If you look over my shoulder as I am studying or reading my Bible, you will see that I usually read with a pen in hand. If you attend The River’s “Reading Scripture” course, you’ll discover we encourage people to read Scripture with a pencil in hand. And, typically, the question gets raised: Why do that?
Although we do not believe there is anything magical about reading with a pencil or pen in hand (for the purpose of writing in the text!), we do think that there are some very helpful reasons for doing this.
Paul encouraged Timothy to “be diligent to present [himself] approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). Paul’s counsel is for Timothy to intentionally labor over Scripture (the idea behind the expression “be diligent”) so that he can accurately handle God’s Word. The goal is not to master God’s Word as one might master basic chemistry or become proficient in a particular software package. Timothy is being called to read and understand and live under God’s Word in a healthy and appropriate way.
That’s the goal of reading with a pen or pencil in hand—it is a tool that can help any reader be more intentional in reading Scripture.
Here are a few things that we find that happens when we read with pencil in hand (and writing in the text):
- The very habit of reading with a pencil in hand seems to encourage paying closer attention to what is read. If you have to think about what might need to be underlined (and why), what needs to be highlighted in some way, you pay much closer attention to the words on the page—the heart of all good reading.
- By underlining key words or phrases, it is easier to track the flow of thought in the passage. One of the things that can get in the way of reading Scripture well is privileging personal ideas over the thoughts of the text. So, tracking what the inspired author is saying is critical.
- By jotting down ideas and thoughts in the margin that come to mind while reading, you can look back over the passage and get a better grasp on what the Lord might be calling your attention to. If you don’t note something in the margin, you might find you come away from a passage unsure that you heard anything from the Lord.
- By listing the questions that come to mind in the margin, it’s easier to pursue the issues raised by the text. Looking over the questions can lead to a clearer focus on what you still need to wrestle with in order to grasp what this particular passage says.
- By having a text that you have written in, underlined, and commented on, when you later return to that text, it’s more obvious what you have (or have not!) taken to heart. Your scribbles provide an ongoing guide to what needs to be embraced in the text and provides an ongoing record of how you are seeking to do that.
It’s true. Some people aren’t comfortable writing in their Bible. That’s understandable. We are not saying that you must write in your Bible. But it does seem that a Bible that is well written in gives evidence of a Bible well read. And that is what is most important.