As a kid growing up in church, surrounded by Christian culture, I knew the things that were important. Read your Bible. Pray. Go to church. Be kind to others.
Those were the rules I lived by.
Rules of religion
Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that the Christian life was a list of rules. If you’re a Christian, this is how you live. These are the rules you keep. If you kept the rules, you were loved by God. I didn’t just pick up this mindset; I absorbed it. I latched onto it with all the strength of a fish biting the hook, heedless that there was even a danger.
It wasn’t just that I was taught to think that way. Those rules were exactly what my sinful heart wanted. If a list could make me right with God—if following a set of prescriptions would make him love me more—then at some fundamental level I could be in control. If I could make God happy, I thought, he would give me what I wanted.
Sometimes we talk about faith as though it’s an easy thing, but it’s not. It’s easy to grasp for control. It’s harder to open your hands and give over that control, even to the Lord of the universe. Maybe especially to him.
It’s easy to earn your place. We do it every day in America, especially as young people. It’s harder to accept a place prepared for you, a position you don’t even deserve. It’s easy to base your identity on the rules you keep. It appeals to our pride and our individualism. It takes a lot more faith to allow yourself to be defined by what someone else has done.
Keep the rules, read the Bible
Read your Bible. That was one of those rules. So I read my Bible every day. I memorized and studied it, too. Sometimes it was for Bible memory competitions, and sometimes it was purely for my own purposes. Either way, it was to get something, make myself look better, or be a “good Christian.”
The Christian life begins with and depends on faith.
Bible reading and study can easily become just another ritual to perform in hopes of earning God’s favor. That’s how I treated it for years. Just like the Jews of John 5, I searched the Scriptures, but didn’t realize their whole purpose was to point to Christ (John 5:39).
Maybe the reason we love the rules-based approach to life is because we don’t like the alternative. The Scriptures’ call isn’t for us to please God with our outward obedience. It’s for us to become like him.
Paul writes, “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). We were created to reflect the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). And we do still, but it has been twisted and obscured in us by sin.
But God has purposed that we should bear the image of his Son—of Jesus Christ, who is “the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Heb. 1:3). Day after day he is changing us at the level of our heart and soul. He is transforming us into his glorious image.
Learning to trust
That transformation isn’t just about doing more good works or keeping God’s law more fully. It’s about trust. God is not looking for teens who can look good on the outside or do enough outward good works (Rom. 4:2-3). He wants us to love and trust him.
The Christian life begins with and depends on faith.
Throughout Scripture, God calls his people again and again to trust in him. Abraham believed God’s covenant promise, and “it was credited to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3, quoting Gen. 15:6). God called Israel to trust him in the wilderness, to worship him alone and not seek life or happiness in other gods (Deut. 6:4).
We receive our righteousness, our justification, our peace with God, and our position in Christ through faith (Rom. 5:1-2). We are to live our Christian life according to faith, and “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).
The entire structure of most of Paul’s epistles (Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, for instance) reflects this too. He spends the first section explaining and reminding his readers of the gospel—of the righteousness and blessings we have in Christ, of who God is, what we deserve in our sin, and what we have in him. Then, on the basis of that, he exhorts his readers to holy living.
The holy living (or good works) don’t come first. That’s not to say they’re not important—but they’re not how we become right with God. Rather, they’re based on the fact that we already are.
You can’t obey God from the heart if you don’t trust him. And you can’t trust him if you don’t know him.
Bible study for the right reasons
That’s where I got mixed up about Bible study. I thought it was just another one of those outward good works. But it’s really a path to knowing him—a way to learn to love and trust and then obey our Savior. It’s a means toward that inward transformation that shows itself in how we live and how we treat others.
We don’t need to wonder about who God is—about this Being we’re supposed to follow and trust. He’s told us. He’s revealed himself in his Word. Reading, studying, and memorizing it is how we learn about him and come to know him more.
All this isn’t to say that we should only focus on the intellectual or emotional side of knowing God. We should work hard at obeying him—and it is hard work. However, we have to do it in the strength that he provides. Before anything else, we need to know him, to “seek his face continually” (Psalm 105:4).
Beginning with Bible study
So how can you begin to invest in God’s Word and study it more seriously, especially as a teen? Here are a few tips. I’d also encourage you to talk to a pastor or older Christian at your church for more wisdom and insight.
- Make the Bible part of your routine. If you don’t already read your Bible daily, or if it’s hit-and-miss, find a way to incorporate it into your day. Tie it to something you already do regularly—for instance, read the Bible when you get up in the morning, or on your lunch break, or after dinner.
- Pursue it in community. Join a Bible study in your church or area—or start one. The church is the means God has ordained for us to seek him and grow in faith together.
- Write things down. A good way to start is to mark every reference to God in a passage (including pronouns!), and then write down what you learn about him from every instance. Then, pray those truths back to him. Let your study turn into prayer and worship.
- Learn the inductive study method. Inductive Bible study is just the process of coming to the Scripture and letting it speak for itself—of digging deep into the Word to understand what it says, what it means, and how it applies to your life.
Bible study is one of the most important things you can pursue as a Christian, and especially as a teen. Let God use his Word in your life to convict, comfort, and transform you.
Check out Katherine’s new book, Transformed by Truth: Why and How to Study the Bible for Yourself As a Teen.