How to get the most out of scripture

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Image: THE GOAL OF READING the Bible is ultimately to live your relationships with God and others in a fuller Christian way.

Like any other skill,
reading the Bible needs to be learned and developed through practice. Being a skillful Bible reader will depend on using good methods to discover the meaning of what you read. You need to recognize the words and understand their meaning so that you can apply the message to your life. Reading any text, especially an ancient one like the Bible, is always challenging.

One Bible, many meanings
As people discover when they share their biblical insights with family, friends, or faith-sharing groups, the meanings they discover in the Bible seem endless. One reason for this is that your mind can never fully grasp the divinely revealed mysteries about God. But the Bible does guide you and help you discover and understand your relationship with God. It also challenges you and calls into question who you are and how you live.

Another reason for so many different meanings is that as your reading situation and personal needs change, so will what you discover in the Bible. Being in a relationship with another is a never-ending surprise about both the other and yourself, so you must learn to live the Bible’s questions and let them challenge you. When what you read makes you uncomfortable, you can be sure this is a sign from God about where you need to grow.

To become a more skillful Bible reader, it helps to have a handy method to go about your task of reading. One such approach makes it as easy as A-B-C! This technique focuses on the three basic steps of your reading: Approaching the text, Breaking it open, and Connecting it to your life.

1. Approaching the text: Examining your assumptions
As readers, what you get out of a passage depends largely on what you bring to it. The written words are fixed on the page and everybody reads the same words but discovers many different meanings. Some of this dissimilarity arises from the personal differences in knowledge and experience that readers bring to their interpretation of the passage. Other differences arise from the interests that guide their reading and from the connections that they make to their lives.

Whenever you want to read the Bible, it helps to consider your personal assumptions by asking some basic questions about why you want to read the Bible:

  • What is going on in my life that points me toward the Bible?
  • Why would I want to read the Bible and not some other book?
  • What do I want or expect to discover from this reading?
  • What questions, concerns, or needs do I wish to address?
  • What do I want to focus on now: the theological issue of who God is or how God acts; historical issues about when and where the events described happened; psychological issues about the motivations or values that prompt biblical persons’ choices; the application to my own problems by seeing how the biblical story is my story? There is no end to what might interest you and focus your approach to the biblical passage.
2. Breaking open the text: What it says and means
Discovering the meaning of a biblical passage moves in two stages.

First, ask yourself what the passage says and then what it means. To understand what a biblical passage says you need to rely on an accurate modern translation like the New American Bible Revised Edition or the New Revised Standard Version (get the annotated versions with the helpful notes). Read the selected passage all the way through without looking at any footnotes or other material. Sit quietly with the reading for a minute, reflecting on it. If there are words or phrases or religious terms that are not clear, look them up in a dictionary. As a clue for determining meaning, notice also what type of writing it is—gospel, letter, historical book, wisdom book, prophecy, and so on. At the least determine whether it is prose or poetry.

  • What does this scripture passage tell me about God? About Jesus? About the Holy Spirit?
  • Does that confirm what I already know?
  • Is there something new here that I had not noticed before?
  • What does God want me to know or do?
  • What does God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit do in relation to me and my world?
  • How is the divine presence and power revealed?
  • Why does God come to me?
  • What is required of me to do or not do?
  • What does this passage tell me about myself?
  • How am I like the people in scripture?
  • How would I respond if what is happening in the passage happened to me?
  • How would I be changed if I did what the passage says?
  • What challenged me to live out my faith more fully?
  • What surprised me the most about this passage?
  • What puzzled me the most?
  • What made me most comfortable? Why?
  • What made me most uncomfortable? Why?
  • What do I learn about the community that God desires?
  • What does this passage tell me about how to love God?
  • What does this passage tell me about how to love others?
  • What guidelines for better community-living does the passage offer?
To understand what the passage means, you must first ask what the original author wanted the original audience to understand by these words. After all, this author was the one who put these words together to convey a meaning to someone. Getting at what the ancient author originally meant is not always easy because the passage was composed centuries ago in a culture and language that were very different from ours. So you mostly rely on scripture scholars to identify this original meaning. The introductions and footnotes in your Bible usually give this kind of information, and commentaries—like the New Collegeville Bible Commentary or the New Jerome Biblical Commentary—help when you have further questions.

Once you have a sense of what the passage meant to its author and its first readers, you can connect that meaning to similar situations and needs in your own life. Their story is your story, too.

3. Connecting the text: Applying it to life
The goal of reading the Bible is ultimately to live your relationships with God and others in a fuller Christian way. Connecting the Bible’s meaning with your life can occur at any point and in any way. One way to discover possible connections to your life is to focus specifically on the people or on the story.

If you focus on the people, then you seek to connect points between their ideas, feelings, values, and behavior as examples for your own. Every person you encounter in the Bible is in some way like you. The root of the similarity is that both they and you are involved in a relationship with God. Their example of how they worked out the details in order to live out that relationship provides some clues for how you can do so, too.

If you focus on the story, then you seek to connect points between the biblical story and your life story. The Bible is the story of people in relationship to God. The relationship moves through a pattern of invitation and call, hearing and response, faith commitment and covenant, community and shared responsibility; building the relationship; meeting the challenges of obligations and changing yourself because of the relationship; and accepting the cost of maintaining the relationship. Where are you in this dynamic process of relationship with God? What are the challenges and demands that the biblical passage opens to you? How does the biblical passage help you live more fully your relationship with God?

God’s Word at work
As you use this A-B-C method to explore the Bible, you will notice that reading the Bible is like a conversation that involves a give-and-take by which you are changed. When you approach the passage, you are also approached by God through the words of the passage. As you break open the meaning of the passage, you are broken open by God’s living Word to be transformed by your relationship. As you connect the passage to your life, you are connected more closely to God through the words that you read. As you work on God’s Word, God’s Word works on you.

For Bible reading, merely gaining an intellectual insight is never the end of the process. When you discover the meaning of the passage, you move from information to application and action. Your reading of scripture is never simply for ideas or information but for the formation of yourself as a Christian. Bible reading is for living in relationship with God.

Steve Mueller, Ph.D.Steve Mueller, Ph.D. is an author, speaker, teacher, and the current editor of the quarterly publication Words of Grace: Daily Reflections & Prayers for Catholics from All Saints Press (




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