By Kent E. Fillinger
Biblegateway.com offers 61 different Bible translations and paraphrases for readers to choose from. I’ve half-jokingly said for years that most Christians choose to read the MOV(My Own Version) Bible.
The Jefferson Bible—more properly called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth—may be the most noteworthy example of trying to make the Bible fit one’s personal perspective. Our nation’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, like many at the time, shed his orthodox Christianity in stages. He started by doubting the Trinity, then Old Testament miracles, and then New Testament miracles.
During his presidency, Jefferson extracted, reduced, and cut down the Gospels until the only thing left was what he called “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals that has ever been offered to man.” He put these verses into a 46-page booklet he called The Philosophy of Jesus. (No copies of it exist today.)
In 1820, he finished the fuller second version of his edited Gospel. He devoutly read from it until he died in 1826.
My Truth, Your Truth, or His Truth?
We all like our “version” of the truth because, for some reason, we think it’s better. Many people shift from confessing “I believe in God” to talking about “the God I believe in,” before somehow concluding, “I could never believe in a God who . . .” As Daniel Silliman recently noted in Christianity Today, “We seek to make the Scripture sublime with our revisions, but we only succeed in making it sad.”
In Can I Believe? Christianity for the Hesitant, John Stackhouse reminds us that our situations in life, along with our interests, values, hopes, and fears, can deeply influence the way we think. He offers three suggestions for managing this reality: Choose your company wisely, widen your conversations to include varying perspectives, and acknowledge the influence of your will in deciding what to believe.
Taking time to learn, know, and obey the truths of God’s Word in the Bible can set us free from entrapments of our own making. It’s just as Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32, New Living Translation).
Bible Reading in a COVID-19 World
Online Bible searches soared in 2020. A record number of people turned to the Bible for verses addressing fear, healing, and justice.
The popular YouVersion Bible app saw searches increase by 80 percent to nearly 600 million worldwide in 2020. Isaiah 41:10 ranked as the most searched, read, and bookmarked verse on the app. YouVersion tracked 43.6 billion Bible chapters read during 2020, with about 500 million verses shared, the highest number on record.
Spikes in Bible searches corresponded to major events, with “fear” being the app’s top search term during the first few months of 2020, “justice” in the spring, and “healing” trending throughout the year.
Bible Gateway’s website reported similar search trends. Pandemic-related verses about God taking away sickness were queried about 90 times more than average when COVID-19 lockdowns began a year ago.
The site also saw queries related to racism, justice, and oppression spike a hundredfold in the week following George Floyd’s death, and verses related to government authority were up at least 50 times their average on Election Day.
“Love” and “peace” remained the two most popular search terms at Bible Gateway, but “hope” rose to third (from fifth) and “fear” increased to sixth (from thirteenth) in 2020.
These reports sound encouraging, but according to the State of the Bible 2020 report released by the Barna Group and the American Bible Society, between early 2019 and 2020, the percentage of U.S. adults who said they used the Bible daily dropped from 14 percent to 9 percent.
A decrease of 5 percentage points in a single year was unprecedented in the annual survey’s 10-year history. From 2011 to 2019, daily Bible readers basically held steady at an average of 13.7 percent of the population. The decline in Bible reading continued during the initial months of the coronavirus pandemic, and by June 2020, the percentage of daily Bible users had dropped to 8.5 percent.
The State of the Bible 2020 report divided people into the following five “Scripture Engagement Segments” based on their level of interaction with the Bible (the percentage of Americans represented in each category was also noted):
- Bible-Centered people (9 percent, 22.7 million adults) interact with the Bible frequently. The values and principles of Scripture are central to their life choices and relationships.
- Bible-Engaged people (19 percent, 48.3 million adults) interact with the Bible regularly. The values and principles of Scripture mostly influence their relationships with God and others. To a lesser degree, the Bible also influences their life choices.
- Bible-Friendly people (16 percent, 41.5 million adults) interact with the Bible periodically and are open to the Bible as a source of spiritual insight and wisdom.
- Bible-Neutral people (10 percent, 24.4 million adults) interact with the Bible sporadically with little influence from the Bible.
- Bible-Disengaged people (46 percent, 118.5 million adults) interact with the Bible infrequently, if at all, and it has a minimal impact on their lives. As a group, these people rarely seek out the Bible, tending to encounter it through others, rather than by choice.
Your Bible Reading Habits
The State of the Bible 2020 report found that 68 percent of U.S. adults strongly agree or somewhat agree that the Bible contains everything one needs to know to live a meaningful life. The top reasons Bible users gave for reading the Bible was that it brings them closer to God (38 percent) and that it helped them discern God’s will for their life (18 percent).
Reading the Bible is a good starting point, but it’s not the finish line. Remember, the Bible isn’t to be read only for information, but also transformation (see Romans 12:2).
Success in the Christian life is the product of daily habits, not a once-in-a-lifetime transformation. Many people start a new year by setting a goal to read the Bible. But as James Clear writes in Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
The goal is not to read the Bible, the goal is to become a Bible reader. “The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do,” Clear writes. Start by telling yourself, “I am the type of person who reads the Bible.” Each time you read your Bible, you are a Bible reader.
Clear suggests people follow four steps—cue, craving, response, and reward—to build a Bible-reading habit.
Start by putting your Bible in a visible place (that’s your cue to read it). Decide what you crave to learn, do, or change by reading your Bible (see 1 Peter 2:2). Respond by identifying a specific time for reading your Bible, and then follow through. All of this delivers a reward. We chase rewards because they satisfy us and because they teach us.
Put another way, a person interested in developing a Bible-reading habit might ask themself these four questions: How can I make it obvious? How can I make it attractive? How can I make it easy? How can I make it satisfying?