How do we prepare our hearts to the study the Bible? One of the ways we do this is by getting rid of every potential hindrance to studying and understanding Scripture. Ezra 7:10 (ESV) says, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” In the KJV, it is translated that Ezra “prepared his heart.”
In Scripture, heart often refers to the mind, will, and emotions. It is the center of who we are. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Guard your heart with all vigilance, for from it are the sources of life.” Our heart affects our jobs, families, friendships, and our relationship with God and his Word. In fact, in Matthew 13:1-23, Christ gave the Parable of the Soils. In it, he describes God’s Word being sown into the soil of four different hearts—the wayside ground, the rocky ground, the thorny ground, and the good ground. Though each received the Word, only the good ground produced fruit that lasted. Therefore, we also, like farmers, must discern the ground of our heart and prepare it to receive God’s Word and produce fruit.
In this lesson, we will consider six hindrances to studying Scripture, which will aid us in preparing the ground of our heart, so it can produce maximum fruit.
Hindrance 1: The Unrepentant Heart
James 1:21 says, “So put away all filth and evil excess and humbly welcome the message implanted within you, which is able to save your souls.” What’s interesting about James’ command to get rid of sin is that it implies that God’s Word was already in the hearts of the hearers; however, it was ineffective. In order for the Word to change them, they needed to get rid of sin. Sin hinders our ability to truly receive God’s Word.
Peter says something similar, “So get rid of all evil and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. And yearn like newborn infants for pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up to salvation” (1 Pet 2:1-2). Since Peter calls believers to get rid of sin before commanding them to “yearn” for or “crave” God’s Word, the implication is that sin not only stops us from truly receiving God’s Word but also from desiring it. Many believers struggle with their appetite for God’s Word because of their delighting in sin and the world. Likewise, in 1 John 2:15, John said, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” There is a principle working in the world system that draws people away from God. The system seeks to satisfy people apart from God and is antagonistic to him.
Consider this saying: “The Word of God will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you out of the Word of God.” People’s relationship to God’s Word is often an indicator of their relationship to sin. Not attending church and small group (where God’s Word is taught) or reading God’s Word typically will lead people into sin. Likewise, when people are living in sin or being drawn to it, they will often stop attending places or doing things where they hear God’s Word. Sin is a hindrance to studying God’s Word.
Hindrance 2: The Uncommitted Heart
In the Parable of the Soils, Christ says this about the rocky ground:
The seed sown on rocky ground is the person who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy. But he has no root in himself and does not endure; when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, immediately he falls away.
These people hear the Word in church, small group, through their personal study, or some other means, and they accept it joyfully. However, their faithfulness to it lasts only a short time. When trials come or persecution because of God’s Word, they quickly fall away. The ground of their heart is shallow—their commitment low—and therefore, they don’t continue in obeying God’s Word and many ultimately fall away from God.
This is the uncommitted heart. Though they may study Scripture, attend Bible study and church regularly, they ultimately produce no lasting fruit because of their lack of commitment. They want God and his Word, as long as things are good, as long as God is blessing them, but as soon as things go wrong, they fall away from Scripture reading, church attendance, and obeying God. They may even get angry at God and deny him altogether.
How can we tell if we have an uncommitted heart? Simply by considering how we respond in trials. If we continually get angry at God and run away from him in trials, instead of running to him, we have an uncommitted heart, which will negatively affect our ability to receive God’s Word.
Consider our typical response to one who is uncommitted or untrustworthy: Would we entrust our deepest secrets with someone who is uncommitted or untrustworthy, or give them an important task? No, we wouldn’t, because they would probably be unfaithful with it. We can be sure that God doesn’t either. Psalm 25:14 says, “The LORD’s loyal followers receive his guidance, and he reveals his covenantal demands to them.” God reveals his word to his “loyal followers”—not the uncommitted ones. Shallow hearts only get shallow revelation. As they become faithful with little, then God can give them more (cf. Lk 16:10). When they are unfaithful with little, God takes away even what they have (cf. Matt 13:12). The uncommitted heart is a hindrance to studying God’s Word.
Hindrance 3: The Worrying Heart
In Matthew 13:22 (NIV), Christ described the thorny ground and how worry kept this person from fruitfulness. In explaining it, Christ says, “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life … choke the word, making it unfruitful.”
One of the most common commands in Scripture is “Don’t be afraid,” “Do not worry,” or “Be anxious for nothing.” What’s wrong with worrying? Worry essentially says to God either, “I don’t trust you!” or “You are not in control!” However, Scripture says that God works all things according to the counsel of his will (Eph 1:11) and that he specifically works all things for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28). Though hard things happen in our lives, God is always ultimately in control and using them for our good; therefore, we must trust him.
Again, considering this from a regular relationship standpoint: if we don’t trust somebody, then that will affect what we give them or accept from them. How can God teach us his Word if we don’t trust him? One of the prominent themes of Scripture is our need for faith—to trust God. We need to put our faith in God for salvation (Eph 2:8-9), but we also need to put our trust in him to receive many of his promises. In Mark 9:23, Christ said to a father seeking healing for his child, “All things are possible for the one who believes.” Since fear is ultimately a lack of faith, it commonly blocks our ability to receive God’s promises and his Word.
In reality, there are many people faithfully in God’s Word, but God’s Word is ineffective in their lives because of their propensity to worry. They constantly worry about their future, their past, their relationships, and everything else. Consequently, their worry chokes God’s Word and makes it unfruitful (Matt 13:22). Therefore, if we are going to prepare our hearts to study God’s Word, we must resolve not to worry but to instead pray, give God thanks, and trust him. Philippians 4:6-7 says,
Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
And 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 says, “Always rejoice, constantly pray, in everything give thanks. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
Hindrance 4: The Materialistic Heart
When describing the thorny ground which didn’t produce fruit from God’s Word, Christ not only mentioned worry but also the deceitfulness of wealth as a hindrance. Again, Matthew 13:22 (NIV) says, “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but … the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.”
This seems to be one of the temptations that kept Eve from obeying God’s Word. Though Eve had everything in the world, Satan focused her attention on the one thing that she didn’t have—the fruit of the forbidden tree. She looked at the fruit, lusted for it, and ate it—disobeying God’s Word.
Since then, “the deceitfulness of wealth” (or materialism) has been a major hindrance to studying and obeying God’s Word. Christ declared that a person can only have one master, God or Money. They will hate one and love the other (Matt 6:24). He also declared how hard it was for a rich man to get into heaven (Matt 19:23). Wealth often deceives us. We are tempted to think that it will ultimately satisfy us, and therefore, we pursue it more than God. Paul taught Timothy that many had pierced themselves with many sorrows because of the love of wealth and some had even fallen away from the faith (1 Tim 6:9-11).
For this reason, if we are going to prepare our hearts to study God’s Word, we must be careful of materialism—loving things more than God and others. It’s very easy for money, clothes, cars, and electronics to become our idols—hindering our love for God’s Word, our ability to understand it, and obey it.
How can we protect our hearts from materialism? (1) Christ taught that we should not to store up treasures on earth, because they are temporary and tend to consume our hearts, but to instead store up treasures in heaven, which are eternal (Matt 6:19-21). Likewise, Paul taught that we should guard our hearts from being “engrossed” with the things of this world (1 Cor 7:31 NIV). To live in the world, we have to use things (cars, phones, laptops, Internet, money, etc.), but we must guard against being engrossed in them. Sometimes that means not getting them, giving them away, or simply being disciplined with them. (2) Finally, we should practice contentment. In 1 Timothy 6:6-8, Paul said if we have food and covering, we should be “content.” Contentment is a spiritual discipline we must learn and practice. It often starts with simply giving God thanks for what we have and choosing to not pursue more than what we have. Unfortunately, since our hearts are so deceitful, many are unaware of how consumed their hearts are with things and how that idolatry has hindered their ability to desire, study, and obey God’s Word.
Do you have a materialistic heart? Christ said we can only have one master—God or money. We will love one and hate the other. In order to study God’s Word, we must love God and be careful of materialism, which can choke God’s Word and render it ineffective.
Hindrance 5: The Busy Heart
Another common hindrance that keeps many from knowing and receiving God’s Word is simply busyness. We get a good picture of this in the Mary and Martha story in Luke 10. In the story, Jesus came over to Mary and Martha’s home. While Jesus was teaching and sharing God’s Word with the disciples, Mary sat with them and listened, and Martha was a good host—serving everybody. Eventually, Martha complained to Jesus and asked him to tell Mary to help with serving. Jesus replied: “‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things, but one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the best part; it will not be taken away from her” (Lk 10:41-42).
Likewise, many people can’t study Scripture simply because they are too busy. Often times what keeps them away from studying God’s Word is not bad things, it is good things like school, work, family, hobbies, etc. However, often, the enemy of the best thing is not the evil but the good. No doubt, this is why Paul prayed this for the Philippians:
And I pray this, that your love may abound even more and more in knowledge and every kind of insight so that you can decide what is best, and thus be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.
As people made in the image of God, we have a tremendous capacity to love; however, our love must be wise. We must be able to discern what is best so we can be holy, fruitful, and bring maximum glory to God.
Is busyness keeping you from studying God’s Word and receiving all the benefits which come from it, including fruitfulness? Be careful of the hindrance of the busy heart.
Hindrance 6: The Sectarian (or Denominational) Heart
The sectarian or denominational heart is the tendency for believers to exalt a leader, church, or denomination to the point that it hinders their ability to rightly interpret and obey Scripture. This tendency has plagued the church since its inception and even before the church was formed. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-5, Paul rebuked the Corinthians for overly exalting their teachers:
So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like unregenerate people? For whenever someone says, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” are you not merely human? What is Apollos, really? Or what is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, and each of us in the ministry the Lord gave us.
In addition, something of this spirit is demonstrated by Joshua with his reverence for Moses. In Numbers 11:28-29, two men prophesied in the Israelite camp and Joshua responded: “‘My lord Moses, stop them!’ Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for me? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’”
Similarly, we have a tendency to divide into factions around great leaders, churches, and denominations and to become jealous to protect them, even when there is potential error. When we overly-reverence them, it can blind us to their flaws and ultimately hinder our ability to rightly understand and apply God’s Word. Robert West in his book, How to Study the Bible, gives a challenging warning against overly exalting our teachers, which can also be applied to our churches and denominations:
Christians must also beware of becoming-ites. These are believers who automatically accept everything that a certain Christian author says or writes. Using the names of popular contemporary Christian authors, these people could be known as Swindollites, Lucadoites, or LaHayeites.[i]
Though God uses great teachers and leaders to help us grow, we must remember they have clay feet—they stumble and make mistakes, including misinterpreting Scripture. Certainly, this is also true with churches and denominations. None of them have a patent on the truth. With that said, we should allow God to use our teachers, churches, and denominations to help us learn truth. However, we must, like the Bereans, test everything taught (and practiced) with God’s Word (Acts 17:11)—holding fast to the good and throwing away the bad.
As an application, we must continually come before Scripture with an open heart and mind—trying to honestly discern what Scripture says, even if it differs from what we’ve previously learned or accepted. We must recognize that only God’s Word is infallible—not ourselves, our culture, great leaders, churches, or denominations.
Even as Ezra prepared his heart to study Scripture, we must do the same. We must get rid of every potential hindrance to studying and obeying Scripture. As Proverbs 4:23 says, we must guard our hearts for out of them flow the issues of life. We must be especially careful of hindrances like:
The Unrepentant Heart
The Uncommitted Heart
The Worrying Heart
The Materialistic Heart
The Busy Heart
The Sectarian (or Denominational) Heart
Which hindrance stood out most to you and why?
How have you seen or experienced this saying, “The Bible will either keep you out of sin, or sin will keep you out of the Bible”?
Why is worry such a hindrance to understanding and obeying God’s Word? In what ways do you struggle with worry? How can we protect ourselves from this hindrance?
Why is busyness such a hindrance to understanding and obeying God’s Word? How can we protect ourselves from this hindrance?
How have you seen or experienced the sectarian heart? What is the remedy for this negative tendency?
What other questions or applications did you take from the reading?
[i] West, Robert M.. How to Study the Bible (Value Books) . Barbour Publishing, Inc.. Kindle Edition.