What to Do Before You Read the Bible
By Brian Key | January 23, 2023
Topic: Applied Theology—Biblical Studies—Pastoral Theology
As a new year turns over, many people (including myself) are setting fitness goals and considering what stewardship of our bodies needs to look like in the next calendar year. As I have gotten older, the need for forming good habits and consistency has become much more important. Taking another step every day has taken the place of the crush it for a while and then coast method of my 20s and 30s.
But as I do that work, there is one aspect that I find myself attending to with more focus than I have before: the pre-workout warmup. Part of that change is the realization that I can’t just jump into a workout like I used to. Part of it is understanding that it is better for my body to loosen up a bit before putting it through the strain of a good workout.
Besides the benefits of reducing the chance for injury, a good warmup gets your blood flowing, moves more available oxygen to your muscles, prepares your heart for the exertion ahead, and focuses your mind on what you hope to accomplish. Warming up properly prepares you to get the most of your workout.
As I have grown in Christ and sought to challenge myself to embody Paul’s charge not just to train my body, but, more importantly, to “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7), I have learned that in my spiritual training, I need a warmup routine as well. A big part of that spiritual training is feasting on the Word of God, whether through broad reading, deep inductive study, or slow, prayerful meditation. However, because of my own spiritual (and often, literal) sleepiness, soul-stiffness, and wavering desires, I have to do work to ready my soul for the spiritual training, just like I have to do for my body at the gym.
To help do that over the last several years, I have started each time with God in his Word in the mornings with a simple prayer: “Father, as I approach your Word today, would you comfort me, confront me, and use it your Word to conform me more and more into the image of your Son, through the power of your Spirit, Amen.”
As you consider your own growth in godliness this year through the study of God’s Word, here is why I think these petitions are important as “warmups” for your soul.
God, Comfort Me
If you are anything like me, you start each day with a list of things you hope to accomplish and a list of things you are concerned about facing in the day ahead. Sometimes that “concern” tips over into straight-up anxiety and fear. When that happens, we often try to comfort ourselves by grabbing the reins to gain a sense of control, or we seek out means to medicate away our discomfort through food, drink, and distractions.
Because I am aware of this list and the fears it produces, because I’m aware of how I feel about all of them, and the ways I will likely seek to find comfort outside of God, I ask the Lord to give me truth from his Word to hold onto as a word of comfort for the day ahead. Paul tells us that he is “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3). As we read his Word, we are experiencing his self-revelation. We learn who he is and what he is like. We learn how he walks with his people and delivers them. We learn of his promises and how he always makes good on his word to his people because of his hesed, his steadfast love and covenant faithfulness.
We learn of his great grace to us through Christ Jesus–grace to save us, grace to keep us, grace to train our hearts to say no to sin and yes to righteousness. We learn of his unwavering commitment to us in Christ and that nothing can separate us from his love. We learn that no matter the circumstances, whether sin, sickness, suffering, persecution, or death, we have a certain victory and a steadfast hope through the one who has conquered sin and death on our behalf.
When I sit down with the Scriptures, I need to be reminded of those realities so that they reorient how I think about the day ahead and the troubles that I face, whether real, perceived, or anticipated. Because God doesn’t change, whatever he reveals about his character and his ways is a promise of who he is on behalf of his people. Because he always keeps his word, I can be comforted by the promises I read.
When I rest in that comfort, I am less tempted to pursue any other comfort because I am freshly aware that God is infinitely better than whatever they offer. When I have that comfort, my problems, anxieties, and work seem less overwhelming and ominous. That’s why I warm up with prayer, asking that he awakens my heart through his Word to the comfort available in him alone.
God, Confront Me
This is admittedly a dangerous prayer. However, it is one that David himself prays when he says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23–24). Not only is this an invitation to investigation, it is also an invitation for God to use the truth of his Word to rebuke me where my sinfulness, waywardness, and idolatry are on display (2 Tim. 3:16).
“These petitions are important as ‘warmups’ for your soul.”—Brian Key
Because of my own sinfulness, there is undoubtedly always something for which God needs to confront me. And because I want to grow in godliness, part of that training is to see my weak spots and failures. But not only that, as God confronts my sinfulness, in his kindness, he is also helping me see my need for the grace of Jesus more deeply. As I am reminded of the gap between my own sinfulness and the holiness of God, I marvel more deeply at the infinite grace of Jesus, which provokes me to run into his presence to receive his grace and forgiveness yet again!
So every time I read God’s Word, it is an invitation to consider sins that need to be confessed in light of what God has revealed about himself. This confrontation isn’t for the purpose of shaming me, weighing me down with guilt, or so that God could rub my nose in my sin. When God exposes sin in our lives through his Word, it is an invitation to see and step toward our need for grace, which means, beautifully, there is an invitation to be comforted even in the confrontation!
God, Conform Me
My final petition is a plea for God to conform me into the image of Jesus more and more by the Spirit as I engage his Word. I pray this way because the purpose for reading the Bible is not just an information download or transfer. I always need and want to know more about God, his promises, how he engages his people, and what is required of me in response. However, more information does not equal transformation.
Every time we sit down to read God’s Word it is because the God who speaks has invited us to know him through his gracious self-disclosure. Therefore, the goal of our Bible reading is not to check a box to mark a task as done or fill our spiritual stat sheets; our goal is communion with him, a communion that leads to worship and transformation as we behold him. Paul tells us in Romans 8:29 that God predestined us to be conformed into the image of his Son, and he promises us in Philippians 1:6 that God won’t stop until that work is brought to completion.
We participate in that process by submitting our hearts to him and pursuing communion with him now. Through Christ, we have the privilege of “beholding the glory of the Lord,” and “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18). That beholding begins to shape us and transform us, strengthening us to live faithfully and look more like Jesus now, ultimately preparing us for glory.
That work of transformation won’t be done simply because I read a few verses. It will be because the Spirit did his work of comforting and confronting me with the truth, bringing God’s word to bear on my soul. As I submit to that work, he conforms my thoughts, emotions, attitudes, actions, pursuits, and character around the truth of God’s Word. The result is that, by God’s grace, I see a little more of his glory, a little more of my need for Jesus, a little more about his grace toward me, a little more of what he desires of me, and a little more of how much I need his help to reorient my heart around that Word.
For the last several years, as I have prayed these petitions, God has been faithful to answer all of them. Some days are heavier in one category than others, but I pray them for myself each time I read Scripture and for my congregations each time I preach because they capture our deep needs as we approach God’s Word. They also remind me why I am opening the Word.
These petitions–comfort me, confront me, and conform me–warm up my affections and focus my attention by reminding me that God’s self-revelation is meant for me to delight in, submit to, and be changed by, not just study and proclaim.