6 Reasons People Don’t Study the Bible

Howard Hendricks  and William Hendricks
header for 6 Reasons People Don’t Study the Bible

Shortly after I became a Christian, someone wrote in the flyleaf of my Bible these words: “This book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this book.” That was true then, and it’s still true today. Dusty Bibles always lead to dirty lives. In fact, you are either in the Word and the Word is conforming you to the image of Jesus Christ, or you are in the world and the world is squeezing you into its mold.

And yet the great tragedy among Christians today is that too many of us are under the Word of God, but not in it for ourselves. For example, I met a man once who had driven his entire family all the way across the country to attend a conference of Bible teaching.

Amazed, I asked him, “Why did you come so far?”

“Because I wanted to get under the Word of God,” he said.

On the face of it, that sounds wonderful. But later it hit me: Here was a man willing to drive twelve hundred miles to get under the Word of God; but was he just as willing to walk across his living room floor, pick up a Bible, and get into it for himself?

You see, there’s no question that believers need to sit under the teaching of God’s Word. But that ought to be a stimulus—not a substitute—for getting into it for ourselves.

Who reads the Bible? According to the Barna Group, in 2020 about 34 percent of Americans polled claimed to read the Bible at some point in a week. However, a famous Gallup survey from many years ago found that while 82 percent of Americans claimed to believe that the Bible is either the literal or “inspired” Word of God, and more than half said they read the Bible at least monthly, half couldn’t name even one of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. And fewer than half knew who delivered the Sermon on the Mount.

“Dusty Bibles always lead to dirty lives.”

Have you ever seen a Bible “parked” in the rear window of someone’s car? That’s common where I come from. A guy will come out of church, hop into his car, toss his Bible in the back, and leave it there until the next Sunday. That’s quite a statement of the value he places on God’s Word. In effect, when it comes to Scripture he’s functionally illiterate six out of seven days a week.

The Bible is owned, read on occasion, even taken to church—but not studied. Why is it that people do not get into Scripture for themselves, to understand it and see it make a difference in their lives? Let’s find out by listening to six Christians describe their experience in this regard.

Ken: “I Need Something That Works” (Relevance)

HGH: Ken, you’re a business executive with a lot of responsibility. You’re well educated. I know you love the Lord. Where does Bible study fit into your life?

Ken: Back when my kids were young, we used to read a verse or two every morning at breakfast, or maybe at dinnertime. But I wouldn’t say we ever studied the Bible. And of course it’s not the sort of thing you’d do at work.

HGH: Why not?

Ken: Well, work is work. You’re there to do a job. When I go to work I’m thinking about our payroll, our customers, the bills we’ve got to pay, what our competitors are doing. The Bible’s about the last thing on my mind.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of these people who acts one way at church and another way at the office. But let’s face it—the business world is no Sunday school class. You’re up against things that aren’t even mentioned in the Bible. So it doesn’t exactly apply to your day-to-day situation.

HGH: Ken, you’ve put your finger on the problem of relevance. And that may be the number-one reason people are not studying God’s Word today. They think it’s archaic, out of date. It may have had something to say to another generation, but they seriously question whether it has anything to say to ours. Yet, as we’ll see, God’s revelation is as alive today as it was when it was first delivered.

Wendy: “I Don’t Know How” (Technique)

HGH: Let’s move on to Wendy, who is a copywriter for an ad agency. Wendy, you seem to have a lot of energy and initiative. I’d be willing to bet that you’d make an outstanding student of the Bible.

Wendy: Actually, I’ve tried, but it just didn’t work out.

HGH: How so?

Wendy: Well, I went through a phase once where I decided I was really going to study the Bible. I’d heard someone at a seminar say that it’s impossible to know God apart from knowing His Word. I knew I wanted to get closer to the Lord, so I made up my mind to really get into Scripture. I bought all these books about the Bible. I came home from work every night and spent about an hour or more reading and trying to understand it.

But I realized that I didn’t know Greek or Hebrew. And there were an awful lot of things that people were saying about different passages that made no sense to me. I mean, I’d read what somebody had to say about a text, and then I’d read the text, but I couldn’t figure out how they’d come up with it. Finally, it just got so confusing, I quit.

“You are either in the Word and the Word is conforming you to the image of Jesus Christ, or you are in the world and the world is squeezing you into its mold.”

HGH: Oh, so it was a problem of technique. That’s common for many people today. They’re reluctant to jump in because they know they can’t swim. And our culture doesn’t help much. We’ve become saturated with visual images, and frankly, we’re losing our ability to read. That’s why one of the things we’re going to do in the next section is recover the skills of how to read something such as the Bible.

Elliott: “I’m Just a Layman” (Training)

HGH: Okay, let’s hear from Elliott. Elliott’s the man you want if you’ve got a swimming pool on the fritz. He can show you how to keep that water crystal clear. Furthermore, he brings an incredibly strong work ethic to the job, and I think his faith has a lot to do with that. Elliott, something tells me you pay a lot of attention to your Bible.

Elliott: Well, let me put it this way—I pay attention to what I understand in the Bible. The Ten Commandments. The Golden Rule. “The Lord is my shepherd.” That sort of thing. But the rest of it I pretty much leave up to my pastor. I mean, he understands all that stuff, and if I ever have a problem, I can just go to him. He seems to know what it all means. Me, I just try to live it out the best I can.

HGH: That’s encouraging. You’re trying to practice the truth you do understand. But Elliott, I hear you saying what thousands of Christians are saying today: “I’m just a layperson.” Or, “I’m a homemaker. I’m not a professional. You can’t expect me, an individual who has no theological training, who maybe never even finished college, to study a book like this.”

That’s the way I felt when I started out as a new believer. Somebody said to me, “Howie, you need to spend time in the Word.”

I thought to myself, How in the world do I go about doing that? I’ve never been to seminary. I’m not a minister. I can’t understand this stuff.

But as we’re going to see, you really don’t need professional training to understand the Bible. You don’t have to know Greek and Hebrew. As long as you can read, you can dig into the Scriptures for yourself.

And by the way, don’t be put off by the word study. I wish we had a better term than “Bible study,” because for most of us, “study” is a bad-news item. It has all the appeal of flossing our teeth. We know we’re supposed to, but. . . . In this book, we’re going to discover that Bible study can be fascinating beyond words, and even fun. So hold on.

Linda: “I Just Don’t Have Time” (Priorities)

HGH: I mentioned homemakers, and, Linda, I guess that describes you. You’re at home full-time with three small children. How do you feel about Bible study?

Linda: Oh, I’d love to study the Bible. I really would. Like you say, I’ve got three little ones to keep up with, and sometimes I’d do anything to get a break. My husband works day and night so that I can stay home. But that means I’ve got the kids all day long, and I’m lucky to get even twenty minutes to myself. You can’t study the Bible in twenty minutes. Even if I could, I’m usually just trying to catch my breath. I wouldn’t have the energy.

“Guilt drives more people away from the Scriptures than into them.”

HGH: I understand exactly what you’re saying. My wife, Jeanne, and I reared four ourselves, and now we have six granddaughters, as well. So we’re aware that parenting is an extremely demanding job. For us it has been a priority. I guess that’s really the issue you’re raising—where does Bible study fit on my list of priorities? Unfortunately, for many of us it’s number twenty on a list of twenty-seven things. It’s nice, but certainly not necessary. If you’re interested why Bible reading is essential, you can check out this post explaining why.

Toni: “I Have My Doubts About the Bible” (Reliability)

HGH: Toni, I’m eager to hear your comments. You’re a student on a university campus. Is there still a place for studying Scripture in that setting?

Toni: Yeah, I suppose people ought to read the Bible. There are some very interesting and inspiring passages in it. But I’m not sure about some of the miracles and predictions and stuff. I mean, Jonah and the whale? That sort of thing is really hard to believe. And I know people quote Scripture to say whether something is right or wrong. It seems like you can make the Bible say just about anything you want it to say.

So I think you should read it once in a while, just to kind of know what’s in there, or maybe to help you feel better if you’re down. But study it? I don’t know about that.

HGH: All right, you raise some genuine concerns. Is this Book reliable? Is it authoritative? Can we base our lives on it? Does it have credibility? Or, when we read it, do we have to throw our intelligence out the window and, as one person put it, strain to believe what we know, deep down, is utterly preposterous? We’re going to discover that it is completely reliable, and that the more we study it, the more consistent and reasonable it turns out to be.

George: “I Can’t Seem to Make It Interesting” (Interest)

HGH: Let’s take one final comment. George, your interest in the Word has a lot to do with the fact that you teach an adult Sunday school class at your church.

George: Yes, I guess I have more reason than most people to study the Bible. When I read through a passage, I’m always thinking about my class, and how I’m going to teach it to them. But I’ll be honest—it’s hard to get people interested in the Bible. It seems like they’d rather talk about sports or what’s going on at work than the great doctrines of the faith.

I don’t expect anybody to become a great theologian. But 2 Timothy 3:16 says that the Bible is profitable for doctrine, and it seems to me that a lot of the problems people complain about could be remedied if they paid a little more attention to what the Bible has to say.

HGH: I think you’re discovering what anyone who wants to communicate spiritual truth runs into: It’s very difficult to get people excited about one’s own insights into the Word. Unless they’re making their own discoveries on topics that relate directly to their experience, Bible study will just bore them to tears. They just won’t feel motivated to invest time in it. So that’s really your challenge as a teacher—to offer them a process by which they can uncover spiritual truths for themselves.

By the way, one way not to do it is through guilt. Guilt is a poor motivator. It’s very powerful, but it’s also poisonous to the learning process. It kills the joy that ought to mark firsthand acquaintance with the Word. Guilt drives more people away from the Scriptures than into them.

How About You?

Well, we’ve seen a number of reasons that people do not study the Bible. Which one(s) applies to you? Do you question the Bible’s relevance to real-life issues? Are you locked out of the process by a lack of technique and basic skills? Are you convinced that this Book is just for professionals, not laypeople, that it takes special training to understand it? Is Bible study a low priority (or no priority), especially with so many other demands begging for your time? Do you have doubts about the Bible’s reliability, and whether you can ever really determine its meaning? Do you perceive Bible study as dreadfully boring and not worth your attention?

Every one of these obstacles can be overcome. But first, having looked at the negative—why people don’t study the Bible—let’s turn around and ask, Why must we study the Bible? Check out this post on why studying the Bible is worth your time.

For Further Reading:

Living by the Book

by Howard Hendricks and William Hendricks

For every person who draws strength and direction from the Bible, there are many more who struggle with it. Some call it a long book...

book cover for Living by the Book