A new year is upon us. As we are in the process of preparing ourselves to make the most of 2015, I decided to focus this week on something I always consider this time of year – how to make the most of the Scriptures.
I suspect this will be a shorter discussion, but I hope it will give you some ideas of ways to improve in understanding, commitment, and faith through the holy books.
(1) Why Study?
Jesus Christ said: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart; and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30).
An interesting feature of this scripture is that Jesus makes several invitations and calls to action. He says “come unto me,” “learn of me,” and “find rest unto your souls.” From this, it seems clear that the Lord expects us to take an active approach to our relationship with him. We need to approach him directly, learn all we can about him, and seek in order to find the rest he offers.
How then is this to be done? How can we approach the Living Savior, learn of him, and find rest? Prayer is one way, and it is indeed a very important, essential element of our development. A second method is also available to us which is like unto the first; study of the scriptures.
(i) Treasures Untold
The scriptures are quite amazing, when you think about it. Let us pause for a moment and consider what we have:
(1) The Bible: The most established of the scriptures, the Bible is our common bond with the rest of Christianity. The Old Testament gives a marvelous account of the creation of the word and the fall of man. We learn of the covenant God made with Abraham and how that covenant passed through his posterity. We watch the Lord establish a pattern of calling prophets and delivering commandments. We learn of the marvelous deliverance of Israel from the bondage of Egypt, and we follow the history of these chosen people through a cycle of righteousness and wickedness. We see stories and see the effects of faith and folly, repentance and sin, righteousness and wickedness. The Old Testament concludes with many marvelous prophesies of the coming of Christ, his life, his mission, and eventually his wondrous Atonement.
Then comes the New Testament. This book is practically dripping with stories of Christ. We see him born, we watch his life, hear his parables, see his miracles. We walk with him across water, see him calm the storm, watch him raise Lazarus. We journey with him into the Upper Room, hear him prophecy of his coming death. Then we watch him in the Garden of Gethsamane, hear his great grand intercessory prayer, sit by him as he suffers. We observe his crucifixion and watch him die, then we feel the fear of his followers at the loss of our Lord and rejoice with him on the glorious Easter morning when he arises from his tomb. We then watch the struggles and successes of his fledgling new church after Christ ascends to heaven. We watch the marvelous conversion of Paul from persecutor to preacher and read his sublime letters explaining the meaning of the Atonement. We read the writings and testimonies of other Apostles who saw and walked with the Lord, and finally we are treated to a grand vision of the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ to conquer sin and usher in eternal life for each of us.
The Bible is indeed an excellent source to understand the grand plan our Heavenly Father has for each of us. It is a rich resource and, although it has suffered somewhat over the millennia, it comes to us full of the Spirit of God, ready to point the careful reader to Jesus Christ on almost every page.
(2) The Book of Mormon: Our church’s flagship book of scripture, the Book of Mormon offers much-needed additional perspective on the life and mission of the Savior. In it we see the Lord call a prophet and lead a portion of his chosen people out of Jerusalem. We watch the struggles of one small family as some strive for righteousness while others long to preserve the status quo. We have described in exquisite detail the glorious vision of the Tree of Life as well as a detailed explanation of its symbols. We see this small family travel to a new land, start a society, and develop a church. We see ordinances of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost preached among this people long before they are ever mentioned in the Bible, and we have confirmed to us that the House of Israel had Christ preached to it long before he was ever born in Bethlehem. We watch as the posterity of this family develops, grows, and learns. We see their cycle of righteousness and wickedness, hear their sublime prophecies and teachings, and wait with them for a sign that Christ has come. Eventually, we see Jesus Christ appear to them personally to teach them his gospel. We see the great peace and prosperity this brings to them, but we learn a saddening warning of the power of Satan to tempt and lead mankind astray. We also see that this pattern has been repeated with other civilizations in other times. Most of all, we have underscored for us the lessons of Christ’s marvelous Atonement that we found in the Bible, a declaration of the immensity and infinite nature of that great event.
(3) The Doctrine and Covenants: Probably the most difficult to read of the scriptures, the Doctrine and Covenants records the many revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Some are simple, providing direction and counsel to the early members of our church. Others are more in-depth, providing procedural and other guidance to the church as a whole. In this book, we see a great vision of the Plan of Salvation, showing in detail what will happen after we leave this life. We also see a marvelous vision of the Lord Jesus Christ appearing in modern times on Earth to guide and direct his church. We see the keys of the Priesthood restored and learn the duties and covenants associated with it. We learn the Word of Wisdom, the law of chastity, and the law of consecration. We have temple work and ordinances for the dead restored. We learn of the covenants of eternal marriage and see the keys of sealing restored to the earth. We see Malachi’s vision of the return of Elijah the prophet fulfilled. But most of all, we see the voice of the Lord continuing to speak to modern prophets as it did to prophets of old, confirming that the Lord continues to guide, direct, and care for his church even in modern times.
(4) The Pearl of Great Price: Somewhat of an odd collection of scriptures, this book contains some scattered pieces of the gospel restored through the prophet Joseph Smith. In it we see a more in-depth description of the theophany of Moses, an account of how the gospel was preached to Adam and Eve, and an account of the preaching and ministry of the prophet Enoch. We also have a record of Abraham and his covenant, a parable showing how the cosmos itself testifies of Christ, and a look into the Grand Counsel of Heaven before the world was formed. We see some prophesies from Christ about the end of the world set forth in greater detail. We also have an account of the call of Joseph Smith, reading of his search for truth, his prayer in the grove, and the marvelous appearance of both God the Father and Jesus Christ to him. We also see the restoration of the priesthood and learn of how Joseph was given the Book of Mormon. Finally, we conclude with thirteen short statements of the tenants of our belief.
As you can see, each of these books offers much to be desired. These short summaries obviously do not come close to describing the depths to be explored and the treasures to be found within these pages.
(ii) Miracle of Modern Times
One of the most marvelous developments of modern times is that we each have the opportunity to read and study the scriptures ourselves. Not long ago, the scriptures were kept from mankind. The Book of Mormon was buried in a hillside and the Catholic Church kept a stranglehold on the Bible. And even when society had more ready access to the scriptures, whether it be by advancements in printing or translation of the books into the vernacular, illiteracy plagued prior centuries and prevented the common man from approaching the gospel himself.
But those days are long gone. Now, a good portion of the world’s population can read and the scriptures are available literally everywhere. Without much money, any man, woman, or child can obtain a physical copy of any book of scripture, and with advances in modern technology the scriptures are available on phones, computers, Kindles, and other devices to be carried everywhere.
This is clearly no longer the dark ages! For the first time in centuries, literally everyone on the planet has the opportunity to take Jesus up on his invitation, to come to him, to learn of him, and to allow him to give us rest, peace, and comfort.
For the first time since Nephi penned his famous invitation to “feast upon the words of Christ” (2 Nephi 32:3), the whole world actually can do so.
Yet, with all the convenience of modern times, many people still decide not to make the most of the wonderful scriptures we have.
(iii) Drink from the Fountain
When you think of it, all the advances of humankind have effectively conspired to make the scriptures available to everyone. No longer do we have to take someone else’s word for what the scriptures say. No longer do we need to get our religion second hand. Rather than drinking from a tributary stream, we have the unique opportunity to approach the very fountainhead and drink directly from the source!
As Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught: “Every man, woman, and child in the Church can have the absolute knowledge, born of the Spirit, the conviction that is unshakable and certain that Jesus is the Lord; that salvation is in Christ; that if we will come unto him, and learn of him, and keep his commandments, we will have peace and joy and happiness in this life and we will be inheritors of eternal life in the world to come. We issue the challenge to all in the Church to drink at the fountain; to study the Standard Works of the Church; to read, ponder, and pray; to ask God for understanding; to get the power of the Holy Spirit into their lives so that each person knows, independent of anyone else, of the truth and divinity of these things, for out of that course comes the joy and satisfaction and peace that the gospel offers.” (Liahona December 1985).
If your testimony does not sparkle quite as much as once it did, come drink from the fountain of the scriptures. If you struggle with temptations, cleanse yourself in the living water of the scriptures. If you seek to understand and know personally that Jesus Christ loves you and atoned for your sins, come to the fountainhead and find him there.
With so much to offer, why would we ever want to cheat ourselves of the opportunity to approach the scriptures directly and drink deeply of the living water they hold? Therefore, “ come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (2 Nephi 9:50, Isaiah 55:1)
(2) Ways to Study.
There are really five ways to study the scriptures, of which only three are effective.
(i) The first is “vicarious study.” This type of scripture study involves listening to others discussing the scriptures but never actually reading them yourselves, or through inconsistent, occasional reading. This is the spiritual equivalent of subsistence farming – just getting by and never getting ahead. The interesting thing about this is that it is enough to survive. This is the way people studied the scriptures in the dark ages – because so many people were illiterate and the Bible was not permitted to be translated into the vernacular, the only way to learn of the scriptures was through vicarious study. While this does keep faith alive, it inhibits strongly the ability to receive personal revelation. There is clearly a better way.
The miracle of the scriptures is that they give life wherever they go. You can keep a testimony and survive in the church with only this minimum level of study. However, you will forever forego the blessings that come from feasting on the words of Christ.
(ii) The second model is the “one wimpy verse club.” This is a model for people who want to have the scriptures in their life but can’t make time for careful study. This method involves touching the scriptures each day, reading just a little bit.
This model has some advantages. First of all, it helps the adherent to develop a habit of daily contact. It also results in at least a minimum of inspiration. However, without deeper study, these habits will never reach their full potential.
(iii) The third way to study the scriptures is the “completion” model. This is probably the most frequent method used and it makes an excellent default. This method involves setting a goal to read the scriptures from start to finish. In our church where we have four books, this could involve a focus on one specific book or it could involve trying to finish everything.
The advantage of this model is that it is easy to measure and maintain. It enables the reader to see his progress and gives a default reading plan. Additionally, over time it will result in a broad familiarity with the contents of the scriptures. It will enable the Holy Ghost to call things to the reader’s mind. Combined with prayer, recording of revelation, cross-referencing, and other sound study techniques, this is an excellent way to study.
(iv) The next model is the time-based model. This involves setting aside a specific amount of time each day to read the scriptures. The actual portions read are left up to the reader. This model is more flexible than the completion model. In a study period, you essentially decide what to read (ideally by inspiration after prayer).
This is also an excellent way to study the scriptures. However, as life tends to intrude and push spiritual things to the side, the time-based model requires dedication and commitment.
(v) The final model is the topic-based model. This is (for me) the hardest way to study. Essentially, you decide what you want to read about, look up the scriptures that deal with it, and read those. This is the model I use with the blog posts, and it requires a good deal of effort. However, the advantage is increased understanding of where specific topics are discussed. The only problem with this model is that you have to keep coming up with topics to study, which can require significant effort.
One suggestion on this is to make a resolution to write “a talk a week.” Pretend you have to give a talk on a topic and spend your week’s scripture study preparing for it (and actually write it). This has the advantage of focusing your study and also helping you to have something to say if the need arises!
Personally, I generally prefer the “completion” model. I find it is effective and easy to stick to. However, as mentioned, when I am preparing a lesson or writing these posts, I switch to a topic-based approach. Interestingly enough, the time-based model absolutely does not work for me. I am somewhat of a chaotic creature and I can’t for the life of me set aside specific periods of time. Some days I study and read a lot; some days less.
I have discussed the five methods of study as separate and distinct. However, in reality effective study will incorporate aspects of all three effective approaches. The true key to effective scripture study is to allow the Holy Ghost to guide you. Sometimes you will have specific questions come to mind, sometimes you won’t. Sometimes when reading for completion, something will stand out the Holy Ghost will call something else to your memory.
(3) Setting goals.
As the New Year has just started, it is an excellent time to set goals for personal scripture study. Over my 33 years, I have set a wide variety of goals. The following are some suggestions:
- Read every day. This has been a goal of mine for years. The key to successful study is to be consistent.
- Read the entire standard works. This is my annual goal, barring a special event. I have been doing this for a long time. I find it is a useful goal and a way to make sure I stay familiar with all the books of scripture.
- Read a particular book in depth. Often in the Church, this is the Book of Mormon, though depending on your needs, the Bible, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price are all good choices. Get to know the book you select, learn and be inspired by what it teaches, and make yourself an expert on it.
- Read the whole Bible. I cannot emphasize enough how critical this is. Many times in church people ask me how I know the Bible “so well.” The secret is that I have read it. One time through the Bible and you will know more about it than 80% of the church. There is something to be said for just pushing through it even if it is hard and even if you don’t understand everything, for there are great things inside its pages, and the Spirit will never be able to unlock its secrets for you if you don’t read it.
- Keep a record of your study. My little blog is sort of this for me. By making a resolution to keep a notebook or study journal, you will automatically get more out of your reading. Doing so requires discipline, and this does not usually work well with a “completion” based study method, though it is an excellent companion of a topic or time-based model. Remember, though, a notebook is only useful if you occasionally look back at it.
- Discuss the scriptures regularly. Make a goal to talk about the scriptures to someone each week or month. Talk about what you’re reading; discuss a particular topic. Listen, ask questions and answer them, and have productive discussions. For me, 80% of the inspiration I receive comes when I discuss the scriptures with others. I have an absolute testimony that the Lord’s promise in D&C 100:6 is true: “it shall be given you in the very hour, yea, in the very moment, what ye shall say.”
- Keep up with your classes. Whether it is Sunday School or institute or whatever else you are a part of, a resolution to keep up with the reading is always an excellent goal. By making yourself familiar with what the teacher will cover, you will find the classes you attend are infinitely more meaningful. Whether you want to talk in class or not, the fact that you come prepared will allow the Holy Ghost to help you receive inspiration and understanding from the scriptures.
- Read consistently with someone else. This one does not work so well for us single people, but if you have a family or a roommate or some other relationship, consider a goal to read with that other person. In this instance, it really does not matter whether that person is a member of the church or not. If it is a non-member friend, this may be a way to bond and to develop greater understanding of one-another’s beliefs. While not everyone will be open to a daily scripture study, you may be surprised how many people would be open if you asked. Asking, after all, is free!
These are just some suggestions that have worked to me over the years. Obviously, pray for your own inspiration on what would be a meaningful goal for you. However, whatever you do, I would urge you to accept Nephi’s invitation to feast upon the words of Christ and make 2015 a year of Scripture for you.