If you look over my shoulder as I am studying or reading my Bible, you will see that I usually read with a pencil in hand. If you attend our “Reading Scripture” course you’ll discover I encourage people to read and study Scripture with a pencil in hand. And, typically, the question gets raised: Why do that?
Although I do not believe there is anything “magical” about reading with a pencil in hand (for the purpose of writing in the text!), I do think that there are some very helpful benefits from doing this.
Paul encourages 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” (the idea behind the expression “be diligent”) so that he can accurately handle God’s Word. The idea 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 pencil in hand—it is a tool that helps me intentionally labor over Scripture in order to read it in a healthy and appropriate way.
Here’s a few things that I find that happens when I am reading with pencil in hand (and writing in the text):
- The very habit of reading with a pencil in hand seems to drive me to pay closer attention to what I am reading. As I read, if I am thinking about what I might underline (and why), what needs to be highlighted in some way, I find that I pay much closer attention to the words on the page—the heart of all good reading.
- By underlining key words or phrases, I find it 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 to privilege my 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 I read, I find that I can look back over the passage and get a better feel for what the Lord might be calling my attention to. If I don’t note something in the margin, I can find myself reading a passage and coming away not sure that I heard anything from the Lord.
- By listing the questions that come to mind in the margin as I read, I find that I can better pursue the issues the text before me raises. I can look over the questions and focus on what I still need to wrestle with in order to truly grasp what this particular passage says.
- By having a text that I have written in, underlined, and commented on, when I later return to that particular text, I can better capture what I have (or have not!) taken to heart. My scribbles provide an ongoing guide to my need to own what I am reading and a record of how I am seeking to do that.
I know. Some people aren’t comfortable writing in their Bible. I understand that. I am not saying that you must write in your Bible. I do have a Bible that I don’t write in. But the one I study from—the one I am “living in”—becomes well written in. And that seems to be of real help.