Podcast: How to Study the Bible (Jen Wilkin)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Prioritizing God’s Word

In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, we chat with Jen Wilkin about the importance of Bible study for our lives as Christians, even if that study looks different in the various seasons of life. She discusses some of the things God has taught her over the last two decades as a Bible study leader and shares about her work writing Bible studies aimed at helping God’s people better understand what the Bible actually teaches and how to appropriately apply it to our lives today.

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Full Transcript

01:24 - Welcome

Matt Tully
Jen, thank you for joining us on The Crossway Podcast.

Jen Wilkin
I’m happy to be here. Thanks for having me on.

01:30 - Two Decades of Experience

Matt Tully
So you’ve been teaching women how to study the Bible for a long time now. How long has it actually been since you started?

Jen Wilkin
It’s been about twenty years.

Matt Tully
Over that time you’ve written three books and at least ten Bible studies, by my count.

Jen Wilkin
I think that’s right, yeah.

Matt Tully
When did you first discover personally the joy and the excitement that can come from studying the Bible?

Jen Wilkin
Technically I taught my first Bible study when I was in college to a small group of girls. The organization I was a part of couldn’t find anybody else who was willing to lead it and I was deemed vaguely spiritual. And I enjoyed that! I remember enjoying that, but I didn’t see it as something I would necessarily do again. And then I graduated and worked for about three years, had my first child and started to stay home, and went to a women’s Bible study at my church just because I wanted a reason to get dressed and to be around human beings. I got there and realized, “Oh, these might be my people.” But of course no one wants to interest you in teaching right out of the gate so I was leading a small group—that was my first leadership role within the Bible study—and I just talked too much. I was dominating the conversation and frustrated when I had to ask the questions and hear other people’s responses. And so I just thought I was a jerk. And then one of the women on the leadership team said, “Hey, have you ever thought maybe you have a teaching gift?”—which I’m thankful for. She probably should have just sent me home and said I was a terrible small-group leader. And then she started finding opportunities for me to teach and I loved it.

03:15 - Dominating the Conversation

Matt Tully
How was it that you first realized that, in your own words, you were “dominating the conversation”?

Jen Wilkin
I think people know when they’re doing that—at least I certainly did. I just felt like I was not always patient with the exploratory thoughts and questions of everybody in the group because I just wanted us to get to what the big point was. I also I had an English degree and a lot of times when you’re in a small group associated with a Bible study, it’s a feelings-level discussion versus a thought-level discussion and I was always eager to bring it back around to a thought-level discussion. But I don’t know that the group always felt that impulse the way that I did.

03:57 - Study vs. Devotion?

Matt Tully
So what does your own personal Bible study routine typically look like?

Jen Wilkin
Okay, I think what you’re asking me is, “Do I have a separate routine from whatever I’m doing to prepare to teach?” Is that correct?

Matt Tully
Yeah.

Jen Wilkin
I actually don’t have two different categories for those things. I always joke that we all need accountability to study the Bible and it just happens that I just need a much higher level of accountability than the average person. I have to know that there’s going to be a room full of people staring at me, wanting help. So I don’t separate the two. Which is not to say that I’m never reading or studying something that’s not a part of whatever I’m working on in terms of teaching, but, generally, much of my Bible intake is part of preparing to write a curriculum and teach it.

Matt Tully
I think a lot of pastors could probably resonate with that sentiment. There’s just no better way to learn God’s Word and become familiar with it and understand it than to prepare to teach it to others.

Jen Wilkin
Well, and people will say, “But what’s your devotional time like?” And all I can answer is that it’s deeply devotional for me to study. It’s deeply moving and I can’t ask someone else to work towards sanctification if I haven’t already done some of the wrestling myself with what the issue is, and so I’ve never separated the two.

05:30 - The Importance of Reading and Re-Reading

Matt Tully
Earlier you mentioned that your first step when it comes to studying the Bible is just to start reading it. Reading the text over and over again. Why do you think that’s an important first step before we turn to commentaries, or study Bibles, or other helpful resources?

Jen Wilkin
A commentary or a podcast or a blog post or anything like that—or even a footnote in a study Bible—is what someone said about the Bible. It’s not the Bible. The only way that I can judge whether what one person said about it versus what another person said about it is true to the text is if I actually know the text. And what I’ve noticed is that in settings that we label as “Bible studies,” historically we have devoted very little time to just gaining a sense of what the text says and just comprehending it. We move very quickly to wanting to interpret it and wanting to apply it. Because those things can be difficult without having a foundational knowledge, then we’re more likely to defer to someone else’s interpretation and application without applying any critical thought to it. So one of the first steps in developing not just people with opinions about the text, but people who are thinkers in regard to the text, is asking them to be able to take in the text in such a way that they could just pass a simple pop quiz over it. Now, I’m not actually giving simple pop quizzes, but I’m not above it. Most of us couldn’t even answer a few simple, factual questions about what we have read once we’ve read through a book the first time. It takes reading through it two and three times and maybe marking things as we’re going to see repeated themes or repeated ideas and images and those kinds of things.

01:24 - Things to Look for While You Read

Matt Tully
What are the things that you are looking for when you read through a book of the Bible on those first passes? What are the things that you’re writing down or marking as you read?

Jen Wilkin
I’m looking for simple things like transition words. I’m looking for story arcs. It depends on the genre that you’re in. So I’m thinking right now largely in terms of Old Testament narrative because I’ve been in 1 and 2 Samuel for quite a while at this point. 1 and 2 Samuel is setting up a comparison between Saul and David and so anytime we have a story about Saul and a later story about David that seems vaguely familiar, I start perking up my ears to see how that story is taking the theme that was introduced in the story of Saul and then enhancing it—or adding to it or tweaking it—so that we understand David in contrast to Saul. So I think a big piece of this is, before you start into a book, understand how the Bible uses genres and the rules of different genres and then look for clues in the text that are aligning with the way a particular genre uses language or imagery or poetry or whatever the elements might be.

08:28 - Common Misconceptions about Bible Study

Matt Tully
So in your experience from teaching the Bible now for two decades, what would you say are some of the most common misconceptions that people have when it comes to Bible study?

Jen Wilkin
I think far and away, the most pervasive common misconception is that it should be easy. I think that we tend to think that because it’s God’s Word and God wants me to know him then if I just open up my Bible and spend my time in it, then the Holy Spirit is going to just drop the truth bombs on me because I was faithful to set aside the time. I always remind people that God could have communicated truth to us in any form. He could have communicated the entirety of the revelation of who he is through song. Or he could have done it through a movie. He could have done it through a landscape. But when he chooses how special revelation will occur, he chooses the medium of words. Words on a page in this case. Words in a book. Just as any book takes some difficulty to understand and often takes repeated reading and a diligent method of approach, we should assume that the Bible would be the same way.

09:47 - Leaving Room for the Spirit?

Matt Tully
And what would you say to someone who hears that but maybe thinks, “But how does that leave room for the Spirit?” They might feel a bit concerned that all that emphasis on study and hard work pushes out the Spirit’s freedom to sort of move us and direct us as he will when it comes to understanding and applying the text.

Jen Wilkin
Well, I don’t know that obeying a genre that was placed there by the Spirit would limit the Spirit from communicating truth. So if the Spirit has chosen to reveal truth through historical narrative, then I should understand how historical narrative is written in the Old Testament. The Spirit is revealing truth through human authors and according to human means. And so if we set out with no appreciation for the very tools that the Spirit utilizes to communicate truth, how can we expect that we will be able to arrive at the truth that has been placed there?

Matt Tully
That’s a helpful reminder that the Spirit chose to communicate through human authors, not apart from human authors.

Jen Wilkin
I think the more you start looking at human authorship the more people start to say, “Well, I thought it was God’s Word.” Well, it is. It’s God’s Word through human authors. I’m a human author, you know that. I’ve written three books and what I’ve never done is sat down and plopped down some random ideas and hoped that what I wanted to be communicated got communicated. You order your thoughts. You build your arguments. You choose your imagery. And all of this is done under the guidance of the Spirit. And so the truth that the Spirit communicates finds expression in these human forms.

11:29 - Encouragement for Those Who Want to Be More Consistent

Matt Tully
What kind of encouragement would you offer to the person who is listening today and has a desire to study the Bible? Maybe they haven’t been very consistent with that in the past. Maybe they’ve struggled with finding it boring or difficult to understand and they’ve lost steam or lost motivation in the past. What kind of practical encouragement would you offer that person?

Jen Wilkin
A good place to start is to pray and ask the Lord to grow in you a desire for his Word. I distinctly remember doing this in college, just telling him, “I don’t really want to do this. This is hard for me and it’s not interesting and I’m going to need you to make me love this.” Then I would say just start reading. I think a lot of the reason that people don’t love it is because it feels intimidating and when they come to it they feel dumb instead of loved and accepted. They feel like, “I don’t know what I’m doing, this is overwhelming.” And I think, again, we underestimate the significance of just getting the text under our skin so that when we do sit under instruction, we’re able to hear it with a more critical ear. And I don’t mean—when people hear the word critical they sometimes hear criticize—but what I mean is just to be able to think about what I’m hearing and receive it in light of the text itself.

12:57 - Different Seasons of Life

Matt Tully
Have there been seasons in your life where Bible study has looked different for you than how it looks right now? Maybe because of different life circumstances or different responsibilities that you had, different schedules?

Jen Wilkin
Oh no, I always devote ten hours to Bible study every day! [Laughs] Like most people, I have been a primary caregiver for at least one other human being for the last twenty-four years and I had four children in four years. And there were no twins in there, it was just one after another. People will say, “How did you do that?” And I’m like, “Yeah, I don’t remember.” There’s a whole period of time where I’m not really sure what happened in there. And I always like to remind people that the Lord is aware of your season of life. In fact, he understands it better than you do. Give him what you’re able to give him in that season.

For me, there were seasons when life was requiring a great deal from me—emotionally or physically. I thought, “I’m just treading water or wasting time by just reading.” But then on the other side of those seasons I found find that I had actually been placing deposits into a savings account that was going to yield a return. The trick is to come out of a season of time where you haven’t been able to give your attention to more in-depth study, and then remember, “Oh, I have gotten back some discretionary time. How much of it will I now give to deepening my understanding of the Scriptures versus just maintaining?”

14:40 - Advice for Parents

Matt Tully
You mentioned kids and you have kids. What advice would you give to parents who are eager to instill a love for God’s Word in their kids? Not just a rote kind of duty of reading God’s Word, but a real desire to know God through the Bible?

Jen Wilkin
When children are small, the average Christian parent is super zealous about this and so they can sometimes try to do too much too soon and sort of over communicate their excitement about the Bible. The most important thing that a young child can see is you actually loving your Bible, and you in conversation with a spouse, or a friend, about how the Word of God is changing you. Even if it’s attending worship with you and seeing you sit under teaching and respond to the teaching. This may seem insignificant because it's just modeling, but children want to be perceived as older than they are. They want to be perceived as adults as soon as they can possibly pull it off. And so when we model a behavior for them, then that is the idea that they want to rise to.

And then as they get older one of the things that is difficult around middle school and high school years is that often that is the stage where our children are learning—perhaps more than ever—what it means to be a serious student at school. They’re learning higher math, sciences, foreign languages, and how to read the works of Shakespeare, and they’re devoting hours of time to those things or even to sports teams or other competitive involvements. And when they come to church or when they come to a place where it’s time to spend time in the Word, we’re telling them to just do a ten-minute devotional. I think it communicates the wrong message. They’re capable of doing so much more and again, if adult belief—if mature belief—looks like loving God’s Word, then we should be asking them, “Hey you know the way that you’re a student in calculus? What if you were that serious minded about learning and understanding your sacred text?”

17:01 - Teens Who Aren’t Interested in the Bible

Matt Tully
What would you say to the parent who maybe has a teenager that just isn't interested in the Bible and this parent desires for their child to want to know God better through his Word, but they just don’t seem to have any interest at all?

Jen Wilkin
It’s tough to give a prescription for something like that because there can be so many factors at play: relational factors, educational factors—there are any number of things that could change my answer to that question. But I can say what we did as parents. We decided that we did not want to mandate any kind of spiritual discipline practice associated with the Bible. So we weren’t going to say, “Hey, everybody needs to have this much time in the morning reading their Bibles,” or “Hey, everyone needs to memorize this many verses,” or anything like that. We wanted it to be a product of their own desire, having seen it modeled. One thing that Jeff did when the kids were growing up was he realized that he had been having his morning devotionals before they were awake, so he moved that time to later so that he was having devotional time at the breakfast table while the kids were having breakfast so that they would actually see that he valued it and made time for it. And then we had family devotions once a week, and we would read through an entire book of the Bible and we would ask the kids to each come with two observations and two questions that would help fuel the discussion. And that was just a family expectation that we had. But in terms of developing an individual spiritual discipline beyond that, we just prayed that modeling and exposure would take their course.

18:50 - Studying the Bible with Your Spouse?

Matt Tully
What about with your husband—do you guys read the Bible together on a regular basis? Is that part of your routine? Have you tried different things over the years? What advice would you give to other married couples who are kind of unsure about what that might look like for them?

Jen Wilkin
I always joke that nobody wants marriage advice from Jeff and me because we have not had a hard marriage. We haven’t had to fight for a lot of things that other people fight for. We just like each other and have a lot of the same interests. So we’re probably the last people you want to come to for advice on these things. We just haven’t had a hard version of it, praise God. But Jeff has always been very actively involved in children’s ministry and leading children’s ministry. And I’ve always been involved in leading women’s ministry in some capacity.That meant that we were often studying different things, but we would share conversations about what we were working on constantly. And then we also shared a love of reading about theology and learning theology, and so we’ve we’ve prioritized it—but I’d also say it’s our personalities, that we’ve had a climate of conversations in our home about all topics. And certainly one of those would be spiritual things. Going back to the earlier question, we did think about whether or not we were having those questions in front of the kids because we very much wanted to model that healthy dialogue, and also the mutual respect for each others’ ideas and that it’s OK to question things and to take time to figure out where you stand on something, to correct a position you once held. All of those things were things we talked about openly with one another and also often in front of the kids.

Matt Tully
So it sounds like you’re saying although you may not have had a formal time that you guys were sitting down together and reading the Bible together and discussing the Bible together, you were nevertheless trying to cultivate a culture in your home where the Bible was constantly being discussed and read and was just a normal part of everyday life. Is that right?

Jen Wilkin
I would actually say that we just kind of naturally had that. And then of course there were times where we would attend a Sunday school class together or we would be in a home group together, so there were times where we had overlap in the things that we were studying but in terms of just the two of us sitting down and saying, “What do we want to study together?”—that’s not been our approach.

21:19 - Advice for Pastors

Matt Tully
So we’ve talked about parents and spouses, but now looking at pastors: what advice would you give to those pastors who want to help their congregation be in the Word for themselves throughout the week? I mean, these are guys who are preaching the Word faithfully and see the importance of that, but also recognize that their people need to be feeding from the Word on a regular basis and not just on Sunday mornings.

Jen Wilkin
Oh man, this is such a good question. I think that preaching is fantastic and some preaching is more fantastic than others, obviously. But many times I find that when a church has exegetical teaching in particular, they consider that to be the sum total of their duty to their people regarding Christian education. So in other words, people are going to come each week, the pastor is going to teach through entire books of the Bible and hit on any doctrinal issues that the text introduces, and that’s going to be great. And don’t get me wrong—that is great. But that is a passive learning environment. It is an environment where people come and sit and receive teaching, when in most cases they will have spent little to no time in the text themselves before they sit under the pastor’s teaching. And so when there’s nothing required of them up front, then they’re going to learn differently and at a different pace than they do if there is work required from them up front.

So I would say that if you don’t have a Sunday school model for your church, then think about ways that you could publish the text that you’re going to be preaching on well in advance, and maybe assign some questions, or give questions that people can work through before they come and sit under the teaching that you’re going to do. It’s kind of a Sunday school workaround.

Or, if that’s not something that’s going to be a fit at your church, then begin asking this question: Where are the dedicated, active-learning environments where people are coming for the primary purpose of learning? Where are they being asked to do work on their own, to develop thinking skills, to learn to utilize basic tools of comprehension and interpretation and application so that they’re not just learning a book of the Bible, or a doctrinal issue, but learning how better to handle the Bible on their own and to parse through those issues on their own as they move forward and mature?

23:47 - Possible Pitfalls for Men and Women’s Bible Studies

Matt Tully
A lot of churches have men’s and women’s Bible studies where they’re setting aside some time to, in theory, study the Bible in a more in-depth way, but what are the pitfalls that you notice when it comes to those types of meetings?

Jen Wilkin
Even though we may say that Bible study is our highest stated goal, it’s another matter entirely to make sure that we keep it the purpose of the time that we’re spending together. Small groups have a way of devolving into caring-and-sharing time, or into subjective offerings about what a verse means to us. That is sometimes because our people have not yet learned to function within a thought-level discussion around the text. And it’s our job to teach them to do that. So there’s a major training piece here for anyone who is leading a small group—or leading a similar environment—to make sure that a clear expectation of the purpose of the group has been set by the person who’s leading, and then that a clear expectation of the purpose of the group is set for those who are attending. Then both sides can hold each other accountable.

Probably the highest stated value in a lot of churches over the last twenty years has been community. We’ve seen that as the most important reason for us to gather. And you will definitely have community in a Bible study gathering, but community has a way of taking over the purpose of the gathering. So be aware of that and then make sure that you’ve taken steps to structure your time together to make sure the expectation that this is a learning environment is clear. We will also get to know each other and enjoy each other—but first and foremost we’re going to try and honor the work that has gone into preparing the homework and the lesson so that we can all love God with our minds a little bit better by the end of our gathering time.

25:44 - Advice for Bible Study Leaders

Matt Tully
So what would you say to the Bible study leader who’s listening right now, who’s totally on board with what you’re saying and wants to help shepherd the group to focus more on those thought-level issues first before jumping right to personal response, but maybe there’s someone in the group—or there are multiple people in the group—who just want to jump right to the “I feel” statements. How can that leader lovingly, graciously help steer that conversation?

Jen Wilkin
Again, I think it’s essential that you set that expectation clearly at the outset, because if you wait to set that expectation until you’re in the middle of a discussion time, then someone’s going to feel ashamed because they entered in at one level and you’ve said, “No, no, no. That’s not what we’re doing here.” But if on the very first day you make a verbal contract with one another, “This is why we’re here and this is how this discussion is going to take shape,” then everyone has agreed to the direction in which it’s going to go. And if there is a need to course correct during a discussion time, then everyone understands, “Oh, we’re course correcting because this is what we said we were going to do.” Instead of just, “Oh wait, why did someone pull us back to a more thought-level discussion?”

Now, I do want to clarify that thought-level discussion does lead to feelings-level discussion. It’s just that we have to first think rightly about the text if we want to feel rightly.

27:10 - Encouraged by the Church Today

Matt Tully
As you reflect back on twenty years of teaching people how to study the Bible, what’s encouraging to you about our moment right now?

Jen Wilkin
Oh, I have been blown away. When Crossway reached out to me and asked if I wanted to write Women of the Word, I thought, “Sure, maybe I can pawn off a few copies on my family and convince them that Bible literacy matters.” And in the intervening years I have seen a completely unexpected response that I find so encouraging.Women are finding themselves capable of learning these tools and they’re walking in a really great space of, “Okay, I’m getting better at this but I’m never going to feel like I’ve got this nailed. It’s something that I’ll spend my whole life trying to get better at.” And I’ve been encouraged to see how women have taken the tools and begun to employ them in the local church in ways that are drawing other women into a greater love of the Scriptures, and thereby a greater love of the God that the Scriptures proclaim. I see an excitement that this book is for us and there are things that we should learn to do when we’re spending time with it alone. And that there are ways that we should be interacting with it when we are in community with one another. And there are ways that we should savor it when we sit under teaching from someone who the Lord has gifted to teach it to us. And that within the community of the church, we can all move toward a great understanding and thereby a deeper love of God. And it’s just been so gratifying to see women begin to not just read and reaffirm that they think that this matters, but to then actually take up the good work themselves.

29:06 - Closing

Matt Tully
Well thank you, Jen. I appreciate you taking some time to speak with me today on The Crossway Podcast and share a little bit about your own passion to help people study God’s Word well, and we appreciate the ministry that you have to the church as a whole.

Jen Wilkin
Thanks so much for having me on.


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