Unhelpful Habits of Bible Study
About the Guest
Are you studying the Bible correctly? Without understanding the genre of the writing and which people group the writer was directing the message to, you're likely misinterpreting the Scriptures. Long-time Bible study leader Jen Wilkin walks us through the missteps Christians make when studying the Bible.
Are you studying the Bible correctly? Long-time Bible study leader Jen Wilkin walks us through the missteps Christians make when studying the Bible.
Unhelpful Habits of Bible Study
Bob: Author and Bible study leader, Jen Wilkin, believes that there’s a difference between being a woman in the Word and a woman of the Word.
Jen: Over the course of time, I came to be the Women’s Ministry Director. It was then that I really became alarmed because there were so many things that we were calling a Bible study that were actually a study of a book that someone had written about the Bible—which is fine / we need topical studies that are going to integrate broad concepts for us—but I began to recognize, more and more, that the environments where we were simply learning God’s Word, line upon line—that those environments were, in many cases, vanishing from churches.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, March 10th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. Jen Wilkin believes that it’s time for God’s women to go deep in God’s Word. We’ll talk about how we do that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, I remember, as a young Christian, going to Bible studies that were basically—somebody would read the passage and then everybody would share their opinion on what the passage was all about.
Bob: Those were particularly unprofitable, as I remember. [Laughter]
Dennis: Well, you know what it ended up being in some of them that I attended?—arguments.
Dennis: I mean, people—
Bob: Who’s right and who’s wrong; right?
Dennis: A lot of ignorance and a lot of arguments. We have a guest with us, who knows exactly what we’re talking about. Jen Wilkin joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Jen—welcome back.
Jen: Thank you for having me.
Dennis: She’s written a book called Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds.
How many are in this Bible study that you said you have more than 65 churches represented? How many are in that Bible study?
Jen: We cap it off at 650.
Bob: That’s a lot of women.
Bob: You know what I’m talking about with this pool of ignorance approach to Scripture; right?
Jen: Yes, yes.
Bob: You’ve found that unprofitable as well?
Jen: Yes, extremely. [Laughter] And we tell the women, each week, that we don’t get to say, “What does the Bible mean to me?” until we have asked, “What does the Bible mean?”
Bob: Explain what you mean by that.
Jen: So, you know, there are a couple of levels to that. I don’t get to have an opinion on how this verse should apply to my life until I’ve spent some time earnestly trying to determine what the verse actually says—so just looking for basic reading comprehension—then to find interpretation within the context that it is in. You know, we often, I think—our first misstep is that we forget that the Bible, before it was written to you and me, was written to people who lived many, many years ago in a time and a culture that’s very different than ours. We need to ask, “How did its original hearers hear this?”—
—because it can’t mean something to us that it never could have meant to them.
Bob: Well you’re talking about a level of study that a lot of women or men, listening to us, go, “I wouldn’t know where to even start with that.”
Dennis: Yes, they get intimidated by that.
Bob: So, as a result, they’re using what you refer to as “the unhelpful habits” of Bible study—
Bob: —different methods that—like the shared ignorance method that I was talking about—you’ve identified some particularly unhelpful approaches to the Bible.
Dennis: Yes, let’s go over the biggie.
Dennis: The biggie—the “Magic Eight Ball.”
Bob: You think that’s the big one?! [Laughter]
Dennis: Oh, yes!—or the “hunt and peck” or whatever she calls it, where you just open your Bible and—
Jen: It’s the “Pinball” approach.
Dennis: Well, you pick—which one do you think is the biggie?
Jen: Oh, gosh, we could start anywhere. They’re all equally upsetting.
The” Magic Eight Ball” is one that we’re all quietly familiar with and don’t want to acknowledge that we’ve done, at one point in our lives—that is where I’m facing a big crisis. I want to know: “If I should marry Bob or Dave?” or you know, “…which job?” “…which car?”—those kinds of things. So, I pick up my Bible, and give it a vigorous shake, and then I open it, and point to a verse and ask, “How does this verse…?”
Bob: You pray first; right?
Jen: Oh, right, right, right—sure! And ask how that verse is going to resolve my issue. You can obviously tell that, when we do this, we’re saying: “Hey, Bible! I’m going to use you on my own terms and for my own ends.”
Bob: I’ve heard a pastor talk about this method—where he said, “Somebody does it and the first thing they flip open to is: ‘Judas went out and hanged himself.’”
Bob: They say, “That can’t be right.” They try it again and it says, “That which you must do, do quickly.” [Laughter] You can get in a really messed up spot if that’s the approach you’re going to take.
Dennis: Some of our listeners don’t know what the magic eight ball is, though. They’re still hung up back there. [Laughter]
Bob: The old black—everybody had one of those didn’t they; as a kid?!
Dennis: No, not today. That’s “Way back when…” Bob.
Dennis: This black eight ball—
Dennis: —that on the bottom, you could read—
—there was an answer to your question. You would shake it up, like you’re talking about—
Jen: “Signs point to ‘Yes.’”
Dennis: —and turn it upside down and then look at the answer that kind of floated to the top—
Dennis: —in the little—
Bob: —in the little window.
Dennis: It wasn’t a digital screen.
Bob: Wasn’t there one that said, “Can’t help you now,” or “Consult me later”?
Jen: Something like that—yes; right. [Laughter]
Dennis: Well, what’s another approach that people have?
Jen: Another one I see a lot is what I call the “Xanax®” approach. That is where we pull verses out of context and use them to self-medicate. For example, I’ve had a really stressful week—I’m going to read “Be anxious for nothing,” / “Cast all your cares on Him,”—and then close my Bible and think, “Okay! I feel so much better!” You know? Or maybe I’m really, really tired because I haven’t had enough rest and I’ve been running like crazy. I’m going to read, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Never mind that that’s a verse about rest for our souls—it isn’t actually about being physically tired—but I’ve now medicated myself and I can move on with the day.
Of course, the problem with this approach—besides just pulling things out of context and using them for our own means—is that it means that you will be highly selective in where you’re going to go and read. You’re not going to go and read, “Above all else, the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked; who can know it?” That’s not going to medicate any bad feeling that you’ve come in with—it’s going to call you a “wicked rascal.” We’re going to be very selective about where we’re going to spend time and we’re only going to spend time in passages that make us feel a certain way. There are just huge sections of the Bible that aren’t going to give you an emotional dose when you read them.
Bob: In the 1970’s, somebody gave me a book called The Jesus Person Pocket Promise Book.
Bob: It was the Xanax you’re talking about. It was: “If you have an issue, there’s the topic,”—you find the verses. They’re designed to encourage you.
Bob: Now, can that be helpful at any level?
Jen: Yes, it can be helpful. I think that’s the basis for writing a topical study—written on anxiety or that type of thing.
I do think it’s helpful for us to integrate broad concepts in those studies, but I think that the state of Bible study in the church today is that that is practically all we do.
The time that a topical study is going to have the most impact on your understanding is when it is layered on top of a foundational understanding of Scripture rather than just isolated: “Here, read this.” When you do a topical study, by necessity, you’re cross-referencing all over Scripture. You’re bouncing all over the place, trying to integrate this broad concept. What I’ve seen—particularly in women’s Bible study—is that many times, when you get to the end of a study like that, you are actually less comfortable reading your Bible than you were before you did the study because your overwhelming sense is: “Oh, my goodness! I don’t know how somebody pulled all of that together! That’s amazing!”
When, really, what we ought to be doing is giving people the tools to know—just like in The Wizard of Oz—where you finally see behind the curtain and you see how things are being done. The reason that Bible teacher was able to do that is because they do have a foundational understanding of Scripture.
Bob: They see the big picture.
Jen: They see the big picture.
Dennis: Right; and let’s just talk about that for a moment. We want to unpack this more a bit later, but you’ve mentioned the word “context” repeatedly.
Jen: Yes, yes.
Dennis: I agree with this too. I taught a sixth-grade Sunday school class for 11 years. I taught Bible study methods.
Jen: Your reward is in heaven, by the way.
Dennis: Oh, yes. It was one of the greatest privileges of my life—I learned much more than they did. It helped me parent our kids [Laughter] much more than those kids have any idea.
But anyway, I would bring into the class this picture that was, I don’t know, maybe 2 ½ feet by 4 feet—big, framed, matted picture—that was called “Catch of the Day.” It’s by a very famous photographer. It’s worth a lot of money—it was given to me as a gift. It’s a grizzly bear that is about to chomp a salmon; okay?
I would cover the entire picture with butcher paper, except for the fish. I held it up in front of the kids and I would say: “Now, I want you to tell me what you’re observing about this picture. What do you see?” It was really funny to listen to them talk about what they were seeing.
“Well, it’s going to be in a fish hatchery.” “It’s going to be. . .” “We don’t know what this is.” “It’s a boat.” So they’re talking about what they’re thinking they’re seeing as they have this small little piece of the picture—that’s a picture of a fish. Then I would take the wrapping paper off. They would see this giant griz, standing in a waterfall, with his mouth about to catch a salmon in mid-air. Now, the picture of the fish has context. That really is what you’re doing when you’re teaching these ladies in this Bible study how to study the Bible within context.
Jen: Yes. The example that I often use with the women is—I will say: “Imagine that you are taking high school algebra. You walk into your algebra class, and sit down at your desk, and there’s your textbook at the beginning of the semester. You flip your textbook open to Chapter 5, and you read a paragraph in the middle of the chapter. Then you sit and think, ‘What does that tell me about algebra today?’ Let’s say that you repeat this process over the course of the entire semester. When it comes time for the exam, how good are you going to be at algebra? You’re going to fail! You’re going to be super, super bad!”
We treat the Bible in this way—we treat it with less respect than we would give to a common textbook. A lot of what I’m asking women to do is to demystify Bible study. Does the Holy Spirit play a role in Scripture? Yes! Absolutely, He does. But it doesn’t mean that, when we sit down to open God’s Word—that it will magically issue up truth to us.
Bob: We were talking about the wrong ways to approach Bible study. Dennis was getting so itchy, talking about the wrong ways—that he had to get some of the right ways out there.
Jen: Oh, yes—sorry!
Dennis: Well, she kept mentioning context; and I thought, “We’re missing an opportunity here to just kind of whet their appetites.”
Bob: What’s the “Pinball” approach that people use to Bible study?
Jen: This is one that tends to happen when we just don’t really have any particular direction set for us on what to do with our time in the Word; okay? I think a lot of times, when we talk about, “Oh, I had my time in the Word,” or “I had my quiet time,” we think that just because we have honored setting that time aside, and we sat down and cracked open our Bibles, that it’s going to be beneficial.
But if we’re sitting down, during that time, and we just think, “Oh, I think I’ll read John 3:16 and then I think I’ll turn over here and read Psalm 23,”—or whatever it is—we just sort of ricochet aimlessly from passage to passage—as we like to say, “…as the Spirit leads.” We may indeed reap some marginal benefit from this, but we’re not building any comprehensive understanding of Scripture.
Bob: So, if you’re not doing that, what’s a better approach?
Jen: Well, I’m a big fan of: “Start at the beginning of the book.” Ask some questions about it: “Who wrote it? To whom was it written?” So, reading the envelopes or getting into the archaeology.
Dennis: You’re not just talking about the book of Genesis. You’re talking about any book in the Bible.
Jen: Any book in the Bible. So there are two issues with context; right? You want to understand the context for the book that you’re reading and then you want to understand the context for where that book fits into the big picture of the Bible.
Jen: You want to know: “Who wrote this? Who was that person?” and “How does the human author shape the story? What was culture like? What was going on in history at the time that this book was written?” You cannot pull things out of context or you’re off the rails.
Bob: Yes, if you’ve got—for example, an algebra textbook, written by me—[Laughter] —and you found out what that was, you could quickly dismiss that as heretical! [Laughter]
Jen: Yes, exactly! [Laughter]
Dennis: What’s another one of the wrong approaches to Bible study?
Jen: One that I think women are particularly susceptible to is the “Jack Sprat” approach—or the “Picky Eater” approach—you can call it either. That is where we love the New Testament, but the Old Testament kind of freaks us out—or maybe, in the case of women: “Well, I’m just going to do another study on Ruth,” or “…another one on Proverbs 31,” or “…Esther,” because, you know, those are the books that are the women’s books—you know?
Bob: The women’s texts—yes; right.
Jen: We end up with this situation of—we have lost sight of what it means when Scripture says, “All Scripture is God-breathed; all is profitable for teaching and correction.” That means that even Leviticus is profitable. It means—this semester, I’m teaching through Joshua. Have you read the end of Joshua? You know, right about the time that attendance tends to drop off in a Bible study, I have to hit the part where we’re doing the land allotments. [Laughter]
But I have to keep reminding myself and these women that: “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. There is something in here that counts and we’re going to find it! There are not pink parts of the Bible and blue parts of the Bible—it is all there for the follower of Christ.”
Bob: But you know, if you’ve ever started one of those “Read through the Bible in a Year” things, Genesis goes along pretty much okay.
Jen: Yes, sure!—lots of stories.
Bob: Exodus is good.
Bob: You get to Leviticus, and Numbers, and—
Dennis: Song of Solomon is better! [Laughter]
Bob: Well, yes, I know!—but if you’ve got to trudge your way through—
Dennis: That’s where we need to get couples started—
Dennis: —in Bible study—right there.
Bob: What do you do if you’re trying to read your Bible, as a serious student, and the passage you’re in today is Leviticus 12, 13, and 14—that’s what’s on the assignment—and it’s genealogies or it is food laws; and you go, “Why am I here?!” [Laughter]
Jen: You know, there are some passages of the Bible that rely more on commentary than others. So, in the book, I talk about the right use of commentary. What we tend to do is get our study Bible; right?—that’s what we’re using. I hit the dietary laws and I’m thinking, “Somebody give me an ice pick to jam into my temple.”
Jen: And then I think: “But wait a minute! If I just glance down here at the bottom of the page”—abracadabra!—“I’m a Bible scholar.” That feels like it is really great because I felt the dissonance of what I did not know and then I immediately resolved it, down there in the footnotes. But, oftentimes, that Bible study feels, to us, like even those foot notes at the bottom are the inspired Word of God.
Jen: And they’re commentary; right?
Jen: So, one of the things that I try to ask the women to do is to start with a copy of the text that does not have those notes at the bottom because it’s just too easy. Does that mean that you have to spend 30 years, reading through the dietary laws and wondering what they mean without consulting a commentary?—no—but does it mean you might read them four or five times, repetitively, so that you know what they say before you go to find out what someone else thinks they mean?—absolutely!
How will you judge?—because anybody knows—if you’ve sat down with three different commentaries, what are you going to get? Three different—
Jen: —opinions on what it means.
Bob: What about the “Personal Shopper” approach to the Bible?
Jen: The “Personal Shopper” approach is pretty prevalent. That’s where I feel like I’m not an expert but everybody else is. Rather than spend the time to gain a comprehensive knowledge of Scripture, I’m just going to take my favorite parts, and I’m going to send someone else out to go get them: “I’m going to let—insert name of a famous Bible teacher here—tell me what I should think on this topic or on this doctrine.” I mean, it’s not always just these topical things—sometimes, we become so enraptured with doctrine—and that’s a great thing—we need to know doctrine / we need to know theology—but not in place of. It should, again, be something that’s built on a foundational understanding and a first–hand understanding of Scripture.
Dennis: You know, you mentioned, “Where do you start?” I keep wanting to ask you the question: “After someone has read your book, what Bible study—other than ones that you’ve written [Laughter]—what Bible study would you point them to as a place to kind of begin?
Bob: —to apply what they’ve read in your book.
Dennis: Exactly; exactly!—because I can hear listeners, right now, going: “Okay, okay; I’m getting it. I’m getting motivated.” But is there one you would recommend as kind of a beginning process for a person who wants to become a student?
Jen: Yes. I actually wouldn’t say, “Hey, just sit down and do this on your own.” I would describe the book as: “Hey, this is how you fish; but I don’t want to just tell you how to fish—I want to show you how to fish.”
They can start with reading and just getting a basic idea of good ways to gain comprehension—because I really do think that the comprehension piece is the piece that most of us go right past—we move right to interpretation and then application.
Dennis: You’re talking about the repeated reading of a book.
Dennis: Take the book of James and read it through.
Jen: Read it repeatedly and annotate the text—write your questions about: “I don’t know what this means,” “This is the weirdest thing ever!”
You know—highlight words that you see repeated. You can come up with whatever system you want. My preference is to print out a double-spaced printed copy of the text and just start writing because there’s not room in any copy of the Bible that I own for me to mark it up the way that I need to. One of the series that I really like—that I think is accessible—is the NavPress Life Change series. They have these series over almost every book of the Bible, I think, at this point. I often use those, even as a starting point, for when I’m writing my own stuff.
Dennis: We kind of rushed by it, but here’s what you’re talking about—the kind of Bible study you ought to dig into—it’s a Bible study that forces you to find answers to questions but doesn’t answer it for you.
Jen: Doesn’t answer them for you—that is right.
Bob: Not a spoon-feeding deal.
Jen: No. And here’s the thing—I think that we—we are like, “I want to be a good student!” And we remember, in school, when we got the question wrong. There was a big red “X.” Bible study is not really like that! None of my women are getting graded at the end of the semester.
I tell them: “You’re allowed to leave a question blank,” or “You’re allowed to write…”
One of the things I ask them to do is paraphrase: “You’re allowed to write an absolutely terrible paraphrase of a verse. No one’s going to read it in your small group. The exercise itself holds value because it’s forcing you to focus on what the verse actually says.”
Dennis: I want to make sure our listeners just felt the permission you gave them.
Dennis: It’s okay not to know.
Jen: That’s right.
Dennis: D.L. Moody was having a bite of fish over lunch one day with a young man who said: “Dr. Moody, do you have any questions about the Bible? I’ve got all these questions and all of these doubts.” Dr. Moody pointed at the fish they had just eaten and said: “Did you notice I pushed aside all the bones to the side?—but it didn’t keep me from enjoying the meat.” He opened his Bible and showed the young man—he began to leaf through the pages. There were question marks on the pages—he still didn’t have answers.
One of the greatest evangelistic preachers in all of church history didn’t have all of the conclusions/all of the answers that he was looking for.
Jen: We are finite minds, searching to understand an infinite God. No one should think that they can or ought to have all of the answers, but we ought to die trying to find them.
Dennis: That’s a great word.
Bob: And a great goal! I mean, that’s what we ought to be all about as we head to God’s Word—that we want to know everything we can know about God—everything that He has revealed about Himself to us in His Word—and not be easily satisfied, as you’ve said here today.
I want to encourage listeners—get a copy of Jen’s book, which is called Women of the Word. I’ll just tell you what, guys—I know it’s called Women of the Word, but it would not hurt a man to read this book either. I just am really impressed with how you lay out for us, in this book, what good, solid, healthy, deep Bible study ought to look like.
We’ve got copies of Jen’s book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click in the upper left-hand corner of the screen, where it says, “GO DEEPER.” That will take you right to the area where you’ll see a copy of Jen’s book. Click on that link and you can order the book from us, online.
Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the “GO DEEPER” link in the upper left-hand corner of the page and you can order Jen Wilkin’s book Women of the Word. Or you can call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order the book. Call 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY.” Ask for the book, Women of the Word,by Jen Wilkin. We’ll get it sent out to you.
You know, I have to say, Dennis, I wish that sometimes our listeners could be here with us as series like this series are being aired and could see the emails that come in, the notes that we get from listeners, the phone calls that we get because it’s so encouraging to know how God is using these conversations that take place, every day on this program, in people’s lives. I mean, we get to hear from wives and husbands / from moms and dads, who share with us some of the very dramatic stories that are going on in their lives and how God will use a particular program to encourage them, or to equip them for challenges they’re facing, or to help them grow deeper in their walk with Christ, as we’ve talked about here today.
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And we hope you can join us back again tomorrow. Jen Wilkin will be here again, and we’ll continue talking about how we go deep in God’s Word.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with help from Mark Ramey. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today
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