through the Word of God.”

Meditating on the Bible

The greatest single devotional need of most Christians, in my opinion, is meditation on Scripture. If it were within my power to change the devotional life of every Christian on the planet, it would be here.

That’s because there appears to be an almost universal problem when it comes to the intake of Scripture. I’ve found it to be true even among our most devoted daily Bible readers, including pastors. It looks like this: whether they read one, three, or ten chapters, as soon as they close their Bible they would often have to admit, I don’t remember a thing I’ve read. Most assume the problem is their memory, their education, or their IQ. I maintain that even if there is a problem with one of these, the main problem is their method.

The method of most Christians it seems is to merely read the Bible. As I’ve noted above, that’s the indispensable starting place. But for far too many, it is also the ending place. Reading is the exposure to Scripture, but meditation is the absorption of Scripture. And it is the absorption of Scripture that leads to the experience with God and transformation of life that we long for when we come to the Scriptures. The problem is simply that we do not meditate on Scripture after we read it.

If it takes you, say, two seconds to read each verse of your chosen passage for the day, you can read a thousand verses—at two seconds each—and not remember a thing you’ve read. Why? Well, what do you ever remember that you look at for two seconds? Rarely anything. The problem is not your memory; it’s your method.

Reading the treasures of truth in the Bible without meditating on them is like putting diamonds into a bag with holes. Meditation sews up those holes. We tend to remember little of what we read but retain more what we pause to think about.

The Lord, in places such as Joshua 1:8 and Psalm 1:2, told Joshua and David (and us) to meditate “day and night” on His Word. How could He expect that of men who also had the God-given responsibilities to be the civic, military, judicial, and spiritual leaders for some two million people? (You think you have a lot to do!) The only possible way for them (and us) to meditate day and night was to meditate on the text of Scripture once during the day, and then, as they were doing the other things that were also God’s will for them “day and night,” they could recall the truth they had absorbed earlier. The first and simplest test of whether you have adequately meditated on Scripture is whether you can remember it—not only after you close your Bible—but also later that day (or night).

As a general rule, then, for the daily intake of Scripture, I recommend: “Read big, meditate small.” Read a “big” section of Scripture (a chapter or more), and then meditate “small,” that is, on one verse or phrase from your reading. Reading is necessary to give you context and to help you see the whole landscape of the passage. Meditation is necessary to help you remember, absorb, pray about, and apply something from the passage.

Even if you have only ten minutes for the Word of God, don’t read for ten minutes. Read for five and meditate for five. For it’s far better to read less—if necessary—and remember something, than to read more and remember nothing.

For more on this, including a discussion of seventeen different methods of meditation on Scripture, see chapter three of my Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.

Part 1 of this article can be found here.

Part 2 of this article can be found here.

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