Bible Study Skills: Practical Steps for Digging Deep

I believe that the Bible is God’s Word, His primary means of revealing Himself to us, our primary means of knowing Him.

I believe it is inspired and inerrant, that amidst all the confusion and controversy, and all the information and opinions that flood our lives, the Bible is true.

I believe it bears fruit and accomplishes its purpose, that it is living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword.

I believe that it is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path, breathing freedom, grace, and wisdom into my experience.

I believe all these things, but up until this year in my life, my Bible study skills left a lot to be desired.  Growing up, I learned this one method of Bible study: 1) Read a chapter or passage. 2) Look for a special verse that speaks to me, that I can apply that day.  3) Done!

Really, that was it, and before I tear that method apart, let me tell you what was good about it: 1) It kept me reading the Bible, and 2) It kept me actively looking for ways to connect the Bible to my experience and apply it to my life.

But the method was lacking.  For instance, I would read 1 Peter 5 in the morning.  I would be slightly tired, sipping coffee, trying not to be distracted.  I would grab onto the verse about casting my anxieties on God because He cares for me.  That’s what I need to work on today, I would think.  There is so much I’m anxious about, and if I could just cast my anxieties on God and remember that He cares for me!  I’ll work on that today.  Okay, kids are waking up, breakfast needs to be made, I’m done.

Here are the problems with that approach.  I had little idea what 1 Peter 5 was really about, or how that chapter fit into the entire book—what was its purpose, theme, or context.  I was in danger of ripping verses out of context, and applying them without considering what they were really saying and why.  I was skimming just along the surface, looking for obvious applications that would meet my immediate needs.  I was like a tired mom in a drive through, placing my order for what I thought I needed to get me through the day.

I was making my Bible study about me and what I could do, not about God and what He was saying about what He had already done.  My takeaway from 1 Peter 5 would be, I need to work harder on not being anxious!

Over the past few years I’ve had more opportunity to be in specific group Bible studies, such as Beth Moore’s and others.  I’ve appreciated these seasons because they have given me a daily guide beyond “read a chapter and find a verse.”  I would attend a group study once a week, and then have at-home instructions for reading a passage, looking up cross-references, writing in answers, and applying it to my life.  But then the group study would end, and I would be back to my somewhat aimless reading and attempting to apply.

This summer I read Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin with a few women in my small group.  I felt like that book whacked me upside the head.  Like, hello!  I learned reading comprehension when I was a kid.  Then I got my bachelor’s in Literature.  Now I teach reading comprehension.

I know how to be a student.  I know how to read well.  But for whatever reason, I wasn’t approaching the Bible that way.

If a college professor had said to me, “Your midterm is going to be about 1 Peter, and it’s worth 30% of your grade,” believe me, I would have learned 1 Peter.  I would have dug down to find its historical context and themes and cross-references.  I would have taken notes.  I would have written a study guide.  I would have memorized key themes.  All because I wanted a good grade.

So I would do all that for the reward of an A?  But I wasn’t willing to do it for the reward of knowing God better and understanding His Word?  Why was I approaching the Bible in such a tired, distracted, superficial way?  Why wasn’t I coming to the Word like a student, ready to put my paper and pen and computer and brain to work?

I don’t mean in any way to imply that you need to have your bachelor’s or be a teacher to understand God’s Word.  I think just applying basic reading comprehension and note-taking skills can be really helpful.  It’s part of loving God with our minds, and the Holy Spirit guides us and helps us and is for us as we do.  So it doesn’t take any special skills.  It just takes a willingness to jump in.

Jen Wilkin in her book Women of the Word outlines a Bible study process I found really helpful.  So far, using this process, I’ve studied first Jude with my small group, and now 1 Peter on my own.  These are both New Testament epistles, and I imagine the process would look a little different applied to a different kind of book.

I’ve adapted the process and made it my own, and I am excited about how much deeper I’m going in the Word.  I’m also the kind of person that likes step-by-step direction, so it is nice to have something to actually do in my quiet time (not just the vague directive “go have a quiet time”).

So this is what I’m doing right now.  #2 and #3 in the process are the ones that have particularly re-made my quiet time.  And really, these are just my baby steps, there’s a lot more I want to learn about them:

Step 1. Read the book a few times through, first in my primary version, and then in a few others. 

(I use the ESV, so I read the book through in that version, and then maybe use the NIV and the Message.)  Read a study Bible introduction to get a brief idea of the historical context and outline of the book.

Step 2. Print a copy of the text, double-spaced.  

This is one of Jen Wilkin’s ideas that was like voila! to me.  Of course!  I’ve always hesitated to do a lot of marking up in my Bible, and it doesn’t have space to fit all my markings anyway.  A printed copy of the text double-spaced gives lots of room for writing and motivates me to actually approach the text like a student.

I use the printout to read through the book again, a little at a time.  (I do about one paragraph a day because I only have about 15-30 minutes a day for this right now, so for instance, reading 1 Peter this way took a few weeks.)  With each paragraph, I take a lot of notes and mark it up extensively.  Ideas:
  • Number lists.
  • Mark repeated ideas and key words.
  • Mark transitional words like “therefore.”
  • Draw arrows to connect related ideas.
  • Mark anything that is confusing.
  • Write notes and questions in the margin.

I like Step 2 because I can do it anywhere.  I brought my printout of 1 Peter on our camping trip and worked on it on our cabin porch.  I bring my quiet time out to the deck at home or in my bedroom.  Step 3 is a little weird for me because I have to do it at my computer.  I’m not used to doing my quiet time at my computer.  I need to have email and Facebook off and my to-do list out of the way so that I can focus.

Step 3. Cross-Reference

I have my annotated printout in front of me, and also a blank book for writing.  On my computer, I pull up the passage I’m reading with cross-references.  For instance, I used this link for 1 Peter 1.  I read through a paragraph slowly, looking up all the cross-references.  As I’m reading, I pull up a different tab to look up the definition of key words—even words I already know, like exile or conduct.  The definitions are enlightening.  (I guess I could do this away from the computer and look up all the cross-references and definitions manually, but for me at least, that would take a lot more time.)

Then while I am slowly reading, looking up cross-references and definitions, I write a paraphrase in my blank book.  I guess I could type the paraphrase, especially since I’m already at the computer (and because my handwriting is horrible!), but handwriting helps me to think about it more.

So far my paraphrase has turned out more like a cumbersome, super-amplified version, because I’m adding in what I’m learning from the cross-references and definitions.  It would certainly never win a writing contest, but it achieves the purpose of helping me fully think through the verse.

For instance, 1 Peter 5:1 reads, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed:”

This is my paraphrase (don’t laugh): “So in light of the suffering you experience, I strongly encourage and urge the authorities among you, those older and in higher rank, as I am an elder sharing with you, and I was there to see the sufferings of Christ, and I will also join in and share the magnificence and great beauty that is going to be revealed:”

Step 4. Research

This fourth step is what I still need to learn the most about, and it is this—after I’ve done the best I can do with studying and paraphrasing, I look up commentaries and do secondary research about the book.  This also helps me to see if my paraphrase was correct or if I’m off in the weeds.

Jen Wilkin recommends saving commentary reading for last so that we don’t rely on others to do the legwork for us.  We should study to find the answers on our own and wrestle with the ideas ourselves before we seek outside help.

I’ve done a little bit of extra study on 1 Peter, especially on the confusing verses about the Gospel being preached to those who are dead, and I stumbled upon some John Piper sermons on 1 Peter 1 that were helpful.  But I still would like to find some good commentary sources to shed more light on my study.  So this is my current area of need-to-grow.  I would love ideas about it.

Someday I hope to be in a season of life where I have more time for study and quiet contemplation.  I visualize myself sitting at my dining room table with a laptop, several books, a cup of coffee, breakfast, and no one interrupting me!  Right now I have three small children.  My Bible study time is short and often interrupted and distracted.

But I still want to be doing it.  It’s more necessary to my life than eating and showering and other things that I make happen no matter how busy I get.  If I really believe that the Word is food to my soul, giving clarity where I’m confused, giving hope where I’m discouraged, giving light where I’m lost, then I want to read it and really know it.

So anyway, that’s where I am in my Bible study right now.  I would love to hear from you about methods that have helped you.


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