Which is More Important? Prayer or Bible Study?
We saw an interesting Twitter discussion recently, responding to the question “Is spending time reading/studying the Bible more important than praying?“.
The question is one of those awkward “trick” questions that contains an obscured assumption within it – in this case, the assumption is that a person is forced to choose between Bible study and prayer. While the instinctive response to that is to say “both are important and you should do plenty of each”, it is realistic to accept that there are practical limits, even for the most dedicated Christian, on how many hours a day they can spend on these activities.
Perhaps it is a valid question. Which should you focus on?
Does the Bible Tell Us to Pray? To Read and Study the Bible?
Yes, the Bible does most definitely exhort us to pray – regularly, often, even almost all the time. This is very clearly stated in Romans 12:12 – here it is in an extended context (AMP)
10 Be devoted to one another with [authentic] brotherly affection [as members of one family], give preference to one another in honor;
11 never lagging behind in diligence; aglow in the Spirit, enthusiastically serving the Lord;
12 constantly rejoicing in hope [because of our confidence in Christ], steadfast and patient in distress, devoted to prayer [continually seeking wisdom, guidance, and strength],
13 contributing to the needs of God’s people, pursuing [the practice of] hospitality.
This concept is echoed in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, and we’d suggest the next verse, about giving thanks, also implies thanks be given not only publicly but also privately, in prayer. Here’s the context of the two verses (AMP)
16 Rejoice always and delight in your faith;
17 be unceasing and persistent in prayer;
18 in every situation [no matter what the circumstances] be thankful and continually give thanks to God; for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
In Philippians 4:6, we are again encouraged to pray, with the chapter going on to further consider prayer not just in the context of asking for things but as a form of meditation and thanks, as shown here (AMP)
4 Rejoice in the Lord always [delight, take pleasure in Him]; again I will say, rejoice!
5 Let your gentle spirit [your graciousness, unselfishness, mercy, tolerance, and patience] be known to all people. The Lord is near.
6 Do not be anxious or worried about anything, but in everything [every circumstance and situation] by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, continue to make your [specific] requests known to God.
7 And the peace of God [that peace which reassures the heart, that peace] which transcends all understanding, [that peace which] stands guard over your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus [is yours].
8 Finally, believers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable and worthy of respect, whatever is right and confirmed by God’s word, whatever is pure and wholesome, whatever is lovely and brings peace, whatever is admirable and of good repute; if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think continually on these things [center your mind on them, and implant them in your heart].
So, definitely, prayer gets two thumbs up.
What about reading/studying the Bible? That’s a slightly more difficult topic – it has a clear answer (yes, you should) but the answer benefits from some context. The Bible as such was not much countenanced, at the time its books were being written, as an integrated complete work, and so we often get expressions of learning from Christ’s teachings rather than specific statements to read the Bible, but what is the Bible if not the means to learn from Christ’s teachings.
There’s also the interesting primacy of “God’s Word” as referenced both near the beginning of Genesis where God’s Word created the world, and at the beginning of John, where God’s Word is equated as being Jesus (a concept repeated in Revelation 19). God’s Word has power, and the Bible expresses and reflects some of this power.
The other historical aspect of the Bible’s advocacy for reading the Bible (yes, that does seem a circular piece of logic) is that in the Old Testament, the Jews were a very rule-bound group, with formally defined codes of conduct and procedure, and these rules were in large part to be found in the Bible. It was necessary to study the Bible as a source of the Laws, just like a lawyer today studies the statutes. But even in the legalistic Old Testament, God’s Word – what we now term Scriptures or the Bible – was more than just a set of dry legal texts. It is nicely described in Psalm 119:105 – let’s look at that entire section of the psalm (AMP)
97 Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day.
98 Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, For Your words are always with me.
99 I have better understanding and deeper insight than all my teachers [because of Your word], For Your testimonies are my meditation.
100 I understand more than the aged [who have not observed Your precepts], Because I have observed and kept Your precepts.
101 I have restrained my feet from every evil way, That I may keep Your word.
102 I have not turned aside from Your ordinances, For You Yourself have taught me.
103 How sweet are Your words to my taste, Sweeter than honey to my mouth!
104 From Your precepts I get understanding; Therefore I hate every false way.
105 Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path.
106 I have sworn [an oath] and have confirmed it, That I will keep Your righteous ordinances.
107 I am greatly afflicted; Renew and revive me [giving me life], O Lord, according to Your word.
108 Accept and take pleasure in the freewill offerings of my mouth, O Lord, And teach me Your ordinances.
109 My life is continually in my hand, Yet I do not forget Your law.
110 The wicked have laid a snare for me, Yet I do not wander from Your precepts.
111 I have taken Your testimonies as a heritage forever, For they are the joy of my heart.
112 I have inclined my heart to perform Your statutes Forever, even to the end.
The New Testament freed us from the mandates of the Old Testament Laws, but not from an obligation to understand God’s Will and Plan. For example, 2 Timothy 3:15-6 gives us a great exhortation to study all scripture (AMP)
14 But as for you, continue in the things that you have learned and of which you are convinced [holding tightly to the truths], knowing from whom you learned them,
15 and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings (Hebrew Scriptures) which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus [surrendering your entire self to Him and having absolute confidence in His wisdom, power and goodness].
16 All Scripture is God-breathed [given by divine inspiration] and is profitable for instruction, for conviction [of sin], for correction [of error and restoration to obedience], for training in righteousness [learning to live in conformity to God’s will, both publicly and privately—behaving honorably with personal integrity and moral courage];
17 so that the man of God may be complete and proficient, outfitted and thoroughly equipped for every good work.
In Hebrews 4:12, we are told how essential, fundamental, relevant and powerful the word of God is, and in 1 Timothy 4:13, we are asked to devote ourselves to public reading of Scripture – a phrase that combines two separate things – reading of scripture, and public sharing of Scriptures. Both are important.
This concept is further advocated in Acts 17:2 where we learn that Paul used the Scriptures over three Sabbaths as a basis to convert Jews to Christianity. In your own experiences, it is almost guaranteed that your personal path to Christianity was guided by Scripture, and if/when you introduce others to Christianity, this is also done using Scripture as a basis for your explanations and sharing, as suggested in 2 Timothy above.
So, yes, the Bible encourages reading itself, and tells us that familiarity with its contents is important.
This brings us back to an apparent equality of importance – prayer and Bible reading/study. But is this a problem? Not necessarily.
Why Not Do Both Together?
There is a second obscured assumption in the original question – that it is not possible both read and pray simultaneously. Simplistically, it might seem that it is not appropriate to try and read a book, any book, while simultaneously having a conversation with some other person. But that’s not the way in which Bible reading or study should be done.
The Bible is many things for us as Christians. One of its purposes is as a pathway and focus for our ongoing prayer, and understanding and appreciating the Bible is best done “interactively” – with prayer and dialog with God at the same time. There’s a great deal of accuracy in an analogy that reading the Bible is akin to what happens when you’re reading a book to a young child. If done sensitively and well, the child is regularly interrupting your reading to ask you all sorts of questions about the story, and sometimes about wildly unrelated topics too. Some narrators see such questions as interruptions, and perhaps in a many-child environment like a large classroom, they are. But if it is just you and one of your children, they are not interruptions. They are interactions, bonding events, and learning experiences for your child, and small delights for you as you teach your child about the world and the many things within it.
Of course, when reading the Bible, you are now the child, and it is the Holy Father who is the parent. We dare to suggest that he gets as much pleasure out of interacting with you and helping you to learn about his world as we do with our children.
So, whether you’re reading the somewhat dry and historic narratives in the Old Testament, or the impassioned urgings and advocacy in the New Testament, we suggest you don’t just read it passively as a story or as a textbook, but you read it interactively, talking to God in prayer as you go, and using the Bible as a tool to build your relationship with God, just the same as your children use your story-telling as a bonding experience with you.
It is certainly possible to simply read the Bible to learn its words and simple facts, and it is also certainly possible to pray at any time on any topic without needing the Bible as a foundation for your prayer. There is nothing wrong with either of these scenarios, especially the direct focused prayer when seeking advice or help.
But, in general, we suggest that you use your Bible study time (as opposed to a simple reading time) to engage with the Master Teacher and Ultimate Author, with God in his three forms. Break your reading with pauses to consider and think about what you are reading, to marvel, to give thanks, and to re-affirm your own participation; thank God for the greatness that you read about, ask his help to become a strong and faithful follower, and ask him to help you understand any points of confusion.
Immersing yourself in prayer and the Bible are your sword and shield in the daily battle we all fight against the forces of evil and temptation. Give yourself an abundance of both.
To close, here is a quotation from the great Victorian theologian, Charles Spurgeon, often called “The Prince of Preachers” :
“When asked, ‘What is more important: Prayer or reading the Bible?’ I ask, ‘What is more important: Breathing in or breathing out?’”.