(Adapted from a talk given by Rosie Moore at Christ Church Midrand Ladies’ breakfast on 24 February 2018)
“Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live.” (Isaiah 55:1-3)
Lord, we know that just as our bodies need nourishing food to grow healthy and full of life, so do our souls. Jesus, we know that you are the bread of life and the living water. We can only satisfy the deep longings of our souls in you. Everything else will leave us empty and dissatisfied. So we come to you today and ask you to give us fresh encouragement, a new conviction of what a great source of blessing we have in the Bible, your very breath to us. Help us to prioritize this habit of grace, and so, to enjoy you more and more each day.
LIVING IN THE AGE OF THE MAD DIET
Let me start by explaining the title of my blog today: “Wholefood Christianity in an Age of Processed Snacks.” We live in the MAD era: No, we’re not exactly crazy, but we live on the Modern American Diet (MAD). Life is busy, so food manufacturers have obliged our hectic lifestyles by providing carb laden, highly processed foods, saturated with preservatives in convenient packaging, which can be popped in the microwave or eaten on the run. Our nutrition is cheap, fast and titillates our taste buds. Unfortunately, “Quick and easy” eating, while having obvious short term benefits, has led to obesity and expensive chronic diseases in the long term. My observation is that spiritual malnutrition is becoming just as rife amongst Christians because of the same “quick and easy” lifestyle. I’m calling us to go back to the chopping board with fresh vegetables and sharp knives, and eat real spiritual food! Whole food rather than processed snacks. I’m here to remind us that sitting at the feet of Jesus, and listening to him in an attentive, undistracted way, is a sure way to be saturated with the authentic nourishment that Isaiah 55 talks about- “that your soul may live.” We will only be properly nourished and prepared for life as followers of Christ if we engage directly with the Word of God regularly, meeting with Jesus in an intimate relationship, instead of living off over simplified titbits that someone else has processed for us. It’s the one habit of grace we must build if we want to be fruitful and not just busy Christians. It’s the root that produces the fruit.
But first I must tell you how I came to have this passion for the Word of God and that entails going back in history (quite a long way!) I was the last of 4 children, and grew up on a farm living in a caravan. My parents became Christians just before I was born. A lasting memory I have of the first decade of life was my dad reading the Bible to me every night, an illustrated colourful version, over and over again. We would read, chat about the passage, pray, lights off. That was my routine. Day after day, year after year. When I was 11, I went to boarding school in Pietermaritzburg, 7 hours from home, where I was a termly boarder. I went with Ellie (my fluffy elephant) under one arm and my own new Bible under the other, a Ryrie Study Bible.
Those of you who have been to boarding school will know that it’s a jungle out there! When I went in 1980, my dormitory had a real mixture of kids- from far afield like Zambia and Malawi, to local kids trying to escape unhappy homes. I slept next to a kleptomaniac for the first year as my initial baptism of fire! About a month into the first term, we had a guest speaker from Youth for Christ who led our chapel service. I was feeling homesick at the time. He started his talk by reading Psalm 1 to us, and I listened, riveted, as he read the Bible to us. I remembered the evening Bible readings with my dad, and felt a longing to have my soul nourished and restored again:
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
2 but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
3 He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away. (Psalm 1)
In his talk, the preacher explained the Psalm simply to us:
- God’s Word, the Bible, is what David talked about as “the law of the Lord” (v2).
- Meditating on and delighting in the Bible is the secret to knowing God, loving Him and living in relationship with Him.
- He explained the metaphor of the tree planted next to the streams of water: “The tree is you,” he said. “If your soul is being nourished continuously by life-giving water, your life will be rooted and will flourish like that strong, healthy tree.
- He went on to tell us the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, when Jesus told her He was the Living water, the well that never runs dry. He explained that Jesus is the one who satisfies the thirst of our soul.
I hadn’t opened my Bible since the day I got to school (I didn’t really know where to start), but that day in chapel I knew God himself was speaking to me through Psalm 1. I felt like a tree planted in a dry desert, far from any life-giving stream, far from a home that loved Jesus, in a busy, adapt-or-die wilderness. And I knew in my heart I was wilting fast!
Then the preacher did what no one else had done at school before. He asked if anyone wanted to talk about practical ways to be planted beside the stream and to “delight in the law of the Lord and meditate on his law day and night.” He invited us to meet him afterwards to talk about these things. I assumed everyone had been moved by Psalm 1 as I had been, but found myself alone at the front of the chapel. I’m convinced that the next hour spent with the preacher helped me make the most important investment of my life, which is to carve out a special time every day to spend with the Lord. This is what I remember of our conversation 37 years ago.
- “First,” the preacher emphasized, “this is not a duty or a box to tick off. It’s not some law to follow to make God like you more or make you seem more holy.” He explained that meditating on the Bible is a free gift God has provided for his children to make sure that our souls are rooted in his truth and grow and bear fruit over a lifetime. It’s all about relationship, not rules.
- Second, he helped me devise a practical plan which involved setting a time and place, a Bible, a journal and pen. My plan was to get up fifteen minutes before the rising bell and spend half an hour with the Lord before breakfast.
- Third, he said I should read a whole book of the Bible at a time, from beginning to end, in daily bite size portions. His reasoning was 2 Timothy 3:16 and 17, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
- The preacher told me he would send me a letter every week with portions to read every day. These weekly letters became a staple recipe that guided me through the Bible until I finished school 7 years later.
- Lastly, the preacher told me to start with a short prayer asking God to open my heart so that I would understand what I was reading and to speak to me personally. He explained that the same Holy Spirit who inspired human authors to write the Bible, would also help me to understand it and make it alive to me.
That discussion in our school chapel transformed my relationship with God as I began to dive in to the Bible every day and digest the portion in front of me. I was desperate for the light it gave me. Mostly my devotion happened in a quiet spot in our school gardens or, when the weather was cold or rainy, in a toilet cubicle, wherever I could be alone for half an hour. I came to the Bible expecting God to speak to me personally and I spoke to Him about what I was reading and whatever was on my mind. I never came away empty or disappointed. I experienced first hand the truth of Isaiah 55:1:
“So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”
I’ve often thought of those school years and realised that the preacher who came to our school was like an angelic investment guru. He guided me to make a spiritual investment from the age of 11 that is still accruing compound interest almost four decades later, and I trust will continue to multiply over whatever years the Lord gives me on this earth. I know without a doubt that this is the way God intends his children to grow spiritually, as Jesus taught in the parable of the sower. (Luke 8:4-15)
I’ve also realised that mine is not the experience of most Christians. In fact, it’s rare. After a believer receives the Gospel and becomes a Christ follower, there is often a vacuum of discipleship and little or no teaching on how to walk with the Lord in an everyday practical way. The ‘spiritual disciplines’ or habits of grace are assumed but hardly ever taught deliberately in a step-by-step way, spawning Christians who view independent Bible reading as an overwhelming task reserved only for those who have theological training. The following 4 steps have proved invaluable to me in reading and understanding the Bible for myself. I’ve put them into the acronym R O M A- Read, Observe, Meditate and Apply. This is just a tool I have put together, not a formula to dictate how the Bible must be read, but it may help you approach Bible reading with more confidence and digest the Bible rather than ingest it.
USING R.O.M.A TO AID DIGESTION
-Read the passage through twice, slowly. My experience is that my mind is normally wandering first time round and I need to read the text twice to start making sense of it. After reading, I usually write down the text reference in my journal and today’s date. Then move on to the Observe step.
-Observe what the text is actually saying, taking notice of details like names, repetition or figures of speech, who the author and original readers are. Ask who, what, where, when and how. Notice what came before this passage and how it fits into the context of the whole book. Think of the first two steps of ROMA, namely, Reading and Observing as raking up the leaves in your garden and gathering them into neat piles before you get to digging and planting. It’s important not to skip this step to avoid the mistake we often make when we mould Scripture to say what we think it should be saying, rather than allowing it to speak. The Bible should challenge our worldview, not just be an echo chamber of what we already think. At this stage, a verse or phrase from the text usually jumps out at me and I write it down in my journal as a key verse to meditate on and perhaps memorise later. It’s amazing how different details strike you each time you read the same text, which is why you will never plumb the depths of Scripture. Next, move to the best part of a personal devotion– Meditation.
–Meditate: Meditation is fashionable nowadays—to lower blood pressure, avert panic attacks, reduce stress and exercise your brain so you don’t get dementia. But Christian meditation has nothing to do with sitting with your legs crossed and clearing your mind of all thoughts. Its about digesting the words of God slowly (as opposed to just ingesting them) and savouring them as you would relish the meal. Christian meditation is a lost art today, mostly because fast-paced technology which has trained us to multitask, to scroll and skim over words without paying much attention and to work with many distractions. But, as people made in God’s image, we are made to meditate. Think about this: Humans are the only species on earth who intuitively reflect and ponder things, discuss and turn over ideas, debate and struggle with abstract concepts. Unlike the rest of creation, humans have the capacity to grapple with what is true and false and form worldviews even if we are not conscious of them or their basis. We were made to reason. God’s purpose for us is not just to hear him, to quickly skim through a text like we’re reading the “spark notes” or condensed version of a wonderful novel. God is not an abbreviated news clip or a quick snack.
The staggering truth about the incarnation is that the Word (Jesus) became flesh and made his dwelling among us, making the God of the universe known to us. (John 1:1-18). Jesus says that He, the Good Shepherd, knows his sheep and his sheep know him (John 10:14). The Greek word “know” in this context is ginosko which means “to come to know, recognise or perceive.” It is not the word eido which refers to head knowledge or facts. We can only ginosko God when we gain heart knowledge of Him and that cannot be done in a hurry! We need to pause and reflect and ponder and wonder about what God is saying to us through his Word, massaging it into our hearts, allowing the words to affect our feelings, as good poetry, music or art touches our whole being. That’s what Christian meditation is.
Meditation is where our mind meets our affections.
Let’s draw another parallel with eating: Imagine sitting at the dinner table to eat a three course, gourmet meal prepared from scratch and compare this whole food experience to a fast food snack taken on the run. Meditation was something Old Testament and early 1st century Christians thought was vital: In Genesis 24:63 we read, “Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening.” We know from the Gospels that Jesus often got up early in the morning to be on his own to pray and meditate. Meditation is really the high point of a personal devotion. This is the time to take out your pen and journal and dig a little deeper, writing down insights the Holy Spirit gives you: Ask yourself, “What does this text actually mean? What is God telling me about Himself, the world, about me?” If it’s an Old Testament text, ask if you can see any shadow of Jesus and the Gospel. The Gospel is central to each of the 66 books of Scripture and digging deeper reveals layer upon layer of God’s redemptive plan. My two eldest kids have “The Jesus Bible” and have been amazed to discover that almost every page of the Bible, including the Old Testament, points towards Jesus as the Messiah. The Gospel is at the core of the Bible, and it’s the message that will lead us to see our sin and come to Jesus and receive his free gift of forgiveness and eternal life, so it makes sense to meditate on every passage we read in the light of this amazing grace. It’s what Jesus was doing when he spoke to his disciples in Luke 24:27:
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
Meditation involves interpretation to find the true meaning of a text.
Ask questions about the text, starting with what the original readers would have understood. Throughout my years of Bible reading at school, I used the notes at the bottom of my Study Bible as a launching pad for meditation. Study Bibles also give you cross references to help you interpret the text.
Meditation is like mining or digging
I’ve found that meditation is like detective work or mining to find nuggets of gold. Whereas, reading and observing is like using a rake to sweep the leaves into piles, meditation is taking out your spade and digging deep into the passage. Meditations can be recorded in your journal as bullet points, thoughts or questions. If there’s a verse or phrase that jumps out from the page, write it down in full to memorise it.
Memorisation is the mate of meditation
Memorisation is a part of meditation for me because it’s the best way to make the Bible stick. It’s why I have written verses on recipe cards all my life and stuck them everywhere in my house! I read the cards so often that eventually they find their way into my foggy brain. The only way I can memorise anything is if there is meaning attached to it. It’s not memorizing as a duty or to show off. Saving Scripture in your memory bank is like relishing and savouring something beautiful that you desperately want to hold onto and absorb into the core of your being for the rest of your days.
Consider the contrast between the knowledge and wisdom we gain from meditating on God’s Word, versus the shallow information we gain from technology, particularly social media.
“Technology reveals who we are, but it also changes us: We carry these devices in our hands but sometimes we are the ones being shaped and moulded. If we are not careful, technology can overstimulate us, isolate us, enslave us and cause us to drift not only away from other people, but also away from God. Technology can crowd out silence in our lives. It can distract us from caring for the people right in front of us. It can dehumanize us and others. It can make us forget who God called us to do.” (Kevin de Young).
Making regular time to meditate on the Bible is the antidote to a weak, shallow Christian life.
“Remember, it’s not hasty reading, but serious meditation on holy and heavenly truths, that make them prove sweet and profitable to the soul. It is not the bee’s touching of the flower which gathers honey—but her abiding for a time upon the flower, which draws out the sweet. It is not he who reads most—but he who meditates most, who will prove the choicest, sweetest, wisest and strongest Christian.” (Thomas Brooks (Puritan) : in Precious Remedies against Satan’s devices)
Meditation melts anxiety.
Philippians 4:9 says: “Whatever is true, noble and right, pure, lovely and admirable, excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.”
Paul actually commands us to meditate on good things. There is a useful byproduct that comes from this kind of meditation: it melts anxiety. This passage follows directly after Philippians 4:8 which instructs us, “Do not be anxious about anything…” the verse that reminds us to pray rather than worry. The result of prayer is that we will be filled with the peace of God, which transcends understanding. But we cannot read verse 4-8 on its own, as it is intricately connected to verse 9. After we have prayed, we must choose to settle our minds on good things. It is in meditating on the list of good things in verse 9 that our hearts will remain in perfect peace so that we don’t fall back into the worry trap. Meditation on God’s Word guards our heart.
“Believers who spend no time reviewing and pondering in their minds what God has done, whether alone and reading their Bible, or joining with other believers in corporate adoration, should not be surprised if they rarely sense that God is near.” Don Carson.
Now we get to the final stage of ROMA– Apply.
–Apply: Applying Scripture is really an extension of meditation. It’s asking: What is this passage saying to me? Someone once told me to always make Scripture reading personal, practical and possible. When I write my applications in my journal, I force myself to start with the words—”I need to….” That takes away the option of keeping it a theory or a vague idea in my head. If God wants me to make a genuine change, or do something concrete and specific, or change my attitude, I need to obey right away. It’s like writing down your goals. Writing down your application in your journal holds you accountable as you will be reminded of your commitment the next day. Jesus’ brother, James, describes application like this:
22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-26).
Just notice a few things about this text:
James contrasts a hearer who forgets and a doer who acts. (So it’s quite possible to study and read the Bible diligently but to remain a hearer who forgets.) Jesus spoke harshly to religious Jews of his day who had memorized the whole Old Testament and were great scholars of the Scriptures, yet they refused to see its true application and fulfillment in Jesus.
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40).
Could that also be true of us? We can search the Scriptures, reading the Bible diligently like a man staring at his face in the mirror. But if we are not coming to Jesus to hear from Him, if we don’t persevere in doing what He shows us, if we refuse to let the Scriptures change our thoughts, actions or words, James tells us we are just kidding ourselves. May we never read the Bible intellectually but refuse to come to Jesus himself, “that we may have life!” If the Bible touches the neck up, (our mind and intellect,) but never sinks into practical everyday living, it will be a dead exercise. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to bring the Bible to life in us; to transport the text from our head into our heart, where “the word of Christ will dwell in us richly.” (Colossians 3:16).
How do we become a doer who acts instead of a hearer who forgets? We need to first come to Jesus as our Saviour and enter into a personal relationship with him. We first need to become a Christian and a disciple of Jesus. After that we must do what all disciples do. We must sit day after day at the feet of our teacher to be taught by him and “know” him in the ginosko sense. Jesus is not physically with us anymore, but he abides in us through the Holy Spirit and his Word is the way he continues to speak to us personally.
But more than just reading Scripture, we need to act upon what he’s teaching us in the Bible, day by day, month by month, year by year. That’s what James calls “persevering”, and the promise attached to this persevering is that “God will bless us in our doing.” Do you see the order? First look into the law of liberty (that means be diligent about meditating on the Scriptures), second, remember and apply what it says day in and day out….Then, third, God will bless your actions. It may seem like a very mundane habit, but it’s potent over a lifetime.
A medicine will do no good unless applied.
But application isn’t always something we can put on our to-do list. Most decisions we make in life are spontaneous or instinctive, not carefully thought out. We just act. Our actions naturally flow out from the kind of person we are, the way we think. The Bible doesn’t give us a simple to-do list for everyday, but wisdom to discern his will as we encounter millions of small choices over a lifetime. That’s why Paul prays in Romans 12:1,2:
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Did you hear that last bit? One day at a time, over a lifetime of reading Scripture, we renew our minds. This is how God transforms us, because over time we will develop discernment or wisdom, so we will instinctively know the will of God. But you may say to me: “Some passages of ancient history are just plain boring and irrelevant to me. How can I apply them to my life?”
For example, what if you are faced with a genealogy to read, like the lists of names in Numbers or the laws in Deuteronomy. What practical use can a list of dead guys be to you? There’s no “to do” step or even a lesson in passages like these. But this is what I wrote in my journal when I read the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew recently:
“I need to stop thinking I am unimportant to God. That I can do nothing in his kingdom. I am part of his family, part of this line of promise, and if every name and generation is important to God, so am I and so is my family. I need to believe it today instead of thinking I am nothing!”
Application may just be a heartfelt exclamation of amazement or gratitude for something. It may be a stab of guilt that will lead to an action. It may be a sin I need to confess to God. First God awakens our feelings and changes our minds and desires. This leads to action. That’s what makes us become a doer, not just a hearer of the Word.
The crux of application is to understand that the Bible speaks to me personally. The Puritan preacher, Thomas Watson, put it like this:
“When we open the book, take every word as spoken to yourselves. When the word thunders against sin, think thus: “God means my sins”. When it presseth any duty, “God intends me in this.”
In other words, stop thinking of how suitable this passage is to fix all your spouse’s issues! The Bible is for my own issues!
The Bookends of Prayer.
After completing ROMA, prayer follows naturally in response to what we have meditated on. Prayer is a habit of grace that I would like to write about in another blog, because there’s so much to say about this gift, but, from my own experience, authentic, deep, focused prayer flows naturally from meditation in the Word of God. Prayers are the two bookends to ROMA: Before we start reading, we pray. And after we have been nourished by the Word of God, we pray.
“What we take in by the word, we digest by meditation and let out by prayer…meditation is a “bridge Discipline” between hearing from God in his word and responding to him in prayer.” (Habits of grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines, David Mathis: p25).
THE FRUITS OF ROMA (READ, OBSERVE, MEDITATE AND APPLY)
Going back to when I was an 11 year old girl at boarding school, we didn’t have any of the wonderful online tools we have today– The Bible app, Youtube, sermon podcasts and google if all else fails. The internet wasn’t even on our radar. Yet, a preacher from Youth For Christ had no hesitation in teaching me a method of inductive Bible study because he fully expected me to be able to read the Bible on my own and believed that the Holy Spirit would be my personal aide. He trusted that God’s Word was clear enough to be understood and applied by a little girl even when I came upon portions that would be hard to understand. His trust was not unfounded. With help from my study Bible, I found most passages to be clear and relevant even if I didn’t grasp them fully. The Bible is simple enough for a child to understand but never simplistic. We are given a lifetime to mine its treasures. We should not be too reliant on teachers, preachers and ‘experts’ to do our digging for us or survive off the weekly sermon at Church, which is more like six day fasting. Nor should we get in the habit of snacking on dumbed down devotional books with a verse per day designed to make Bible reading quick and effortless for 21st century Christians. It is a recipe for spiritual malnutrition over the long term.
It is in the preparing, chewing and digesting of the Word, especially the tough bits, that we get to know our God in a personal way and experience an intimate relationship with him.
Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy when tempted by Satan:
“It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4).
The truth is that some passages are hard to understand (even Peter said that Paul’s letters were hard to understand), but one of the principles of the Reformation is Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). This is why William Tyndale was prepared to be burnt at the stake for translating the Bible into English in 1536,
“I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ‘ere many years I will cause a boy who drives the plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do.”
You and I are the equivalent of the ploughboy. Most of us have never been to Bible College or got a PHD in theology. But, ordinary people should be reading and understanding the Bible for ourselves, and we are doing ourselves a great disservice if we don’t position ourselves in this great channel of grace that God has offered us freely, in our own language. Western Christians are more privileged than in any other age, but we must be careful not to reduce the Bible to a few clichés, wanting to drink “milk” forever like the Corinthians, rather than growing up to eat solids and meat. The irony is that with all the opportunities and privileges we have, we may remain spiritually undernourished because we are spoon fed.
My greatest hope is to inspire us all (myself included) to be self feeders, hungry to meet face to face with Jesus over the pages of His Word, hungry to be life long learners, hungry to dig deeper and to have an alive, active relationship with Jesus every day, to experience firsthand:
“The Word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword,it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12.
Does this sound unrealistic? See part 2 Wholefood Christianity: Roots and Fruits for practical tips and motivation to build this daily habit of grace into our busy lives.