When people say they wish they could watch more football, or they wish they could spend more time on the Internet, most of them will actually find a way to do just that.
But when the people in your church say they wish they knew the Bible better, will they actually set out to do it?
For many, the answer is probably not. But why not?
One reason some don’t work at learning the Bible might be they don’t really understand the benefits of being more biblically literate. Sure, they’ll agree it’s important. But in fact, they’re not really sure what’s in it for them.
To move their “wish” into action, they need to be motivated to move from meager effort to eager effort.
Train Them to Love Doctrine
“Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11).
Donald was a missions-minded communications major when I knew him at the Christian campus house. He had grown up in a Restoration Movement church, where he was taught the importance of doctrine. But as he grew older, what he began to see as an overemphasis on having the right opinions turned him off on the whole idea of doctrine.
Don’s reaction was the same as many others who are products of doctrinally conservative churches.
“Doctrine just isn’t important,” he flatly told me one day. “We’re supposed to teach the world the good news, not a bunch of doctrines.”
I had to agree with him to a point. Sometimes churches do give the impression it’s more important to be right than righteous.
“But, Don, if you’re serious about living out the full righteousness of God—and I know you are,” I told him, “I think you’ll discover just how important sound doctrine really is.”
He was shaking his head, but then I asked him if he was serious about God’s ministry of reconciliation through missional living, and he enthusiastically admitted he was.
“Then you’d better be prepared to answer the biggest question you’ll ever be asked: What must I do to be saved?
“If you’re not going to be actively talking to people about the gospel, then the plan of salvation just becomes something to argue about. But if you’re going to put yourself in a situation to tell people what to do, you need to know what the Bible says about it—and that’s doctrine.”
I went on to ask if he thought sex before marriage, sex outside of marriage, and homosexual relationships are sinful. He had definite ideas about those hot topics.
“Knowing the reasons for those moral choices—both logical and scriptural—are certainly important both for your own walk of faith and in counseling others. And that’s doctrine.”
The more I was able to lead him into thinking deeply about the full implications of righteousness, the more he agreed on the importance of doctrine.
For believers who have swallowed the prevalent wisdom that doctrine is unimportant, teach them first to hunger for true righteousness. Only then will they hunger to know the full truth of God’s heart about the things we know as “doctrine.”
Train Them to Work
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
My father was a hospital purchasing agent and administrator, my mother was a nurse, and I’ve worked in hospital procurement for 35 years. When I’m sick and in the hospital, or visiting someone in the hospital, I find myself looking at the brand of IV fluids being used, or analyzing the procedures being followed by the staff. I’m approaching the experience as someone involved in the inner workings, as an insider, not an outsider.
Many churchgoers have a customer’s attitude instead of an insider’s attitude. They’re content to be told just enough to keep their spirits up. They want the preacher to give them just enough Bible knowledge to heal their spiritual sickness.
Young people who grow up in church pick up the same mind-set. Their youth group experience gives them enough Bible to keep their faith alive, but such things are easily overshadowed by the pizza parties and hoopla aimed at keeping their enthusiasm pumped up.
When they leave the cocoon of home and church and head out for the secular college campus, those weekly religious inoculations are no longer strong enough to ward off the world’s infectious attacks.
Since the late 1960s, the Mizzou Christian Campus House has required all resident students to be involved in both a ministry group and a small group Bible study. Roy Weece, the original CCH director, firmly believed that active involvement in outward-directed ministry (hospital, dorm evangelism, prison ministry, etc.) is the best way of strengthening the students’ faith.
As a freshman, Gary’s contribution to our small group Bible studies amounted to repeating the “right answers” he had learned at his home church about doctrinal questions. Then, as a sophomore, Gary signed up to help lead a Bible study in one of the dorms.
As the weeks went by, his questions in our weekly small group became more pointed and detailed. He had lots of questions, and was eager for real debate. He had learned firsthand the importance of being ready to give an educated answer for his hope.
I’m a Bible college graduate and have been a lay teacher in the campus ministry and local church for decades. But my interest in knowing the Word kicked into overdrive when I got into prison ministry.
The women we minister to in the prison chapel can come up with questions unlike anything I’ve encountered before. What do you say to a woman who asks you to explain why God told Hosea to marry a prostitute—and who then explains that she’s in prison for that very crime?
In a setting where I may get only one opportunity to talk to a particular inmate, I can’t always promise I’ll “study up on that” and get back to her.
If you want to motivate Christians to learn to use their weapons of warfare, put them on the front lines.
Train Their Hearts
“I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).
Marla was sent to prison for an astounding list of crimes, and shortly thereafter began seeking God. Toward that end, she decided to read the Bible.
One night, she came to the chapel in tears. “I want to read the Bible—all of it! But on page after page, all I see are more reasons why God should hate me. I don’t know why he hasn’t killed me before now. This isn’t helping me.”
As we talked to her about it, she admitted she had started with Genesis and then got bogged down in Leviticus. Our first advice was to switch to the Gospels.
“And then, you’ve got to change what you’re looking for in the Bible,” I said. “If you read through looking for all the things God says are right or wrong, you’ll quickly be overwhelmed with the weight of the law. Instead, you should read the Bible in order to get to know God, to get to know Jesus.”
Many who read the Bible still miss out on the greatest treasures it offers. As a result, they settle for the endless treadmill of trying hard and failing, like Paul in Romans 7.
They don’t realize what can happen if they make learning the heart of God their goal.
To put God’s words into your heart, to align your heart with his righteous passion for both justice and grace—it will change your life.
A woman in the prison chapel showed me her Bible. Almost every bit of white space on page after page was filled with almost illegibly scrawled notes, because she couldn’t afford to buy paper.
“I need to know everything this book says,” she told me. “There’s just so many things to get right.”
“I’m impressed with your diligence,” I told her. “What will you do when you run out of room to write notes?”
She tearfully confessed she didn’t know what she’d do.
“I have just the answer for you,” I said, and her eyes lit up. “Work on writing his Word on your heart. It’ll last longer than paper, and I promise you it will change your life.”
Our prison chapel congregation is filled with people who want desperately to change. We spend a lot of time teaching them about spiritual disciplines. They learn that Bible reading, meditating on the Word, prayer, and other disciplines can be the key to transforming themselves into the sort of people who will naturally obey biblical teachings.
When people experience firsthand how the Word of God can perform surgery on their heart, they can’t get enough of it.
T.R. Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.