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What would you think of a culture that recommended more vitamin C and more drinking water for every malady? Running a high fever? More C and water! Experiencing back pain? More C and water. A broken ankle? More C and water.
While ingesting an appropriate amount of vitamin C and water certainly is a good general recommendation for healthy living, no single prescription is a universal remedy for all health issues. When someone is seriously ill or even just languishing, the best advice is to get professional medical counsel from a knowledgeable physician. What is needed is a careful analysis of the problem and informed guidance specific to the symptoms.
Sometimes when someone is struggling spiritually we reduce our recommendations to only one phrase: “Read your scriptures and pray.” Many times in our church classes, that same phrase is used and accepted as a universal answer to any question without any further dialogue about specific application to the need.
Certainly scripture study and prayer are fundamental practices for spiritual well-being and growth. But sometimes we forget that it is not scripture study and prayer that heal us. God does. He is the Great Physician whose wisdom and power will provide us with customized guidance and mending. We use scripture study and prayer to help us discover Him and His will.
By emphasizing the practices themselves rather than the purpose of those practices, we ritualize the behavior. We run the substantial risk that we will start to associate the practices with righteousness, holiness and spiritual power. The practices can become our god. Yet the heavenly directive is to come unto Him.
Some of Jesus’ contemporaries had the problem of ritualizing scripture study—and they were challenged by the Master. In a chapter of scripture (John 5) dedicated to teaching the central role of Jesus, He said:
“Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.” (v. 39-40)
The NIV version of the same passage is clearer:
“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
That passage is commonly quoted to encourage scripture study. Yet, it is actually teaching the imperative to come to Christ. It reminds us that we should not emphasize scripture study as an end in itself; the value of our searching the scriptures is that they testify of Christ who gives us life.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I love the scriptures! I study them daily, deeply, and extensively. I quote them constantly. But I love the scriptures primarily because they help me know, love, and learn from the Lord Jesus Christ. I find the scriptures to be packed with clues for successfully approaching Him. They lead me to Christ.
Sometimes I have given advice that might be viewed as unusual, namely for people to focus less on reading the scriptures. Let me explain.
When I was a bishop of a married student ward in Provo, I often asked ward members in interviews, “How are you getting along with God?”
The answer was surprisingly reliable: “I love Him and I know that He loves me.” The latter part of the statement seemed half-hearted. It sounded more like: “I know that He feels like He’s supposed to love me.” They continued: “But I disappoint Him. I’m not doing my part.”
I would quiz them: “How do you disappoint Him?”
“I don’t read my scriptures every day. And my prayers are often mired in tiredness.”
It may help to understand the members of that ward. Most of them were full-time students. And almost all had either part time or full time jobs. Some had multiple jobs. And they were trying to figure out how to be married. They were overwhelmed and exhausted.
Yet their religious training taught them that they were second class citizens in the kingdom if they were not studying the scriptures the same way they did on their missions.
I could have said, “Well, you must always make time for God. You must make time to study the scriptures.” But that is not what I said.
Typically I said: “God is reaching after you. He will always reach after you. Don’t let Satan convince you that you are a disappointment to Father at a time when your life is overwhelming and frustrating—when you need God most. Find a way to keep your relationship with God alive.”
If the ward members worked as custodians in the early hours of the morning they might have a conversation with Him as they dusted and scrubbed. Or they might recall and ponder favorite passages of scripture while walking or driving to class. During their dinner conversations they might share appreciation for a blessing He granted them during the day’s activities. On Sunday they might take notes of any impressions or insights they received that they felt came from Him. On days when they were challenged to find the time for in-depth scripture study, they might grab five minutes to dive into a personally meaningful scripture.
Searching the scriptures is good. But the purpose is not to keep God from renouncing us but to come to know His heart.
The Joy of Staying in Touch
Studying the scriptures is one of the best ways to come to know Christ, His teachings, and His example. Interacting with the scriptures in ways that help us know Christ is a valuable endeavor. But we cheat ourselves when we reduce reading the scriptures to merely a “checklist” activity of so many minutes or pages per day, glad to move on to other activities when we have achieved our daily numerical goal.
The key is NOT to check off every box on someone’s magical checklist but to keep up the conversation with our Heavenly Friend. It is to maintain a relationship of love. It is to find the joy that comes from being in touch with our best friend.
Here is the core truth: He is moving all the resources of heaven and earth to help each of us grow and get back to Him! He will stop at nothing (except removing our agency) to get us home. If we want to get back to Him, He will provide the experiences and resources to get us there. We should be rejoicing in the good news of His relentless redemptiveness every minute of our lives!
Satan loves to use guilt. He tells us that we are a disappointment to God because we aren’t checking off every box every day. His primary job is to keep us from delighting in the love of God which is so transformative that it ruins Satan’s malicious plans. Satan wants us to stew in self-disappointment rather than rejoice in heaven’s love.
When we reduce our spiritual journey to a checklist of practices, we may unwittingly fall victim to Satan’s favorite sleight of hand trick for deceiving the earnest: “Concentrate on the list—and your failure to check every box—so that you feel like a failure and don’t feel worthy to call Him “Friend.” Concentrate on achieving the list rather than on discovering Him.”
Rejoicing in Christ
I like Nephi’s approach. He did NOT say: “We read the scriptures for 30 or more minutes every morning at 5:30 and we pray at least twice a day for 20 minutes each time and . . .” No. He did say:
“And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” (2 Nephi 25:26)
YES! Talk of Him! Rejoice in Him! Seek Him! Scripture study and prayer are important resources in the continuing effort to know God. But they are the vehicles not the destination.
All worthy practices are intended to bring us to the great Healer, the One who will replace our failures with the chance to start anew, our sadness and confusion with balm and hope, our fallenness with glory, and death with life. We should worship Him with all our hearts, might, minds, and souls. Because He is the One from whom we draw healing into our lives.
We must get to the great Physician and let Him customize a program for each of us. It is quite likely to include regular and earnest scripture study. But we should never think that any list of spiritual health habits without His customized counsel will make us divine.
Just as there are times when God will make lighter demands on us, there are also times when He will ask more. There are times when He may ask us to spend many hours studying scripture and seeking His will. This is just as we would expect in a healthy relationship. If we have our minds clearly set on being close to our Redeemer and if our life circumstances have substantial variation, then it is likely that we will have different study programs at different times.
There is another kind of variability that we often neglect. Some people have literacy problems. Some have different learning styles. Many people in the world even today lack their own copies of the scriptures. Jesus is just as interested in loving, encouraging and saving a poor, illiterate girl in Pakistan as the most ardent saint and scholar in Pleasant Grove.
We must never use busy lives as an excuse to neglect our relationship with the Lord. We should always do exactly as the Spirit directs. That will include some time getting counsel from Him every day. At those times when life overload mandates less scripture study, we must not stop our loving conversation with Him.
Our program of study will vary. For example, having read the Book of Mormon unnumbered times, I am currently re-reading it along with Brant Gardner’s insightful commentary, Second Witness. I understand the Book of Mormon and the Lehites in fresh, new ways because of Gardner’s insights.
I can also imagine that, in times of stress and overload, a person’s scripture study on some days might be to mentally recite a key passage:
Wherefore, thou shalt do all that thou doest in the name of the Son, and thou shalt repent and call upon God in the name of the Son forevermore. (Moses 5: 8)
Or the remarkable:
And he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious; and the things of this earth shall be added unto him, even an hundred fold, yea, more. (D&C 78:19)
There may also be times when instead of setting a goal of so many daily pages, we customize our reading and spend hours gathering and studying the great atonement chapters. Or passages on repentance. Or counsel on faith. Or examples of spiritual power.
There are unnumbered ways to benefit from the scriptures. Our scripture study will vary according to our needs, our life circumstances, and God’s spiritual agenda for us. At times it will follow the traditional pattern of reading, studying, marking, and pondering. Other times it may be quite different. I have a friend who decided to read the New Testament as if she were reading a novel—straight through as a story with no studying or marking. She reported that this approach helped her to recognize key themes that Christ continually emphasized and to view those themes in a new light.
When done in wisdom, all study and pondering will lead to Christ. Let God customize our scripture study to match our lives and His perfect objectives.
Two more thoughts….
Some scriptures are more filled with Christ than others. Rather than allow our focus to get stuck on the dimensions of the ark we can rejoice in the central truth of all scripture: He loves us and came to save us. He will not rest until He has bestowed on us every gift we will receive.
And perhaps when a question is asked in a church class, instead of simply answering with “read your scriptures”, we might illuminate the discussion further by sharing how reading particular scriptures might help us to discover Christ’s love, His counsel, or the power of His atonement.
Even now, as you read these words, turn your thoughts to Christ. Tell Him of your gratitude. Let Him warm your soul with His love. For that is the purpose of pondering the scriptures—to lead us to the Light and Life of the world.
I invite you to get a copy of my new children’s book about gratitude and God’s love: God’s Trophies