How We Ought to Hear and Read the Word of God

Reading Scripture with great Christians of the past: Francis de Sales

In my spiritual journey, reading Scripture has been the source of great blessing and instruction. St. Paul, in his letter to his young protégé Timothy, wrote: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living, so that the person who serves God may be fully qualified and equipped to do every kind of good deed” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Down through the centuries, faithful men and women of the church have not only immersed themselves in Scripture, but by their lives and instruction encouraged us to do the same. St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) is best known for his writings on spiritual direction and spiritual formation, particularly in the classic "Introduction to the Devout Life." As you lead your small group or community in Scripture engagement, seek to put into practice this advice and lead your people to hear and read the Word of God.

Be devout to the Word of God

“Be devout to the word of God: whether you listen to it in familiar conversations with your friends, or at sermons, hear it always with attention and reverence; try to derive profit from it, and do not suffer it to fall to the ground, but receive it into your heart like a precious balm in imitation of the virgin Mary, who kept carefully in her heart all the words that were spoken in praise of her Child. And remember that our Lord gathers up the words which we say to him in our prayers according as we gather up those which he says to us by means of preaching.” (Francis de Sales, "An Introduction to the Devout Life," pp. 80-81)

Let’s take Francis de Sales advice on reading and listening to Scripture and make application of it in our own lives.

Hear it with attention and reverence

A guide to liturgy used by many Christians says: “When the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people, and Christ, present in his word, proclaims the Gospel.” When Scripture is read and proclaimed, we are hearing from God himself, literally receiving words from our Creator and Redeemer. Doesn’t it make sense that we would hear it with attention and reverence?

Try to profit from it

Too often we read and listen to Scripture in a way that doesn’t impact our lives. It could be because we simply have in mind to accomplish a reading goal, or we may have the tendency to tune out when we hear it read. Isaiah 48:17b informs us of God’s intention for us as we engage in Scripture: “Thus say the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, ‘I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, Who leads you in the way you should go.’ ” De Sales says to “try to derive profit from it” and not let it fall to the ground as if it were of no value.

A wonderful way to “profit” from Scripture is to make sure we prepare our hearts and minds to engage with it. Read slowly, take bite-sized portions, not unlike how we would eat our favorite meal, savoring each morsel with thanksgiving. Then take time to meditate or reflect on what was read or heard. Great profit will be derived.

Receive it into your heart like a precious balm

What is a balm? It is a fragrant ointment or preparation used to heal or soothe the skin. A precious balm is one that is costly, reminding us of the expensive nard that Mary used to anoint the feet of Jesus at a meal in her home before our Lord’s passion and death. The Word of God is a precious balm that can bring healing to our hearts. The balm is applied to something that in its natural state is irritated, unhealthy, arid, or diseased, and as a result it begins to restore comfort, health, hydration, and wholeness. God’s ministry to us through his Word does the same to our hearts.

Imitate the virgin Mary

According to de Sales, the greatest example of receiving God’s Word like a balm to the heart is the mother of our Lord, the Virgin Mary. He says that she kept carefully in her heart all the words that were spoken in praise of her Child. In the Gospel according to Luke, we see this repeated throughout the childhood of Jesus.

After the visit of the shepherds to the manger:

But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart (2:19).

Upon returning to Nazareth, after finding Jesus in the temple interacting with the teachers:

But his mother treasured all these things in her heart (2:51b).

No doubt the same was true after the visit of the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26-38), when she greeted Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56), in the moment of the Nativity (Luke 2:1-7), and when Simeon prophesied “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34b-35).

Take nothing for granted when you read or listen to Scripture. Interiorize it, treasure it, and ponder it in your heart!

God gathers up the words we say to him even as we gather up his words

As de Sales says, “remember that our Lord gathers up the words which we say to him in our prayers according as we gather up those which he says to us by means of preaching.” He is talking about a living, breathing interaction. We are not engaging in dusty, outdated, inconsequential verbiage. Hebrews tells us that “the word of God is alive and active” (4:12). It cuts to the quick, not because it is a holy book, but because through it a holy God speaks to us. God knows us perfectly and intimately. He doesn’t have to do a spiritual examination of us; we are an open book before him. And so, as our loving physician, he is ready to touch where it hurts, and as we open ourselves to him, God purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7, 9). 

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Gary Wiley

Gary is a writer and the Spanish Scripture Engagement Content Coordinator for American Bible Society. He lived for many years in Lima, Peru, where he served as pastor and missionary with his family. He lived in New York City for 15 years serving as a pastor. He received a Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He now lives in Merchantville, New Jersey, with his wife, Charlotte. They have been married 40 years and have three adult children and nine grandchildren, and are members of St. Peter Parish in Merchantville.

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