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Cover image via LDS Media Library.
“I have found a way to study the scriptures that opens revelation for me.” We love the good sister who was teaching the lesson. “I begin with a sincere prayer. Then I read a conference talk. With that preparation, I study the scriptures. Then I say another prayer.” Class members sat in awe.
Then a wave of spiritual inferiority washed over us. Sometimes some of us are so tired when we head to bed that we let the Book of Mormon on the bedside table fall open to see if any angels jump out with messages.
We are not studying the scriptures the way that beloved sister does. We feel like spiritual failures.
I think of a friend from Arkansas named Sharon. She has significant learning and communication problems. Yet she is as earnest and sweet as anyone we know. She dedicates her life to caring for her family in a dilapidated house without effective heat and without any insulation. When she tries to read the scriptures, she has a hard time understanding them. Yet she sits with them, tries to read, and she feels God with her.
I think of a friend from Alabama named Ethel. She struggled to care for her children. Living in the housing projects, her kids were all exposed to drugs. All became addicted. So, Ethel raised her grandchildren as her children dealt with their addictions. Now in her 80’s, she is raising her great-grandchildren. She doesn’t read well. Her life is overwhelmed with keeping children fed and clothed. Every day she works from sunup to sundown doing what she can for her family. She doesn’t study the scriptures the same way our thorough friend does.
Most of us don’t have such dramatic excuses. We can read well. We have comfortable lives. We can find time. Scripture study just gets crowded out by life.
Maybe we should be studying the scriptures the way our conscientious friend studies them.
Maybe. Maybe not. In the process of creating standards, sometimes we consider the action without assessing the fruits. We want to match some spiritual performance standard and fail to consider our objective.
Consider the stereotypical scribes and Pharisee: They may have known Jewish law inside and out. But that knowledge did not change their lives. Jesus chided them:
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! . . . Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. (Matthew 23:23-25)
We can become good gospel scholars but still be poor disciples. Let me paraphrase Jesus’ counsel:
Sure. You should search the scriptures but not for the reason you think. You think eternal life is in the scriptures. It is not. I am the life you seek. Seek to follow me and live as I do. (John 5:39-40)
This is how we should study the scriptures. We study them to learn His mind and heart. We study them to find what in our lives is amiss. We study them to learn how He would have us love and trust and serve and repent. We study the scriptures so we can become better disciples.
Adam Miller challenges us:
God wants the whole thing [all of scripture] translated once more, and this time he wants it translated into your native tongue, inflected by your native concerns, and written in your native flesh (Letters to a Young Mormon, p. 27).
How do we know when we are translating the scriptures correctly—into our lives? The road to discipleship is a long one with hills and valleys. How do we know if we’re on the right path?
I think the answer is simple. Are we feeling God guiding our lives? Are we being taught new truths? Do we feel to rejoice in God’s goodness?
Though the answer is simple, it is not easy. Most of us are quite vulnerable to doubt and self-criticism. We make far too many mistakes. We are not doing enough and are not good enough.
Stephen Robinson’s counsel reassures me:
If we experience the gifts of the Spirit or the influence of the Holy Ghost, we can know that we are in the covenant relationship, for the gifts and companionship of the Holy Ghost are given to none else. (Believing Christ, p. 94)
So, there are lots of ways of studying the scriptures: Topically. Linearly. Fast. Slow. Each of us must find that way that is best for us. But rather than read the scriptures to check off a box or to impress ward members, we should read the scriptures to get to know Jesus and strengthen the bond between us. We should be seeking His counsel in our lives. We should experience the scriptures as a gift from a good friend to guide us toward joy.
That is the right way to study the scriptures.