By Steve Harper
It happens to all of us sooner or later. Our enthusiasm for Scripture declines. We begin approaching our time of Bible reading more as a duty than a delight. We come to a familiar passage and feel like skipping over it because “we know what it says.” If we are ministers, Sunday school teachers, or Bible study leaders, we may experience this in the feeling that we’re using the Bible as a place to “find” an idea or an outline. All of us come to the time when we need to recover the joy and meaning of searching the Scriptures.
We can be thankful we have somewhere to turn when we experience times like this. Our predecessors in the faith have left us a precious legacy called lectio divina. In English it goes by various terms: sacred reading, formative reading, and devotional reading, to name a few. It is a process of mining Scripture (or any other text, for that matter) in a way that allows God to speak to you through it. It is a process that has helped untold numbers of Christians to personalize their reading of Scripture, the devotional classics, etc. It is one way many have used to find the Word of God again.
The term lectio divina may seem quite new to you, but I expect you have already engaged in a form of it, even without knowing it. Take your Bible in your hands and open it. If you have ever underlined a passage, or otherwise marked it, you have experienced a type of sacred reading. There have been times in the past when a portion of a passage has really “spoken” to you. That is a kind of lectio divina. It is what my colleague, Dr. Robert Mulholland, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, calls being “shaped by the Word.” It is something that can happen to all of us, and it is something each of us can enrich and improve.
In this brief article, I want to do two things. First, I want to give you an overview of the sacred reading process so you can begin using it. Second, I want to conclude with some of the benefits I’ve personally received as a result of practicing lectio divina in my own reading of the Bible.
In describing the process, let’s keep the goal clearly in mind. The purpose of lectio divina is to enable us to encounter the Word of God through the reading of God’s Word. It is our goal to attune ourselves, so that as we read we may hear and respond to the particular message God has for us in this moment. We want to come away from our times of Bible reading able to say, “I have met the living God.” To be sure, no methodology is foolproof; nothing works every time. But I do believe that formative reading is a practice that will enable this contact with God to be your experience much of the time. So, with that goal clearly in mind, what are the steps of the process?
Prayer. We begin with prayer. The ancients called this the Prayer for Illumination. Today, we might pray it like this: “Lord, I am grateful for this opportunity to read and reflect on your Holy Word. I ask you to prepare my mind and my heart so that I can hear what you want to say to me. Come, Holy Spirit, and inspire my reading, even as you originally inspired the writer. I ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.”
Such praying is an opening to God. It is our recognition that we are not “in control” of the text. Rather, we want it to “control” us. We are not trying to
master anything; we are seeking to be mastered by God’s Word. We have become accustomed to reading for information, to pass a test, or acquire additional knowledge. In lectio divina, we are reading in order to meet the living God. Information and knowledge may or may not be involved; encounter is the key. The act of reading may fill our minds or warm our hearts (or both). We do not care; we only pray, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Prayer is the first action in lectio divina. Indeed, it is the action that saturates the whole process.
Reading. The second step is reading. We enter the text itself, absorbing it in the hope of discovering what God has to say to us. For one thing, we read slowly; lectio divina has no set amount in mind. We are seeking to be deep, not broad. We are going for quality, not quantity. We may read three chapters or three lines. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that we read slowly enough to sense when and where we need to stop, look, and listen. And whenever we sense that halt, we pause and dig in right there. It may be a word that captures our attention. It may be an idea that speaks to something going on in our lives. It may be a promise we need to claim or an instruction we need to follow. Whatever it is, we stop where we are, accept it as God’s message for us, and allow it to penetrate our lives.
Our slower reading is accompanied by a systematic approach. To be sure, we can skip around and still use the sacred reading process. But ideally, we read systematically and sequentially. We do this because we believe the Holy Spirit inspired the original author to write with a certain progression. We believe we shall encounter God more authentically in the text if we follow the same progression of inspiration. So, the second step is reading, slowly and systematically, in order to hear and respond to God.
Meditation. The third step is meditation. That word has unfortunately taken on negative connotations in our day. But it merely means that we “walk around” the idea that has seized us in our reading. Hugh of St. Victor described meditation as “piercing the core of a particular truth.” In the reading step, we have latched onto a particular truth. In the meditation step, we seek to pierce that truth and be shaped by it.
Here is where we can bring any and all skills we have to the passage. If we know Greek or Hebrew, we can do full-fledged exegesis. If we have learned inductive study skills, we can apply that methodology to our “particular truth.” If we have a chain-reference system, we can trace the idea through the Bible. We can use our concordances, commentaries, maps, cross references, etc. We can use anything and everything that enables us to derive more meaning and inspiration from the passage on which we are focusing. Meditation is the step in which we probe, explore, research, compare and contrast, illustrate, and otherwise walk around the text, seeing and hearing as much as we can.
Contemplation. The fourth step is contemplation. This is the step in which we personalize and own the text. In the phase of meditation, for example, we may have found out what six Bible scholars think about the passage. In contemplation, we now determine what we think about it. We appreciate what we have learned in the meditation stage; now, in contemplation we integrate all the “words” into that personal “word” for ourselves. To illustrate, in contemplation we come to the place where we receive John 3:16 as “ours,” as it was John’s when he first wrote it down. Needless to say, contemplation is a holy moment and a precious privilege.
Application. The fifth and final step is application. What else could it be? We have prayed for God to speak. We have read in a way that enabled us to select a meaningful portion of Scripture to focus upon. We have meditated by using every means at our disposal to ruminate on that portion. And we have prayerfully and sincerely sought to make that text our own, to integrate its message and inspiration into our lives.
Now, in application, we seek to allow the power of that Holy Word to flow through us for the sake of others. We end our sacred reading realizing that “to whom much is given, much is required.” In the first steps, God has blessed us. In application, God is challenging us to become a blessing to others. That blessing may flow out in our words, in our deeds or in both. But in the step of application we are now praying, “Where, when, and how would you want me to live out your Word, O God?”
Do you see what we’ve done? A little while ago, we approached the Holy Bible with no idea of what God might want to say to us. Through the process of lectio divina, we not only have received a word from the Lord, we also have received our marching orders for putting it into practice. The Bible comes alive as the written Word of God becomes the living Word within us and through us.
I do not mean to suggest that this always happens. There are days when even sacred reading seems dull and uninspiring. But I have come to see that this approach to the Bible (and other literature as well) is a precious means of receiving and responding to God. Lectio divina is one way of actualizing the prayer, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” It has been a way for many to find the Word of God again when it has become somewhat dull and routine.
At the beginning of the article, I promised to share some of the blessings I’ve received by using this process. As I have moved along, I’m sure you’ve picked up some of them in the way I’ve described the method itself. Sacred reading has made prayer and study all one fabric. It has freed me from the obsession to read a certain amount whether I get anything out of it or not. It has given me a deepening appreciation for the way each book of the Bible unfolds and progresses.
It has enabled me to utilize many other tools in gleaning truth from the Scripture. And it has challenged me to validate the intention of Bible reading in the first place; that is, to live the message.
In addition to these important things, I would add some others. Sacred reading has increased my sense of intimacy with God. It has enabled me to see that I do not have to wait until some expert tells me what the Bible says. It has given me a sense of anticipation for sharing what I am learning with others, both as a check and balance and also as the basis for fruitful discussion. Lectio divina has enriched my sense of communion with the saints, in that I realize I am using a method which Christians have used for centuries.
Ever find yourself going through a time when you need a boost in your use of the Bible? Try lectio divina. Plug into the process of sacred reading. I predict you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you discover. I predict you’ll be grateful that God indeed speaks when we use this method to listen. God bless you in the quest!
Steve Harper is Professor of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies at the Florida-Dunnam campus of Asbury Theological Seminary in Orlando. He was the founding director of The Pathways Initiative, a ministry of The Upper Room to spiritual leaders. He has authored 12 books and co-authored six others. His latest book is Talking in the Dark: Praying When Life Doesn’t Make Sense. This article originally appeared in the Asbury Herald and is reprinted by permission.