As a minister of a church, naturally, I want my people to read their bibles and pray. I want them immersed in scripture and I want them praying in response to it. Don’t doubt, when I hear people telling me that they are captivated by God’s word, that they can’t put it down, it makes my heart sing. Truly.
Nonetheless, I wonder if in our laudable desire to get people into the word, we have perhaps emphasised certain approaches in ways that are less than helpful. Specifically, I am thinking about the emphasis on quiet times. Don’t get me wrong, I think quiet times can be a great thing. But I suspect we have made quiet times, particularly modern Western approaches, essential in a way that the bible itself doesn’t.
For one thing, you will struggle finding anywhere in the bible that commands us to read it. The closest we get is Paul’s instruction to Timothy to ‘devote yourself to the public reading of scripture’ (1 Tim 4:13) but the context makes clear this is for the purposes of exhortation and teaching. In other words, it is an instruction to a pastor (or apostolic envoy, or however you define Timothy’s role) to continue teaching his flock.
What we do get is a command to meditate on the word (Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2). We read that we should let the word abide in us (John 15:7). We see encouragement to store up the word in our heart (Psalm 119:10f). We are to be both doers and hearers of the word (James 1:22). We are exhorted to let the word dwell in us richly (Col 3:16). In all of these commands and encouragements, though reading scripture might be one way – even a great way – of doing them, it is specifically not what is commanded per se.
This is, of course, necessarily so. For most of church history, the average believer has been unable to read the scriptures for themselves. Either illiteracy was the norm or, even where this wasn’t an issue, the bible hasn’t been available in the appropriate language. Even today, for large swathes of the world, believers are still unable to read scripture for themselves for the same reasons. Indeed, even in the English-speaking world, though we have an embarrassment of riches as far as faithful bible translations go, illiteracy has not been eradicated altogether. For many (even most) throughout church history, a command to read the bible would have been rendered entirely impossible.
The issue, however, goes further. As I have noted a number of times, ours is a particularly deprived context (see here). In working class communities such as ours – whether dealing with the working class urban poor or first and second generation South Asian Muslim immigrants – very often people are not big readers. Our church is replete with working class Oldhammers and asylum seeking Iranians. Whilst in the average middle class, highly educated church it is totally normal to simply fling a book in the direction of someone with questions about particular issues, this approach is often unhelpful in a context such as ours. It turns people right off and stops them being keen to come back for any more. If you know that asking your pastor for help means he will give you a load of reading homework, you can pretty well guarantee any requests for pastoral support will entirely dry up.
Given that the bible itself doesn’t insist we read it, might it be the case that we are placing burdens on people that they cannot bear which the bible doesn’t demand when we insist on particular approaches to quiet times? The measure of spiritual health is a desire to know the word, to hear it and be doers of it. It is possible to meditate on the word without being an avid reader. It is possible to treasure the word in your heart without finding it easy to read it. The bible seems to emphasise hearing, doing and meditating rather than reading and studying.
Interestingly, you will struggle to find a single example in scripture of this modern approach to quiet times. There are certainly commands to pray and good examples of people praying. Daniel is about as close to a set quiet time as you can get but all we’re told is that he prayed three times per day (and Daniel 9 gives us a potential example of it). But set times of personal reading followed by programmatic prayer; that you will struggle to find.
Clearly, bible reading is a great way to try and meditate on the truths of scripture. It is a great way to grow in knowledge and treasure those truths in our hearts. But let us admit that it is not the only way. Indeed, it isn’t even the primary way that seems to be envisaged by scripture.
Once again, as a church minister, I want my people to read and understand scripture. My heart leaps for joy when they avidly read the word because they are so captivated by it. But can we have a little leeway for our non-reading brothers and sisters? Can we be careful that we aren’t loading burdens that scripture doesn’t demand on those who really struggle with reading?
Sure, quiet times can be great. But they can end up being a legalistic bind on those who don’t come from a reading culture. We can load guilt upon those who, in reality, aren’t failing to be hearers, doers and meditators. They are just struggling readers, which it seems scripture really doesn’t mind at all. Perhaps we should mind a bit less too?