Spurgeon Room Conversations

A Conversation with Donald Whitney about Bible Intake

Dr. Allen: It’s a joy to host in the Spurgeon Room today a dear friend of mine, Dr. Don Whitney. Dr. Whitney serves as Professor of Biblical Spirituality at Southern Seminary in Louisville. He also serves as Associate Dean in the School of Theology. An old friend of mine, we have known one another for more than 15 years now. We share many interests in common. We like to talk about different matters of local church ministry, of pastoral ministry, of Bible, theology, and church history.

It is good to have a conversation with you today about a topic of great concern to me and to you, and one that we have both emphasized in our ministries, and that is the topic of Bible intake. Now, just on the front of this conversation to frame what we are going to talk about, if we had the day together we may talk a good deal of time about reading Scripture, one aspect of Bible intake; we might talk for a while about meditating on Scripture, one aspect of Bible intake; we may talk about praying through Scripture, which you have given much attention to in your public ministry. For the sake of this conversation I want to conflate really all three of those together in one conversation. From 30,000 feet, talk about the great importance of Bible intake.

Before we even talk about Bible intake though, what predicates that is our conviction about what the Word of God is, what the Bible is. It indeed is the Word of God. We believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God: it’s truthful, it’s trustworthy, it’s accurate. We embrace a verbal plenary understanding of inspiration. That means the words themselves were inspired. All the words are inspired. That’s really the theological perception that we bring to the table which heightens the sense of urgency around Bible intake.

Let me now turn to you, Dr. Whitney, as we talk about this topic of Bible intake. Just comment more broadly about your ministry as a whole, and what drew you to not just a general ministerial sense of Bible being important, but how it became such a heart issue for you.

Dr. Whitney: My dad was a daily Bible reader. I remember that first of all. My dad read the Bible every day. He kept a Bible on the corner of his desk at the radio station that he managed, and he read it at home every day. Then at the Southern Baptist church in which I was raised that was an expectation. This was in the days where a lot of churches used the old eight-point record system, the offering envelopes that had little check boxes on there that 10 percent for attendance, 15 percent if you brought your Bible, and 15 percent if you’re staying for church and all this. One of them was read the Bible every day. I remember in the Sunday School classes, and two men in particular who were my Sunday School teachers most of my time growing up, asked us every Sunday, “Did you boys read your Bible every day?” He was keeping records for the class.

Dr. Allen: Little legalists in training.

Dr. Whitney: He very much could have been, but nevertheless, it was the expectation. That is what we did. It was normal. “How many of you boys read your Bible every day?” Yes sir, raise your hand. In our Sunday School literature, in the back cover in each quarterly was daily Bible readings for each day and little check boxes there. Talk about legalism, I would check them off. I would come up with creative ways to check off each box. I would put a check mark in one, and an x in the next one, and a dot in the next one, and color the lower half of the next one, and color the upper half of the next one, and color the left diagonal and so forth. I had a goal of trying to color each box for the whole quarter in a different way, but I literally do not remember not reading the Bible every day. I started reading when I was about four, and I literally don’t remember a time when I wasn’t reading the Bible every day. That was just the way in which I grew up. Once I was converted and the Spirit of God gave me a hunger for the Word of God as life as a 9 year old, that discipline was already in place. That’s just by God’s grace. One of the advantages I was given was a background in which it was expected you read the Bible every day.

Dr. Allen: You know that’s interesting. I grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist Church as well. The Bible was emphasized. I wasn’t converted until I was a freshman in college. I remember as a kid going to church with my parents. For most of my childhood my mother drove a green Buick. I had two older brothers and we all three sat in the back seat together on the way to church. I had a Bible that I took to church. Every Sunday on our way home from church I would put it in a pocket on the back side of the front seat chairs. I put it there and it made perfect sense to me because it was important that I take my Bible to church and I won’t be needing it again until next Sunday morning. I was being a responsible eight or 10 year old. I put my Bible so it would be there next week when I needed it.

Looking back on that I laugh at my practice there. It made perfect sense then, but I think that’s the practice of most people in our churches today as adults. Now, interestingly enough, I became converted my freshman year in college. Begin a sense of call to ministry several years later. Right at that conversion no one had to tell me that you really need to be reading your Bible frequently. No one had to tell me now that you’re a Christian and part of being a Christian is you open the word of God. It was intuitive. It was natural. There was a desire there. I found myself in political science classes and history classes, as I was a political science , then sitting in the back with a little New Testament there. I would be reading through the New Testament even as my professor would be lecturing on a topics that perhaps weren’t as appealing to me in that very moment.

I had a New Testament that I carried in my back pocket. I found myself—no one knew I carried it, I wasn’t getting credit at church, or to appear pious—I wanted the Bible near me. I had a backpack, and then a brief case I used in college, and there was a Bible there. Even to this day if you find me, whether it is in bed, sitting on the couch, traveling, or wherever I am there’s probably a Bible on my person and at the very least there is one on my iPhone or on my iPad. My point being is when the Spirit of God is at work in a person there is this intuitive desire, this longing for the pure milk of the Word. That’s not to say that it’s magical. We have to cultivate that discipline, that expectation, that sense of accountability with the Bible reading plan to channel that desire to make sure that I’m not taking that desire for granted. It’s so amazing how when a person is converted that passion begins to take root there and begins to happen.

Take us back to you and your personal practice of Bible reading. You have a Bible reading plan I know, and I actually use it myself but I will let you speak to that.

Dr. Whitney: Justin Taylor, recently on his blog, I think he does this every December, he linked to a bunch of different Bible reading plans. I was astonished on how many good ones he found. There are an amazing number and people need to find the one that works for them. The one that I have used for a long time, the first few weeks of the year I like to read through the whole Bible at that time. I would read starting in five different places. Those places are Genesis for obvious reasons, it being the Law, Joshua where a certain turning point in history begins, Job because the wisdom or poetry section begins there, Isaiah begins the prophets, and Matthew the New Testament. On the first of January I read approximately equal portions in each one of those five. On the second of January again approximately equal amounts in each of those five. If you do that you will finish all five of them about the same time. Then the rest of the year I want to read through the New Testament once or twice more and then read certain books of the Bible several times. In terms of Bible reading that is my typical plan.

Dr. Allen: Do you typically do that in the morning, at night, any specific time of the day?

Dr. Whitney: Because I have a crazy schedule of getting on a hundred airplanes a year and so very different schedule on weekends as I do during the week, it is just whenever I can. What I don’t do is wake up and say, “Am I going to read the Bible today?” That decision was made half a century ago. That’s just part of my life, part of my routine. It’s just whenever I can. I may be on an airplane, but by God’s grace it is going to happen sometime in the day.

Dr. Allen: That’s excellent. Now, I have a plan very similar to yours, based upon yours with some slight derivations from it. One of the things I intentionally seek to cultivate and plan for is not only that daily reading but certain periods of time, maybe it is a half of day here or a four-hour flight there, where I am just going to sit down and read through a massive amount of Scripture. For instance, a few months back I was on an international flight for several hours there together. Consequently I just sat there are read through the entire Pauline correspondence at one time. It was one of the most rewarding and fulfilling, fruitful, healthy things that I have done in a long time. Just to take it all in starting in Romans and reading through all the Pauline correspondence. I wasn’t doing that so I could get a whole bunches of x’s on my Bible tract sheet, catch up from a month behind. That wasn’t the plan or the impulse at all. It was sort of a natural thing. The more I got into it, the more I didn’t want to stop.

For me when I am reading my Bible, I’m not thinking, “Let me plan a sermon.” I’m not thinking, “Let me get a sermon outline going through this,” but always have a legal pad and pencil nearby. I have a pencil to mark in my Bible because the Lord’s always drawing me to verses, drawing me to phrases, drawing me to passages. I’m seeing things I haven’t seen before. I don’t want to stop and pause and create a sermon outline real quick but at the same time I don’t want that moment to slip through my hands. I usually make some notes. Even if I’m doing the most general, cursory reading, I’m usually making some notes along the way. Are you reading with pencil in hand as well, or how are you usually handling that?

Dr. Whitney: We will talk in a minute about meditation and perhaps how a journal can help with that. My writing usually is from something I want to meditate on. I select a verse and meditate on that. I use a number of different methods. I’d like to ask you, whatever it is you’re writing, is this in your journal, is this just in your Bible, is this a notebook for Bible insights, is this notes on your iPad? Where are you doing this?

Dr. Allen: The answer is yes. It often can be one of three or four different ways. I have a journal for many years that I have kept. I learned much of that from you more than a decade ago. The journal for me is a periodic entry every day or every couple few days. Usually from that I’m writing down in my journal the more salient things I get out of my Bible reading. If I’m especially impressed with something, or the Lord’s really spoken to my heart about something, or there is some sin I’m confessing, something I’ve really been challenged or encouraged by, usually I’m noting that in my journal kind of as a spiritual accountability or spiritual health metric. I’m not really catching in there sermon notes.

So the sermon notes are like a few different things, usually most typically is on a legal pad. There is a pencil there, there is an open Bible I got right in the other room here. If it’s a word, or phrase, or verse, maybe it’s just a checkmark, or a circle, or an asterisk in my Bible. If it’s something a little more, like maybe that passage has drawn to mind a story out of a book I read from church history, I think, “When I preach Romans 8 I really need to remember that story in that book,” so I will just jot it down. Maybe it’s some application that applies to me immediately. I think, “This is really applicable if I preach this passage as I’m going through it.” Over the years I have intentionally read through let’s say the book of Philippians every day for a month, knowing that I am going to preach it next month. I’m familiarizing myself with that. Again, not approaching to prepare a sermon but at the same time not wanting to slip through my hands salient points that I’m learning there.

Dr. Whitney: If you do this on a legal pad where do those legal pad sheets go?

Dr. Allen: It depends. Let’s say if it’s the book of Philippians, go back to that example. What I’m doing with those, I’m storing those, I’m saving those and those are going actually in my manila file folders that are then channeled into sermon notes.

Dr. Whitney: You put that in a file folder on Philippians?

Dr. Allen: That’s right. I’ve done that. Again, devotionally more captured in the journal. Smaller things just kind of check marked, circled in the Bible itself. Then I’ve also done—this is kind of confession here for the soul or I’m being far more self-reflective than I intended to—I’ve also taken my own little journals, not like prayer journals, but kind of like a journal on the book of Ephesians. I know I was going to preach through it one time so I was reading it every day for a month and it became like a journal. I wanted to have it collected together, so I had Ephesians 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 spread out. I’m working through that and I’m reading through it and making insights, drawing conclusions, asking questions, making applications, catching it, catching it, catching it. At the end of the month I had a whole lot of work towards a sermon done, though I had approached that really more devotionally and Bible reading each day.

I feel like I have kind of turned the interview over to you. One more aspect of Bible reading that is a very sweet thing for me is usually in the mornings as I am reading my Bible. The way our day is stationed I am up well before my children but they will get up and before they are going to school, usually its 6:30 or 6:45. I will be downstairs drinking coffee and I will often be reading my Bible or writing in my journal and my kids will get up and I will hear the pitter patter of the feet coming downstairs. I actually enjoy being interrupted then. It is an interruption, but I don’t want to be the kind of dad that says, “Get out of my study, I’m praying” or “Get out of my study, I’m reading the Bible.” There is a sweetness for my kids to catch me reading my Bible. I love that. I think it’s a pedagogical moment for them to see. It’s like family worship, they are learning.

Dr. Whitney: As for me. Like I said, when I was growing up my dad was a daily Bible reader, seeing him read his Bible.

Dr. Allen: Often they will come in and sit in my lap and say, “What are you reading?” Well, I’m reading on John 5. “What’s John 5?” “Jesus said that I am the bread of life.” Whatever it is you’re reading and talking about it, just getting to unpack that for a moment with them, it’s very sweet times there. Let’s move forward in the conversation from Bible reading to meditating on Scripture, the natural kind of next step for Bible reading. Maybe give us a few words of encouragement as it relates to meditating on Scripture.

Dr. Whitney: If I could change one thing about the devotional life of all Christians it would be right here on meditation on Scripture. I think meditation is the single greatest devotional need of all Christians, even for our most devoted daily Bible readers. Nearly every daily Bible reader I know will read a chapter, maybe three chapters, five chapters, however much they will read, and close their Bible and if pressed as soon as they close their Bible they would admit that they don’t remember a thing they read. Some days they would say that they can’t remember where they read. They say, “Well it must be me. I’m just a second-rate Christian, I guess. I never had a good education. I never had a good memory. I never had a good I.Q. There is something wrong with me.” I say, “Look I’ve got some 22-year-old geniuses in my seminary classes who have the same problem. The problem is not you, it’s your method.”

Reading was never intended to be the primary means of absorbing Scriptures. It’s a starting point. The reading is the exposure to Scripture, meditation is the absorption of Scripture. It’s the absorption of Scripture that leads to experience with God and the transformation of life we long for when we come to the Scripture.

My contention is not that we can’t do it, we just don’t. People have not been taught, for whatever reason. Anything God expects all of His people, invites all of His people, such as finding the Word of God satisfying and so forth, has to be fundamentally doable. He has people all over the world that are 9 and 99 with low I.Q.s and high I.Q.s, with little education, and a great deal of education. If he expects all of them to do the same thing, it has to be fundamentally simple. So, meditation is fundamentally simple but people just don’t do it. They may read and read and read and say that they don’t get anything out of it. The problem is meditation.

Dr. Allen: Very well said. Of course you have these Bible promises associated in meditation. Joshua 1, Psalm 1, and then you look to the New Testament in James, I Peter, and different references to really soaking in the Word of God. It’s instrumental to the Christian life. It’s so easy for me to track my own spiritual growth, and my own spiritual narrative as far as how delivered I have been in meditating on Scripture. If you are meditating on Scripture you have to do something before it and you usually do something after it. To meditate on Scripture, you have to have read Scripture—you have to do something before it—and anytime you really begin to soak in the Scripture it usually leads to praying on Scripture. It’s usually never an act to itself. If I’m meditating on Scripture I know that I am in the Word of God reading it and usually it’s coming back through me and it is fueling my prayer life, which leads us to next aspect of this and that is praying through Scripture. Again, just to summarize or to sequentially put before ourselves in this conversation, unpack praying through Scripture, how you were introduced to that and how you practice it now.

Dr. Whitney: Before we get away from meditation let me say that praying through Scripture is also not only a method of prayer, it is also one method of meditating on Scripture. I want to emphasize that meditation is not daydreaming. There is a place for daydreaming. I have a book called Simplify your Spiritual Life. I have a little chapter on “Do Nothing and Do it to the Glory of God.” It is okay for our minds to relax sometimes, just as for our bodies to relax. Whereas daydreaming—just kicking a rock down the road—there may be a time for that, but that’s not meditation. With meditation your mind is on a track; you’re looking for something. For example, to rewrite the passage in your own words is one way of doing it. To emphasize in your mind one word at a time is a method of meditation. To ask questions of the text is a method. Another method is the one you just asked about that’s praying through Scripture. It’s not only a method of prayer, it’s also a method of meditation on Scripture.

Praying through Scripture is just to talk to God about whatever comes to mind as you’re going through the text and turning every thought Godward. If you’re reading Psalm 23 and read, “The Lord is my shepherd,” you simply say something like this, “Lord, I thank you that you are my shepherd. You are a good shepherd. You have shepherded me all of my life. You are a great shepherd. Would you shepherd my children today, cause them to love you as their shepherd. Make them your sheep. Guide them into the ways of God. Guard them from the ways of the world.” When nothing else comes to mind go to the next one: “I shall not want.” “Lord, I thank you that I have never really been in want. I have never missed a meal. All that I have, all that I am is from you but I know that it pleases you that I bring my desires to you. Lord, will you provide the money we need for those bills for the car, for school?” Or you know someone who is in want and you pray for them and when nothing else comes to mind you go to the next line. If you don’t understand it, you go to the next line. If you understand it perfectly and nothing comes to mind to pray about then you go to the next line.

You really can’t mess it up. This is not interpreting Scripture, which you can mess that up for sure, but our primarily activity here is praying. We are praying as we are reading Scripture. We are turning every thought Godward. For example, to make an interesting illustration, suppose sinful thoughts come to you as you’re reading the Bible. Clearly that is not what the Bible is teaching. What should you do? Pray about it. Confess it. Turn those thoughts Godward. Every thought that comes to mind as you’re reading Scripture, pray about it. Whatever comes to mind is something you should pray about anyway. We should pray about everything. That is why you really can’t mess this up. The point is anybody can do it. A person who just was converted yesterday can do this. The least immature Christian can do it. The most mature Christian can. And the one who knows the least about the Bible can do this. The one who knows the most about the Bible can do this. What better way for anybody to learn the Bible and the true meaning of the text if it’s just them and their Bible. No other books, nothing else and to pray over this.

Dr. Allen: Very well said. That’s were going to the Psalter is especially helpful at looking at different Psalms. Most people, even with the most rudimentary understanding of Scripture, they have some familiarity with the Psalms. If it’s the 23rd Psalm, Psalm 1, Psalm 8, Psalm 19, they can work around some of those and get a broader grasp of Scripture.

The other real benefit to praying through Scripture is a very practical one and that is working with people. Our minds wander and if you just are trying to pray stream of consciousness, you are going to pray for your mom, pray for your kids, or pray for your job and then you think about your to-do list and your mind wanders. You don’t really know where you were anyway and you have trouble coming back to it, “Let’s just call it a day anyway and move on.” Praying through Scripture, it anchors you to something. If your mind wanders you can come back to just where you were and walk through it.

I want to get you to add to that but also I would add at this point that is another reason why when I am reading the Bible or meditating on Scripture I always have a legal pad. I’m catching the spiritual insights, doctrinal insights, biblical insights, but also I literally never sit down to pray with a to-do list. Every time, mark it down, while I am praying or reading my Bible I think of two or three things that I have to do that day. I could do one of two things. I could just let that float around the back of my mind and let it distract me and hope that I don’t forget it, or I could just pause for three seconds and jot down “return Don Whitney’s phone call” or “pick up shirts from laundry.” Make a brief note there and that liberates my mind not to think about it and to refocus myself on praying through that passage of Scripture. I find it very helpful to have a pencil in hand, a piece of paper in hand for gathering insights and helping even facilitate practically the praying through, meditating on Scripture.

Dr. Whitney: The two most important personal devotional practices are the intake of the Word of God and prayer. Yet with both of them there is an almost universal problem. With the intake of Scripture, as we said a minute ago, the almost universal problem is people say, “I read it but I don’t remember what I read.” Simple solution to that: meditate on Scripture.

With prayer there is also this almost universal problem. That problem is people tend to say the same old things about the same old things. You don’t have to do that many times before your mind wanders and it’s boring, when prayer is boring you don’t feel like praying. If you don’t feel like praying, guess what? People don’t pray with any fervency or any consistency. They may try to grind it out five to seven minutes as a duty prayer, an obligatory prayer with their mind wandering half the time, just like you said. They suddenly come to themselves saying, “Wait a minute, where was I? I haven’t been thinking about God for the last several minutes.” They will come back and pick up that mental script in their head that they have said so many times and almost immediately their mind begins to wander again. Simple, permanent, biblical solution to that is to pray through a passage of Scripture. When your mind does begin to wander then to have a place to come back to.

When you pray through Scripture you never again say the same old things about the same old things. The problem is not praying about the same old things. Our lives tend to consist of the same old things. Your family, future, finances, work or school work, church, ministry, current crises—that’s your life. Thank the Lord those things don’t change dramatically very often. If you’re going to pray about your life then you’re going to pray about the same old things most of the time. That’s not the problem. The problem is saying the same old things. You pray through a passage of Scripture, then you’re permanently free from that. You don’t need any notes to remember how to do that. You don’t need any other book. All you need is just your Bible. If you pray through Psalm 23 and pray for your family, for example, you’re going to pray for God to shepherd your family. It is different than any other prayer. Then if you pray the next time from Psalm 51, you may pray asking God to forgive you for yelling at your family. If it is Psalm 138 the next day then it’s “Lord, I pray would sense your presence today wherever they go.” If you look back up it’s really the same prayer: “Bless my family.” Instead of saying “bless my family” half-heartedly, mindlessly, every day, you are saying “bless my family” through Psalm 23 and it comes out as “shepherd my family.” That is a different prayer. It’s not just different, though that alone is worth it. We are praying inspired words. Jesus said, “The words that I speak to you are spirit, they are life.”

I have been doing this almost every day since the first of March 1985. I can tell you there is nothing in all my devotional life that more quickly kindles my consistently cold heart as praying through Scripture. I almost never feel like praying when I go to pray. My heart is cold. I have been dead to the world for the last several hours. I run into door frames when I get up in the morning. I don’t wake up with my heart just on fire for the things of God. God said to Jeremiah, “Is not my word like a hammer and a fire?” I can take the fire of God’s Word and plunge it into my cold heart by praying through it and very quickly almost always I begin to feel like praying.

Dr. Allen: That is very well said. That is an appropriate place to land this conversation. Thank you so much. You have modeled this, you have written on this, you have spoken on this in hundreds of settings and churches. You are a great source of encouragement to me and to the church at large. Thank you for the conversation.

Dr. Whitney: Thank you it is an honor to be here.

topicsDon WhitneySpiritual DisciplinesSpurgeon Room Conversations

One Response to “A Conversation with Donald Whitney about Bible Intake”

October 10, 2014 at 4:42 am, Olumide Omatsola Agboghoroma said:

May the Lord help us all to return and remain with the basics, the foundation and ancient, time-tested path of Word intake, prayer and meditation/reflection. Shalom!!!

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