Beautiful Between

living fully in the now & not yet

How to actually get hope out of the Bible (Ultimate Guilt-Free Guide)

We’re not supposed to have problems with the Bible. We know we’re “supposed” to have this vibrant relationship with Scripture. That it’s supposed to be a lifeline and encouragement.

But what about when it’s not?

What happens:

When your eyes move across the page but you can’t even remember what you read?

Or when the questions and hurts are so loud you can’t connect with the verses?

Or when anxiety rears its ugly head, so you try to find peace in the Bible, but just feel shame?

For years, I didn’t understand the Bible, I couldn’t focus, and I filtered my perceptions of God through painful circumstances and deep wounds.

I didn’t really believe God loved me because I couldn’t connect with what I read. I even doubted if any of it was real..

These days, I find hope and love when I open Scripture. Most of all, I connect with God.

He became my comforter, my strength, my very dearest friend.

But it took a while to get there.

If you’re struggling, I want you to know you’re not alone. I’ve been there more than I care to admit.

In fact, I think it’s hard for most of us to admit how hard it can be.

Here’s why:

When we don’t feel safe to ask the questions, we don’t know how normal they are. In some parts of the Church, there’s fierce stigma around doubts when it comes to Scripture.

One reader told me this:

“Everyone says, “Pray about it. Read your Bible.” I’m even doing a Bible study about cleaning out my “thought closet.” I’m still scared, anxious, and self-loathing. Not to say that I don’t feel God is blessing me, because I do. I just can’t find any peace. I am a Christian, but a bad one.”

Maybe you’re there. Maybe you want to find hope, courage, and peace in your relationship with God and in the pages of Scripture, but it seems like you keep running into the same walls.

Another reader wrote:

“I have struggled to read the Bible properly for a very long time now and I feel really guilty about it. I feel like I hunger for God’s word and resist it at the same time. I struggle so much with depression and anxiety and feel like I’m wasting most of my time…I don’t know how to reconnect with God on the deep level that I so desperately need.”

Isn’t that what we all really want?

The good news is this:

It is possible to connect with God in the Bible, even when we doubt, struggle, or can’t focus. Here is what I’ve learned along the way:


Notes: This post is in response to the challenges you shared with me about connecting with God in the Bible. I’ve shared some anonymous reader comments in the images below

Also, you’ll notice there are headings for some common struggles/questions. This is a long post, so feel free to skim to find the ones that apply to you.

Finally, this post may contain affiliate links. That means if you purchase something through one of the links on this page, I’ll receive a small commission (to help keep this blog running) at no cost to you. 


 

feel-guilty-for-not-reading-the-bible

1. I’m not motivated/I don’t make time to read the Bible.

In the midst of my depression, apathy is the name of the game. I don’t feel like doing anything, including reading the Bible. It’s kinda hard to connect when I don’t even read.”

When I’m struggling with depression, hard times, or just busyness, it’s REALLY difficult to spend time reading the Bible. It’s easier to get distracted by everything else, then beat myself up for not doing what I think I “should.”

Here’s what to do:

Lower your standards. Get rid of guilt.

This may be the most counter-intuitive thing I’ve learned, but sometimes, my standards are unrealistic for my schedule, season of life, or level of health. Several readers mentioned feeling guilty for not spending “enough time” in the word.

But living under the weight of guilt and shame never draws me closer to God. Instead, it just makes me feel worse and less likely to even try. Can you relate?

Besides, God is not disappointed in you. He can’t be surprised, so He can’t be disappointed. He just wants to help us.

So I’ve learned to set super-low, micro-commitment standards when I’m struggling. Did I read just one verse? It’s better than not reading anything, so I count it a win, guilt-free (though it may take a while to actually feel guilt-free). Then, when I have more time, I spend more time.

Let yourself multi-task.

Listen to it on your commute, while you exercise, or while you do chores. The idea of an hour-long, undisturbed quiet time is beautiful. It’s also unrealistic in some seasons of life, especially when I’m low on motivation.

During one season when I struggled with depression AND busyness, I found audio devotionals on the YouVersion and Abide apps to listen to during my commute. I especially loved the Abide devotionals because they asked questions and left some quiet time for reflection, which helped me process what I was hearing.

Remind yourself it’s not an obligation.

None of my friends would be happy to hear I hung out with them because I felt obligated to. Instead, they want to know I want to be there with them.

It helps me to remember that most believers throughout history didn’t have individual access to Scripture. Reading the Bible every day is not an obligation or prerequisite for being a Christian.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe reading the Bible is one of the best ways to connect with God on a daily basis. But I’ve learned that taking the pressure off and reminding myself it’s a way to grow my friendship with God helps me want to more.

Connect the habit to something else.

It could be brushing your teeth, getting into bed, sitting down with your first cup of coffee, whatever. Research shows that if we connect a new habit we want to establish to something we already do every day, we’re more likely to succeed.

For long seasons when I struggled with depression, I kept my Bible by my bed and read just a verse or two from the Psalms before I turned out the light. That’s it. When I was feeling frisky, I would also jot down anything that stuck out.

Make it automatic.

Sign up for daily verses to be sent to your email. Search for a few Bible verses on Pinterest or Instagram and follow people who post them. Set a reminder on a Bible app, She Reads Truth, or whatever other app you like to tell you when it’s time to open up the Bible.

Basically, these tips are ways to make it as easy as possible on yourself. Try to remove every barrier to you actually spending time in the Bible.

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2. I can’t focus on the Bible.

I can’t focus & concentrate so I can take it in. I have to read the scripture over & over again & still sometimes can’t maintain concentration long enough to remember what I read. I also struggle with how to apply the Word to my life in a real way.”

The inability to focus is a huge struggle for me with depression. My eyes skim over the words but I don’t remember what I read, especially when I try to read longer passages.

Here some solutions:

Read stories and short, relatable portions.

If you’re having a hard time focusing, don’t try to read dense, theology-heavy passages or long lists of Old Testament laws. We’re naturally wired to connect with stories, and reading through the Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John gives lots of opportunities to do that.

The Psalms are smaller, digestible, and cover the full spectrum of human emotion. You’ll find everything from heartbroken laments to angry rants, from joyful praise to accusations against God. You can find a Psalm for just about any mood.

When your mind wanders, gently return your focus.

When  I get distracted, my natural reflex is to berate myself, as though I can beat my mind into soldier-like conformity and submission. This has never helped.

But once I started exploring contemplative prayer, I learned the principal of gently returning my focus. The idea is that our thoughts are sort of like pebbles dropped into a pond, causing ripples across our attention. The ripples happen when we get pulled away by passing thoughts.

We’re all going to have distractions in our minds. That’s part of being human. But over time, if we can practice letting those ripples slowly dissipate, we’ll be able to focus better.

So don’t beat yourself up when you notice you get distracted. Just sort of acknowledge it, give yourself grace, and turn your attention back to what you’re reading.

Try a different format or version.

Sometimes, words on paper are hard to connect with. Other times, words on a screen make it difficult to focus, especially when our attention is already short-lived.

This is when I use a different format or translation of the Bible. I love the videos by The Bible Project on YouTube when I need something visual. I have the YouVersion app read to me, too, or read in a different translation than I usually do. There is even a graphic novel adaptation.

Engage with Scripture in a different way.

Sitting and reading by itself is already tough for many of us. Switch up how you engage with and respond to what you’re reading or hearing.

Jot down a verse that stuck out and a few thoughts in a journal or put it on the lock screen of your phone. Maybe trace the same verse over and over or doodle/draw a response to it.

I’ve even talk-to-texted thoughts into a note on my phone or taken a voice note on my phone. Nobody else ever has to see or hear it.

reading-scripture-through-hurt

3. I can’t believe what God says about me.

It’s almost a cliche that we see God through authority figures in our lives, especially parents. If you’re lucky enough to have attentive, caring parents who obviously delight in you,

But most of us have encountered toxic, cruel, or even abusive authority figures over the years. Whether it was a teacher, a coach, a parent, or even a pastor, it makes it really tough to connect with God when all that baggage weighs us down.

Here are some ideas that have helped me:

Be honest.

God isn’t surprised that you struggle to believe what He says about you when you’ve heard such cutting words. And God’s not afraid of your emotions, your hurts, or your anger.

I’ve found that the more honest I am with God, the more I seem to connect with Him. It seems crazy, but honestly telling Him I don’t really believe something or I don’t trust Him in an area seems to open a door for that to change in my heart.

Recognize your filter.

A dear friend and pastor once told me that we all hear from God “through a dirty filter.” Our hurts, experiences, culture, socioeconomic status, and personality all color our interactions with everyone and everything – including God and the Bible.

It’s like wearing colored glasses or listening through earplugs: we can still see and hear what’s going on, but it’s not 100% clear. The colors are a bit off or the sounds are a bit muffled. Simply recognizing this helps me remember sometimes what I think and feel isn’t 100% true.

Find out what the Bible says about hurt.

My life transformed when I began to see the compassion of God for the oppressed, broken, and hurting. Throughout the Bible, God calls authority figures to a high standard of gracious, loving service, not to cutting words and abuse.

A lot of people like to quote verses about kids being obedient, disciplined, and honoring parents. But the Bible shows that God’s expectation is parents will represent Him to kids in a tender, compassionate, loving way. He tells parents not to exasperate their children, to provide for their future, and that a mother should be comforting and kind, among other things.

Finally, Psalm 27:4 might become a big comfort: “even if my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will take me in.” It can be hard to believe things like this in the wake of deep wounds, but give it time to sink in. Sometimes it’s a process.

i-feel-condemned-by-the-bible

4. I feel shame and condemnation when I read the Bible.

My heart ached when I read this because I know this feeling intimately. For years, I tried to read the Bible, but all I saw were the ways I wasn’t living up and I wasn’t enough. My shame and self-hatred made it nearly impossible to believe anything good I read could apply to me.

Just like with emotional wounds, shame and condemnation act like filters that color everything we see and read. This often comes from one of two places.

First, we might have learned toxic theology from people who never encountered a loving God themselves or those who use it to control others.

Second, our own misplaced sense of shame from hard times, mental health issues, or just an overly conscientious personality can color everything we take in.

But God is not waiting to punish us. He wants us to find hope and life in His word.

Here are some things that have made a difference for me:

Know that you are the Beloved.

Henri Nouwen talks about how, at our core, we are simply the beloved of God. (Check out his beautiful book, Life of the Beloved, for more). This is the truth about who you are. You, my friend, are the beloved.

Recognize the lies.

Recognize that voices of shame and condemnation are not the voice of the Lord. Yes, there is some super harsh stuff in the Bible that’s nearly inconceivable in our modern culture.

Think big picture.

The first story in the Bible is about a powerful and relational God creating a magnificent world that wasn’t complete until it had people He loved. The very last story in the Bible is about all the hurt, sickness, and tragedy of this broken world being healed and brought back into relationship with Him.

Yes, there’s some crazy stuff in between. Some of it is harsh and violent and confusing. And there are lots of books and articles on the historical context that can shed light on that stuff.

But overall, it is this huge, sweeping story of God working with broken, messed-up people to set the world right again. There are promises of redemption, forgiveness, and grace offered over and over, and God becoming flesh to come close to us.

Come back to Jesus.

This never fails me. When I see shame, condemnation, or guilt in the pages of Scripture, I come back to the Gospels and back to Jesus. Because He rebuked Pharisees for putting impossible religious burdens on people. He told good, church-going people they had no right to punish a woman caught in adultery and told her He wouldn’t condemn her either.

is-the-bible-true

5. I’m confused and I have doubts about the Bible.

“There are so many things in the Bible that don’t make sense to me. Instead of finding comfort in it, I find myself wondering if maybe everything I thought I knew is wrong and none of it is even true. And, if it isn’t true and God isn’t real, then I don’t even know who I am.

“Some of the Bible seems contradictory to other parts of it. And I hate feeling confused. It makes me anxious and frustrated with myself. If I can’t understand what I’m reading then I’m not able to hear from God…”

Listen, it’s okay to have doubts. It is okay that the Bible can be confusing, overwhelming, and often doesn’t make sense. And it’s okay that some parts are hard for you to swallow.

I’m not trying to shake your faith or fuel your doubts. On the contrary, facing my doubts and confusion about the Bible has made my faith deeper and stronger.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

My doubts are safe with God. He’s not surprised or upset by them. Instead, God has used them to draw me closer to Him.

The Bible’s 66 books were written by people from different cultures, social statuses, economic backgrounds, and languages. It took more than a thousand years to write. Just as Jesus was fully God and fully man, the Bible is fully divine and covered in the fingerprints of humanity.

That makes for a messy, beautiful way for God to communicate with us. And it’s totally possible to love Scripture and believe it’s inspired by God and to wrestle with the tough parts. You’re not a bad Christian for that.

Here are some practical tips that have helped me out:

Understand literary genres and culture.

The Bible includes song lyrics, letters to friends, stories to explain suffering, allegories, legal code, birth and death records, and tons of other types of literature.

Each of the Gospels was written to a different audience, so they focus on different details and use different language.

The Psalms include worship songs, a military anthem, heartbreaking lament, or an angry rant by someone who wants revenge.

Paul’s letters contained different instructions for believers in different cultures. Not all of those instructions were universal, like the much-abused verse about “women keeping quiet,” something scholars believe had to do with an oppressive, male-dominated region. In other letters, he mentioned women who filled many leadership roles in the early Church, so he obviously didn’t have a problem with it. 🙂

You don’t have to learn about every genre, but recognizing some things are cultural helps to make peace with the confusing parts.

Ask for help understanding the Bible.

God’s really interested in connecting with us. He’s interested in helping us get to know who He really is and to have a deep friendship with Him. There are verses that tell us He wants to help us know the truth and that we’ll find Him when we search for Him.

If all that is true (and I believe it is), that means we can ask God to help us understand stuff we read, to see what He wants us to learn about Him, and to help us with our doubt. And we can trust that He’s going to help us, even though the answers may not be immediate or as clear as we’d like.

Ultimately, the point isn’t having answers, but connecting with God. My favorite prayer about the Bible is this: God, I want to know you. Will you show me who you really are and help me get to know you as I read the Bible?

Google is your friend.

So are blueletterbible.org and biblehub.com. You can find different translations, Greek and Hebrew definitions, and tons of commentary and possible interpretations for different passages. If something seems weird or like it might be a cultural thing, Google it.

For example, you might learn that some scholars believe references to war in the Bible used common figures of speech and exaggeration to demonstrate victory. Or that the whole “eye-for-an-eye” thing was actually a way to keep God’s people from overreacting and seeking violent vengeance.

As you research, look for grace, love, and the character of Christ. Jesus is full of grace and truth – not one or the other. Look for ways His goodness and kindness draws you closer, even in hard and confusing stories.

Embrace the mystery.

Ancient rabbis believed there were multiple levels of interpretation for the word of God. They understood the mystery and tension of having a God-breathed set of texts that came through human hands. They didn’t look for easy answers but wrestled with the texts.

But over the past few centuries, society and the Church has started teaching that everything needs a clear, simple, scientific explanation. So we have projected that modern framework onto messages from God that are beautiful and rich, designed to pull us closer to God as we search for Him.

We can study and do research to find answers (and I think we should!). But at the end of the day, the Bible isn’t a textbook to teach us all the answers. It’s a doorway into a vibrant, hope-filled relationship with a God who passionately loves us. That’s what’s most important.

why-does-god-let-bad-things-happen

6. I struggle to trust what God says when He lets such bad things happen.

“How can I trust God in the midst of anxiety or worry about my family and the future?”

“My child has a chronic illness and depression. I struggle with understanding why this happened and how to handle it.

Oh, my friend, my heart aches with you. I may not know your specific circumstances, but I know what it’s like to be blindsided by hurt, weighed down by illness, and struggling to understand how God could let bad things happen. I know what it’s like to wonder where God is when I’m depressed. I get it.

Don’t look for a way out, but through.

Usually, reading the Bible won’t get us out of our immediate circumstances. I think we know that, but it’s easy to think, God, I’m reading the Bible and doing everything right, so why don’t you fix this?

But God is often more concerned with helping us walk through the dark with Him than immediately delivering us from it. (I know, this can be so frustrating!) Sometimes, we do have to go through “the valley of weeping” the Bible talks about.

But there are tons of promises, encouragements, and messages of comfort for those of us walking through the dark. Search for those and cling tightly to them.

Don’t look for answers, but Immanuel.

We want to make sense of things. We want answers and reasons for why bad things happen, almost as though we could fix them or prevent them from happening again.

Often, the reason bad things happen is simply that our world is broken. Sometimes people make terrible choices simply because we have the freedom to make choices. Sometimes we’re deeply hurt by those choices, or by illness, or by disasters. And sometimes we will never have answers in our lifetime.

But we will always have Immanuel, which means “God With Us.” It’s my favorite name for Jesus from the Bible because it reminds me that I’m never alone in the darkness. So look for parts of the Bible that remind you God won’t bail on you, abandon you, or forsake you.

Engage with hope, encouragement, and laments.

A lot of really hard stuff happened to people in the Bible. People lost children, lost their homes, lost their loved ones. People were kidnapped and taken into slavery, forced to flee as refugees, and experienced genocide. And they talked about it.

The book of Lamentations is literally one raw expression of profound grief. Many of the Psalms are cries of depression and heartache. Jesus even grieved and wept in the Bible.

In hard times, it’s crucial to turn to the Bible for hope and encouragement. But we can also get a ton of comfort from relating to some of the heartache others experienced in Scripture and seeing how God was there in it.

This changes everything.

I know it might seem like some of these suggestions undermine good discipline and make room for doubts we should fight ferociously.

But it’s not my intention to undermine anybody’s faith. Instead, I’ve learned that walking through these challenges and openly acknowledging them has strengthened my relationship with God.

Here’s the thing:

You should not read the Bible because you’re “supposed to.”

You shouldn’t read the Bible because “that’s what good Christians do.”

Obligation, guilt, and “because I’ve been told to” will only suck the life out of any quiet time you do have.

But connecting with a God you can trust? Getting to know Him and experiencing the way He loves you for yourself? That changes everything.

I’ve had therapy, meds, good friends, exercise, and nutrition to help me, but the greatest impact on my wholeness has been establishing a deep, consistent connection with God.

And I want that for you.

So here’s what to do next:

Get my free, two-page version of this guide. It includes the steps to take for each of these common struggles with reading the Bible.

I’ve distilled this post into bullet points that will remind you of these tips at a glance. Pull it out when you’re struggling, beating yourself up, or wrestling with doubts.

Pick one thing to try.

And let me know which one it is in the comments.

Don’t try to do everything at once. Don’t overwhelm yourself. It’s okay to start super-small with new habits.

Try it at least once this week.

That’s it. If it happens more than that, great! 

Don’t beat yourself up.

I promised a guilt-free guide, so I want to leave you with a reminder that beating yourself up for “not doing enough” will not draw you closer to God. Celebrate every time you open it up, read or listen to a verse, and give yourself grace as you learn to connect with God this way.

Fill out the form below to get your free 2-page guide!

About Sarah

Hi, I'm Sarah. I love coffee, pancakes and street tacos. I'm a learner, a traveler and a creative mess. I've got a thing for redemption and seeing broken people living beautiful lives. That's the story I've lived, and the one I want for you. Let's be friends!

2 Replies

  1. Vicki

    Sarah, thank you so much for doing this. I too have found that my faith and connection with God is what has gotten me through the difficult times. I also really love thanking Him during the good times:) This article was very helpful. I haven’t written in my own blog in some time, but reading yours inspires me to want to try again!

  2. Jake Kern

    Sarah, I can’t thank you enough for this. For the effort you have given us… your love and your kindness. I’ve been so isolated in this season of my life that I lose sight of the fact that I am not the only one to experience my hurt. Your vulnerability and sharing have spoken to me in a powerful way. I’ll check my filter (which just so happens to be my homework from my therapist). I’ll be purposely aware of my flawed programming, and I will try to remember that is the very sort of thing that Christ came to overcome. I will definitely check out “Life of the Beloved.” Thank you for your heart and your care. – Jake

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