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As you may know, I am currently studying the bible, topically, A-Z. (You can access my study pages here on various topics from Anointing to Assurance to Boldness and more). It is my all-time favorite pastime and I get a lot of joy from it. Through the process of working through my studies, I've noticed a pattern to how a study unfolds. When I go through these five steps, I get the maximum benefit from my study and I hope they can help you get the most of your study too!
Step 1: Personalize It.
First things first. Once you've picked your topic of study, you must personalize it. If the Bible Study isn't personal to you it's not going to be meaningful to you either and you probably won't be too motivated to finish it. So you've got to ask yourself - what would be beneficial to me, personally, to learn from this study? Take for example, the topical study of "Assurance" that I'm currently reviewing. I personalize it by agreeing that I'd like to be more assured in life and in my life's calling / work and any insight into this would be great! This becomes the motivator behind completing the study. (Let's be honest, we're inherently self-serving creatures, so I say let's just work with nature since we have to).
Now let's suppose you're studying a topic (perhaps one that was chosen for you by a group that you're a member of) that you're really not sure how it applies to you at all (let's say for example that you're studying the prophecies of Daniel for instance). In this case I suggest using the default "wisdom approach". What I mean by this is that there is always inherent value in obtaining wisdom, because wisdom serves you in all aspects of your life - from your choices, to your relationships, to your perceptions of challenges. So in the case of Daniel, you might perhaps say to yourself "Well, I'd like to learn about how these characters overcame XYZ or I'd like to learn more about this topic because I'm willing to bet I can find some truths that will help me in my life". (And as you go through the [seemingly] irrelevant topic, you will find that it becomes relevant in due course because the word never returns void!)
Step 2: Read it and Actively Observe It.
Now that you've picked your topic and personally identified with why it's beneficial to study it, you've got to dive right into reading it. But you can't just plain read it. I mean, well, of course you certainly "can" just plain read it, but without active observation (and by active I mean note-taking) you might get lost and overwhelmed and draw a complete blank, so I wouldn't recommend it.
Let me just say to those of you that have drawn blanks (like me): That's totally ok. This is normal. Stay with it. Let go of the expectations. There's a process of, I guess you could call it, "progressive revelation". Trust the process. Just participate in the "active" observation process by taking notes on anything that comes to mind (I have some questions you can ask yourself to help facilitate the note-taking below)!
Taking notes is essential to the "crystallization" process that is to come.
Now, let me take an aside here to address the need to have some tools to facilitate the note-taking process. I really find it helpful to have some sort of a journal, or some customized note-taking pages put into a binder. It just helps to have your whole study in one place on paper. You can take notes inside Bible apps, but I really find pen and paper to be more conducive to the brainstorming process that is about to start (and the arrows and underlining and stars and such that you'll start doodling all over). So get yourself a notebook, or journal or something to facilitate your "active observation". Make it "official". Name the notebook. Make a header for your study and date it. (I created my own notes pages for my personal studies - see an example here).
For expectation setting, here's how your observation and note-taking might go. Let's take for example the 51 verses I'm currently reviewing related to the topic of Assurance right now. Upon first read, this might be your initial reaction: "Ok. Wow. Yeah. Hmm. No clue. Nothing's really gelling..." This is totally normal and don't let that discourage you one iota because there's lots to come. That sense that everything you read was "all over the place" is what you might perceive from the outset. It comes together, I promise. So the initial "whoa" factor is nothing to worry about.
Now, these are some of the questions that go through my head as I'm taking notes:
- What themes are "popping out at me" (don't worry if nothing pops out. I don't get a pop for every verse I read, either. Just let go of the expectations and trust the process).
- What emotions or issues are the characters facing?
- What is the context? When was all this going on and what was going on in the community at that time? Specifically I often ask myself what cultural event or phenomena is being played out here or being alluded to in this passage? (What does the law mean to these people from a culture standpoint? What does this ceremony mean? What significant event just happened or is about to happen? What does this hierarchy mean to these people? What is the typical role of women in this context?) Etc, etc. etc.
- What does that word really mean and where has it been used before? (In this case I use my handy dictionary in my NKJV with Strong's Numbers Bible on the Olive Tree Bible+ App, which also has the awesome ability to show me where that word was used in other areas of the Bible with a simple click to get a better sense of it's meaning). (You can get the free version here, but you'd have to upgrade to get the NKJV Study Bible with Strong's numbers - I highly recommend the one with the Strong's numbers).
Keep jotting down your notes (without judging your notes) and proceed to the next step.
Step 3: Organize It (let it crystallize)
This is absolutely, definitely, the most exciting part of Bible Study. When you first go into a study, you will have no idea what set of gems are going to reveal themselves. It's a total mystery that's about to unfold and I simply think of this as the "crystallization" process. Here's how it happens for me.
After taking my notes, I look back and read them all. Slowly but surely, I start noticing things. I start seeing parallels between one passage and another. I start seeing how one theme carries through to another theme. I even start to see how the theme ties in with something I studied on a whole other topic. Patterns simply...come alive. Sometimes it takes weeks for patterns to emerge. Sometimes just a few days of study. (I don't mean days reading the same things, but several days will pass as I casually think about it over the dishes or walking to the car).
This is when the whole study - let's say the 51 verses on Assurance - start organizing themselves into a few discrete, I would say "categories" (for lack of a better word) of sorts.
Seeing truths organized in a series of categories are important because as humans with a lot on our plate and a limited amount that we can focus on at any one time, we need summaries of sorts to help us make sense of the complex in order to better apply it.
Now when I analyze a study and I start drawing up categories on my notes pages, I try to keep them to around three but generally never more than 5. I really never know what these categories are going to be when I start to study but it is so totally cool when they reveal themselves.
Let's take for example, the topic of assurance. Below are the categories that are taking form, "gelling", and "crystallizing" for me during my study now (they are still taking shape so this is a sneak preview):
- Purpose of Assurance: Continuity of Self - Both in this life and beyond. Both physically and emotionally.
- Proof of Assurance: Love - both ours but most importantly God's toward us.
- Precursor of Assurance: Spirit of Christ which produces faith.
When I started the study, I had no clue that I'd write those as the main summary points of the study (there is a lot in there that I will write up in my commentary later). And what makes these categories so interesting is that you won't know them until they simply show up through your participation in the study and everyone's study will produce slightly different categories and that's because the Bible is a living document that resonates with each individual differently.
As you come up with your categories, don't force a time table. I had to literally study this topic off and on for a month before the crystallization really set. It doesn't always take that long. But sometimes it simply takes time and it can't be forced. You'll just "know" when you're getting to the meat of what you need to know when these categories simply "become clear" (and when the time comes for them to become clear, they can come rather quickly, sometimes like "boom" and it just gets laid out one, two three). It will take as little or as long as it takes. You'll have a clear sense when you're there.
Step 4: Find it (pull out the gems)
This is the part that you look where you pull out the gems of truth that apply to your own life.
In the study of Assurance, I realized that our need for assurance all boils down to the fundamental need of man to preserve oneself, both physically and emotionally (physically from harm or death and emotionally from perceived blows to our self image). The assurance of God states simply that we are utterly safe and secure from annihilation (that even after physical death, we remain alive) and from emotional death (no matter what adversary or discouragement or seeming defeat we come under, we will have victory in the end).
Knowing that, then leads to the conclusion that no fear is necessary. And if there's no need for fear, then there is no need for anxious striving (because doesn't all anxious striving have it's basis in mistrust and fear?) These are the gems that I needed to hear!
Step 5: Incorporate It
This is where you take your gems and wear them and incorporate them into your own life. Honestly, this is the easiest part because by the time you get your categories and you pull out your gems, the truth has already saturated your heart with a abiding "knowing" feeling.
In my case on my example study on Assurance, I simply felt a sense of peace. There were some things I was striving for in my calling and things that I wanted assurance of the through the proof of a "completed task". However, knowing that all is preserved, and knowing that the ultimate proof of assurance is simply love, all of a sudden time tables didn't seem as important as simply...well, loving! And soon enough, some new ideas and practical courses of action, simply came to mind that both furthered the mission and promoted the cause of love and at the same time an assurance took hold that the bigger picture was still preserved and that I didn't need to worry so much about the timeline.
So, these are the five steps of bible study that I've personally experienced over and over. If you feel like you're stuck, say at number 1, try to incorporate ways to strengthen the process of active observation (get a journal, notebook, etc) as I believe that will help you get to the next step of really letting the information "gel" and crystallize for you. If you haven't seen the crystallization, stay in your study, read over your notes and sooner or later, the personal categories of revelation will come to you. Look forward to it with positive expectation! They will be cool for sure! For those who've seen the themes emerge from their studies, I encourage you to pluck out a few gold nuggets from the display of wealth before you and use them improve your life, today.
If you have ideas on how you do your Bible Study, let us know in the comments below!
Have a blessed day!
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