Today, like many other Christians, I'm embarking on a year-long challenge. By the end of 2016, I'm aiming to have read 31,102 verses – or if you prefer, 1,189 chapters – of arguably the most important and influential book ever written. It's a noble aim, right? And it may be a journey that you too are contemplating at the beginning of a new year.
If you're a Christian, reading the Bible in a year might be one of those things you've always intended to do but never got around to. Or it might be something you've done once, twice or 15 times before. Either way, there are some common barriers which may be giving you pause before you dive into Genesis 1.
For a start, it's undeniably hard work. Setting aside 15 minutes (assuming you're a pretty fast reader) to read every single day isn't quite as easy as it sounds. And while the New Testament is fairly readable throughout, the Old Testament is hardly a Dan Brown pageturner. Genesis might be action-packed, but once you get into the law books, some willpower and determination are definitely required (and don't get me started on Job's long-winded friends).
If we're really honest, the way most of us tend to use the Bible suggests that large parts of it don't seem particularly useful or important anyway – so spending around one per cent of your next year reading it might seem deep down (whisper it) to be a little, well...fruitless. If you're familiar with the gospels, the 'big' Old Testament stories and the classic memory verses, is the rest really necessary?
As I begin on page one today, I thankfully have a little bit of experience on which to draw. A couple of years ago I completed the same journey and while I'd be lying if I said it was easy, you might not be hugely surprised to learn that it was also profoundly rewarding. In fact, I'd go so far to say that reading through the Bible in a year revolutionised my engagement with Scripture and massively impacted my theology. It changed my perspective on some issues and challenged my preconceptions on others. I realised that I'd grown up with a proof-text faith which took God's word out of context to fit what I wanted it to say; I discovered the extraordinary multi-facetedness of almost every verse. I was forced to develop some much-needed self discipline. It's no exaggeration to call the experience life-changing.
So if you're teetering on the edge of making the same commitment – or at least thinking of giving it a try – here are just a few of the things I learned from the experience first time around.
Building a 'devotional' rhythm
Setting aside 15 minutes extra a day is no mean feat, especially if like me you're a slave to the pace of the modern world. The act of doing so, of finding a time of day that works and trying hard to use it for this purpose every day, not only develops personal discipline, but creates a daily window for prayer and reflection. Many of us find it hard to carve out time 'for God' each day; an aspect of faith where followers of other religions often put us to shame. The focusing challenge of reading through the Bible daily gives us an added incentive, if one were needed, to improve in this area, and for me the consistency of doing so over a year was habit-forming.
Seeing the bigger picture
Perhaps the most profound aspect of the experience for me was seeing how all of the stories I knew already fitted into the context of the Grand Narrative of Scripture. Instead of seeing the Bible through my old individualistic lens, as a rulebook or manual for living, I realised that it was actually a story about God's engagement with humanity, first through A People and then with all people. In seeing this perspective change, I also began to realise that God's heart isn't revealed through a few blunt verses, but in a massive, exhaustive character profile spanning 66 books. And reading parts of the Old and New Testaments each day enabled me to see how Jesus' entry into the story isn't simply the beginning of the Bible's Final Act, but the epicentre around which the whole of the rest of it revolves.
Plugging in to a living book
Another compelling reason for finding a way to read the Bible regularly (of which reading it through in a year is just one way) is that doing so creates perhaps the simplest context for us to hear from God. And that doesn't simply mean reading a series of rules or promises; it means that by his Holy Spirit, God actually speaks to us through His word. Or to be more direct: it is amazing how often the words we read on a given day connect directly with the situations we're facing or the thoughts already running through our minds. Even when I was plodding on halfway through the book of Isaiah, I was regularly shocked at how specific phrases leapt out and made great sense. When we read the Bible more, it seems to me that we hear from God more. Simple.
Basing your theology on scripture, not soundbites
Finally, getting a better grasp of the Bible is the best way to ensure that the things we say about our God actually match up with what he says about himself. With such a strong cult of personality in the modern Church, so many of us sub-contract our theology to influential leaders, speakers and writers who seem to already have it all worked out. Agreeing with the teaching of these leaders is no bad thing, but doing so without ever doing the fact-checking for ourselves is lazy to the point of irresponsibleness. Reading through the whole of the Bible enables us to learn for ourselves exactly what it teaches, instead of trusting others to read and interpret it on our behalf.
Four good reasons then, but a word of warning – on its own, Bible reading doesn't make you a great Christian any more than eating a lot of food makes you a great chef. I knew someone once who claimed to read through the whole Bible every year and had done so religiously for more than 20 years. From my experience of him, his life looked no more holy and God-transformed than that of my atheist friends. The Bible isn't God, but a means of knowing him; the vital part isn't reading it but putting its message into practice in the way we live our lives.
If you're up for the challenge though, there are hundreds of systems, specially-produced Bibles and apps to help you on your way. For my money – or lack of it – Alpha International's BIOY app (free on the various stores) is an excellent place to start. It provides an Old Testament, New Testament and Psalm reading every day straight to your phone, plus a bit of commentary from Holy Trinity Brompton vicar Nicky Gumbel if you're so inclined (I am). However you choose to do it though, give yourself some grace. If you miss a day – even if the whole endeavour takes you 18 months instead of 12 – keep going; the main focus is the Bible, not the year. But if you can persist, if you can keep stumbling on through the hard parts and carving out that time to read, you will, I promise, be richly rewarded.