The Three Degrees of Scripture Study
The other day as I read in Mormon, I saw some really interesting wording that I thought would make a good blog post. But as I started writing about it, I realized that the only way to see the neat connection I saw was if you read the selection without regard to the verse markings. So I went on a tangent in my original post about how the verse markings can often get into our way. My thoughts and feelings kept flowing and that tangent became this whole post which I'm calling "The Three Degrees of Scripture Study."
It's not common that I end up scrapping a post partway through to address something that I realize is much more important. This is a topic that I feel very strongly about but have never been able to put into words until now. I would maybe even say this is the most practical and useful post I have ever written for this blog. Enjoy.
The telestial scripture plan: Just do what you can
Like many families in the Church, my family's scripture time when I was growing up was hit or miss. Honestly, there were a lot more misses than hits. Sometimes, my brothers and I would make family scripture time so difficult for my parents that they wouldn't dare try to institute a regular schedule again for another 6 months.
I remember several months during my early teenage years when my mom insisted that we read the scriptures every day as a family and she refused to budge. We tried all sorts of things to break her resolve, but we couldn't. Every morning, we were all forcibly hauled out of our beds at the ungodly hour of 5:30 AM so we could gather for breakfast and scriptures with dad before he went to work. Those early morning hours in the scriptures were what you would predict. Kids mostly asleep. Everyone was grumpy. One chapter per day. Round-robin style, 5 verses per person. And we tried everything to try and get out of it and break my parents' resolve.
Eventually, the kid-wrangling got to be too much for my parents, and we discontinued that habit several months after it started. After another hiatus, my poor burned-out parents tried a different approach. Every time we ate dinner as a family before we prayed over the food, mom would read one verse that she had selected in advance. It took only a few seconds and it was far short of the ideal, but in a house of 4 rowdy boys, it was something and it was doable.
If this were a faith-promoting General Conference talk, I would go on to say that something we read one of those days stuck in my mind and changed my outlook on life or planted the seeds of a testimony or something and I can still remember it to this day.
Sorry but no. I wish I could say that happened. But it didn't. I got nothing out of what we read during family scripture time. I can't remember a single verse.
But I was impacted by the fact that we tried to read the scriptures together as a family at all. My parents sacrificed the early morning peace of the house to drag everyone out of bed to read scriptures. They sacrificed their sleep to read scriptures (a price that seems higher and higher with each year I grow older). Despite our best efforts to break their resolve, they kept trying to get us into the right habits. In fits and starts, sure, but they kept coming back and trying again.
The fact that it was so important to my parents touched me. And when I think about family scriptures, I think immediately of what we did do and not how far below the "ideal" we were. As Elder Bednar beautifully taught, it was the consistency and fortitude of my parents during those years that influenced me much more than any chapter or verse or book we read as a family.
I'll talk about a better way to study the scriptures in a moment, but I want to hit on that point: when it comes to Scriptures, start with what you can do. If you can only do a quick verse before dinnertime prayers like my family did, start there. If you don't currently have a regular time set aside for scriptures, please don't aim for the "ideal" all at once. If you try to do that, you will almost definitely fail, get discouraged, and go back to doing nothing and feeling guilty about it (for more on setting realistic goals, see my earlier post, "Don't try to follow all of the Lord's counsel at once"). Just start with the easiest idea you can realistically do, and go from there. Then once you have a habit established, you can level up to…
The terrestrial scripture plan: A chapter a day keeps the devil at bay
OK, now let's assume you are have allotted some sort of regular personal and family scripture time. How is your time spent? How much do you read? If you're like most people, you will answer will sound something like, "we read one chapter per day." Some people, realizing that not all chapters are the same length, choose instead to read a set number of pages (instead of chapters) to ensure a more consistent length of time.
This is a nice and simple, reliable approach to reading the scriptures. It is so convenient to read "a chapter" or "X number of pages" per day. It gives us a number we can hit. It gives us a box we can check off. It gives us a way to accomplish all the challenges thrown at us by Bishops and stake presidents to read the Book of Mormon as a stake/ward/Church by some specific date.
Now, I'm not a Gospel super-scholar by any means, but I am pretty familiar with the Book of Mormon (I'm a Book of Mormon blogger, after all– it's kind of "my thing"). I've read it many times. And there are some stories and themes that you can only really see when you have dutifully marched through it a few times at a pretty rapid clip. Verses from 1 Nephi pop into your head when you read in Ether (and vice versa). The story makes more sense. The characters become familiar. Each time you read it, a new theme pops out through the entire book that you never noticed before. This level of familiarity can only come through repetition. Verse by verse, chapter by chapter. Over and over again.
Once you are familiar with the characters and the story, you can level it up a notch again…
The celestial scripture plan: Stop reading. Start studying.
Take a moment and imagine for a second what the Book of Mormon would be like if it had no chapter and verse markings. What a mess, right? But that's actually the way the Book of Mormon was originally printed: no verses, no chapters, no columns. Fortunately, in 1879, the Church added chapter and verse markings to more closely mimic the structure King James Version of the Bible. With these study aids, the Book of Mormon is a lot easier to navigate.
But the addition of chapters and verses also comes at a cost. It becomes so easy to break your scripture reading up into a cadence defined by these study aids. In my experience, most members who have developed a regular scripture reading habit tend to read "a chapter per day" or something like that. That terrestrial level of scripture reading has its place. Reading a certain number of chapters or pages each day is a great way to hit date-based goals to "finish the Book of Mormon by the end of the year" or something like that. But if that's our go-to method of study, we're missing out big time. It's like saying you're going to become intimately familiar with the US by rapidly driving through one state each day. Sure, you've covered your bases, but are you really immersing yourself?
I'm going to say something that sounds bold: reading a chapter per day in the Scriptures isn't study at all. If you do that, you're doing it wrong. Think I'm coming on too strong? Maybe you're right. I'll let Pres. Howard W Hunter say it instead:
There are some who read to a schedule of a number of pages or a set number of chapters each day or week. This may be perfectly justifiable and may be enjoyable if one is reading for pleasure, but it does not constitute meaningful study. It is better to have a set amount of time to give scriptural study each day than to have a set amount of chapters to read. Sometimes we find that the study of a single verse will occupy the whole time.
Go and read the rest of his talk. It's awesome. Pres. Hunter is inviting us to be converted from the terrestrial level of scripture reading to the celestial level of scripture study.
This higher level of study is the foundation of my testimony. Starting in middle school, I started reading my scriptures every evening more or less just to check off the box to say that I had done it. I read through the scriptures like they were a novel. I would let the words flow over me, hit the end of the chapter, pray, and go to sleep. On occasion, if I was very lucky, I'd actually enjoy it and get something out of it. But that was rare. I wasn't in it to get something out of it. I was in it to cross off my spiritual checklist and show God I was obedient– nothing more.
But sometime in my late teenage years, that started to change. I think it started one night when I was studying a long chapter. Something jumped out at me I hadn't realized before. I cross-referenced other verses, jumping all over the scriptures, making connections that were new and exciting. The scriptures were coming alive to me. After an hour or so of chasing and rediscovering, it was really late and I had to rush to bed without finishing the chapter.
At first, I felt guilty that I had only made it through 5 verses of the chapter. But then, I realized it was stupid to feel guilty. Why should I feel guilty for receiving impressions and making connections? Those relatively few words I had studied for one hour had a greater impact on me than the thousands I had only read for the weeks and months before. That's when I think it hit me: what if I could do this all the time!
So I started learning to study at the celestial level. Instead of going into scripture study with a goal to read a set number of chapters or pages, I go in with the goal to receive at least one impression or make one new connection. Some days that takes a chapter or two. Some days it means I only read 3 verses because the impressions and connections come right away. But every time I have gone to the scriptures with that goal in my mind, I never leave dissatisfied. There is always something new there I can discover right now. It's a well that never runs dry. Almost all my 71 (and counting) blog posts come from pieces of my personal study.
But it's not easy staying at the celestial level of study. I'm certainly not perfect at it. Sometimes I go weeks on end, receiving impressions and making connections and life is wonderful. But sometimes I go for a few weeks end at the terrestrial level because I can't seem to summon the energy to go down to my office and wake myself up enough to do more than just read. It's a struggle, and whenever I feel down, I know that's the first thing in my life I need to fix.
Nephi talked about adopting this higher level of study when he invited us to "feast upon the words of Christ." In Spanish, no word fully conveys the sentiment of the English word "feast," so the translators used what in my mind might be an even better expression: "deleitaos en las palabras de Cristo." Or literally "delight yourselves in the words of Christ." When we study the scriptures, we know we're doing it right when we can echo the words of Nephi: "My soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them… my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord; and my heart pondereth continually." Studying the scriptures in this way is truly a delight every single time.