As Christmas flies by and the New Year quickly approaches, many Christians begin to make plans for how this year is going to be different. Better. More spiritually deep and engaging. Most of us set goals and go on crash diets only to see those goals come crashing down and those diets fall far short of their goals by February.
I do not have any wisdom to offer you about how to realistically carry out a New Year’s resolution to successful completion. Most of the time, mine are met with partial success. And, that doesn’t really bother me. It’s ok to give up pizza for two months only to receive a text from Dominos about 50% off pizzas, and to subsequently ‘fail’ at your pizza fast. For God loveth that which is delicious and he hath given unto thee a providential coupon from on high (3 Cor. 5:87).
However, I have experienced something recently that might be helpful to you as you try to define what “progress” means for you in 2020. Recently, I discovered my nearly 20-year old NIV study Bible (long since retired as my main Bible) in my office at Trinity. I read and study scripture daily, both for my academic vocation and my walk with Jesus, but I often find myself too busy to be fully immersed in my own reading of scripture, where I am enamoured by the holiness and wonder of the Gospel. I desire to read Scripture constantly with the fervour of a new convert; the way I read when I first bought the study Bible, after finding new life in Christ and experiencing the joy of the Holy Spirit break my heart of stone and reorient my affections to God.
I started to think: what Bible reading plan or app can I find online to help me achieve this goal? Or: what other books and commentaries can I purchase to help me really dig into the text spiritually and academically? And then I paused and looked down and realised that I needed none of that stuff to actually experience the spiritual growth with God that I was desiring. What I needed was not a tech-driven spirituality that resides in a Smart phone but a retro spirituality that emanates from a gnarly old study Bible; a spirituality that doesn’t rely on wifi or data, but nevertheless boasts a direct high-speed connection to the Holy Spirit.
Theological books are important, and Bible software is important, and Bible reading blogs and apps are great. But maybe all that we need to experience the revitalisation and refreshing of our faith in a non-legalistic, life-giving way is already right in front of us, and not on our wish-lists on Amazon Prime or the App Store? For me, I’m finding that the way to grow in the faith is to clear out the apps, the gimmicks, and the tech, and to make backward progress by simply opening the study Bible and reading it. That’s it. That’s my “advice.” Just find a Bible (preferably a study Bible) and read it more than you did last year.
Some days I read ten chapters, other days I read one. Other days I read zero Bible but order several pizzas. It all depends on how my day pans out (and, whether I’ve received a really stellar deal from a text message coupon). I try to read biblical books that I’m less familiar with (I’m currently reading through Ezekiel) and I endeavour to read both devotionally and prayerfully, but also thoughtfully by critically engaging with the study notes to refresh my memory and assist me in understanding things that have become foggy.
A study Bible is helpful because the Bible is a hard text to understand! Lot’s of people think you can just crack it open and instantly follow along. But why should that be the case? It’s an ancient text with endless difficult passages in both the Old and the New Testaments. The notes in the bottom of the pages of a study Bible will assist you to find out why, for example, God instructs Ezekiel to eat a scroll (Ezek 3:3; warning: if you’re a biblical literalist do not—I repeat—do not eat your Bible, paper is not food and no matter how much aioli you use it will not be a delicious treat) or to have a BBQ that is powered by human excrement! (Ezek 4:12). While some Bible plans will help you to read large volumes of the text over the course of a year, or even the entire Bible, what good is that if you have no idea why Ezekiel is throwing a God ordained prophetic poo-fuelled barbie? You’ll end up with a warped and confused view of God, and a potentially terribly unsanitary strategy for a sausage sizzle. Read the notes!
We don’t need some massive plan to “succeed” at meeting God in the pages of his inspired Word. We just need a Bible and a general commitment to open it and read. And when we do this, we will meet Jesus through the pages of Holy Scripture by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is my retro new years resolution to make backwards progress. Look: I have no idea how much more I’ll read in the Bible this year. But I do know that even if I only read it 20% more, or even 10% more than I did last year, that is 10% more spiritual food for my soul and 10% less worldly nonsense that is sucking the life out of my soul. I hope to accomplish a lot this new year. But like the psalmist says: Better is one day in the courts of God than a thousand elsewhere (Ps 84:10). So put down the smart phone, open up the old “analog” Bible. Do it again, and again and again. Meet Jesus and be changed. And then order a pizza, but by God, please use a coupon.
Dr John Frederick
Lecturer in New Testament at Trinity College Queensland