Don’t Let Commentaries Slow Your Christian Writing

When I teach Christian writing classes, I emphasize the importance of Bible study. Christian writers have an incredible privilege of inspiring and encouraging readers to draw closer to God and to dig deeper into His Word. That means writers need to know the Bible and have a solid foundation for presenting scripture in their writing.

This doesn’t mean a devotional writer needs to be a scholar of biblical texts. But there are some basics that anyone writing about scripture needs to practice. One of these is the use of reliable biblical commentaries.

When I mention commentaries, a creative writer may sigh and think, There goes the inspiration or There goes the fun or even There goes the Holy Spirit. I get it. I often have the same response. But learning how to use reliable commentaries in minimal ways is important for Christian writers. And the use of commentaries does not need to slow or make tedious our inspirational writing.

I am creating this article as an encouragement to Christian inspirational writers on the importance of using commentaries and some simple and interesting ways to do so.

Why Should We Use Commentaries in Our Christian Writing?

As Christian writers, we need to look at reliable commentaries. Through our writing, we are expressing our voice in Christian community. We need to converse with others in the community over time and space. That need to engage in dialogue is also why we check more than one commentary and see where we find overlap, consensus, or disagreement. I recommend always consulting at least two commentaries to enhance our understanding of a particular Bible passage.

In our writing, we are pointing our readers to God’s Word. We need to understand the weight of doing that. We want to be sure we are presenting scripture in a way that reflects our own dialogue with Christian community, so we are presenting to the reader as a representative of that community. We’re all in this together.

We need to take some effort to grow in our understanding of scripture over the course of our writing lives. The Holy Spirit leads us as we search the depths of scripture. Commentaries offer a good aid along the way.

Our own wounding can cause us to skew the way we understand a Bible verse. Commentaries can help us sort it through and see more clearly.

The enemy loves to mess with Christian writers, telling us one or more of the following: our understanding of scripture is wrong or not good enough; we don’t have the biblical foundation to write about scripture; or we’re going to lead readers astray. The enemy wants to stop us from writing because he knows how powerfully God will use our writing. By consulting reliable commentaries, we will be able to discern and dismiss the lies of the enemy.

When we love scripture, as most Christian writers do, a good, trustworthy commentary can also provide insights that deepen our understanding of a Bible passage. That experience is something to treasure and appreciate. Good commentaries should add joy to the inspirational process of our Christian writing.

Some Tips for Using Commentaries with Ease

Consider your use of commentaries as part of your ongoing long-term biblical growth as a writer. Don’t let it slow your writing. Let your exploration of God’s Word (a lifelong process for all of us) continue to shape your writing as you go along. Start with where you are right now. Take it as God leads. He will guide you for sure!

1. When you start working with a Bible verse, don’t go to the commentaries right away. Begin with your own prayerful work with the Holy Spirit. Don’t consult commentaries until after you have done your own study of the Bible verse and surrounding passages. You want God to work the scriptures into your heart first. Then use the commentaries for confirmation and to shed light on additional layers to explore later.

2. Find your go-to source of commentaries now, so it doesn’t become a big deal each time. It is worth the up-front investment of time to line up the commentaries you will use as a writer. Start with your church. Does your church have a library? Ask your pastor for suggestions on how to find good, reliable commentaries. (Sadly, not all commentaries are trustworthy, so seek advice from your pastor.)

Do you have a college nearby with online databases? Many local colleges give free public access to databases, and many of those databases contain biblical commentaries. Some school library databases also have free online access to full-text articles that may focus on particular biblical passages. You can often search by chapter and verse. I recommend peer-reviewed articles as the most reliable. Talk to your local college reference librarian for help. They will be glad you’ve asked.

Commentaries can be expensive to buy, but keep your eyes on your favorite publishers. Sometimes they run sales on commentaries, and you will often find good discounts on e-book versions. If you enjoy working with a particular book of the Bible, it might be worth it to buy a good commentary focusing on that book.

Do you have fellow Christian writers in your church or community? Maybe create your own co-op for commentaries. Each person buys one, and then you share with each other.

If you invest the time up front to find good sources of commentaries, you will save time down the road when you are ready to consult those commentaries. You will know exactly where to go each time.

3. Start with Bible verses you know well. One of the best ways to get your feet wet with using commentaries is to start with Bible verses you already know. When you know the meaning of a verse really well, the use of a commentary won’t bring a huge learning curve. It will simply confirm what you already know. That’s one of the easiest ways to get used to looking at commentaries.

A commentary brings you into dialogue with Christian community regarding the interpretation of a Bible verse. For some of the more commonly referenced Bible verses, you have already lived out that dialogue in Christian community. You know the interpretation of that verse and can be confident of how you are sharing it with your readers.

When I chose the Bible verse for my devotional, “Firelight,” I was very certain the core message in my devotional expressed at least part of the meaning of that verse. Why? Because I’ve heard that verse taught, preached, sung, and lived out over my entire life. I had already experienced conversation about the verse in Christian community.

So, start with Bible verses you have heard taught and discussed many times. Verses you know well. Then see how the commentaries reaffirm what you already know. That’s a great way to get used to using commentaries.

4. Start by reading just a few paragraphs from a commentary. For devotional writing and many other inspirational writing projects, you will most likely focus on one Bible verse at a time. You don’t need to read a huge portion of a commentary, just the part that covers your verse. You can read more, of course, but don’t let that cause you to put your writing project on hold. Take baby steps and grow from there. Take a quick peek at the commentaries and keep writing.

5. When you start out, you will notice how much the commentary agrees with your own understanding of your Bible verse. That shouldn’t surprise you because you know God’s Word. That’s really all you need to do: just confirm your understanding of that verse with reliable sources. It’s great if you want to explore further and discover where the commentary offers new insights. If you have a really good commentary, you may find that enjoyable. But you don’t need to do that at the start. Simply confirm: “Yep. We agree!”

6. Remember Bible verses will often have layers and nuances of meaning. If you are writing devotionals, your message will be very focused. You will just be looking at one aspect of the Bible verse you are writing about. You can skim the commentary, looking for your particular focus, and skip all the other aspects the commentary covers. That way you won’t get overwhelmed by all the layers of meaning.

When you are starting out as a Christian inspirational writer, keep it simple. Take one step, then another. With each step, you will move more deeply into your journey of Christian writing. Before long, commentaries will become a simple and natural part of prayerful preparation for your writing.

 

Devotional Writing: Two Ways to Begin

This lesson is taken from my online course, “Let’s Write a Devotional.”

While a classic-style devotional begins with a Bible verse and is followed by a reflection (sometimes called a meditation, or story), that may not be the order in which the inspiration comes to you.

Sometimes you will start with the Bible verse, and then you will ask God to help you write a reflection that relates to the verse.

At other times, you will start the other way around – you will know the story, the object lesson, or the testimony first, and then you will ask God to lead you to the scripture verse which that story expresses.

Notice I said that the story expresses the scripture verse, and not the other way around. It is tempting to make the scripture verse fit the story, but that’s not what you want to offer to your readers. Whether the Bible verse or the story comes to you first, you want your readers to begin with scripture. The story should help your readers see the scripture verse at work in daily life. So, even if you get the story first, and then you find a scripture verse to go with it, be sure you are using a scripture verse for which that story is a natural expression – as if it had come to you the other way around.

For example, if I am writing a story about hope, I want to be sure the scripture verse is about hope. If my reflection or testimony is about healing, I want to be sure the Bible verse I use speaks a message of healing that sheds light on my story. A common mistake is to write the story, quickly grab a Bible verse that “sounds like” the story, and put them together. Take the prayerful time you need to find the right verse. If God gave you the story, He will give you the verse.

This is where it helps to dig deep with the Holy Spirit into your study of the Bible. Be sure you know the verses you are using and what they mean. Spend regular time in the Word. Let the Spirit lead you. Look at each Bible verse in the full context of the surrounding passage.

Make Spirit-led Bible study a spiritual practice – not just when you are preparing a devotional. The more you meet God in His Word, the more that understanding will come to you as you write. Even when you gain a deeper understanding of the Word, always stay humble and be open to God’s instruction and leading. This process is as much for your spiritual growth and your relationship with God as it is for your readers. God will use it for both, if you let Him.

Activity:

Begin with prayer and ask God to lead you in this process. Choose a Bible verse. Read the verse several times, meditating and praying over the verse. Then read the surrounding passage. Ask God to help you see how that verse connects with the larger context of the whole passage. The process of lectio divina is very helpful here. If you are not familiar with lectio divina, you might enjoy learning about it. This is a common way of scripture meditation practiced at monasteries.

After you understand the verse in its own original context (as those who heard it for the first time would have heard it), then pray about what that verse means to you today. Write down whatever God shows you – it might be emotions, a story you have experienced, ideas, specific problems people struggle with, or even a different Bible passage. Don’t edit yourself. Just makes notes in your journal – whatever comes to you. Don’t leave anything out.

That is the depth of immersing yourself in the Word that you will want to bring to every scripture verse in your devotionals. It takes time, but it is worth the effort, and God will use that time to work in your heart as well. Get in the habit of doing this every time you write a devotional, whether you begin with scripture or come to the Bible verse after you have the story. The time with God will affect your life in so many ways beyond the devotional you are working on.

At the end of this time, if the Bible verse turns out not to be the right one for your devotional, that is okay. You had an amazing time with God. You were shaped by His Word. And you have still come away with journal notes that might lead to other devotionals in the future. Keep those references in your journal. You never know when God will prompt you to use them down the road.

God, thank You for every moment we get to spend with You in Your Word. What a life-changing privilege every time. In Jesus’ name. Amen

*****

If you would like to learn more about devotional writing and take a guided, self-paced, online course where you will write a devotional and receive feedback from your instructor, you might enjoy my online course, “Let’s Write a Devotional.” Come visit the course page, and you can get started with devotional writing today.

Read as a Writer: A Lesson for Devotional Writers

This lesson is taken from my online course, “Let’s Write a Devotional.”

In this lesson, we are going to read several devotionals. Hopefully, this reading will be enjoyable for you. The more you enjoy devotional reading, the more that joy will come through in your devotional writing. And the more devotionals you read, the easier it will be when it comes to writing your own.

As you read the devotionals in this lesson, I want you to read specifically as a writer. This lesson will take some time, but it is well worth the effort. You are setting a foundation that will help you greatly when you begin to write your own devotionals. Enjoy this time, move slowly through this process, and make the most of it. This is all time spent with God. Be blessed.

Finding Devotionals to Read

You might have a favorite source of devotionals. If so, you can go ahead and turn to that now. If you don’t have devotionals on hand, here are several places where you can find them:

The Upper Room publishes devotional booklets, and they also publish some of their devotionals online. If you visit their website at https://www.upperroom.org/devotionals you can immediately read some of their devotionals.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association publishes daily devotionals online in calendar format, which is very user-friendly. If you visit this website https://billygraham.org/devotions/ you can read today’s devotional or any devotional titles that grab your attention.

My own website Adventures with God is a place where you can read some of the devotionals I have written. Here is a link to the “devotional” category on my blog – this will bring up a list of devotionals you can scroll through: https://adventureswithgod.blog/category/devotionals/

These are just a few sources of free online devotionals to get you started. You will discover many more as you grow as a devotional writer.

Reading Devotionals as a Writer

First, pick three devotionals to read. Here’s what you will do with each devotional, one at a time:

1. Read it first, straight through, prayerfully, as a reader. Do this just to get the context and understanding.

2. Now, re-read it, and this time, read it as a writer.

What does that mean?

Try to see what choices and decisions the writer made in creating this devotional. Put yourself in the writer’s place and think about why certain words are used, and why certain stories are shared.

As you go through each devotional, reading as a writer, I recommend capturing your reflections and making notes in your journal. This will help you later on, when you get ready to write your own devotional.

The steps that follow will help you in learning to read devotionals as a writer. Be sure, most of all, to pray and let the Holy Spirit lead you in this process.

3. As a writer, look at the devotional’s message.

Think about what the person who wrote this devotional is trying to get across. What is the main message? How does the writer share this message? Does the writer share a story, a teaching, or a personal reflection?

Can you tell if the message is important to the writer? What are some clues to this? Does the writer use certain words that show how much the writer cares about the message?

Do you feel like the writer cares about you, the reader? What makes you feel that way? Be as specific as possible – is it certain words, a feeling you get, the way the message is written?

4. As a writer, consider how the devotional affects you, and why.

What impact does this devotional have on you? Does it make you want to read the Bible more? Pray? Serve? What specific response do you have after reading this devotional?

Now get even more specific: What did the writer do to encourage these responses? What part of this devotional makes you want to pray, read the Bible, or help someone else?

5. Read the entire Bible passage.

Let’s go a little deeper. In your Bible, look up the Bible verse that begins this devotional.

Note: You can use a printed or electronic Bible. As a devotional writer, you may discover that using your own physical Bible will help you connect more deeply with the Holy Spirit in your writing. However, I understand that sometimes writers do well when they are out in nature or in different settings. You might not be able to bring a physical Bible with you. A Bible app on your phone is still God’s Word. Do what works best for you. What is most important is that you connect with God in His Word as you read and write devotionals.

Now that you’ve looked up the Bible verse that leads off the devotional, read the entire passage that surrounds this verse. The whole passage might include what comes before the verse, after it, or both. You decide how much to read, but be sure to read everything that is relevant to that verse.

How does the devotional message connect with that entire passage? Are there other lessons in the passage? Would they also make for good devotionals?

Why do you think the writer shared this particular verse, and this particular lesson? What lesson might you have shared about this passage?

Take your time with this process. Spend your time prayerfully with God. Enjoy it. Make the most out of it, and don’t rush through it. By taking your time with this exercise, you are building a strong foundation for yourself as a devotional writer.

When you have finished going through the first devotional with the eyes of a writer, move on to the next one. I recommend you go through this process with three devotionals before completing this lesson. It takes time, and effort, but it will be well worth it when you begin planning and writing your own devotionals.

For Reflection: Do you have any insights you want to include in your journal for your future reference? Anything you’ve experienced through this process that might help you when you start writing your devotionals? Write those notes while they are fresh in your heart, and they will serve you well later on.

God, thank You for the privilege of helping us read devotionals with the eyes and heart of a writer. We are grateful to enjoy this time with You. In Jesus’ name. Amen

*****

If you would like to learn more about devotional writing and take a guided, self-paced, online course where you will write a devotional and receive feedback from your instructor, you might enjoy my online course, “Let’s Write a Devotional.” Come visit the course page, and you can get started with devotional writing today.

Write a Prayer

Today’s post is a lesson from my free online intro course for Christian writers: Begin Your Christian Writing Adventure!

Dear Lord, thank You for helping us to grow as writers. We ask that You will guide us, so that Your heart will shine through each word we write. In Jesus’ name. Amen

In the last lesson, we talked about how your writing starts from your relationship with God. Your writing also begins with prayer. Prayer is simply conversation with God – and that’s exactly what you did in the last lesson. Your letter to God was a prayer.

All of your writing should be bathed in prayer. Pray before you write. Write from a prayerful spirit. Take breaks during your writing time to pray. Talk to God as you write. Ask Him any questions you have, or share your concerns with Him. Don’t wait – stop and talk with Him as concerns come up. Listen for His wisdom. He knows exactly how to help you. Then close each writing session with prayer.

As you pray through your writing, not only will this help you as a writer (and as a person). Your prayerful writing will also invite the Holy Spirit to move through your words. God will touch readers in ways you can’t begin to expect. Think about the last time God affected you through a piece of writing. He will do the same for others through the words He inspires in you.

I’ve had readers share with me that a certain word or phrase spoke directly to their heart. Some of these were phrases I didn’t even remember writing. But God knew what they needed to hear. He helped me write the words, crafted for people I didn’t even know. He reached through those words to touch their hearts in unique ways that I could never have done. The key was prayer.

In addition to writing with a prayerful heart, you can also allow God to use the writing gift He has given you to write prayers for people. It may be an email to someone in need; a prayer offered on a blog or in a magazine for a specific type of situation; or a collection of prayers in a book.

Your church might enjoy having prayers written on the website or social media pages, in the newsletter, or in the Sunday bulletin. I used to lead a writing ministry at a church. Together, we created responsive prayers for different occasions. As a prayer leader, I was also asked to write sample prayers for healing. And I enjoyed writing short prayers for different seasons in the church newsletter and daily news emails.

In whatever ways God leads you, you can write prayers that will help people.

Today is your chance to get started with prayer writing. Here is today’s writing exercise:

Write a prayer.

It can be a prayer for someone you are praying for right now. Or a prayer for something you are going through. You might think of a situation and write a prayer for someone in that situation. It might be a prayer for a friend who is ill … for a child about to take a test at school … for a new believer to share thanks with Jesus. Ask God to lead you, and pray before you start to write.

Remember not to edit yourself – just write. Write from your heart, prayerfully.

When you finish, you may simply want to read your prayer out loud to God. If your prayer is for a particular person, you might want to email it or write it in a prayer card to mail to that person, if that seems appropriate and if the Lord leads. If you have a blog, and if your prayer is for a general or common situation (i.e., not for a particular person), you might want to share your prayer so other readers can pray that prayer too, for their own situations.

Or the prayer you write may just stay between you and God. There’s no pressure to share with others. Only if you want to.

P.S. After you finish writing your own prayer, turn to John 17:20-26 and be blessed by the prayer Jesus prayed for you when He walked on this earth.

If you would like more lessons like this one, my free, self-paced, online course Begin Your Christian Writing Adventure is waiting for you. The course includes feedback on your final course project. And the course is Free! Come on in.