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Lectio Divina

Four simple steps can help Christians become transformed by the Word of God: read, think, pray, and act.

A few months after I became a Christian, my youth pastor taught me a method of Bible study that has provided the foundation of my spiritual life ever since. At the time I didn't realize it was an ancient Christian tradition, and I didn't know that it had a Latin name—I only knew that it was an incredible tool for developing a closer walk with Christ. It's a centuries old method of Bible study designed to create lasting spiritual change in the lives of followers of Jesus Christ. This is the goal we all should have when we read scripture—we don't read it just for information; we read it to experience transformation. It's not about accumulating knowledge; it's about generating lasting change.

I recently read a book that I thoroughly enjoyed. It's called Talking Irish: The History of Notre Dame Football. I enjoyed the stories of legendary coaches and players, and all the events that contributed to this great football tradition. I learned a great deal about their history; I can now discuss it at length. I also developed some pretty strong opinions about which coaches were best, which games were most exciting, and which were the defining moments in Fighting Irish history. The book was entertaining and informative, but it wasn't life changing. When I finished the book, I had more knowledge, but I didn't have more character. I was still the same person that I was before.

Unfortunately, this is how some read the Bible. They're looking for information. To them, it's just history. It's all about the Jebusites and the Malachites and which ruler followed which ruler and how close is the Sea of Galilee to the city of Jerusalem and on and on. Or they're looking for something to argue about. They want to be able to support a certain doctrinal position or a certain view of the end times. Their focus is not, "What is God saying to me?" but "How can I use my Bible knowledge to prove you wrong?"

Of course, knowledge of Bible history is good. It's not only interesting, but it helps us to understand what is happening in the world today. Knowing doctrine is good, too—it prevents us from being led astray by false teaching. But the Word of God has a greater purpose in our lives. God didn't give us the Bible just so we would know about the Jebusites, or just so we could out-debate [] those who disagree with us. He gave us the Bible so that we might know him, so that we might know his son, so that we might become Christ-like. The purpose of the Bible is not information, its transformation.

Today I want to talk to you about a style of Bible study that I have used my entire Christian life. Many of you have used it, too, in one variation or another. For those of you who want to experience the life-changing power of God's Word, you can put this method of Bible study into practice in your own life. The results will amaze you.

Reading the Bible works. John MacArthur said, "I have found that my spiritual growth is directly proportionate to the amount of time and effort I put into the study of Scripture." The same is true in my life. There are many ways to read and study Scripture; this way has proven to be the best for me.

It's called Lectio Divina. It's Latin. Lectio = reading. Divina = Divine. In other words, it means sacred, or holy, or spiritual reading. Lectio Divina is the slow, contemplative reading and praying of the Scriptures that enables you to experience a life-changing union with God. It consists of four parts. Let's take a look at them.


This method of Bible study begins with slow, reverential reading. You take your time with it. Let the words sink in one at a time. The truth is, we're not accustomed to reading this way. Many of us read the Bible like we read a novel or the newspaper—the main purpose being just to finish. In a modern version like the Message or the Living Translation, you can breeze through the gospel of Luke in a couple of hours. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; I actually think it's a good idea to read through scripture "like a book" on occasion. But this is not the type of transformational reading I am referring to today.

In transformational Bible study, you read a small passage. One psalm, or maybe just a part of one psalm. Or a few verses from one of the Gospels or one of Paul's letters. You choose a small passage and read through it once. Then you slow down, and read through it again. The purpose of this reading is to let God speak to you through his Word about how you can be obedient to his will for your life.

I do most things at 90 miles per hour. My tendency is to get things done as fast as possible in anticipation of marking one item off my to-do list and moving to the next item.' But over the years I have had to discipline myself to put on the brakes when I begin my time alone with God. I begin by taking a few minutes to "be still." I read the passage, and then I read it again, slowly. And then I read it again. I do this every day in my devotional time. Also, this is how I begin my sermon preparation. Transformational Bible study begins with a slow, reverential reading of the text. The second step is...


After you read the passage two or three times, meditate on it. That means you think about it. During this time I ask, "What was Paul saying? What did Jesus mean? Why did David express it this way?" Sometimes I read a commentary to help me understand the passage, but only briefly, and only for clarity. The purpose of this type of reading is not to learn what Barclay or Barnes or Ironside says about the text. The purpose is to allow God to speak to you through his Word. You want to hear God's voice, not a commentator's. So you read slowly and carefully, then you think about it. For example, if you're reading Psalm 1, when you read verse 1:

"Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers."

Your thought process might go something like this: "OK, what does this mean—'walk in the counsel of the wicked'? He must be talking about taking advice from ungodly people, or following the example of bad people. Is this something I have a problem with? Whose counsel do I walk in? And the phrase, 'stand in the way of sinners'—what does that mean? The NASV says, 'stand in the path of sinners.' Maybe he's referring to putting yourself in a position where it's easy to be found by those who might lead you astray, like an alcoholic who still socializes with his old drinking buddies. There are some people who don't care if I'm holy or not, and they're not going to help me become a better disciple. In fact, if I'm in their path, they'll do what they can to take me down with them. Another psalm says about this type of person, 'They hide behind ordinary people, then pounce on their victims' (Psalm 10:8, The Message). I need to make sure I'm not putting myself in a position where I'm vulnerable to ungodly influence."

Reading on, it says this about the one who delights in the law of God:

(v. 3) "He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers."

And you think: "'Like a tree near water'. What's that like? Strong, healthy, sturdy, fruitful. A tree near the water doesn't fear a drought because it has a source that will never run dry. I need to be like that. And it says that whatever he does will prosper. I want to prosper. Maybe the missing element in my life is that I don't spend enough time meditating on and delighting in the law of God. 'Delighting in the law of God'—what does that mean? Well, I'm sure he's talking about more than just reading it. He's talking about living it. He's talking about being eager to build my life on Biblical principles. Let me think. What Biblical principles do I resist—what do I do that prevents me from being like a tree planted near the water?"

This is the process of meditating on the scripture. You think about it: "What does it say? What does it mean? How does it fit into my life?" For me, depending on how much time I have, I spend anywhere from ten minutes to half an hour (and sometimes more) just meditating on the passage of Scripture, mulling it over in my mind, asking questions, considering all the possible meanings.


This leads us to the next step in the process. The Latin word is oratio. It means prayer. Prayer is a conversation with God. It's a dialogue, not a monologue. Many of us, when we pray, do all the talking. It's good to talk to God, but it's only half of the conversation. You also need to spend some time listening. Here's an amazing discovery. If you'll listen, God will speak to you. Frankly, people who say, "I've never heard God speak to me," probably haven't invested a great deal of time in listening. Of course, I must make clear that I'm not referring to an audible voice. I've never heard one. In fact, I've never personally known a mature believer who has claimed to hear an audible voice from God. When God speaks, it's not in an audible voice—it's much, much louder than that. He speaks through his inspired, infallible, and absolutely inerrant Word. As you meditate on Scripture, his Spirit quickens your spirit in such a way that you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is speaking to you. In Lectio Divina, there is a time spent in prayer in which you just listen to God—"God what are you saying to me today?"—and you wait for his Spirit to show you, through the Word, what he wants you to know.

This is also a time when you pour your heart out to God. Maybe he's speaking to you about controlling your tongue. You might say, "God, you tell me not to gossip, but my job revolves around it. All my relationships at work are built on it. How can I make the transition from being a gossip to not being a gossip? I don't want to act like I think I'm better than everyone. And what if I refuse to listen to gossip for a few days, then fall off the wagon and start blabbing again? Then I'll really lose everyone's respect. God, what is the best way to put this principle into practice at work in such a way that it brings you glory and draws others to you?" During this time of prayer, you pour out your heart to God, asking him for strength, guidance, and direction. There's no point in making promises to God that you don't yet have the strength to keep. If God is challenging you to do something that seems to be impossible, talk it over with him. The more you pray about it, the more power and direction God can pour into your life.


The last step of this process is contemplation. At first glance contemplation and meditation seem like synonyms, but there is a distinction between the two. This is how I see it: Contemplation is the process of nailing down how to put God's Word into action. As you prayerfully read the Scriptures, you discover biblical truths and principles and warnings and commands. The goal is to define what specific thing God wants you to do in order to put these truths to work in your life. This is what it's all leading up to—that we will become "doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves." (James 1:22 NASV)

My old youth minister encouraged me to take notes each day as I read the Scripture. He said I should end each day with the phrase, "Today I need to..." and then commit to an action based on what God had just spoken to me through the Scripture. I've been doing this most of the days of my life for the last 30 years. Rarely a day goes by that God doesn't reveal a specific action to take that day in order to follow him in holiness and obedience. It could be something as simple as, "Today I need to call Bob and encourage him," or "Today I need to apologize to Andy for being abrupt with him," or "Today (or this week, or this month) I need to turn off the TV and spend more time in ministry." There are some days when the Word is so specific and so personal that I couldn't consider sharing it with you. But I'll say this: I'm amazed at how consistently the Word speaks to what is going on in my life. When I'm facing temptation or struggling with a decision, God speaks to me through his Word. In April, when I'm doing my taxes, it's amazing how verses about honesty and integrity keep popping up in my devotional reading. Or in the fall, when I'm tempted to watch more football than I should, verses about priorities and management find their way into my daily readings. It's an incredible coincidence that has recurred consistently throughout the last 30 years. God speaks to you through his Word, he tells you what to do so that you can become a doer of the Word. That's the contemplation step of this process. You nail down what God wants you to do.


These are the four steps to transformational Bible study: Read. Think. Pray. Act. I want to close with some suggestions on how you can implement this discipline into your life.

1. Choose a book. I usually go through one book of the Bible, and bounce back and forth in the Psalms. I'll go through Ephesians, then spend a few weeks in the Psalms, then Mark, then back to the Psalms for a month, then 1 John, and so on. I don't just flip open the Bible and start reading. I have a specific plan. I always know where I will be for the next several weeks.

2. Stick with Scripture. A friend told me recently that he's reading a Chuck Swindoll book for his morning devotional. Chuck Swindoll is great—read his books when you have time, but not during your morning devotional. I encourage you to make Scripture your primary source of devotional reading. Let the Word influence you, not Rick Warren or Joel Osteen or John MacArthur. (They would all agree, of course.)

3. Make the most of your time. One benefit of this method of Bible reading is that it is easy to conform to your schedule. Some days you have less time than others. If you're short on time one day, then meditate on one verse. Read it, think about it, pray about it, and decide how you will act on it. When you have more time, spend more time—but even when you're squeezed for time, make the most of it and God will continue to speak to you.

4. Take it with you. When you spend time in the Word in the morning, it stays with you the whole day. You find yourself thinking about it, praying about it, and looking for ways to apply it to your life all day long. While you're busy with your work, get in the habit of mentally going back to what God revealed to you that morning. Keep thinking about it throughout the day.

5. Write it down. Keep a notebook where you can write down the results of each day's reading. Remember to end each one with, "Today I need to.…"

6. Apply it to yourself. God is speaking to you. He's not telling you what to tell your wife to do. And he's not using this time to tell you all the ways that you're better than everyone else. He's challenging you to change, to become more like his Son.

7. Be Patient. Give yourself time to adapt to this discipline. It might take a little while to hit your stride and become fully comfortable with this method of Bible reading. But I promise you, it's worth the effort.

'I'm not talking about becoming the Bible Answer Man or being able to argue with the people at another church. 'I'm talking about transformational Bible study—becoming doers of the word in order to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. If you want to nurture your spiritual life and empower your soul, then I encourage you to make this your daily habit.

© Steve May, 2005
A resource of Christianity Today International

Steve May has been a pastor to pastors for more than 20 years, helping preachers and teachers to become more effective communicators of the gospel.

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Sermon Outline:

Introduction: Read the Bible to experience transformation, not to garner information.

I. Reading

II. Meditation

III. Prayer

IV. Contemplation

Conclusion: If you want to nurture your spiritual life and empower your soul, then make transformational Bible study a daily habit.