Passive vs. Active Reading of Scripture: How to ignite a passion for the Bible

“The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out.”

Proverbs 18:15

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I may be wrong, but I have a nagging suspicion that most Christian individuals living in the bible belt are passive readers of their Bibles. They may read a portion of scripture every day, but––likely––they are under some sort of compulsion to do so (whether real or imagined), and that compulsion starts them off in the direction of passive readership of God’s holy word. 

A passive reader is someone who reads quickly or nonchalantly, and rarely remembers what they are reading. They are typically selfish readers––whether they are aware of it or not.

Some passive readers focus on speed––their goal is productivity in their reading. I call these “checkbox readers” because their primary goal for reading is to accomplish some sense of pride at having finished the reading, whether or not they retained anything from it. I have found that I am tempted towards this type of readership when I participate in the traditional group bible study method of reading scripture. Don’t get me wrong, I love group bible study––but one of my sin patterns is to submit to productivity rather than laying down my list of hopeful accomplishments in submission to the Lordship of Christ. The temptation to read scripture this way is heavy in our American culture––a culture which values what you do over who you are.

Some passive readers focus solely on affirmation and application of the reading to their personal lives. They often read when they feel they need something from the text. I call these “consumer readers.” You may be thinking, well––is that not active readership? This person wants to engage the scriptures for their personal well-being, don’t they? 

Seemingly, but no. 

This type of passive reader forfeits correct context for what they hope to hear from the scriptures. Often, this type of approach leads to false beliefs about the character of God and our relationship to Him. Imagine that you receive a letter from the White House. Having recently felt unappreciated for any of your contributions to our country’s needs, you open it and quickly skim to the bottom where you read “Thank you for your commitment and loyalty to our country. We would not be the nation we are today without you.” You close the letter happily, encouraged that the President thought to write to you to thank you for being such a special citizen. What you missed entirely was that the letter was a notice of draft into the armed forces requiring your attendance at check-in in two weeks time. You’ve read the letter out of context, and the resulting implications for your citizenship and your daily life are impending.

It is not so much different to approach the holy scriptures seeking personal affirmation and application before considering the context of the text you are reading.

And then some passive readers approach the text only when led by a guide, typically a pastor on a Sunday morning and a guided Bible study. Often, not always, these readers approach the scriptures with unsure trepidation, similar to a foreigner approaching a native to ask where the bathroom might be located or if there is one at all. I call these readers “visitor readers” because they have formed an approach to the biblical text that assumes the text was not written for them, it was written for those who are teaching it to them––they are just visiting during the span of the sermon.

My goal is to inspire you to awaken from passive readership so that you may become an active reader of the one text that I believe is the most important work you will ever engage with in your lifetime.

What is an active reader?

An active reader takes the time necessary to dig into the context of the text they are approaching—considering audience, authorship, time period, cultural happenings, and textual themes. They often read the scripture with pen in hand, making notes on the things they do not understand or those things that engage their thinking on a deeper level. They read the same passage multiple times, and—not always, but often—they read slowly. An active reader reads to understand the text, not simply to benefit from it.

Good active readership requires approaching a text knowing that you stand to be corrected by what you may read. Your assumptions give way to the content in the scriptures, and—although you may wrestle with what you find there—you actually wrestle.

My question to you is:

How are you approaching your Bible today? (If you approach it at all?)

Do you desire to walk away from your reading of scripture––even a small portion of scripture––with a deeper understanding of this God who saves? 

In my last article, I encouraged you to begin to pray that God would give you a hunger for His holy word. Today, I encourage you to reflect on how you are currently approaching scripture. Are you a passive reader of God’s holy word—unsure how to extract more meaningful meaty content from these sometimes confusing and foreign passages? Or are you an active reader of scripture, allowing the living word of God to seep into the crevices of your born again existence?

Over the next few weeks, I will provide some suggestions on how to approach scripture in a way that will allow you to walk away with deep truths about God resonating in your soul, supplying you with His bread of life and leaving you longing for the next moment you can crack open your Bible. 

If this sounds intimidating to you, rest assured the suggestions I will provide are elementary and all levels of literacy can apply these methods to their reading.

There are a lot of reasons to remain a passive reader––none of them good, in my opinion. But there is one good reason to become active in your reading of the gospel—active readership will fuel a life burning with passion for walking the narrow path with Jesus. What could be more exciting than that?

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Resources:

I highly recommend Jen Wilkin’s Women of the Word for more on how to be an active and informed reader of the Bible. I will be including some of her suggestions that have impacted my relationship with scripture in articles to come.

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