Recently my daughter has been devouring several popular teen fiction series. One day she was accustomed to reading only what was assigned in school and the next she was on book four of a seven book series. I offered to get her a kindle but she declined. Her response was something like, “I like having the paper book so I can look at how much I have read.” I thought that was an odd response, though a familiar one, and asked her, “But are you being shaped by what you’re reading?” She didn’t quite get the gist of my question.
For those of us who read – leisurely, devotionally, or any other-ly – there is a temptation to flip through the pages to see how many are left in the chapter. We read quickly so we can get to the next book in the series. We read quickly so we can say we read through the Bible in a year. We read quickly so we can tell the professor, “Yes, I did my reading.” The problem with this is that it leaves little room for being formed.
While this is true with anything we read, I think it is especially true of Scripture. Reading the Gospel of Mark, for example, is not the same as encountering Jesus in the Gospel of Mark. When I read the Gospel of Mark I might know what Jesus did, or gain familiarity with the characters and the plot, but that’s about it. When I slow down and read for formation I find myself face-to-face with Jesus asking me as he did the blind beggar, “What do you want me to do for you?” Or, I may actually find myself amazed by the faith of the centurion or the lack of faith of the people and reflect on my own faith. In short, I will live the Gospel of Mark. It will transform me for that is the nature of Scripture.
In order for us to be formed in this fashion we will need to learn a new way to read, at least new to us. First, we must reject any temptation to quantify the amount of reading we are doing. What does it really matter if we spend an entire year in the Gospel of Mark? This means we are free to slow down. One of the best gifts I received in seminary was the study of Greek and Hebrew. As I read the Gospel of Mark in Greek, or Jonah in Hebrew, I am forced to go slow. I have tried to take this slow approach into my reading of the English Bible. Most days I simply want to check off that little box that says, “Devotions.” However, when I slow down I meet Jesus in the word, I feel the ocean spray and smell the fear of the sailors on Jonah’s ship, and something happens inside of me; I am formed.
A second aspect of reading for formation rather than information is our posture toward the text. One of the greatest challenges I faced in seminary and every Sunday as a preacher is the temptation to master the text. In school I needed the right answer in order to graduate. Character didn’t matter much. In fact, I knew several characters who graduated from seminary and, in my opinion, never encountered Jesus. When I stand before the congregation on Sunday I inevitably feel the pressure to present the word of God as the resident expert. But have I been formed? Being well informed and well formed are not the same thing. When I come to Scripture I must remember that for every question I ask of it a question is asked of me in return. So, reading for formation means I will need to submit my life to the claims of God in Scripture.
Informational reading is useful, but not if it is the only way we read the text. I offer these steps for a more formational reading of Scripture. These steps are not new and they certainly did not originate with me. I’ve adopted these from John Wesley, the father of the Methodist movement. Take up a small portion of Scripture (a few verses, a paragraph, a story, etc.) and read as follows:
- Begin with prayer. Only the Spirit of God can interpret what the Spirit of God inspired. Without the Holy Spirit you will never be formed.
- While you read, pause frequently and examine yourself by what you are reading. Ask yourself, “Is this story, passage, truth, what have you deeply seated in my heart? Does my life show it to be so?” When you find that it has indeed taken root and your life is being conformed to it, praise God and give thanks! When you discover that it is foreign to your heart and that your life is antithetical to it then humbly repent and ask for God’s grace to change.
- Finally, as Wesley said, “And whatever light you then receive, should be used to the uttermost, and that immediately. Let there be no delay. Whatever you resolve, begin to execute the first moment you can. So shall you find this word to be indeed the power of God unto present and eternal salvation.” In other words, begin living out what you encounter in the word. There is no formation outside of practice.
Let’s practice …
Anger is something many of us struggle with and rarely seem to have victory over. Imagine the passage you come to is Matthew 5:21-26. First, ask the Holy Spirit to be present with you as you read the word. Ask for humility and insight and to be formed into the image of Jesus. Now, read the passage with the Holy Spirit.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell. 23 Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift at the altar and go. First make things right with your brother or sister and then come back and offer your gift. 25 Be sure to make friends quickly with your opponents while you are with them on the way to court. Otherwise, they will haul you before the judge, the judge will turn you over to the officer of the court, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 I say to you in all seriousness that you won’t get out of there until you’ve paid the very last penny. (CEB)
Next, you can allow the text to ask you a series of questions. Some examples might be:
- Who are you angry with right now? Who have been angry with in a habitual way? In the last week where have you experienced anger and to whom was it directed? Be honest.
- When did your anger move from a feeling into words or actions? (hence the warning about progressing from “You idiot” to “You fool”)
- When were you tempted to allow anger to move into words or actions but did not? Praise God that the Holy Spirit is shaping you enough that you found the way out of that temptation.
- When you identify those areas of allowing anger to progress repent and ask for forgiveness. You may also need to go and ask for forgiveness from whomever you expressed anger toward.
After listening to the questions of the text, you can ask, “Now what?” Listen. The Holy Spirit longs to reveal to you the will of God. Don’t rush. It might be helpful to keep a journal to store your thoughts.
I hope that my daughter learns to read for formation as much as for information. I can tell that as she reads her imagination is being shaped, her ability to see beauty in dark places is growing, and her perceptiveness to the power of love in unlikely circumstances is becoming more sensitive. I love that she is being formed. As we read Scripture I pray that our holy imaginations are being shaped in such a way that we are being formed into the image of Jesus as we encounter him in our reading of Scripture.