Think of someone for whom you have the greatest admiration – someone it would be a privilege to meet and who words and insights you would trust. If you actually are, that is fine. Are you thinking of someone whose words you would love to hear?
Suppose that person said that he/she would be willing to ring you each day to have a conversation that would be personally crafted for your unique situation. Each day you would get some wisdom. Would you answer the phone? Would you take that call?
An amazing thing happened to me this week. On Monday I emailed Mary Jane Sime saying what I expected the theme of the sermon to be and that it would be based on Ps 119. On Wednesday, at the ministry conference at East Taieri, Martin Macaulay, the minister preached on the same topic, making the same points, using the same structure and basing it on Ps 119. It was uncanny. Now that it has written, it has turned out a bit different but I think God knew that this was going to be a slightly pressured week and He gave me a head-start with the sermon.
Martin said that in 1997, the British and Foreign Bible Society did a survey of Bible readership in Britain which showed that 18% of regular church-goers have never read anything in the Bible for themselves in their whole lives and another 14% had not opened their Bible in the last year. That means that virtually 1/3 of church-goers had not read their Bibles in the last year.
In 2008, the NZ Bible Society did a survey that revealed that only 11% of those who call themselves Christians read their Bibles daily, with another 13% reading it weekly. So, only 24% of Christians read their Bible at least weekly. A bigger percentage (27%) said they never read their Bibles. 6% of Christians said they didn’t own a Bible and had no interest.
That is scary! 9% of Christians do not even own a Bible. A full 68% (more than 2/3 of Christians) read the Bible, at best, only occasionally.
I would be delighted if we were the exception. Do you think we are?
The prophet, Amos, predicted a day when there would be a famine in the land – not a famine of bread or water but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord (Amos 8:11). It wasn’t that the word of the Lord wasn’t available but that people would not hear it. We have any amount of access to the Bible. We possibly have several versions in our homes. It is available online; there are Bible apps on our phones etc etc etc. We have Bibles coming out of our ears but, if these figures are true for us, we are not reading them. The surveys also show that Christians cannot answer relatively easy questions about the Bible.
Does that matter? It sure does. When we neglect the Bible, we suffer. I spoke to a person at the conference who has been a Christian only 3 years but he had a wonderful knowledge of God’s word. As a young Christian, he looks at the church and sees all sorts of things that are not right. He says, “They are the symptoms; the disease is a lack of knowledge of the word of God.”
Jesus, talking to the Pharisees, said, “You are in error because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God” (Mt 22:19). When we do not know what God says, we will adopt the views of the world, and we will be in error. All of our actions are motivated by our beliefs. If our beliefs are wrong then our actions will also be displeasing to God.
Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – His good, pleasing and perfect will.
Our minds are transformed as we read the word of God and our thinking is more and more aligned with God’s thinking. But without that, our lives and our church, will be worldly. History would show that, when the word of God is neglected, the church does become worldly – powerless and often corrupt. And when the church degenerates, so does society.
Can we claim to have a relationship with God if we don’t listen to Him? Can we claim to know God and to love Him if we don’t listen to Him?
On the other hand, the very first mentioned characteristics of the post-Pentecost church, in Acts 2, is that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. A vibrant church is always a church where the members are devoted to the word of God. They know how God thinks; they know what God values; they know what God requires of them and they know the power of God, because they know their Bibles. They make wise, godly decisions because they know their Bibles.
Psalm 119:16 I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.
Think about that word “delight”. And we could list lots of similar words the psalmist uses to describe how much he loves the word of God. Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible. We read less than 1/7 of it but even in just those verses, the writer said:
- I seek you with all my heart
- I have hidden your word in my heart
- With my lips I recount your law
- I rejoice in following your statutes, as one rejoices in great riches
- My soul is consumed with longing for your law at all times
- I meditate on your decrees
- Your statutes are my delight; they are my counsellors
- How I long for your precepts.
It is passionate and ardent and filled with wonder and a hunger for more and more. Oh my goodness, how that contrasts with the lackadaisical indifference that is true of so much of the church today. Whereas he says, “I will not neglect your word”, neglect is exactly what is happening today.
Why would that be? Why do Christians not read the Bible? What are the barriers?
- It is a big book. It is daunting.
That is true. I am not a great reader. I seldom tackle a book that big. It is daunting. In general, people are less literate and so reading a book with, say, 1500 pages is just not something we do.
But, actually, is that more than just an excuse? The Bible is a big volume but it consists of 66 books. The average number of words per book is about 11,000. I think a normal paperback contains about 80,000 to 100,000 words so 11,000 is actually a very small book – definitely manageable. We can start small (and we will talk more about that next week). We can read just a chapter, just one verse, and God can speak through it. For those of us who are not such good readers, there are translations available, specifically designed for us. And there are audio versions and video versions available free online. The Bible is actually extraordinarily accessible to just about anyone.
- It is too difficult to understand
Again, it is true that parts of it are difficult. It reflects a different culture and a different age. Some of that can be confusing. Some parts are notoriously difficult to understand. The Bible even says that of itself. Peter wrote that some of Paul’s letters were difficult to understand (2 Peter 3:16) and that was for people who were contemporaries and did know the culture. Besides all that, it deals with spiritual realities that require spiritual understanding.
Many people have decided to read the Bible and have become bogged down in bits that are just too hard.
But there is another side to that coin as well. Yes, there are difficult bits but actually most of the Bible is pretty clear.
And there are all manner of resources available to help us understand it.
Besides that, God wants to speak to us. The Bible is such that the simplest person can read it and understand. Let us take our lead from the writer of Psalm 119. He takes these difficulties to God and asks for help.
Ps 119:18 Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.
When there are things I don’t get, “Lord, open my eyes.” Likewise, in v.12 he says, “teach me your decrees”. V.19: “Do not hide your commands from me.” V.33: “Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees.” V.34: “Give me understanding”. Let us imitate him and pray for God to give us understanding.
Mark Twain is reported to have said, “It is not what I don’t understand about the Bible that frightens me; it is what I do understand.”
That raises two points. Firstly, some of it is very plain. Don’t worry about what you don’t understand; focus on what you do. Secondly, what God says can be challenging. One reason for not reading the Bible is the knowledge that, if we hear God speak, we will be responsible for doing something about it.
- It is more comfortable not hearing God speak.
That is true too – kind of. God does ask things of us. We can avoid that by not reading the Bible.
But we have to consider what blessings we are also missing out on. It is by hiding God’s word in our hearts that we can avoid sin. It is by understanding God’s ways that we can please Him. In this psalm God’s word is said to give freedom (v.45), to preserve our lives (v.50), to comfort (v.52), it gives knowledge and good judgement (v.66). Do you want to be wise? Then study the word of God. There are many other reasons the psalmist delights in God’s word and says it is more precious than thousands of pieces of silver and gold (v.72).
How often have we felt too busy to read the Bible? We are rushing in the morning so we think we will find some time at night. But the evening is full too and by the time we go to bed we know we will not be able to keep our eyes open.
Busyness is real but it is all about priorities. What are we putting ahead of reading God’s word? What is important to us? That is a decision each of us has to make. What will we prioritise?
Again, the psalmist knows about that temptation but his desire is to put God first. Look at vv.36-37
Psalm 119:36-37 Turn my heart towards your statutes and not toward selfish gain. Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word.
Even if most Christians read their Bibles only occasionally or never, we can be different. We can have the same desire as the psalmist, saying “I will not neglect your word” and asking God for His help as we read it. We can have the same delight that the psalmist had. “My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times.” And we can know the same blessings: Blessed are those who keep His statutes and seek Him with all their hearts” (v.2).
From next week we are going to get more practical. What can we actually do to discover more of the riches of God’s word? Where do we start? How can we hear God speak? But it starts with wanting to. What if God offered to give you advice, wisdom and encouragement each day that would be just perfect for you. Would you take that call? Will you recommit to picking up your Bible and praying, “Open my eyes, that I might see wonderful things in your law.”