I was 27 when I stopped reading the Bible for a year. I didn't stop for the reasons you might think. I wasn't rebelling. I wasn't necessarily doubting my faith. I quit because my spiritual mentor told me to do so.
It's important to understand the circumstances that led to her somewhat radical piece of advice.
The year I stopped reading the Bible, my husband, Dwayne, and I lived in Azusa, Calif.. He was a full-time graduate student, and I was working full-time as an adjunct professor. Our daughter, Noelle, was just a year old, and full of all the life and energy of a toddler.
I cried a lot that year. I remember being stalked by the constant shadow of anxiety, prowling like a wolf. I had no time for friendships, hardly time to go to church, no time to grade papers and prepare my lessons, no time to even do dishes. Our apartment was overrun by weevils and cockroaches. Life felt as if it were barely holding together. And I felt as if I were the sole safety net pulled taut beneath our family. If I broke, everyone and everything would come tumbling down in jagged edges of concrete and metal.
It was during this season that God led me to Jackie as a spiritual mentor. She was a graduate student studying spiritual formation at another Christian university. Jackie was a mother of three and a former missionary. We connected on many levels, and I sensed that I could trust her godly counsel. She began meeting with me monthly.
About six months into our relationship she advised me to “put your Bible down. Start spending your time with God doing things that energize you.”
I blinked at her, stunned. Telling someone to stop reading their Bible seemed absurd. What if I put down my Bible and never picked it back up? What if I put down my Bible and started a slide away from faith?
What if I put my bible down and God fell absolutely silent?
“You have read and heard the Bible since you were a little girl,” Jackie reassured me. “It is buried deep within you. The Holy Spirit will bring you what you need.”
All my life I had attended church, Sunday school, singing hymns, memorizing verses. I had an image of myself in high school spending time each day curled up, slogging my way through the Old Testament prophets. All the way through college, I beat myself up for not whipping my hours into shape so I could have regular devotions.
During the college years, I remember a friend saying, “I really look forward to getting up an hour earlier so I can meet with God before classes.” She seemed close to heaven, beatific. I felt small and guilty. Why wasn’t I getting up an hour earlier every day too?
This guilt perpetuated into my young adult years. No matter how much time I spent reading the Bible, there always hung over me the elusive measure of more. Why wasn’t I getting up earlier? Reading longer? Praying harder? And during that season of exhaustion at Azusa, I felt that my misery stemmed from my lack of spiritual discipline. But my time in the Bible had become a millstone of guilt and obligation.
As I sat with Jackie, contemplating new ways to spend time with God, she asked, “What things bring life, make you excited?”
“Writing,” I answered immediately. She nodded. “Then use your writing time to connect with God.” I tried to imagine how the act of writing could constitute communion with the Holy Spirit.
She brainstormed other ways for me to connect with God outside of studying my Bible: listening to worship music and taking walks with Noelle through our San Gabriel Mountains while listening for him.
My first few weeks without focused Bible-reading were odd. Sort of like a free-fall. I felt an unnerving absence wrap itself around my shoulders. Not so much the absence of my time reading the Bible, since that had been sporadic lately anyway, but more like the absence of the requirement.
I decided to spend Noelle’s morning nap time working on writing my book and praying. At first when I sat to write, I felt a measure of uncertainty. “I’m here, Jesus.” I whispered. “Meet me, please.” And then I typed away.
Jackie taught me a contemplative prayer for the morning and one for the night. In the morning, “What do you have for me today, Lord?” And in the evenings, “Show me where you were in this day, Lord.” As often as I could remember, I included these prayers, hedging my days with an awareness of God’s presence that had previously been gobbled up by a sense of rote duty.
A light came on after a time with my new forms of devotion. I began to recognize just how anxious and desperate I had been. Like a girl floating outside herself, I saw the ways that fretfulness had dictated my thoughts, attitudes, and actions.
Any time I felt the spindly fingers of anxiety return, I was taught to hold my anxiety in my hands, turn to Jesus and say, “This is what I’m feeling. Now what do I do?” Then wait and listen. The hand of God began streaming into my days like light falling through panes of glass.
One morning, as Noelle and I walked through our subdivision, we were passing a tricycle in someone’s yard and Noelle gravitated toward it. "No, no!" I called out. "That's not ours."
At that moment, the door of the apartment opened, and there stood a beautiful brown-eyed woman with a baby on her hip. Behind her, two curly-haired children peeked out. “It’s okay,” she smiled. “I’ve seen you walking before. I wanted to tell you that she can play with our toys.”
That morning, Denada invited me in for tea. We sat and talked and laughed while the children played. Afterwards, as I walked back, a single thought whispered across my heart as real as spoken words: “She is my gift to you, and you are my gift to her.” I wept all the way home.
“God brought me a friend,” I told Dwayne later. “I didn’t know how much I needed a friend, but he did.”
One year with my mentor Jackie turned into a second, and the time came when I asked, “So is it okay for me to read my Bible again?” I grinned. She laughed. “Yes,” she nodded, “but only if you desire to, and not from guilt, and start with no more than fifteen minutes.”
I was like a woman picking up an old habit. Would I be able to return to regular Bible study without beating this beautiful spiritual discipline into ruts of guilt and obligation?
In his book, Becoming Adult, Becoming Christian: Adult Development and Christian Faith, Dr. James Fowler chronicles a shift in faith very much like the one I went through. He calls it moving from synthetic-conventional faith to individuative-reflective faith. We must move from a faith built around the scaffolding given to us by our parents and caregivers to a more organic faith rooted deep in the soil of our own soul.
Everything is at stake when we choose to examine our values and beliefs in order to own them for ourselves.
As children, we mirror what we have been given. These are good guidelines, good boundaries. Our parents and pastors offer us blueprints by which to build the foundation of our faith.
But in the following stage, Fowler says we begin to examine these beliefs and make “critical choices about the defining elements of [our] identity and faith.” In other words, we begin to own these beliefs and identities for ourselves.
Inevitably, learning to see our faith from a more objective point of view means first separating from them. We need a little distance in order to gain perspective. Dr. Robert Kegan, an authority in developmental psychology puts it, “What we separate from, we find anew.”
Jackie had discerned that I needed to separate from my unhealthy pattern of reading the Bible in order to discover devotion with God in new ways.
In so many ways, the guilt and obligation that dictated my quiet time had been an extension of misconceptions about God and Jesus that had filtered into my thinking. I believed without ever saying it out loud that God would only interact with my life if I were disciplined enough and faithful enough. I believed my difficulties were because I was not working hard enough in my relationship with him. As a result, I beat myself into a pulp and missed the abundant love of my Creator and Redeemer.
Transitioning from one faith stage to the next is not like the next step on a ladder. It entails a reconstitution of our whole being. Everything is at stake when we choose to examine our values and beliefs in order to own them for ourselves. In the classic movie, The Green Pastures, one character says, “everything nailed down is coming loose.” In order to move from one stage to the next, the structure of how we see the world, interpret our values, and connect to God must shift.
As a parent, pastor, or mentor watching our young adults go through this kind of transition, it can feel as if they have lost their faith altogether. It can seem they have slipped away on the ether of doubt.
But the maps given to us as children can never be obliterated from our identity.
Sometimes we get the maps confused with our essential identity, and we need to untangle ourselves in order to embrace faith in healthy ways. Eventually, in order to make sense of the world, we acknowledge where we’ve come from and integrate our past into our future.
I returned to reading the Bible like a bird lighting on a limb. No more cages of misconception and compulsion. Over the years, my time in the Word has only gotten more regular, because it is a great source of joy and life for me, a quiet place where I drink deeply and rest.
Now I read the Bible, not because I feel I have to, or because I believe that God will be more faithful to me if I do it. I read because my time with the Lord is mine, and mine alone.