Bible Engagement Basics
for Personal Growth
By William E. Niblette, Ph.D.
‘Engage,’ a combination of two words from the Old French...’en’ (in) and ‘gager’ (pledge). Practically, we could affirm the following definition: ‘To pledge a mutual relationship with another.’ When we speak of ‘Bible Engagement’ (which is being spoken of more often in Christian circles lately), we’re talking of something more expansive than just ‘Bible study.’ To ‘engage’ with the Bible is first, to ‘pledge’ to spend time getting to know what the Bible says, and what it means for living a life pleasing to God. After all, the Bible is God’s Word to us. He has ‘pledged’ to share His heart to us through the Word. It is only fitting that we give our heart over toward believing and obeying what He is revealing to us.
For the Christian, to ‘engage’ with the Bible means having meaningful encounters with God through His son, Jesus Christ. Recently, a group of global missionary agencies came together to design a forum that took up the issue of providing a practical definition of ‘Bible Engagement:’
‘Bible Engagement is peeling back the covers of God’s Word to discover the hopes and promises of the Bible and discovering what God has to say to you, no matter what your situation; that results in hearts changed, lives transformed and an unrelenting drive to be like Jesus to this broken world.’ (Forum of Bible Agencies International – North America.).
In order to ‘unpack’ a broader understanding of Bible Engagement, let’s take a look at a mutual ‘pledge’ that goes on between the believer and the Bible:
1. So, what exactly are we ‘doing’ when we ‘engage’ with the Word of God?
Scripture itself, gives us the clearest indication of four basic ‘actions’ that ground our engagement with the Word of God. Consider what James, the brother of Jesus has to say about ‘hearing and doing’ the Word:
²¹Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. ²²But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. ²³For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. ²⁴For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. ²⁵But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:21-25 – ESV).
A. Receive the Word – ‘…with meekness’ (v 21) - Receiving means we’re reading. Before all else, ‘pledge’ yourself to a daily reading of God’s Word. Get to the point where it would be as difficult to go without a daily reading of the Word of God as it would a meal. The reading of it in ‘meekness’ provides for an opportunity for your mind to be open to what the Bible says. This is a picture of one coming to the Scriptures without any preconceived notions.
B. Reflect on God’s Word – ‘…look into the perfect law’ (v 25) - Once you have read the Scriptures to find out what they say, take the opportunity and time to ask what they say to you. It does little good to know what the Bible says without allowing it to speak to us personally. This is where the ‘God-breathed’ (i.e., inspired) Word of God, through the work of the Holy Spirit does its transformative work in our lives. It is in reflection that we allow God to speak to us about how to apply the Word of God to our personal circumstances.
C. Remember God’s Word – ‘…being no hearer who forgets…’ (v 25) - We defeat ‘forgetting’ by repeating. The older we get, the more difficult it is to remember…particularly, it seems new truth from the Word of God. Taking the time…and taking notes, repeatedly going over newly revealed truth and how it applies to our lives helps us to conquer the ‘scourge’ of forgetfulness.
D. Respond to God’s Word – ‘doers of the word’ (v 22-23;25)- Hopefully it’s clear by now that God’s Word is not given to us only to know, but we are to do so that we can be. The Word of God is really a manifestation of His character as found in God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son and the Holy Spirit. Responding to what we learn from the Bible helps to bring our life and character into conformity with the very character of God Himself. It’s the ‘connective’ in having a vital relationship with God. It’s how we grow in our faith, and how we prepare ourselves for eternal life with Christ in His kingdom.
Receiving, reflecting, remembering and responding to God’s Word is how we ‘pledge’ ourselves to a rich Bible engagement experience that helps us to grow in our relationship with God. Of course, there will be challenges along the way, but such a commitment to His Word will provide the help we need for the journey.
2. So, if this relationship is mutual, what is it that God’s Word ‘pledges’ to us?
Again, we turn to Scripture to see clearly what is offered to one who commits to personally engaging with the Word of God. Here is another famous ‘3:16’ (not John, but 2 Timothy) ...and ‘17’:
¹⁶All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, ¹⁷that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.
Notice the four benefits that result from appropriately engaging with the Word of God. These benefits arise out of an integrated intent of our receiving, reflecting, remembering and responding to the revealed (i.e., ‘God-breathed’) truth of the Word:
A. ‘Teaching’ (v 16) - It is God’s intent through the Word to teach us, that is to shape both our mind and will to walk in His way. The Word of God received and responded to is the best pathway of life transformation (Romans 12:2).
B. ‘Reproof’ (v 16) - God’s Word, working in conjunction with the ministry of the Holy Spirit will indicate to those engaging in His Word those sinful thoughts and actions that arise out of an ‘old nature’ (Ephesians 4:22; Hebrews 4:12).
C. ‘Correction’ (v 16) - God not only reveals to us our wrong-doing, but through the Word of God, discipline and training ‘set our wrong thoughts and actions straight’ (the Greek word used in Scripture for ‘correction’ carries with it the same idea as that of setting a broken bone). The process may be difficult and it may hurt, but in the long run, it’s for our benefit and we will be better for it. Consider the following verses that reveal the Word’s intent to offer us just the right corrective course when needed (Micah 6:8; Galatians 6:1; Hebrews 12:11; 2 Timothy 4:2).
D. ‘Training’ (v 16)- The phrase ‘training in righteousness’ implies not only that what is taught through the Word is true, but that it is presented in a disciplined manner and procedure. God is intent on training us in a way in which we can understand both our reproof and correction in aligning our relationship with Him as we daily engage in the study of His Word. Though the context of each of these verses differ, consider the intent of God to teach us in systematic ways that draw us ever closer in a relationship with Him (Isaiah 28:13; Matthew 5:17-20; Hebrews 8:10-12).
3. Engaging with the Word of God:
A. Bible Engagement Techniques: Upon reading any designated passage of Scripture, thinking through the following preliminary ideas will greatly enhance your understanding of the Word of God:
1). More than a collection of ‘stories’: The Bible is more than a collection of moral stories of a ‘set’ of principles to follow. The entire Bible is ‘set’ in THE story of God...as Creator, Judge, Rescuer, Redeemer, and King. The intent of engaging with God’s story is to find our story in his...not the other way around. The stories of the Bible primarily inform us of who God is so that we can begin to understand how we can respond to him in our Christian growth.
2). Think Inductively as you read: We don’t read the Bible like we read other books. When reading Scripture, critical thinking is integrated with imagination, and is contemplated inductively from every dimension...Who, What, Where, When, Why? Taking the time to ask these questions as you think about what the Bible is saying helps to define the passage’s ‘boundaries’ and helps you to more clearly identify the primary ‘gist’ of the passage.
3). Interpretation and Application: Rarely is Scripture NOT understandable. Every now and then, there may be a cultural phrase or action that may need clarification, but for the most part, we can read and understand Scripture just as it is written. With that in mind, upon reading a designated passage, write a one sentence interpretation of what the passage is saying and a one sentence application of what the passage is saying to you. A good principle to remember is that every Scripture passage has one primary interpretation and many practical applications.
4). Observation: Check the context of the passage. What is being said beforehand and afterward? Observe verbs, adjectives and adverbs being used in the passage. Look for repetitive words or synonyms. All of these will add enrichment to the interpretation of the Word and clarification for how to apply the Word to our lives.
B. Bible Engagement Disciplines: Knowing basic techniques that enhance our understanding of the Word of God is one thing, but there is a necessary, but different discipline that needs to be practiced in order to make our encounter with the Bible productive.
1). The Discipline of Reading: It may sound odd that we would highlight the reading of the Word of God when one would think that to be a natural function of Bible engagement. But reading today may be somewhat different than reading a generation ago, and it may be negatively impacting our understanding of the Bible. In many instances Bible reading is sometimes equated with small and short readings. Perhaps it is the influence of social media that has altered the way in which we read today. Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and texting are hard-wiring our brains for sound-bites and little more. Studies suggest that this influences how we interpret the Bible. Also, electronic Bibles are wonderful devices when the printed word may be difficult to obtain, but it is a more ‘flat,’ literal, information focused kind of reading that is less connected...as though we were skimming Wikipedia for facts rather than reading sacred text.
2). The ‘Disciplines’ of Reading: When reading Scripture, consider the following three ‘S’s’ that will enhance our understanding of Scripture passages: Read ‘Slower,’ ...for comparative/contrastive observations of the passage. Read ‘Smarter,’ ...for contextual observations of the biblical times and the passage’s statement. Read ‘Sizeable,’ ...for comparisons and contrasts with other passages.
3). The Discipline of Transformation: As we have said before, reading and engaging with Scripture is unlike reading any other book. Because the Bible is Holy Spirit inspired, obedience to what it is speaking to us will result in life transformation. Faith is increased. Old harmful characteristics and habits are done away with and new Spiritual disciplines reflective of the character of Christ are now transforming our lives. This will happen, but it does not happen without a discipline of obedience coming from us. This, indeed, is at the heart of engaging with the Word of God! Reflect upon the visual below and see how transformation begins to take place:
When reading Scripture, there is a sense where we are actually ‘exercising’ a threefold response of listening, hearing and believing (i.e., exercising faith). These are initially ‘attitudes’ that eventually turn into ‘actions’ that continually enhance our response toward the study of God’s Word and bring us more into conformity with the character of our Savior. The ‘attitudes/actions’ that are listed within this threefold response lead us toward a greater faith upon which to continually grow, and this becomes the cycle of Bible engagement.
C). In Summary: Commit yourself toward engaging in Scripture study as the primary resource leading you into a continual growing relationship with God. Practice the four ‘R’s’ of Bible Engagement…Receive the Word as the authoritative Word of God, reflect upon what it says and what it means for your life, commit it to memory and look for ways to respond to it and allow it to work itself out in your life.
Understand that the Word of God is backed by the power of the Spirit of God, and if you are serious in learning from it, it will teach you much, make clear to you your sin, show you the corrections that need to be made in your life, and train you for continued growth and service to God (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
In a world that spews forth so many contradictory messages, Scripture will always be an advocacy for truth that can keep us from getting caught up in a hurricane of subjectivism. We who say we love God and desire to obey him would be wise in yielding authority to Scripture that presents itself as the sanctioned Word of God that is to be exercised and obeyed. Finally, if we believe Scripture is the place where we lovingly encounter God, we can also believe that through obedience and submission to the Word of God, our lives can be continually transformed and moving more and more into replicating the mind of our Savior, even Jesus Christ! May you enjoy what God desires to teach you as you engage in the Word of God!