Around a year ago I found myself struggling spiritually. My faith was still in-tact, but it felt like my relationship with God was minimal. My desire to serve others and in my calling were weak enough that either one often felt like a chore at best. Questions that arose often shook me and I found myself revisiting questions that I’d previously investigated deeply and resolved. While I think deep questioning can be a good and positive thing, it was merely a symptom in this case.
I prayed frequently asking, “why don’t I feel the Spirit and thy hand in my life like I used to?” Eventually the answer came back very clear: “you’re not seeking it the same way you used to.” Maybe sometimes God withdraws for a time and allows us to navigate on our own, like he did with the Savior. In this case it was clear to me that this was my fault. My relationship with God wasn’t strong because I wasn’t reaching out to him. He was still offering his help and guidance, but I wasn’t doing one of the most important things I needed to do, in order to accept it.
The Power of the Word
I thought back on the times I felt most in-tune with the Spirit, and secure in my relationship with God. One thing stood out in those periods of my life that was lacking now: scripture study. For example, one of those times was when I was in college, following my mission. I had a teacher named Greg Wightman who, with the Spirit, taught me how to really feast on the word of God. He also taught me, from the scriptures, one of the most powerful lessons we can learn in this life: what President Benson called “the power of the word.” It’s the power that hearing and studying the scriptures and doctrines can have on us, if we invite it to.
I realized that this was where I was lacking. If I’d study the word, then I’d be accepting God’s help and guidance, and the Spirit that had become minimal in my life. As Elder Bednar pointed out, I’d gone from being one of the people in Lehi’s dream who was “continually holding fast to the rod of iron” (1 Ne. 8:30), to one who was merely “clinging to the rod of iron” (1 Ne. 8:24). The scriptures and the word of God were no longer a delicious and enjoyable feast, as they had once been. In this article I want to share with you the powerful scripture study method that Bro Wightman taught me a decade ago, adapted to everyday life. It gave me the tools to really study the scriptures. It changed my life at that time, and is changing it once again.
Bro Wightman called it “extraction method,” because you’re trying to extract the original meaning or intention of the author. It’s pretty simple actually. There’s just a few things you need to do:
1. Study Daily
5 or 6 days a week is probably enough. Use an app like Rewire to help track it. Once you have a good streak going, the pressure of not breaking your streak will give you momentum and help you keep it up. If you goof up, “you don’t let [it] beat you, you get straight back on.” Elder David A. Bednar was talking about scripture study when he said (emphasis added):
Thirst is a demand by the cells of the body for water, and the water in our bodies must be replenished daily. It frankly does not make sense to occasionally “fill up” with water, with long periods of dehydration in between. The same thing is true spiritually. Spiritual thirst is a need for living water. A constant flow of living water is far superior to sporadic sipping.
2. Study for A Set Amount of Time
20min should be your minimum, but if 15 is all you can do, start there. 20-30min should be a huge help to most people. Don’t worry about number of verses, chapters, or pages. The goal is to study as deeply as the spirit takes you. It may mean not getting through more than a few verses each day.
President Hunter said (emphasis added):
There are some who read to a schedule of a number of pages or a set number of chapters each day or week. This may be perfectly justifiable and may be enjoyable if one is reading for pleasure, but it does not constitute meaningful study. It is better to have a set amount of time to give scriptural study each day than to have a set amount of chapters to read. Sometimes we find that the study of a single verse will occupy the whole time.
3. Write Something Every 4 Verses
Get a notebook, or document on your computer to record your thoughts as you go. Study chronologically. Make sure you’re recording a sentence or two, at least every 4 verses. More frequently or more volume is awesome, but a least do that much. If you don’t know what to write, ask yourself these questions and answer at least 1 in writing:
- Out of everything the author could have included, why include this? Think about that for a moment. Particularly in Mormon’s case as he compiled his book, he’s scratching these words into metal. It’s a painstaking process that must have also been physically painful, even on strong hands. So you can think, “of everything he could have written, why did Mormon include the specifics of how King Benjamin got the text of his speech out to the people?”
- What is the author trying to tell his audience? Sometimes, for example, Mormon recorded it for us, but there’s an actual audience that Alma is teaching. So ask first “what is Alma trying to teach the Zoramites here?” And then especially in the Book of Mormon, we can also ask “what is Mormon trying to to teach me here?”
- What can I learn about the author’s experience and personality in these verses? If Nephi says “having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord” (1 Ne. 1:1), what does that tell you about him? He doesn’t bother to mention any previous afflictions, but he also didn’t leave that fact out. So what can we learn about Nephi?
- What in these verses suggests a different understanding than I’ve always had? This can be factual differences about the story, such as “oh, the Living Scriptures (animated) version doesn’t really portray that the way I read it;” or it can be doctrinal, like “now that I understand the real meaning of the word ‘list’ that gives these verses an interesting new angle on how I can apply this.” More details on this in section 4 below.
- What words do I not fully understand? Look them up in the Webster’s 1828 Dictionary or the Online Etymology Dictionary, and write down how the new definition enlightens your understanding.
- Do I know of other stories or teachings in the scriptures that parallel these? If the answer is yes, look it up, study it, and write how that helps provide insight or support for what you’re reading.
In many ways this is the heart of this whole method. You need to write what you’re thinking. As the Spirit guides your thoughts, you’ll find that some of what you write has powerful value and application in your life, or in serving and blessing the lives of others. I often find that I start writing something rather simple or benign and that’s when the Spirit takes over and starts teaching me. Since I’m already writing, I can easily record it as the thoughts flow. This is the most important part!
4. “Unlearn What You Have Learned” – Yoda
Alternate title: “Try to Understand the Author’s Intent, Culture, and Personality.” Here’s the thing: we make lots of assumptions when we merely read the scriptures. We gloss over verses quickly, because they seem to fit a pattern or mold that we’ve been taught our whole lives. It’s easy to simply say “oh yeah, that’s about the Atonement.” Or “yeah, yeah, he’s talking about the USofA and how blessed it’ll be.”
Don’t do that. Throw away all the primary answers, do your best to get past your cultural preconceptions, and even set aside the stuff you were taught in Sunday school. The questions in step 3 above, will help you in this. Go into your study with a fresh mind, and try to see through the author’s eyes. This is why chronological study is quite important as well. It doesn’t mean you can’t stop on a verse and study it topically. But when you’re done with that, come back and continue chronologically. If you really do this, you’ll have insights and depths you’ve never had before. You’ll start to feel a relationship with the author. You’ll start to understand their desires, purpose, what they’re trying to teach you, and even their shortcomings. You’ll really start to know their faith and the power in them, as they are willing instruments in God’s hands.
Want to See An Example?
You can see examples of the results of my daily study in the “daily study” category on my blog called Sacred Symbolic. These posts grew directly out of studying using this method. In many of them you’ll see the exact format described here: a few verses, followed by my thoughts, feelings, and/or the things the Spirit taught me as I read. Some are hardly even edited. I just copy/pasted right out of my study notebook.
Notice the Change the Power of the Word Brings
I still remember when we finished Matthew and moved on to John, in the New Testament. Bro. Wightman said “you kinda miss Matthew now, don’t you?” And I got choked up and felt a sense of loss. There had been a change as we transitioned to studying the Book of John, but I hadn’t recognized it until he identified it. It was a little more of a struggle to get the same depth out of John’s writing than it had been since mid-way through Matthew. It was somewhat akin to when my family and I moved to a new house as a child and I had to leave behind my friends. I then started over with new friends. It was this poignant moment where I realized I’d come to know Matthew through his writings, in some small way. I felt a kinship and even friendship with him I’d never felt toward a scriptural figure before. By applying this study method to John’s his writings, I felt the same sense of separation when finished his, and moved into Paul’s letters.
If you apply this method, you’ll get that kind of depth out of your scripture study. Mosiah II has recently become my hero. He’s the consummate leader, and a powerful type of Christ. Alma the younger is a at least an acquaintance at this point. And he’s unlike anyone I’ve ever had before: a husband, father, loyal friend, chief judge, general, warrior, teacher of the word, church president, prophet, and repentant sinner. The benefit is not just in getting to know these people. You’ll find life-changing power in your understanding of the doctrines and principles of the gospel. You’ll find your heart changing like I have, and yourself becoming something greater than you were. Your desire to serve others more and in your calling better will become stronger. The Spirit will speak to you more often and you’ll recognise it more easily. Perhaps most importantly, you’ll find your relationship with God growing stronger and more powerful.
As I applied “the power of the word” in my life this 2nd time, I realized how well it was working when I started to miss it. I try to study before I start work in the morning. On days where there is an emergency or distraction, and I don’t study first, I can feel it. There’s something missing. There’s this void that needs filled. Once I study, I’m good to go.
If you’d like to read and study more about “the power of the word” I highly recommend Elder Bednar’s talk “A Reservoir of Living Water” that I quoted above. I also recommend re-reading Alma 32, starting with verse 28. Apply the method here, and also realize that the seed is not “faith,” the seed is “the word.”
In part 2, I’ll go into detail the system I use to make this method really work well for a techie like me. The power of the word is working. And like the people who followed Alma Sr, “the Lord did deliver [me] out of bondage by the power of his word;” (Alma 5:5).