Does this ever happen to you? You’re reading a book, and you suddenly look up and realize you have no idea what you just read.
So you flip back (or scroll back) to the last thing you remember, and you try again, but it still doesn’t stick in your mind.
Sometimes I do this three or four times before I can move on (maybe more if it’s a textbook). It’s incredibly frustrating.
This morning, I had Ephesians 2 on my schedule, and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the structure. I’ve read it many times, and it’s not necessarily all that confusing, so maybe it was just the lack of coffee.
But whatever it was, I couldn’t make my brain process the meaning. I read it over and over and all I got were words1.
There are many techniques for extracting the meaning of a Bible passage. But I don’t have a notebook with me at this conference, and this was my devotional time, not my study time, so I didn’t want to turn to the heavyweight tools.
So I used a tool that’s always available: I read out loud. I started back at the beginning, and I read out loud as if I were reading for a group of students or children. As if I were Paul, speaking face to face with my audience. Or maybe the church leader Paul wrote to, reading it to his eager congregation on a Sunday morning.
It took me a few tries to get the inflections right. Ephesians 2 has a lot of very long, complex sentences, which is partly why I was having so much trouble in the first place. I’m sure the guests on the other side of my hotel room wall were thrilled.
But suddenly the words had meaning and color and life again. Words that used to be just words leapt out and became phrases and clauses and sentences, purpose and structure and force.
And the passage made sense again, and I reveled in the grace of reading, and I moved on to the next passage.
Why Does This Work?
The magic behind this trick hidden right there in the problem I had: “It took me a while to get the inflections right.”
When we speak, we don’t just drone one syllable after another. We change speed and tone; we pause at significant punctuation or even between phrases that are otherwise unmarked. We emphasize certain words more than others, and each clause has a rise and a fall, a trajectory that helps the audience understand the important bits.
This process neatly matches what you would do if you sat down to formally study Scripture. You would divide the text into meaningful chunks, and then you would subdivide each of those chunks into smaller chunklets until each piece was obvious.
Then, you would build it back up, defining the relationship between each larger and larger element. At the end, you would have a tree-like structure that held the complete meaning of the text.
Of course, you would then move on to other aspects: what do these individual words actually mean? What is their context? Who is speaking them? Where does this fit in the larger body of Scripture and the unfolding story of God’s relationship with His people? What does it teach us about God or ourselves or whatever our focus is? And finally, what do we do with it, now that we have so thoroughly understood it?
But that first part is hard, and it’s crucial, and your brain will do it automatically if you open your mouth and speak the words as if reading to a child, or to a friend.
This tool is powerful, and it is simple, and it is always with you. Next time you struggle with a passage, read it out loud—find an actual audience if you have to. Open your mouth, and it will open your eyes.
P.S. Perhaps against my better judgment, I recorded myself reading the passage in question, Ephesians 2:1–10, so you can hear what I ended up with.
My Disney brain would like to remind you that “you can own the Earth and still / all you’ll own is earth until / you can paint with all the colors of the wind.” ↩