We can trust the Bible on our shelf, or in our pocket, to deliver the revelation of God’s character and deeds. But realistically, issues of time, culture, worldview, language, and literature differences should be considered to help us understand the Bible better. That’s why tools like Bible dictionaries, Word studies, and nearly everything in between can help us experience God’s gift of self-revelation.

As valuable as these tools are, and as daunting as they can make reading the Bible seem, there’s a simpler and more personal way that can help us unlock the keys to reading the Bible.

Here are three tips—personal approaches/attitudes/mindsets—that can help us read better before we need (and yes, we’ll still need these other tools) to crack open anything more than the text of Scripture itself.

These three keys help us read better by pushing us into a more deliberate exploration and engagement of the text. They help us see ourselves and our human condition in the stories of others and actions of God, and be honest about what the text says— letting God tell the story, instead of what we want the Bible to say or hope it says.


1. Curiosity

Our curiosity is what can bring us to Scripture in the first place. Beginning with a simple question like, “What does the Bible say about . . .?” then exploring Scriptures that discuss that topic. But our curiosity can do more than just look for answers to questions. Curiosity can lead us to engage the text better: asking more and deeper questions, diving into the context rather than picking a single verse, and helping us explore the ancient customs and ideas that make the story what it is.

For example, Genesis 37 tells the story of Joseph. It’s easy to read about Jacob’s favoritism, and Joseph’s arrogance (telling his brothers his dreams), and interpret the rest of the story as sibling rivalry gone too far. But curiosity can lead us to look deeper and ask questions. Why does the coat matter? Was the beautiful coat simply an extravagant gift to a favorite son? What did it mean to have a favorite son in that culture? Why did his brothers want to kill him simply for being the favorite?

Questions like these make us consider the lives of the characters in the story, and their cultural setting (which is where using other tools can come in). In learning more about the culture, we discover Jacob’s gift of a coat to Joseph signified that Joseph would inherit the most from their father. Combine this with Joseph’s likely brag in telling everyone of his dreams that elevated his position above his brothers, and we start to see the concern of the brothers in a new light.

 A question, or more likely a fear, grew in his brothers’ minds as to the security of their futures. Would Joseph, who was only half-brother to all but Benjamin, take care of the rest of the family as was the custom and expectation? Or would he abandon those brothers (and their families) of different mothers? This reality gives us more context. While his brother’s actions were still aggressive and over-the-top, they’re at least better understood. This wasn’t just petty jealousy; removing the one who’d inherit from their father would return their promise of inheritance and the security it provided.

It’s good to ask questions about the text of Scripture because it helps us grasp the significance of words and actions taken in the stories. Fair warning: some of the answers we come up with to our questions may make us uncomfortable. Cultural differences may be alarming and even frustrating, and other stories might not have answers that satisfy hard questions. But curiosity can still give us better insight into the characters, the meaning, and the message of the Bible.  


2. Imagination

Yes. Imagination in the sense that you may be thinking of it. Playing pretend.

Bible study has often been practiced like every passage has a lesson that we should apply to our lives. We look for a truth, whether it’s theological—something about God—, anthropological—something about humanity—, cosmological —something about our world—, or some combination of the three. Every Scripture has a direct bearing on how we live our lives, or at least how we see God and the world around us. In essence, we always read the Bible to be shaped in how or what we think and how we live. 

Viewing Scripture this way certainly gives reading the Bible a sense of weight. After all, it holds the foundational truths of who we are, who God is, and how to live our lives. Yet, it also has the potential to rob Scripture of some of its more fundamental realities.

Scripture is a masterpiece, a tapestry woven together with threads of literary style and beauty. When we flatten the narratives, poetry, and even the laws in search of strict application, we can strip the Bible of the beauty of its chosen delivery. It can make our reading of the Bible boring, or even worse, incorrect.

Reading with imagination can not only restore the joy of reading, but it can also help us discover God in fresh ways. This is particularly true of the narratives and histories but also applies to the other genres of Scripture.  As we place ourselves in the stories, trying to imagine what it would’ve been like to experience those events, we’re led almost inevitably, back to curiosity and asking questions of the text. We begin to wonder what we would see, touch, or taste in these situations. We begin to contemplate the emotions the different characters in the story might be feeling.

Consider the paralytic whose friends dug a hole in the roof to get to Jesus (Luke 5:17-39). If we read too quickly or are only looking for confirmation that Jesus is God (the theological truth of this story), we miss the craziness of Jesus’s words and actions and their impact.

In light of the lengths these men had gone to, and the obvious nature of their desire (for their paralyzed friend to walk again), Jesus’s first words would’ve been disappointing, to say the least. “Your sins are forgiven.” The man wasn’t there for forgiveness. Everyone in the crowd knew that. Jesus himself knew that! Imagine how deflated the man and his friends must have felt hearing those words. Jesus, the one whose reputation for healing was already so large that they vandalized someone’s home to get to him, didn’t heal him. The story takes on a new life when you imagine the initial confusion he might’ve felt when hearing those words.

Why would Jesus forgive rather than heal? Hope would’ve escaped like air from a balloon. Imagination helps us struggle through the reality that God’s ways are not our own. Sometimes, Jesus may be setting out to dismantle our expectations. Imagining the disappointment of the man and his friends helps us struggle through our own disappointments with Jesus when he gives us something we haven’t asked for or answers our prayers with unexpected timing.

Or consider Peter’s night of Jesus’s arrest. He refused to let Jesus wash his feet out of respect, only to be scolded by Jesus. Then Peter was told that he’d deny knowing Jesus. Then he fell asleep after Jesus asked him to pray with him. He couldn’t even stay awake; how was he supposed to live up to his promise to die for Jesus? Imagine what your frame of mind might be following all these missteps. It can help us better understand Peter and refrain from dismissing him as “Impulsive Peter.” We can appreciate better the way Jesus loves him and reaches out to him. We understand Jesus better and find hope for our own lost souls.

 Using our imagination allows us to bring Scripture to life in a way that personalizes our experience of Scripture, and the God behind it. Imagination brings the Scripture back to its fullness. We no longer simply look for a theological truth and an application, but we remember that God is concerned about people, concerned about us; he meets us in our humanness and gives us himself.

Interested in other imaginative exercises? Check them out here.


3. Humility

 Humility should be inherent in reading Scripture. We’re encountering the story of the creator and redeemer God. We’re reading the story of his pursuit of humanity for relationship with himself. We’re coming to learn, to grow, to change. This requires humility. Humility to see ourselves as we are. Humility to see God as he presents himself. Humility to let Scripture be Scripture and the God behind them be the authority.

But humility can get more difficult the more we know Scripture. Familiar and beloved passages speak to us in the voice of an old friend, reminding us of things we already know. And that’s precisely the point where humility begins to fade. When we think we already know what a passage says and what it means, our curiosity fades and our imaginations become flat.

Consider what Jesus said to the Pharisees in John 5:39:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me.”

No one knew the hills and valleys of Scripture better than the Pharisees. They’d devoted their lives to knowing their own story and the story of God.

Jesus acknowledges their diligence in studying but points out that in all their study, they missed the biggest part. The culmination of their beloved Scriptures—the Messiah they’d been looking for—was standing in front of them, speaking with them, and so far, most of them didn’t recognize him. How could this happen?! 

This group of Pharisees’ familiarity with Scripture was their downfall. Not because it’s bad to know the Bible, but because they thought they knew where everything was going. They were confident in their understanding. Perhaps too confident.

Reading Scripture well requires active humility, admitting that the holy God revealed in the text before us may be doing something more, different, and better than what we previously understood.

This verse should serve as a warning to us all. Despite our desire to know the Scriptures, we can be so caught up in our own understanding, that we miss what Scripture is actually saying. It’s possible to read Scripture and miss Jesus.

Knowing the story of Scripture is essential for followers of Jesus. It tells us who he is, who we are, and how to live like him. There are many great tools to help us understand the greatest story ever told. But, by bringing our curiosity, imagination, and humility to the text, we can best find Jesus.