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Getting Past Good Intentions

How a series of unconnected events got me reading my Bible again

Every night around 11:00, I do a “bed check.” I check to see if our kids are too warm or too cold, and that all their limbs are in the bed rather than dangling over the side. (We’ve learned the hard way that a few dangling parts can lead to all the other parts sliding off and landing hard on the floor between the bed and the nightstand.)

One particular night about six months ago, I checked 10-year-old David first. His bed usually looks like a small bomb has gone off in it, since he’s as active when he sleeps as he is when he’s awake. That night was no exception. Tickled by the degree of destruction, I put his covers back to rights, then went across the hall to check his sister.

Seven-year-old Abby was also fast asleep. Her covers are usually in place, but we’ve learned to be on the lookout for foreign objects. On various nights we’ve discovered her sleeping with sunglasses on, sleeping under a fully-deployed umbrella, and sleeping with an uncapped marker in her bed.

But this time there was something in her hand. I peered closer in the darkness. Clutched in her fist was a tiny children’s Bible the size of a deck of cards. I tried to slip the little Bible out of her hand, but it was stuck fast. I had to pry her fingers up one by one to remove it.

It was, I reflected later, quite an arresting picture. If Norman Rockwell had seen Abby lying there asleep with her Bible, he would have dashed off a painting on the spot. But this felt like more than a sweet childhood moment; somehow it seemed significant. Later I’d understand why.

The Four Things

At the time, daily devotional Bible reading wasn’t one of my habits. But after the Rockwellian incident with Abby, four Things happened to me in the space of a week or two, and it became obvious they were intended to make a point.

Thing 1: A friend mentioned in a meeting that he had decided to spend a year reading the Bible itself, instead of reading books about the Bible. That kind of remark usually goes in one ear and out the other, but it stuck with me and kept (rather annoyingly) replaying itself over and over.

Thing 2: A colleague forwarded me an interesting email. It quoted Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek. Hybels said he had come to the realization that his church was providing people with a smorgasbord of programs, when what they really needed was to learn how to become spiritual “self-feeders.” Again, the remark stuck with me. I wondered—was I a self-feeder?

Thing 3: In an editorial, Bob De Moor challenged Banner readers to spend 25 minutes a day reading the Bible and five minutes talking to God about what we had read (January 2008). He promised this habit would change our lives.

Now, I’ve adopted Bob as one of my theological go-to people. Every so often I e-mail him a burning but rather naïve question, and he gives me an answer without rolling his eyes. (OK, maybe he does roll his eyes, but the great thing about e-mail is that I don’t have to see it.) I appreciate his insights and the sense of humor with which they’re often delivered. If Bob promised that reading the Bible every day would change my life, I was inclined to take him at his word.

Thing 4: This was the clincher. The kick in the pants. The Thing that made it obvious that the other three Things had happened for a reason.

One day as I copyedited a book, I found the author had neglected to provide the source of a quote from C.S. Lewis. Copyeditors hate this because it usually means stopping work to track down the author, who is inevitably away on vacation. Instead, I Googled the quote in hopes of finding its source. Google sent me to a C.S. Lewis website that looked promising.

I poked around for a while, hunting for the elusive quote. Then I ran across something completely unrelated that stopped me in my tracks. It’s C.S. Lewis quoting William Law’s book A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, written in 1729:

If you will stop here and ask yourselves why you are not as pious as the [early] Christians were, your own heart will tell you, that it is neither through ignorance nor inability, but purely because you never thoroughly intended it.

Those last five words felt like a finger poking me repeatedly in the chest. The words felt like they were coming straight from God—and on a day when he wasn’t in a mood for humor.


I knew I should have better devotional habits, and I had always intended to develop them at some point. But William Law was right: when it comes to the spiritual life, even the best intentions are irrelevant. As Jedi Master Yoda says to his protégé Luke Skywalker, “Do—or do not. There is no try.”

Like Breathing

With these Four Things still fresh in my mind, there was no doubt what the next step should be. So I set a date, and on that date I started reading the Bible every weekday morning. Rather than using a devotional to organize my reading, I decided to read the Good Book from cover to cover, much like I would a good novel.

After three months of this, I had finished the first third of the Bible. I was pleased to find that this new habit didn’t feel like a chore. I actually looked forward to these early-morning forays into the Old Testament.

Successfully forming such a beneficial new habit was rather heady. In fact, I was pretty proud of myself. But then, while again searching the Internet for something completely different, I read this quote from Oswald Chambers’ classic work My Utmost for His Highest:

When we first begin to form a habit . . . we are aware of becoming virtuous and godly, but this awareness should only be a stage we quickly pass through as we grow spiritually. . . . The right thing to do with godly habits is to immerse them in the life of the Lord until they become such a spontaneous expression of our lives that we are no longer aware of them.

Reading the Bible or practicing any of the other spiritual disciplines isn’t an exercise in spiritual hygiene—the holy equivalent of flossing or eating oatmeal. Rather, Chambers suggests that reading God’s Word and practicing the other spiritual disciplines should be like breathing. We don’t usually pat ourselves on the back for practicing the habit of respiration—we do it because we need it to live.

Unrelenting Love

After six months of practicing this new habit, I’d be lying if I said I felt close to sainthood. I still fight the ungodly urge to smack people who talk loudly on cell phones in public places. I’m still, on the very rare occasion, just a tad impatient with my family. In so many ways I’m still “prone to wander,” as the hymn says.

But as I read the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I’m amazed by God’s unrelenting love for his constantly wandering people—a love that was unshaken even when they said and did unbelievably stupid and faithless things like, “We put a hunk of gold in the fire, and—you ain’t gonna believe this, Moses—out came a golden calf for us to worship!”

As I read the Old Testament stories and work my way toward the New Testament, I feel freshly convinced of God’s love for his people today, even when we, too, do stupid and faithless things. That love reaches out to us in the Word itself and through the practice of reading it.

When we sit at God’s feet and listen, we’ll find that God speaks to us. When we make space for God, he fills that space with good things. When we see how God’s salvation plan unfolded from Adam to Jesus, we can’t help but recognize God’s hand still at work in our own place and time.

Daily Bible reading isn’t a fix for everything that ails us. But it points us toward the One who is.

Ready to Read?

If it’s time for you to begin or reinstate the habit of daily Bible reading, here are a few things that might help:
Remove minor physical and mental obstacles to your new habit. Choose a time and place where you’re relatively certain you won’t be disturbed. Pick a Bible that’s easy to hold and has comfortably-sized type (keep the hefty study Bible with miniscule words nearby for reference). Choose a version whose language is accessible, such as the Today’s New International Version.
Keep a pencil handy. As you read, jot down questions and insights for later reflection. In On the Incarnation, C.S. Lewis wrote: “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.” That applies to Bible reading too. (At least the pencil bit does. I don’t want to encourage anyone to take up smoking, but if chewing on an unlit pipe helps, go for it.)
Enjoy the story. As Eugene Peterson writes in Eat This Book, when we read the Bible we should “feel the emotions, get caught up in the drama, identify with the characters, see into nooks and crannies of life that we had overlooked, realize that there is more to this business of being human than we had yet explored.”

—Sandy Swartzentruber

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