Dear new believer,
When my wife and I first became Christians, we had a lot to figure out. Up until that point, we’d been more or less your typical non-Christian couple: we met in college, moved in together halfway through, got engaged (but didn’t set a date for several years), eventually bought a house… and then we met Jesus.
And it was exactly as awkward as you’re imagining. (But we’ll get to that another time.)
During that time, though, God was very kind to us as we started figuring out what the “now what” of our conversion. We were connected to a local church where there were a lot of very kind people. The pastor worked with us to make the mess of our lives make sense as Christians, though he was kind of flying by the seat of his pants with some of it. But as much as we saw God pouring out grace upon us in this time, we were in danger. I was in danger.
Although that particular church was faithful in many ways, it was (and is) very pragmatic, given to a style of ministry that emphasizes felt needs and directions and that sort of thing. (This probably helps you understand a bit more about how I could end up in leadership positions as a new believer, huh?) I also came to faith during the height of what was then called the Emergent Movement, which was really just marketing-speak for a hip, cool, neutered form of Christianity that cared a great deal for questioning, but little for answers. It was, in retrospect, a movement that, while claiming to reorient us to the “way” of Jesus, really had little to do with him at all. However, not knowing this, I and many other new believers were sucked into the world of these hip and cool pastors who were rebelling against something we really knew nothing about.
I read books like Velvet Elvis, Searching for God Knows What, and Blue Like Jazz, many of which were well written but had deep theological problems that I couldn’t recognize. I read memoirs by celebrity pastors that had no business writing memoirs, and did nothing to help me get a clear picture of Christian character. Our friends sat up discussing NOOMA videos, but never saw the hopelessness of their messages. Many young men in our church talked about what it meant to be Christian men, which somehow meant going on spirit quests to kill dragons while building sheds with nothing but duct tape and our own tenacity. We listened to lectures on how we needed to be less concerned with building programs and evangelistic rallies, and more concerned with making sure people had clean water to drink.
But you know what few of us were doing during all that? We weren’t grounding ourselves in the faith. We weren’t reading our Bibles, at least to the degree we ought to have been. And when we did have Bible studies, we weren’t trying to understand what Paul meant when he wrote Romans 1 or 1 Corinthians 9. We weren’t really digging into the Sermon on the Mount or considering carefully what it meant to abide in Jesus, as he told us to. Instead, we would go around the room and ask, “Well, what do you think this means?” In the end, we were like hyperactive kids after a really intense game of ring-around-the-rosy: we worked ourselves up into a tizzy and then all fell down.
Some of us never got up again.
What I understand now, and wish I’d understood then, is that even though there’s a place for discussing serious questions and books can be a great blessing (even the bad ones, if you know what to look for), the most important thing we can do as new believers is ground ourselves in the Bible.
So here’s what I want to encourage you to do today: don’t prioritize other books—even really good ones—ahead of it. Read a little bit every day, even if it’s just for five or ten minutes to start. Consider using a reading plan (there are tons of good ones online). Over time work your way through every book, from Genesis through Revelation. But here’s the thing: don’t read it as though you’re reading the newspaper, or a textbook. Don’t go to it expecting to simply learn facts, although you will. Read your Bible as though you are expecting to hear from your God.
Because you will.
You will learn about the person of God—his nature and his character. You will learn the truth about humanity. You’ll learn how you need to live in light of what the Bible teaches. And through it all, as you read expecting that your head and your heart will be challenged and changed, you’ll find that this actually happens. You think differently. You react to difficult situations in a way you wouldn’t have in the past. You respond to criticism with more grace… In other words, you start looking a little bit more like Jesus.
In all honesty, in writing this, I’m feeling like a bit of a hypocrite. I constantly struggle to maintain a healthy practice of reading the Bible. I read tons of books every year (probably too many). And sometimes a trap I’ll fall into is treating reading a book about the Bible as being equivalent to reading the Bible itself.
There is no substitute for this book. And we need to make it our priority to read it regularly because it is the one that tells us of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ; that contains the good news of his death and resurrection and the promise of his return; that informs us of the world’s greatest need and its only hope.
The Bible is the foundation of our life as Christians. Get a grip on it now. Don’t let anything else take away from its priority in your life. Do this, and it will go well for you.