Several weeks ago, Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black delivered the message at First Baptist Atlanta, and while he made several salient points that were uplifting and edifying regarding how to be “Free Indeed” while on this earth, I was most fascinated by the point he made regarding a person’s devotional Bible. It was a side note, a five-minute tangent in a forty-minute sermon, one designed to add to his overall purpose, but it set me to thinking.
As a chaplain, he’s officiated at many a funeral, many for people he did not know personally. Therefore, in order to better understand the deceased and prepare more personal remarks, he often asks a family member for that person’s Bible.
Sometimes, he finds a Bible that still creaks when he opens it, the pages stiff and the spine unbent in order to lay the book open for study alongside a prayer journal or study guide. Some have neither name nor gift date written on the opening page, and no marriages, deaths, or births are recorded for his family’s posterity. Other might have still been in the box that protected the precious word of God when it sat on the bookstore shelf, the smell of fresh leather still clinging to it and its pages as pure as the wind-driven snow.
Those that have been opened have been studied still vary in degree. Some have a few key passages marked or a sticky note here or there, and there are a few he’s seen that are filled with underlined passages and highlighted footnotes; these usually have notes scribbled in the margins and study outlines on many pages spanning from Genesis to Revelation.
This is what I found fascinating. Chaplain Black stated, “I can gauge a person’s level of spiritual fitness by perusing his Bible.” I had never thought of it that way! He can see what passages shaped the course of a person’s walk with God and what difficulties that person overcame by immersing himself in the Word. With those Bibles, Chaplain Black says he can deliver a eulogy that is more than just platitudes or generic phrases because, as he put it, “I have a copy of [that person’s] autobiography” and can tell anyone the story of his life.
Chaplain Black then asked his listeners, “If someone who didn’t know you had to deliver your eulogy, what would your Bible tell them? That’s a pretty revealing question, one that might make quite a few Christians uncomfortable. I know it would have made me squirm uncontrollably several years ago because my Bible was often placed high on a bookshelf, taken down only to go to church or to read a passage when a moment of whimsy struck me. Thank God that is not the case now!
So what does my Bible say about my spiritual fitness?
Well, in the front pocket of my Bible cover, there is a white handkerchief, one that is folded over on itself four times and spotted with oil. When I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis seven years ago, my great uncle, James Qualls, had some members of his church in Illinois pray over this object, anointing it with oil. He then mailed it to me and told me to keep it as a reminder that I was loved and was in the prayers of many. He also promised me that God would use my illness to do a great work in my life, and that is exactly what has happened. I keep it with me always to remember God’s goodness and often hold it during times of prayer.
Resting atop my Bible are prayer sheets—from Bible study classes or from work—that remind me that I must pray specifically as Jesus instructed in John 14:12-14:
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.
I haven’t always done this, but I’m finding having these lists ready for my daily prayer and devotional time helps me to stay focused and to speak more directly to my heavenly Father. I cannot recommend it enough because it keeps me from “letting things slide” or telling God, “You know the rest of those prayers I forgot to mention.” It’s keeping me from being spiritually lazy, which is what I’ve been for far too long.
Books I’ve tried to study in depth, such as Romans, are fairly well marked in pen and highlighter, and I have notes tucked inside that can help me define words like “propitiation,” “justification,” and “reconciliation,” which I will need if I ever use this epistle to witness to an unbeliever. Sometimes, the differences among these words are slight, but even a small variation in meaning might hold the key that unlocks a person’s heart and allows the Holy Spirit to do His great work in his life. I want to be prepared!
I have memories associated with certain passages. For example, Matthew 23:25-28 is underlined. I remember doing so when I prepared a lesson on spiritual hypocrisy for my students several years ago when we were discussing The Picture of Dorian Gray in an Advanced Placement Literature course. It was a blessing to be able to learn the difference between outward righteousness, such as that of the Pharisees, and genuine and inward cleanliness before the Lord!
As I’m sure is the case with many Christians, not all books are marked equally. For instance, of the four Gospels, the one most marked in my Bible is that of Luke, which makes me think I’m like the Gentile doctor who wrote it—obsessed with detail and focused on the humanity of Christ. Some of my favorite Biblical narratives—the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan—are only found in the book of Luke. Also, of the four, Luke devotes the greatest amount of scripture to the role of women in the early church, and I’ve searched them all in my quest for godly role models.
I see a lot of myself in Paul, and I spend as much time with him as I can, leaving marks scattered throughout his epistles to remind me of the perfection of God’s grace, the need to refrain from legalism, and the fact that trials and sufferings bring about spiritual growth. James, too, is a friend (one with whom I share a name!) who has taught me the practical way to live as a Christian, and from his letter, I learned that “the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16).
I’ve marked the hard lessons, the ones that hurt me to read but that are essential if I am to walk the path that leads to the narrow gate:
But whoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).
“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matt. 7:21-23).
However, I’ve also read of God’s miracles and Christ’s healing of the blind, the leprous, and the lame. I’ve been promised that I am a new creation in Christ Jesus (2 Cor. 5:17), that I will have life more abundantly (John 10:10), and that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
I marvel at those scriptures that tell me how the same God who created the heavens and the earth knows my name; He knew me even before I was formed in my mother’s womb (Jer. 1:5). It was He who loved me enough to reconcile me to His holiness, He who brought me up “out of the the mire clay and set my feet upon a rock” (Ps. 40:2). This is why I’ve poured over the words of Jesus’ intercessory prayer for believers, the prayer sent up from the Garden of Gethsemane recorded in John 17, leaving marks like bread crumbs to lead me through further readings later in my life. The Bible is God’s love letter to me, the guidebook He’s blessed me with so that I might be more Christ-like each day, and like David, I ask:
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have ordained, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and You have crowned him with glory and honor (Ps. 8:3-5).
There are gaps in my studies, oh yes. Many books in the Old Testament are without one line or circle to show my time spent there, and the many that pepper the book of Revelation reveal my frustration when attempting to discern what awaits us before Christ’s return. However, instead of looking at those gaps as failures, I see them as unexplored territory on a map. I have a guide to lead me through them when the time is right and I am spiritually ready, and I am ready to follow the Holy Spirit through each page.
When I die, I want the pastor who delivers my eulogy to know me, to be able to say with blessed assurance that I am home with my loved ones and walking the streets of gold. I want them all to know that I have heard the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” and that there is no need to grieve because they will see me again in glory (Matt. 25:21). I want my “spiritual autobiography” to be one worth reading, one that my family can keep as its spiritual heritage. Lord, help me make it so!