In a way, the Bible is like that popular kid in high school—everyone knows who he is, has heard a story about him, has some passing acquaintance with him, but who really knows him? Who spends time with him, has had an in-depth conversation with him? Despite being the best-selling and most widely distributed book in the world and being available in over 500 languages, the Bible is like that. It’s a mystery to most people. Market saturation hasn’t exactly produced familiarity.
A Strange New World
The problem here is twofold, involving the nature of the Bible itself and also the approach of the reader.
Scripture is an unfathomable world. Its dimensions are as long and wide, as high and deep as the mystery it contains. We may venture there, but we can never say we have reached the bottom. 
Of course, some people never even venture. Many Bible owners don’t know what lies between those leather covers due to neglect. To them it’s more or less enough just to own one—for cultural or traditional reasons, or to complete that shelf of the classics by adding a measure of religious solemnity. But even for those of us who venture into this “strange new world”, the Bible often seems unwieldy, impenetrable, obscure (my guess is this has helped contribute to the appeal of the Psalms or James). And so to conquer the mystery, all sorts of scientific ‘tools’ have been employed over the years. The list is actually pretty dizzying—textual criticism, source criticism, form criticism, historical criticism, redaction criticism, social scientific criticism, canonical criticism, rhetorical criticism, structural criticism, postructuralist criticism, narrative criticism, etc. And yet for all the benefits these scholarly methods have yielded, something still is lacking. In fact, an overreliance on these methods exposes us to risks:
We all know the real risk of Bible study that becomes nothing but philology at the scientific level, and a pedantic exercise in the cold accumulation of facts at the textbook level. The very soul of Scripture perishes in such research. Surely that is not why God has spoken.
The very soul of Scripture perishes! Wow. The very soul, the essence, of God’s word is spirit and life (John 6:63). Why then am I content just to know things? As if the Bible were one giant doctrinal Rubik’s cube given by God for us to solve. Our pride swells because of the advent of scientific methods applied with analytical rigor while our spiritual bellies swell because of malnutrition and starvation. We are beckoned to the tree of knowledge right within the word of life (Phil. 2:16). Don’t get me wrong, we need to know the truth thoroughly and systematically, but pursuing the full knowledge of the truth and suffocating under arid intellectualism are two different things. I’m learning that all my studying and analyzing, as necessary as it is, must be balanced by another approach to Scripture.
Approaching the Bible as Spirit and Life
The Bible is not merely a historical document to be studied and analyzed, it is a life-giving and nourishing word that we should long for, taste, and eat.
…Long for the guileless milk of the word… –1 Pet. 2:2
How sweet are Your words to my taste! –Psa. 119:103
Your words were found and I ate them… –Jer. 15:16
Experiencing the word of God as spiritual nourishment and supply happens most directly through prayer. Paul instructs us to receive the word of God by prayer:
Receive… the word of God, by means of all prayer… –Eph. 6:17-18
When we pray the Bible we capitalize on Jesus’ revelation regarding the essence of the Bible and avoid the deadly consequences of a “lettered” approach to the Scripture (2 Cor. 3:6). Thus, prayer and the Bible belong together as two related parts of one complete experience.
The Word of God is made effectual and operative, by the process and practice of prayer… the Word of God is the food, by which prayer is nourished and made strong.
Mariano Magrassi puts it beautifully:
In order to pray, we do not need to rack our brains, artificially evoking interior acts, thoughts or excessively refined affections. All we need to do is react in the presence of the text with free and spontaneous prayer. And when this spontaneous outpouring stops, we return to the text for fresh nourishment.
Quotes like this are worth a million dollars! “React in the presence of the text with free and spontaneous prayer.” I have been practicing this for more than a decade now and can say how living and nourishing God’s word becomes when prayed over. So can Christians from every period of church history, including Origen, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley, Andrew Murray, W. H. Griffith Thomas, Watchman Nee, etc. right on down to the present.
Beginning from Origen (d. 254), the early Christians referred to this as lectio divina (divine reading). Although definitions abound, Magrassi settles on one that just about sums it up as briefly and directly as possible—”We find that Leclercq’s definition, brief and concise as it is, gets to the heart of the matter: ‘Lectio divina is prayed reading.'” Almost the exact same expression is used by Witness Lee. He simply called it pray-reading, and that is how I have come to know and love it today.
Just as Joshua needed Caleb, lectio divina, or pray-reading, is the necessary companion to serious study if we are to fully possess the mysterious good land of Scripture that God has promised to us.
1. Mariano Magrassi, Praying the Bible, p. 35
2. Karl Barth, “The Strange New World Within The Bible” in The Word of God and the Word of Man, pp. 28-50
3. Mariano Magrassi, Praying the Bible, p. 72
4. E. M. Bounds, The Necessity of Prayer, p. 58
5. Mariano Magrassi, Praying the Bible, p. 114
6. Ibid., p. 18
7. Witness Lee, How to Enjoy God and How to Practice the Enjoyment of God, p. 167
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord for this post! The Bible is primarily Spirit and life! Most believers (and of course non-believers) are used to seeing the Bible as a “good compendium of ethic rules” or “a useful and profound source of religious knowledge” or a necessary tool to achieve their “personal goals in life as God promised”. To support, accomplish and follow up that view, countless methodological systems have been created. The Bible is different in essence/quality from other texts, and yes, it is a whole new universe into which we can venture, and we should. The Scripture, being Spirit and life, should be faced and taken by a proper lectio divina, that is by praying through/with/into it (pray-reading it).
The Word of God is the very essence of God Himself. It is for our spiritual enjoyment and nourishment (rather than for us to “pile” knowledge). We must see the proper way to come to the Word on Ephesians 6:17-18: “Receive…the sword of the Spirit, which Spirit is the Word of God.” It is the Spirit that is the Word of God by means of all prayer and petition”.
In what way are we to take the Word of God according to this passage? By means of “all prayer and petition”. This is what we call pray-reading! Praise theLord!!
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Great comment! Thanks for contributing. Recognizing the essence of the Bible is key to developing the right approach. Even truth is not simply a matter of the intellect but involves divine light, revelation, and sight.
Agreed. The Bible itself says “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”, and the Lord Jesus said, “the words which I have spoken to you are Spirit and are life”. There is something about the words in the Bible that is sets it apart from any other book. Jeremiah said, Your words were found and I ate them (not, Read them, Memorize them, etc).
In order for us to receive Spirit and life from the word of God (which is Spirit and life), somehow we need to mix the reading with our prayer, and if possible – out loud! I have also been practicing this, and there’s such a huge difference between mere reading and pray-reading!
….so now no one can say, I don’t know what to pray… – just take your “prayer book” (the Bible) and speak to the Lord in prayer, opening to Him in a conversational way with the words of the Bible! His word will never return to Him void: what He says, if we pray it back to Him, He will do it!
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Thanks for the excellent comment Stefan! Along with not knowing what to pray, I think pray-reading solves a number of other common problems with prayer, such as 1) not being able to pray very long 2) not being confident if what you are praying is proper prayer 3) being stuck praying “learned” prayers that have become routine 4) not being able to focus while praying 5) not being able to express yourself properly