Today, we have the opportunity to take in the Bible in many ways. We can read it in daily devotionals, listen to an audio reading on our commutes to work, tape verses to our bathroom mirrors, take detailed notes during sermons, and scroll through inspirational pictures and verses on Instagram.
Yet even with the Bible—God’s own Word—at our fingertips, we so often struggle to be truly affected by it.
We read about having great joy, yet despair creeps in when we think about the unknowns ahead. We read about God’s great love for us, yet fail to prioritize time with him. We read about how we are wonderfully made, yet view our bodies and selves with discontentment, even loathing.
We can know in our minds that God is faithful, loving, and just. We can know in our minds that he wants the best for us—that Jesus Christ gave his very life for us. We read powerful truths like “Abide in my love” (John 15:9) and “Love the LORD your God with all your heart” (Luke 10:27a), and “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27a), but they often remain stubbornly in our heads, just words on a page, and we struggle to work them into our hearts, actions, and decisions.
The early American preacher Jonathan Edwards illustrates the difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge in his sermon Divine and Supernatural Light, writing, “Your mind can know honey is sweet, people can tell you it’s sweet, you’ve read books about it, etc. but if you haven’t actually tasted it, you know with your head, but not with your heart. When you actually taste it, you experience it for yourself, you know it in a full way, and you can know it in your heart.” He goes on to say, “There is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace.”
How than can we reach that experiential sense—that heart-knowledge—of God? What are some ways we can move toward transforming intellectual knowledge of the Bible into life-changing fruits?
First, we can continue to immerse ourselves in God’s Word—even when it feels half-hearted and we struggle to truly absorb the words. One of the best examples I’ve seen of this persistence is in the lives of a small group of Benedictine nuns serving God in the mountains of northwestern Ireland.
I spent two summer months living, working, and studying at their monastery. Most of the nuns there were elderly and had lived at the monastery for the majority of their lives, going to early morning prayers and afternoon masses and evening prayer services every day, without fail, for fifty, sixty, seventy years. I attended the services sometimes and watched them from my seat as we recited ancient prayers and psalms—words that they had probably recited thousands of times. The other students and I asked them, “Is it ever difficult—boring even? Reciting the same words, doing the same things, every day?”
Sister Noreen spoke up, and I’ll never forget her response. She didn’t think of the prayers and psalms and services as difficult or boring. Instead, she told us that as she has woke up each day at the same time, said the same prayers, recited the same words, read the same verses…they have gradually, sometimes quietly, but always changed her heart. “I don’t change the words or songs. They change me,” she said.
Sometimes opening the Bible might feel pointless. Sometimes it feels discouraging. Sometimes as our eyes read word after word, line after line, we yawn and check the clock and drink our coffee and stretch and move on with our day.
Yet Hebrews 4:12 tells us that the Word of God is “living and active…discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The Bible may have been written centuries ago, but it contains words that are still true, powerful, and relevant to our lives today. Moreover, we know that Christians have the Holy Spirit, working in our hearts as well as our minds. Immerse yourself in Scripture, and, like streams of water working slowly but surely to smooth and cut through rock, change will occur. Someone who is seeking can only rest in the presence of great love and truth for so long before being softened, molded, affected, and/or transformed by it.
While routine is important, experiencing the Bible in new ways can also revitalize your understanding of its impact on your life. Here are some ways to study and think about Scripture in different lights.
This ancient practice of experiencing Scripture includes four steps: reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. First, read a verse or short passage several times, slowly. Second, spend time dwelling on the verse’s meaning and the implications it might have for your faith and relationship with God. Third, through prayer, thank God and talk with him about the passage. Finally, spend time in contemplative prayer, sitting in silence, listening to what God might have for you to hear.
Throughout Scripture, music is used to praise and commune with God. As an art form, singing words can bring new meanings and understanding to light. Choose a Scripture-based song or hymn to listen to and learn.
When you commit verses to memory, even if a verse seems irrelevant or dry at the time, you can instantaneously apply Scripture when you find yourself in need, or when circumstances in your life change to illuminate the verses in new ways.
During your Scripture reading, try writing out your thoughts, prayers, concerns, reflections, and questions. Oftentimes, processing our thoughts through the physical act of writing brings new revelations or applications we wouldn’t consider otherwise.
God created people to be in community with him—and with each other. Partner with a friend or mentor in reading through a book of the Bible or section of Scripture, and meet to share and discuss your thoughts and any struggles.
PUT IT INTO PRACTICE
Finally, a key part of cultivating heart knowledge is to find a place you can actively put head knowledge to work through service. Volunteer at a nonprofit, get involved in your local church, reach out to someone in need of a friend, or think of ways to better love and serve the people in your life.
Focusing on meeting the needs of others helps break us out of our own minds. For example, in Galatians 5:22–23, Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit—nine attributes that mark someone who has received the Holy Spirit and is following God. When we search for ways to actively show the fruit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—suddenly this picture of what the Christian life looks like isn’t just a list in a book. Instead, we have tangible opportunities to live it out in our daily interactions with others. In this way, truths in the Bible come to life in our very stories.
KNOWING IN FULL
Ultimately, we rest in the knowledge that the transition from head to heart knowledge is not in our control, but in the hands of one much more capable and all-knowing—the Holy Spirit.
This requires trust. Trust that your time spent praying (when it feels like no one is listening) and that your time spent reading Scripture (when it feels like it’s just words on a page), is not wasted. But Philippians 1:6 promises, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Christ made it possible to have faith in God through his sacrifice on the cross. And through the Holy Spirit our faith and understanding of God will continue to deepen until Jesus returns. As we depend on him each day, leaning on the Bible and our relationship with him, the Holy Spirit will grow and strengthen our heart-knowledge of God.
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face,” writes Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12. “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” God fully knows our thoughts, desires, and entire selves—including our struggle to know him more and pattern our lives after his will. Through the Holy Spirit, we can journey through life toward knowing him as well, breathing in his love, mercies, and truth each day until the final day when we will know in full, and be face-to-face with our Savior.