If you still doubt that Christians need to be exhorted to discipline themselves to read the Bible, consider this: USA Today reported a poll just three months before this writing that showed only 11 percent of Americans read the Bible every day. More than half read it less than once a month or never at all.
Of course, we attempt to comfort ourselves by noting that the survey included all Americans, not just professing Christians. Lamentably, little comfort may be found. A survey taken less than a year earlier by the Barna Research Group among those claiming to be “born-again Christians” disclosed these disheartening numbers: Only 18 percent—less than two of every ten—read the Bible every day. Worst of all, 23 percent—almost one in four professing Christians—say they never read the Word of God. Consider these statistics in light of 1 Timothy 4:7, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (NSAB).
Jesus often asked questions about people’s understanding of the Scriptures, beginning with the words, “Have you not read …?” He assumed that those claiming to be the people of God would have read the Word of God. And a case can be made that this question implies a familiarity with the entire Word of God.
When Jesus said, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4), surely He intended at the very least for us to read “every word.”
Since “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), shouldn’t we read it?
Revelation 1:3 tells us, “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” God promises that those who read and heed His Word will be blessed. But only those who discipline themselves to do so will receive those blessings.
The main reason, remember, for disciplining ourselves is Godliness. We have learned that the Spiritual Disciplines are scriptural paths where we may expect to encounter the transforming grace of God. The most critical Discipline is the intake of God’s Word. A 1980 survey by Christianity Today and the Gallup Poll supported this when it concluded that no factor is more influential in shaping a person’s moral and social behavior than regular Bible reading. If you want to be changed, if you want to become more like Jesus Christ, discipline yourself to read the Bible.
How often should we read it? British preacher John Blanchard, in his book How to Enjoy Your Bible, writes,
Surely we only have to be realistic and honest with ourselves to know how regularly we need to turn to the Bible. How often do we face problems, temptation and pressure? Every day! Then how often do we need instruction, guidance and greater encouragement? Every day! To catch all these felt needs up into an even greater issue, how often do we need to see God’s face, hear his voice, feel his touch, know his power? The answer to all these questions is the same: every day! As the American evangelist D. L. Moody put it, “A man can no more take in a supply of grace for the future than he can eat enough for the next six months, or take sufficient air into his lungs at one time to sustain life for a week. We must draw upon God’s boundless store of grace from day to day as we need it.”
Here are the three most practical suggestions for consistent success in Bible reading. First find the time. Perhaps one of the main reasons Christians never read through the entire Bible is discouragement. Most people have never read a thousand-page book before and get discouraged at the sheer length of the Bible. Do you realize that tape-recorded readings of the Bible have proven that you can read through the entire Book in seventy-one hours? The average person in the United States watches that much television in less than two weeks. In no more than fifteen minutes a day you can read through the Bible in less than a year’s time. Only five minutes a day takes you through the Bible in less than three years. And yet the majority of Christians never read the Bible all the way through in their whole life. So we’re back to the idea that it’s primarily a matter of discipline and motivation.
Discipline yourself to find the time. Try to make it the same time every day. Try to make it a time other than just before you go to sleep. There’s value in reading the Bible just before you drop off, but if this is the only time you read Scripture then you should try to find another time. There are at least two reasons for this. First, you will retain very little of what you read when you’re so tired and sleepy. And second, if you’re like me, you probably do very little evil in your sleep. You need to encounter Christ in the Scriptures when it will still have an impact on your day.
The second practical suggestion is to find a Bible-reading plan. It’s no wonder that those who simply open the Bible at random each day soon drop the discipline. There are inexpensive Bible reading plans available in all Christian bookstores. Many study Bibles contain a reading schedule somewhere within the pages. Most local churches can provide you with a daily reading guide also.
Apart from a specific plan, reading three chapters every day and five on Sundays will take you through the Bible in a year’s time. Read three in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament every day, and you will finish the Old Testament once and the New Testament four times in a twelve-month span.
My favorite plan involves reading in five places each day. I begin in Genesis (the Law), Joshua (History), Job (Poetry), Isaiah (the Prophets), and Matthew (the New Testament) and read an equal number of chapters in each section. A variation of this plan is to read in three places daily, starting in Genesis, Job, and Matthew, respectively. The three sections are roughly the same in length, so you will finish them all about the same time. The great advantage of such a design is its variety. Many who intend to read straight through the Bible become confused in Leviticus, discouraged in Numbers, and give up completely by Deuteronomy. But when you are reading in more than one place each day, it’s easier to keep up the momentum.
Even if you don’t read through the Bible in a year’s time, keep a record of which books you have read. Put a check beside a chapter when you read it or by the title of a book in the table of contents when you’ve completed it. That way, regardless of how long it takes, or in what order they’re read, you’ll know when you’ve read every book in the Bible.
The third suggestion is to find at least one word, phrase, or verse to meditate on each time you read. We’ll look at meditation more closely in the next chapter, but you should recognize now that without meditation you may close your Bible and not be able to remember a single thing you’ve read. And if that happens, your Bible reading is not likely to change you. Even with a good plan, it can become a mundane chore instead of a Discipline of joy. Take at least one thing you’ve read and think deeply about it for a few moments. Your insight into Scripture will deepen and you’ll better understand how it applies to your life. And the more you apply the truth of Scripture, the more you’ll become like Jesus.
We should all have the passion for reading God’s Word of the man in this story. Evangelist Robert L. Sumner, in his book The Wonder of the Word of God, tells of a man in Kansas City who was severely injured in an explosion. His face was badly disfigured, and he lost his eyesight as well as both hands. He had just become a Christian when the accident happened, and one of his greatest disappointments was that he could no longer read the Bible. Then he heard about a lady in England who read braille with her lips. Hoping to do the same, he sent for some books of the Bible in braille. But he discovered that the nerve endings in his lips had been too badly damaged to distinguish the characters. One day, as he brought one of the braille pages to his lips, his tongue happened to touch a few of the raised characters and he could feel them. Like a flash he thought, “I can read the Bible using my tongue.” At the time Robert Sumner wrote his book, the man had read through the entire Bible four times. If he can do that, can you discipline yourself to read the Bible?
Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991), 29–31.
I have prepared a 13 week study of Donald Whitney’s classic book. It is available as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. Through this service, you get access to thousands of Bible lessons for one low monthly cost. This Study Guide is also available on Amazon.