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Bible Study Basics: How to Read


"I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand." - C. S. Lewis, quoted in R. L. Green and W. Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Biography (New York, 1974), page 115.

One of the most prolific authors and theologians of the 21st century, C. S. Lewis once wrote that we ought to study with pipe in teeth and pencil in hand. Now, I think pipes are gross, so if you'll allow, I'll modify the quote a bit.

"The best way to study is with coffee in one hand and a pen in the other" - Dr. Andrew White. There you go!

It may seem a bit elementary, but I believe that, after a good copy of the Scriptures, a pen and paper are the next most necessary and helpful physical tools for effective Bible study.

Working through the biblical text with a pen and a journal helps us intellectually get to the bottom of its meaning. When I was in seminary, one professor advised his students to "pepper the text with questions." After that, I made it my practice to ask as many questions of the text as I could. I also made a commitment that there were no stupid questions where Bible study is concerned. 

In addition to asking questions of the text, studying with a pen and paper also allows us the opportunity to interact spiritually with the Word. We can respond immediately to what the Scriptures demand of us.

In 2 Timothy 3:16–17, Paul explains that the Word is breathed out by God (i.e. perfectly true and inspired) and "profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work." My friend and former co-elder Jay Sutherland helped me understand these qualities of Scripture.* He argues that teaching and correction have to do with putting on or putting off something in our thinking and that reproof and training have to do with putting on or putting off something in our doing. In other words, the Scriptures are true and they are helpful for changing our thinking and our behavior. 

I would encourage you to use a pen to ask questions of the meaning and the application of the biblical text. 

If you're an artistic person, use your pen to creatively respond to the Word. If you're an analytical person, use your pen to sketch an outline of the Word or trace cross-references. If you're an interactive learner, re-write the text in your own words. In any case, a pen and paper are helpful to work out our understanding and response to God's Word.

One last tip: I use my pen and paper to write personal prayers in response to the text I've just studied. Prayer and the Word always work together. 

My favorite practice is to use a proper journal and a pen to write out my thoughts. (Here is an example).

I have also found writing in my Bible to be useful engagement. (Mine is a mess).

And in recent years, I have benefitted from using a journaling Bible with extra space in the margins for my thoughts and responses. (I'm loving this approach).

Give it a try! Grab a good pen, a journal, and spend time interacting with God's Word.

And don't forget the coffee!


* This application grid based on 2 Timothy 3:16 by Jay Sutherland is an excellent tool to help you process and commit to obey God's Word.