When I was young, I had a soccer coach who told me I didn’t know how to run—and that he was going to teach me. His statement made me mad. I actually didn’t like my coach too much; I thought he was kind of overweight for a coach, he was pushier than any coach I’d ever had, and I was sure he wasn’t playing me in games enough. Besides, I’d been running all my life and my dad had been a college track star (so I figured I had running in my genetic makeup). Who was he to tell me I could learn from him how to run? I look back now on that coach and realize he was right. I didn’t know how to run, and what he taught me sticks with me to this day.
Humility is always the first step in learning.
I grew up going to a church that told me I should read the Bible. I eventually did start reading Scripture, kind of running along figuring out what to do on my own. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that nobody had ever taught me how I should read the Bible. I could have really used instruction in some basic Bible reading skills because I would have gotten so much more out of Scripture.
Christians for centuries have had numerous ways they’ve taught people to engage with the Scriptures for spiritual growth. One tried and true Scripture engagement practice that has seen a resurgence recently is called Lectio Divina (“divine reading”). Lectio Divina is an excellent teaching tool. It breaks the process of engaging Scripture for spiritual formation into four easy-to-understand steps that are great for those who are just beginning to read the Bible as well as for those who have been reading the Bible for many years.
The four traditional stages of Lectio Divina are reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating. The steps were created simply to provide structure and guidance for people who wish to learn how to perform this practice.
The four steps of Lectio Divina have been compared to “feasting on the Word.” Reading is taking a bite of food. Mediating is chewing food. Praying is savoring food. Contemplating is digesting food and making it a part of your body. Too often we are “fast food Bible readers,” rapidly gulping down the Bread of life (John 6:35). The result is that we are unable to properly absorb our “spiritual meal.” Slow down. Savor your time in God’s Word and find joy in meeting God.
A suggested basic flow to the Lectio Divina process could include the following steps:
Reading is the first part of Lectio Divina. After preparing your heart and mind to be in God’s Word, slowly read the passage you’ve chosen. Note specific words. Think about the intentionality of the word ordering. Look for repetition, themes, pictures, and dialogue. Stay alert for a single word, phrase, verse, metaphor, or message that catches your eye, stirs you, moves you, or connects with you emotionally.
Then read the passage again. Stop at whatever had tugged at your heart. Reread that significant piece several times, lingering over the words and phrases. Repetition will help to keep that piece of Scripture in the forefront of your mind.
Think about what the words or phrases that stood out to you meant to the original audience of the Bible book and what the author might have been thinking when he wrote those words. Then, think about the specific part of the passage that spoke directly to you. Focus intently on why the Holy Spirit might have chosen these words to speak to you. Is it relevant to something that you are going through? Do certain people come to mind whom God may want you to reach out to or reconcile with? When you’re thinking about a passage in God’s presence, ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate that passage so that you can grasp the connections to your own life.
Meditation engages you holistically—heart, mind, emotions. When you enter into the world of the Bible, it starts to influence and change you. Meditation is a way to guard against splintering your Bible reading into information that is divorced from your life.
Have you ever thought that Christians aren’t supposed to meditate? Biblical meditation (e.g., Genesis 24:63; Joshua 1:8; Psalms 1:2; 48:9; 77:3; 119:15; 143:5) is not the same as Eastern meditation. In Eastern meditation, the objective is detachment and an empty mind. In biblical meditation, the objective is attachment to God and sustained focus on His Word. Peter Toon in Meditating as a Christian defines biblical meditation as “thinking about, reflecting upon, considering, taking to heart, reading slowly and carefully, prayerfully taking in, and humbly receiving into mind, heart and will that which God has revealed.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Meditating on the Word says simply that “you should accept the Word of Scripture and ponder it in your heart as Mary did. That is all. That is meditation.”
Have you ever noticed your mind so centered on something that it just won’t let go? You have a thought, often unhelpful or something you’re worrying about, that repeats over and over. In biblical meditation, you are retraining your thoughts to mull over “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8, NKJV). Instead of worrying over something in a harmful way, you choose to redirect your thoughts on the things of God, especially Christ as found in His Word.
The next step is to take all the thoughts, feelings, actions, fears, convictions, and questions you have meditated on and offer them to the Lord in prayer. Meditation flows naturally into prayer. In your prayer, you’re bringing your life and Scripture together in God’s presence. Praise God for who He is. If you feel convicted about a poor relationship, ask for guidance on restoring the relationship. If you feel thankful for something that God has done for you, then pour out those feelings of thanksgiving. If you feel a specific anxiety about something in your life, present it to the Lord and pray for the guidance and peace to be able to submit to God’s will. Simply talk to God and tell Him what you’re feeling, just as you would with a good friend or family member.
This final stage (though frequently overlooked) is vital. The “task” in this stage is to simply “be still” in the presence of God (Psalm 46:10). This is one of the most essential aspects for building a growing relationship with the Lord. Many testify that at the end of a Lectio Divina session, they have a feeling of closeness and intimacy with the Lord. One of the most valuable things that you can do with this feeling is to relax and embrace it. Just “be” with God. You don’t need to always be talking at God. In this stage, you’re to simply sit in His presence and feel His tender love and embrace. Resist worrying about your cell phone, work, friends, illnesses, and whatever else holds you back from God. Sit in the love that is shared between you and Jesus.
Part of this contemplation stage (some people make this a separate stage called “living”) is to commit yourself, with the help of God, to act on the truth that He has implanted in your heart. God is calling you to submit to His Word and live it out (e.g., James 1:22-25; Matthew 7:15-27; Romans 2:12-16). Living out your faith is a way to follow Jesus that happens more automatically as you know Christ better and become more like Him.
At the end of the contemplation stage of a portion of Scripture, you’ll naturally come to a place where you’ll feel you’re finished. Your choice then is to repeat the process with another passage or phrase from Scripture or simply close off your Lectio Divina session with a prayer of thanksgiving.
You probably already engage the Bible at some level. But perhaps like me, you may need to humbly admit that there’s room to grow in the life-changing skills of engaging Scripture. Lectio Divina is a process that will take some getting used to. Try not to quit if you aren’t enjoying it after your first few attempts. As you go through the Lectio Divina process, you may feel at first that each step seems rigid and awkward. But after some practice and experience, everything will flow together and you can learn to have life-giving communication with God.
Dr. Phil Collins serves as the General Editor for The Abide Bible. He is Co-executive Director of the Taylor University Center for Scripture Engagement where he has been a full-time Christian Ministries professor since 1999. Dr. Collins earned a B.A. in Bible Literature and Christian Education from Taylor University, an M.A. in Christian Education from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from Purdue University. In addition to his academic work, Dr. Collins was formerly on staff with Youth for Christ and has served as a church youth pastor.