By Michael Youssef
God has given you a wonderful gift in the Bible. It is an instruction manual for life and a direct word from your Creator. However, if you want to have its full benefit in your life, you must learn to use it correctly. To that end, I want to highlight seven bad habits in Bible reading and what you can do to avoid them.
The Bible is an instruction manual for life and a direct word from your Creator.
PITFALL #1: PROOF-TEXTING TO JUSTIFY OUR OWN DESIRES.
Proof-texting is a theological term that simply means taking a text out of its context, often in order to justify a particular behavior. As we seek answers in the Bible, we need to make sure that we do not misuse or misrepresent Scripture. Too often we want to make the Bible match our preconceived answer instead of conforming our views to the Bible. When we read Scripture in search of ways to justify our preexisting notions, we miss out on the divine Truths of God, which are infinitely holier and more transformative than our own thoughts and worldviews. In fact, throughout history many heresies and cults have sprung up because somebody took a passage out of context and built a doctrine around it. So always put the text in its context.
For example, you may have heard people challenge, "Doesn't the Bible say, 'Judge not?' Why are you demanding that Jesus is the only way to heaven? Why are you judging people who prefer immoral lifestyles or who have different sexual preferences?" They quote the Bible wrongly; they take it out of context to deceive and intimidate. In Matthew 7:1, Jesus is not talking about criticizing sin and rebellion. He is not telling us to stop being discerning or to stop denouncing sin. No. The Greek word here is in reference to the judgment of motives and to delivering a hasty judgment. So Jesus is warning us, "Don't be quick to judge your brother's motive." We can judge on the basis of action, on the basis of fruit, but only God can judge based on what is unseen—based on a person's heart.
Always be wary of those who use spiritual language to seduce you and lead you away from the Truth. Be intentional about digging into Scripture to get at its message rooted in its correct context.
PITFALL #2: TAKING FIGURATIVE PASSAGES LITERALLY, AND VICE VERSA.
Now you might be thinking, "Wait, Michael, are you saying you don't take the Bible literally?" That's not what I'm saying. My point is there are certain linguistic principles in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages that you must understand. For example, there is a communication tool in the Hebrew language known as "Hebraic hyperbole." When something is vitally important, the communicator exaggerates the point to emphasize the seriousness of it.
Take this saying of Jesus: "If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away" (Matthew 5:29). Now, I know a survey would reveal nearly all believers stumble because of what their eyes see. But a second survey would also show that most still have both eyes. Why? Because Jesus was using Semitic hyperbole. Our Lord was saying, "Don't allow anything to get in the way of entering into My Kingdom." Because He wants to make that point, He exaggerates it so that you can understand it more clearly. We don't ignore Jesus' warning because of the hyperbole; we take it even more seriously. Christian believers should not allow their eyes to wander in lust, envy, and greed. Sin is so dangerous that it can impact our eternity. Jesus' figurative language draws this out.
PITFALL #3: IGNORING THE ORIGINAL CONTEXT OF SCRIPTURE.
Just because something happens in the Biblical context does not mean God wants us to repeat it in our context. For example, God called Elijah to confront King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and the prophets of Baal (see 1 Kings 18:16-40). He instructed the prophet to build an altar and wait for fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. This does not mean that you or I should go down to city hall and say to our mayor, "Mayor, bring your bull out here, and let's see if we can have a contest."Rather, God was using a certain man at a certain time for a certain purpose. What do we learn from it? That our God is mighty, that the so-called gods of this world are no gods at all. Scripture teaches us not to copy Elijah but to cast down our own idols and turn to Elijah's God.
PITFALL #4: CLINGING TOO TIGHTLY TO ONE TRANSLATION OF THE BIBLE.
Let me illustrate this principle with an entertaining story. There was a lady who absolutely pestered her pastor, claiming there are perfect people other than Jesus. The pastor replied, "Ma'am, Jesus is the only perfect one, born of a virgin." But she would not relent. Finally, the pastor asked, "Where is it in the Bible?" She pulled out her King James Bible and answered, "In Psalm 37:37 it says, 'Mark the perfect man.' You see, Mark was perfect as well." Well, if she had read a different translation, she would have discovered that the old Elizabethan English word mark is not a name but a word meaning notice. The psalmist is saying, "Notice the blameless man."
Beware of reading only one Bible translation. I would encourage you to have two or three in front of you as you study Scripture so you can discern the clear meaning of the text.
PITFALL #5: READING INTO THE BIBLE WHAT YOU WANT TO READ OUT OF IT.
This is the curse of our age—and it's a temptation for all of us. I know preachers who have just one theme, and it doesn't matter what text they are on, they are going to preach that theme. If we ignore or even hide the context of Scripture, we will receive more of our own "truth" and less of God's Truth.
We go to Scripture for God to shape us and guide us. We don't want to be like the Canadian man I met in Egypt in the '60s who had moved there because in a hard time of life he opened his Bible and his eyes fell on the text, "Flee to Egypt." We don't want our own voices bouncing back to us from the pages of Scripture; we want to hear God's voice. So, instead of inserting what we want the passage to mean, we must ask, "What is the real meaning of the passage?"
PITFALL #6: THINKING WE CAN UNDERSTAND SCRIPTURE WITHOUT THE HOLY SPIRIT.
My friend, don't ever think you are so brilliant, clever, and knowledgeable that you can read the Word of God without the Spirit of God. Listen to what the apostle Paul said to Timothy: "Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this" (2 Timothy 2:7, emphasis added). Each morning, as I open up the Word of God, I pray, "Holy Spirit, open my eyes so that I may see wonderful Truth from Your Word. Illuminate my mind so that I can understand what You want me to learn" (see Psalm 119:18). Otherwise, the Bible will become just an intellectual exercise—or worse, an exercise in futility.
PITFALL #7: SKIPPING THE APPLICATION OF SCRIPTURE TO OUR LIVES.
Charles Spurgeon, one of the great preachers of the nineteenth century, described the Bible like this:
The Book has wrestled with me; the Book has smitten me; the Book has comforted me; the Book has smiled on me; the Book has frowned on me; the Book has clasped my hands; the Book has warmed my heart. The Book weeps with me and sings with me. It whispers to me and it preaches to me. It maps my way and holds up my goings. It was to me a Young Man's Best Companion and it is still my Morning and Evening Chaplain. ("The Word a Sword")
The Scripture can be that for you as well as you work to apply it to your life. This is difficult and takes time. You cannot microwave Scripture. But we must all take time to ask, "How can I apply this to my life?"
YOUR CALLING: READ THE WORD WELL
You will not grow, you will not learn, and you will not apply the Word of God correctly until you begin to avoid these seven bad habits in Bible reading and seek to study God's Word with care and integrity. God has given us a treasure. He has preserved it all these years from those who would burn it, shred it, defile it, and destroy it. He has preserved it for us despite attacks from despots, false teachers, and careless church leaders. He wants to preserve it in your heart as well. Take, read, learn, heed, and obey. Especially as the day of our Lord draws near.
For tips on how to approach Scripture to study and apply it well, check out Dr. Youssef's complementary article 3 Questions to Ask as You Study God's Word.
This article is adapted from Dr. Michael Youssef's teaching in Defending a Lion, Part 4.