Let’s start with a vending machine.
It stood in an alcove at a hotel. I popped my quarters into the slot and surveyed the variety of high-calorie treats, then pressed the button for a Three Musketeers. (The only rational vending machine decision, really.) But instead of dropping the item into the retrieval space at the bottom, the machine “missed” the grab. I stuck my hand through the little door, but instead of my sweet candy bar, my hands grasped nothing but air.
Have you been there friend? What did you do?
I’m not ashamed to admit it: I kicked that machine. It was a lady-like kick, I promise. Just a gentle nudging with my foot, hoping to shake that candy bar free. I pounded on the glass a little. Then a little bit more. After a long day of traveling in a car with little kids, I had to do something to get my hands on that candy bar. I’d been salivating over the thought of chocolate or hours! And I already paid for it!
But I was denied. Being the conflict-avoidant person I am, I opted to pop more quarters into the machine rather than tromping down to the hotel lobby to demand a refund. And glory be, that candy bar finally fell into place for me! I enjoyed every single one of those 262 calories.
And tried not to think about that one I missed.
Candy Bar Bible Study
I doubt I’m alone in my vending machine frustrations: How many of you have offered a “gentle” shake to one over the years? When we pay for a candy bar, we expect to receive it. Makes perfect sense, right? It’s the capitalist way! But here’s a twist to think about: What happens when this transactional approach spills over into our spiritual life?
Attending women’s Bible studies at church, reading inspirational books by Christian authors, prayer journaling, Scripture memorizing, verse analyzing—I’ve done it all. And God has often used such practices to speak truth into my life.
But some time ago, my soul felt pricked with conviction while reading these words in the book When the Soul Listens (by Jan Johnson): “You may have so focused on what you want to get out of your time with God that you actually missed the Trinity’s company and enjoyment of just connecting with [God].” (p. 113, Kindle). Later, in the same book she challenges readers to avoid turning themselves into the “star” of their own spirituality by making “that always-healthy confession to God, ‘Forgive me that so much of what I do is about me when I want it to be about you” (p. 125).
Through Johnson’s challenge, I felt the Spirit nudge me with a piercing questions: Do you do all these Bible study efforts because you have to get something out of it—or is it enough to simply be with me?
Ouch. That question exposed an attitude I’d been bringing into my Bible study for years: A kind of “candy bar” mentality that if I “paid” the right amount of time with Bible study, my efforts should always yield “results”—knowledge, direction, wisdom about the questions on my mind. And when I felt like I wasn’t “getting anything” out of my study on a particular day, I’d feel frustrated. Confused. Hurt by God’s seeming indifference.
So I’d read a little more, dig a little deeper, trying to loosen up a nugget of insight for my problems and preoccupations. Hoping to at least gain some knowledge about the Bible and God’s ways.
Oh how easy it is to turn my time with God into a transaction. How easy to make to make it all about me.
From “Perfect” to Personal
I tend toward perfectionism—that frustrating habit of pushing toward perfect rather than enjoying the good right in front of me. I’m guessing that if you’re reading this blog series, you count yourselves among this neat and tidy tribe.
If we aren’t careful, Bible reading can turn into one more effort we make, trying to manufacture our own spiritual growth through focused study and thinking. I wonder, fellow perfectionists: Do you ever fall into this trap? Do you work hard to check all the Bible study boxes and learn all the knowledge that a “good Christian” should have—but forget to savor the presence of the One who is speaking that truth to your heart?
As I’m slowly letting go of perfect and growing in God’s grace, I’m finding a new goal for my time in God’s Word. Yes, I still hope for wisdom and direction. But instead of always looking through a lens that’s focused back on me and my plans, I’m learning to let go of my own Bible-study agenda and simply enjoy being with God. Listening to him. Being open to the things He wants to speak over my life for that day.
My Bible study moments used to have the feel of a business meeting: Let’s get to the details, figure out what I need to know for today, fill in the blanks, and move on to the next thing. I’d come with an agenda—my concerns and questions that I wanted God’s Word to “solve.” But these days, Bible study feels more like a walk with a friend. I think a little less about what I’m “supposed” to get out of the verses. I focus more on simply enjoying God’s presence, and listening to whatever my friend Jesus has to say.
I’m not sure these Bible study moments are as “productive” as my earlier efforts—I certainly don’t fly through the chapters and verses as quickly or devour quite as many insights from other authors and commentaries. But while those things have become less, I am finding more of what matters the most: a greater awareness of God throughout my day. A greater trust. A greater willingness to let him lead.
And I’ll take God’s presence over a quest for “perfect” any day.
A Practice for Listening
One practice that has helped me develop a better listening posture in my Bible study times is called lectio divina. These words literally translate as “divine reading” and they refer to a Bible reading practice developed within the Benedictine monastic tradition centuries ago.
Lectio divina involves reading through a Bible passage several times and listening to its wisdom with the heart more so than the mind. It’s a way to transform the Bible into a conversation with God, rather than just a study about him. I love this description from beloved Christian author Henri Nouwen:
“Lectio divina is the ancient monastic practice of reading scripture meditatively—not to master the word, not to criticize the word, but to be mastered by and challenged by the word. It means to read the Bible ‘on your knees,’ that is, reverently, attentively, and with the deep conviction that God has a unique word for you in your own situation. To meditate means to ‘let the word descend from our minds into our hearts.’ . . . It is the discipline by which we let the written word of God become a personal word for us, anchored in the center of our being.” (From his book, Spiritual Direction.)
I’ve found that incorporating lectio divina alongside my other study methods has opened up my heart to God’s leading in new ways. It works as a strong antidote to my “recovering perfectionism”—the constant pull toward striving to “do more” and trying to prove my own worth. Lectio divina slows me down and quiets my heart. There’s a spaciousness to the practice—no outside commentary to read, no Bible study blanks to fill, no questions I have to answer. It leaves room for my soul to breathe.
And in that quiet space, I can finally hear the Spirit’s precious whisper breaking through all the pressures and noise of my life.
Through lectio divina, God has helped me peer beyond everyday concerns and see the deeper things going on in my heart. I’ve received some profound moments of clarity and connection with God during the process. Other times, I don’t quite understand what He’s trying to say. I don’t always leave with a “perfect” Bible understanding or a “perfect” solution to the questions in my mind. But I always leave with a renewed sense of God’s love within me.
And that’s the real treasure, my friends—the deeper awareness of God’s power within us, every moment of the day.
The Steps of Lectio Divina:
If you’d like to try lectio divina for yourself, I encourage you to read through the steps below and start with a story from the gospels: Stories provide a great way for beginners to get started. You can also grab a free printable guide that includes all the steps described below on one handy sheet right here.
Take a few moments to quiet yourself, get in a comfortable position, and become aware of God’s presence. You might say a simple prayer, inviting the Holy Spirit into this time. (Try a few deep breaths with the prayer “Come, Holy Spirit, Come.”) I often take a quick inventory of my body, mind, and heart, asking God to quiet each of them in turn.
Read the passage slowly, out loud if possible. In this reading, you want to familiarize yourself with the basic meaning of the passage, what it says to everyone. Avoid analyzing and simply savor the words, letting them sink in. Listen for a nudge: What words or images is the Spirit drawing you toward today? Is there a character you identify with? A moment in the story that captures your attention?
Re-read the passage, lingering over the person/word/phrase that captured your attention. Let your imagination engage the story/text. What do the characters experience/feel/think? Or consider the phrase or image you noticed: Reflect on how it might intersect with your life today. What (or who) does it bring to your mind? Notice the feelings this passage evokes in you–is there attraction, or resistance of some kind? Invite the Spirit to reveal how this passage might be speaking to your life today. (You might find it helpful to journal some of these reflections before continuing.)
Read through the passage another time, allowing the Scripture to lead you into a prayer/response to God. Talk to God about what has come to mind, and how he might be inviting you to respond. Are you feeling led toward a prayer of praise? repentance? a plea for help or healing? (Again, it might be helpful to focus your prayer by journaling.)
Rest in the awareness of God’s presence, remaining open to anything else the Spirit might stir in your heart. If your mind wanders, gently redirect your thoughts toward God. Simply be still. Expect nothing. Enjoy a moment of fellowship with God that goes deeper than words. Relax in this moment to be with God, and know you are loved.
As you give this simple spiritual practices a try, I pray it will bless your faith journey as it has blessed mine, friends. May it help you shed the burdens of “should” and guilt that so often plague the perfectionist. And instead, may you be transformed by the beautiful presence of God—the only truly perfect One who guides your way.