How to read for transformation
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. Ps. 1.1-2.
We’re entering the third month of lockdown. Even the most resilient of us are starting to feel the stress of living in such a strange world. Besides depression and anxiety, self-harm and suicides, one thing I haven’t noticed media report much on is the sense of spiritual dryness that people feel. Whether it’s mediums, self-help books, or religion, I’ve observed that people have realized how dehumanizing living in a sterile secular society has been. When the hamster wheel of working 9-5 stops, it can be hard to be motivated to live. No one tells the hamster why they’re running the wheel. A lockdown means that the demand for meaning is at an all time high.
Even Christians themselves are realizing how dependent their faith was on being productive rather than a rich inner life of knowing and being known by God. So many have encouragingly tried to return to the bible to seek and know God for who he is. Unfortunately, Christian habits often mirror their culture. And in an industrial society, reading the bible has a purely functional purpose. It’s read like a manual to follow or a textbook to understand. Returning to that habit only reinforces the problem. We’re still looking for something to do.
But what if life was more than doing? What if living itself is more than moving around? What we need is not just to read more but read differently. In the same way that lenses give us another perspective, reading the bible existentially gives us another reality. This is where the ancient Christian practice of lectio divina can help.
What it is and how to do it
The lectio divina is an early Christian practice developed by our monastics and church fathers. Its goal is to develop communion with God and increase the knowledge of God’s Word. According to one commentator, ‘it does not treat scripture as texts to be studied, but as the living word.’ And it is this sense of reading and communion that I think modern Christians have lost.
Its roots go back to Origen in the 3rd century, after whom Ambrose taught them to Augustine of Hippo. But it was first established as a monastic practice of in the 6th century by Benedict. It was then formalized as a four-step process by the Carthusian monk Guigo during the 12th century. First a passage of scripture is read, then its meaning is reflected upon. This is followed by prayer and contemplation on the Word of God.
What makes the lectio divina distinct is that it doesn’t stop with a theological analysis of biblical passages. But it views them with Christ as the key to their meaning. For example, take Jesus’ statement in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you”. Exegesis would focus on why Jesus said this during the Last Supper, the biblical context, etc. But in lectio divina, one “enters” and shares the peace of Christ rather than “dissecting” it. What a Christian is trying to do is to hear Christ speak through the inner voice of his Spirit into their current situation.
Why Christians should do it
The reason why I think this is important is because how we read determines what we become. Reading the bible as words to master makes it subservient to us. Reading the bible to be mastered by its words makes us subservient to it. For evangelical Christians, there’s always a danger of objectifying God. We forget who he really is and equate him with what we know. Whether it’s a doctrine or a moral teaching, we can come to think that we have faith because we assent to these beliefs. Too often, we read the bible like a textbook or a newspaper and then proceed to go on with our day.
But faith is not what we know. Faith isn’t even what we do. Faith is a passionate emptying of trust in our selves. It’s to know our highest need in God. And to follow him where he may lead. We forget his Word is to be lived throughout our day so that we become the embodiment of truth and therefore of Christ. If rational study is hearing his Word then contemplating it is to listen to him. And to imbibe it is to live as him — as his mouth and ears, hands and feet. Without this, we can never truly become who we’re meant to be. We’ll remain infants needing rules to follow. Without connecting his Spirit to our everyday lives, we’ll be unable to love from the heart though we may fake it with our head and outward acts of obedience.
Where to apply it
I think I’ve said enough to introduce the topic. And hopefully you can see both how we can read the bible differently and why we need to do so. One immediate way to start applying this is follow Redeemer Presbyterian’s guide to the lectio divina. They’ve provided instructions both at an individual and group level.