In the 8th grade, my friend dragged me to a meeting about the high-school swim team. I remember being slightly interested, but the coach assured us that if we were willing, we could learn competitive swimming.
So I signed up. I showed up for the first day of practice without a swim cap or a pair of goggles.
Everyone else was doing special stretches and twisting their arms in ways I didn't even know the arm could bend. The pool looked enormous.
"All right, girls," the coach yelled, "let's start with 9 100s-swim-kick-pull. And I want to see those flip turns!"
Overcoming Initial Intimidation
I had no idea what she was telling us to do, but I did understand "flip turn." I had tried one of those underwater somersaults before and hit my head on the bottom of the pool.
When the older girls quickly started diving into the water, I was ready to run away from practice. But before I could escape, they herded us newcomers down to lane 6, where the assistant coach started teaching us the basics.
I survived the 2-hour practice, dragging my aching body back the next day. And I slowly learned to swim competitively.
Swimming wasn't just slapping my arms around in the water and splashing with my feet. Each stroke was specifically tailored for speed. I learned to breathe by just turning my head to the side, and I finally figured out the flip turn.
But first I had to overcome my initial feelings of confusion and inadequacy.
Those feelings surfaced again when I first thought about studying the Bible. I was intimidated by the huge book, and I wasn't even sure where to start.
But just like swimming, I was willing to try. And I discovered that studying the Bible was actually a lot like swim practice, only much more enjoyable. (And I didn't smell like chlorine afterward.)
Joy Found Through Studying God's Word
"Study produces joy," Richard J. Foster writes in his book Celebration of Discipline. "Like any novice, we will find it hard work in the beginning. But the greater our proficiency, the greater our joy. Study [of the Bible] is well worth our most serious effort."
Just like I became a stronger swimmer through the discipline of twice-daily practices, I also strengthened my faith through the study of God's Word. I came to love the feel of the water and the art of swimming, just as my love for the Lord grew as I learned about Him and His great plan in the pages of Scripture.
"The Word of God is the only real authority we have," writes Billy Graham in the foreward to Bruce & Stan's Guide to the Bible. "His Word sheds light on human nature, world problems and human suffering. But beyond that, it clearly reveals the way to God."
There are many different methods and techniques for studying the Bible; here are just a few to consider.
1. Understand the Big Picture
Whatever methods you choose, always ask God to reveal Himself and speak to you through His Word. What does the passage you read teach you about God, and how can you apply it to your life?
Although the Bible was written by more than 40 authors and contains 66 books including poetry, history, letters and prophecy -- it all ultimately tells us God's story. So one way to study the Bible is to approach it with the intention of understanding the big picture.
In his book Quiet Talks on Prayer, S.D. Gordon explains that we should "begin at the first of Genesis, and read rapidly through by the page. Do not try to understand it all. You will not. Never mind that now. Just push on. Do not stop at the close of Genesis. Push on into Exodus. And so on into Leviticus. Now do not try to understand Leviticus the first time. You will not the 100th time perhaps. Get the drift of the book. And in it all be getting the picture of God."
One Bible paraphrase called The Message, developed by Eugene Peterson, is specifically designed to be read rather than studied. Put in common English, some editions of The Message leave out verse distinctions entirely.
When we read the Bible as a whole, we can see the bigger picture of God's redeeming plan.
2. Book Study
We can discover many truths from in-depth study of a specific book within the Bible.
For example, spend some time studying Philippians (it's nice and short). Then try tackling a book like Romans or Isaiah. Consider these suggestions as you read:
- Study the background: Who wrote the book? To whom was it written and why? For example, the first verse of Philippians tells us it is a letter written by Paul and Timothy to the Christians living in Philippi.
- List the names of the principal characters; identify them and their significance. In some books of the Bible, like Philippians, there aren't many characters. But for books like Genesis, drawing out a family tree can be very helpful.
- Make an outline of the book: What are the main points?
- Mark passages that God uses to teach you something. Underline verses that touch your heart.
3. Chapter and Verse
When you study individual chapters and verses, look closely at the text. Sometimes it helps to compare different translations, or look up words in a Bible dictionary. Ask yourself:
- What is the principal subject of the chapter?
- What is a key verse? Consider memorizing it.
- Who are the principal characters?
- Is there any example to follow or to avoid?
One of the first verses I memorized was Philippians 4:6,7. It remains one of my favorite verses to this day:
"Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (New American Standard Bible).
As I worked to memorize the words, dwelling on them, I also began to give over my anxious thoughts, confirming firsthand that the peace of God really does surpass understanding.
4. Try a Topic
We can also study the Bible by focusing on what it says about specific topics. What is God's take on anxiety, prayer, sexual purity or trust?
Using a topical Bible or a concordance, look up all the references to a specific topic. Ask yourself these questions:
- What is a working definition of the topic?
- How do all the verses relate together?
- What have you learned about the topic and what does it tell you about God?
- Which of these verses would be good to memorize?
5. Pick a Person
There are 2,930 people mentioned in the Bible, and we can learn valuable lessons from studying their lives. Pick someone you would like to study, and using a concordance, a topical Bible or a proper-name index found in the back of some Bibles, look up every mention of that person.
Here are some questions to ask:
- What were his or her outstanding character traits?
- Was there a great crisis in his life? If so, how did he face it?
- What was her experience with God?
- Were any particular faults evident in his life?
- Notice her prayer life, faith, service to God, knowledge of God's Word, courage in witnessing, and attitude toward the worship of God. What motivated these traits?
One of my favorite people of the Bible is Lydia. She caught my attention in Acts 16 because she sold purple cloth (purple is my favorite color).
But as I looked deeper, I was inspired by her faith and hospitality.
Finding Hope in the Living Truth
Whenever we study the Bible, it's not just to gain knowledge, but to learn more about God and to apply His truths to our lives.
"The Bible attests to itself as being a living book," writes John Loftness in his book Disciplined for Life. "Consequently, we don't merely stuff our minds with the facts and principles of Scripture. That would be lifeless. Instead, we listen to what God is saying as to how to apply His Word."
Even though swimming was difficult, especially at the beginning, I stayed with it and even qualified for the district meet my junior and senior year. I also became a lifeguard, which gave me summer jobs for many years. It all started with the willingness to show up for practice.
With Bible study, if we show up, dive in and return expectantly, God will meet us in His Word.