Reading for Formation

Have you ever wondered where Jesus acquired His knowledge of scripture? Sure, He is God, so He wrote it, but, at the same time, He is human, and humans learn through study and experience. We know that even Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature” (Luke 2:52). Think about that. Like us, Jesus experienced what it’s like to grow! Though certainly aided by the Holy Spirit, Jesus’ knowledge wasn’t just downloaded into His mind and heart. He had to work at it, and reading scripture is one thing He must have done. But how did He read this living and active word of God (Hebrews 4:12)?


Western culture has taught most of us to read for information, hunting for knowledge we can use. And so we skim bulk mail letters and scan newsfeed headlines looking for the word that promises to be useful. When computer trouble strikes, we hop through the manual searching for the one bit of information that will meet our need. The school text book, the billboard, a restaurant’s menu, the list goes on but the point is made. All our lives we have been taught to read for information and this is effective for much of what we have to read. But if the genre shifts, reading for information alone can cause us to miss the true treasure found in what we read.


Before we were married, Anne and I got to know one another through a six year long-distance relationship that relied heavily on hand-written letters (yes, we are that old). As I think back on those days, I realize that I read Anne’s letters with a different attitude. Sure, my first time through was looking for information as I scanned for news and clues to her well-being. But then I’d read it again, and again, and again. I would pause on certain words or phrases wondering what she meant, seeking the meaning behind the words. After mulling the contents of her letter over in my mind, I would respond with a letter of my own. The result? Rather than gaining a knowledge about Anne, I grew to know Anne. Rather than be informed about her, I was formed by her.


Reading for information (text books, manuals, news) allows us to better respond to our circumstances by supplying the knowledge we need. The goal of this sort of reading is functional—what can I do with what I learn?  Reading for formation, however, allows the author to shape our hearts by interacting with us at the deepest level of our being. The goal of this reading is relational—what can I become because of who I am coming to know?


Reading for formation has also been called “spiritual reading” and has been practiced for thousands of years. Marjorie Thompson states that spiritual reading “has as much to do with the intention, attitude, and manner we bring to the words as it does with the nature and content of those words. Spiritual reading is reflective and prayerful. It is concerned not with speed or volume but with depth and receptivity. That is because the purpose of spiritual reading is to open ourselves to how God may be speaking to us in and through any particular text.”


Through the same biblical text God can both teach us (informational and functional reading) and speak to us (formational and relational reading). Both are necessary. The two types of reading go together like a hand in a glove. The hand (reading for information) is strong and gives substance to the glove (reading for formation). Without the hand the glove is limp and lacks strength. But without the glove the hand is cold. Many in our country have strong hands that are desperately in need of a glove!


We don’t have to look hard to find examples of reading for formation. It is an ancient practice which is directly connected to the discipline of meditation and is seen throughout the Bible (Josh 1:8; Psalm 1; 119:9-16; 63; John 15:7; Col 3:16; Heb 4:12-13).  Abba Poeman (fourth century), Saint Benedict (sixth century), John Calvin, Richard Baxter and many, many others advocated a type of reflective meditation on scripture which we call reading for formation, or spiritual reading.


The Bible can be read, and indeed should be read, for both information and formation. How, then, do we read the scripture in a formative way? What can we do to “let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly” (Col 3:16)?


For centuries the discipline of lectio divina (literally, divine or spiritual reading) has been used for this very purpose. Lectio (pronounced either lek-teeo or lex-eeo) has four parts to it. These segments are intended as a guide and should not be viewed or approached as a rigid sequence that must be followed. Here is a quick summary that works well within the gospels.


In a nutshell, lectio begins in scripture and ends in prayer. It starts with READING the scripture slowly and thoughtfully, one bit at a time all the while asking, “Lord, what do you want to say to me right now?”


After reading comes the chance to REFLECT or meditate on what we have read. Like a cow chewing its cud, read the text slowly, multiple times, stopping to ponder words or phrases that catch your attention. As you read, make the effort to enter the scene.


Unlike the analytical approach of Bible study, this is a reflection where we use our God-given imagination to enter into the text. Try to feel the heat of the day or the cool of the night. Imagine the sound of the crowd’s footfall along that dusty path. Is there one character in the story that you seem to identify with the most? Why do you suppose that is? Do what you can to actually enter the scene. Here we seek to join the Word with our heart by asking, “Lord, what are you saying to me right now?”


At some point, we will be moved to RESPOND in prayer to the stirring in our heart. Tell the Lord what you are feeling and ask Him to provide what you need at that moment and for that day. The final step is one of REST and RECEIVE. Here we move into a stillness before God. No more requests. No more crying out. Just rest in God’s presence. The guiding question here is, “How is God revealing Himself to me right now?”


Like reading a letter from a distant loved one, let the words from scripture travel through your mind and enter your heart. Then, after mulling the content and meaning as best you can, respond by writing a letter in reply through prayer or journaling. Finally, take the time rest in what you have received.


The gospels are loaded with excellent material that can help us learn to read for formation. Go ahead, pick one and take twenty minutes to practice the four steps of lectio I mentioned above. For God’s Word to dwell richly requires that we give it access into the deep places of our hearts. Such access is not gained by a quick reading in the morning. It takes time and it takes an intentional choice to sit under God’s word, allowing it to enter our lives, so that through it God might mold and shape our hearts. 


May the certainty of God’s living and active word touch and shape your life even in the midst of this season of uncertainty.

Rob Eyman


P.S. Why do I think Jesus practiced this kind of reading? The full answer needs to be the topic of another article. But for now, let me say that Jesus must have practiced the kind of mediation commanded in Joshua 1:8 and mentioned many places in the Psalms (Psalm 1:2 as an obvious example). The fruit of this kind of mediation is seen as well.


For instance, I think it was this kind of reading that gave Jesus His answer to the Sadducees in Matthew 22:23-32. The Sadducees knew the information. God said “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” While the information informed their minds they had not yet allowed it to form their lives and how they applied what they knew and believed. When Jesus read this text I think He had taken the time to ask, “What do you want to tell me in this Father?” He saw that this quote is in the present tense even though God spoke it to Moses after these three had been buried! Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still alive! So He said to the Sadducees, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.” Ponder that little phrase with me for a bit. Wow!


In what other places does Jesus show a depth of insight to God’s Word? How do you think He “grew” to gain that?