Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Devotional Reading and Lectio Divina

Devotional reading of the Bible is one of the most important and most common approaches to engaging Scripture, in which our goal is more transformation than information, drawing near to God in relationship through His Word to us. There are a number of ways to read the Bible devotionally. Christians throughout history have sought God and wisdom in the Bible in many different ways. Here I present two approaches, one contemporary way and another ancient.

In “Rick Warren's Bible Study Methods: Twelve Ways You Can Unlock God's Word” the first method described is devotional reading, as the need for prayer and application are vital to understand for any encounter with Scripture. The Devotional Method involves reading a passage of the Bible, small or large, prayerfully meditating on it until the Holy Spirit shows us how to apply its truth to our life in a personal way. Warren describes four steps:
  1. Pray for Insight on How to Apply the Passage
  2. Meditate on the Verse(s) You Have Chosen to Study
  3. Write Out an Application
  4. Memorize a Key Verse from Your Study
A key step in these and one easy to neglect is meditating on Scripture, mulling it over in your mind and really digesting it. Several practical ways to do this include: visualizing the scene in a narrative, emphasizing different words in the passage while re-reading it, paraphrasing it, personalizing the pronouns, or praying the verse back to God. Another aid is the acrostic “SPACEPETS” – is there a Sin to confess, Promise to claim, Attitude to change, Command to obey, Example to follow, Prayer to pray, Error to avoid, Truth to believe, Something to praise God for? When considering an application, actually write it down, and make sure it is personal, practical, possible and provable (measurable). (Contents and sample from Rick’s book may be found at Zondervans.)

A second approach which is similar in form but different in style and emphasis is an ancient practice known as Divine Reading, Sacred Reading, or in Latin, Lectio Divina. Fr. Luke Dysinger gives an excellent summary of “The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina”. He calls it “a slow, contemplative praying of the Scriptures which enables the Bible, the Word of God, to become a means of union with God.” It all begins with praying and quieting yourself in expectation to hear God’s word for you today. A short passage is chosen, typically around six to eight verses. These will be read several time in four movements (first described as such by monks around 1150):
  • Reading (lectio) – read the passage once or twice, slowly and attentively gently listening to hear a word or phrase that is God's word for us this day.
  • Meditation (meditatio) – Once we have found a word or a passage in the Scriptures that speaks to us in a personal way, we must take it in and “ruminate” on it… Through meditatio we allow God's word to become His word for us, a word that touches us and affects us at our deepest levels.
  • Prayer (oratio) is “understood both as dialogue with God, that is, as loving conversation with the One who has invited us into His embrace; and as consecration, prayer as the priestly offering to God of parts of ourselves that we have not previously believed God wants. In this consecration-prayer we allow the word that we have taken in and on which we are pondering to touch and change our deepest selves.”
  • Contemplation (contemplatio) is where we “simply rest in the presence of the One who has used His word as a means of inviting us to accept His transforming embrace. No one who has ever been in love needs to be reminded that there are moments in loving relationships when words are unnecessary… quiet rest in the presence of the One Who loves us.”
Lectio Divina has been described as “Feasting on the Word”, consisting of taking a bite (lectio), chewing on it (meditatio), savoring it (oratio), and digesting it to become part of the body (contemplatio). It is not about contemplation for the sake of contemplation, and is in stark contrast to other Eastern forms of meditation, but it’s a way to quiet ourselves down and actually listen for God’s voice to us today while reading God’s eternal word. Tony Campolo describes his use of this practice in an article “A Cure for Burnouts”. John Ortberg in his book “The Life You’ve Always Wanted” notes “Meditation is not meant to be esoteric or spooky or reserved for gurus… it merely implies sustained attention.”

These two approaches to devotional reading have the same two primary goals – to draw closer to God and to be transformed by application of His word to our lives. The latter takes a more contemplative approach, and is more about ‘being’, while the former stresses discovery and application of truth. Correctly understood and applied, either style can be quite effective and powerful. Dysenger describes the key questions involved in devotional reading as:
• “What caught my attention in this text?” (after reading)
• “What has the Lord shown me in this reading with regard to my life?” (after meditation)
• “How will I respond to what God has revealed to me?” (after prayer)

One caveat – there are many evangelicals who are wary of lectio divina, contemplative prayer and related disciplines due to external similarities to non-Christian/mystic practices. They don’t have a problem with meditating on God’s word, prayer, relying on the Holy Spirit, but do have concerns about some of the specific people and practiced they see proposed. With any approach to Scripture or spiritual formation, it is important to consider what the Bible has to say about it and to be aware of our own motives. I’ll note that I am in no way recommending any kind of mystic approach that is not centered in the triune God of the Bible, and a desire to know Him better through His word and through prayer and the Holy Spirit. 


David Leister said...

Larry, I enjoyed that read! I am going to give lectio divina a try sometime. I find no offense whatsoever in applying any technique which promotes the absorption of Scripture into our souls. Its only mystical if I allow it to be so, which I never would.

Larry Baxter said...

Hi David, glad you found it helpful! While some people may have questionable motives or history with this technique, I likewise find it potentially very useful as long as you have the right perspective.