Read for Doctrine
Learning the stories in the scriptures is truly important. Unfortunately, too many of us have not moved beyond the stories. The stories are there to illustrate the doctrines or teachings of Christ. We learn the stories so we can learn how those people used the teachings or doctrines of Christ to accomplish great things. Sometimes we learn the stories to see how people were punished by their sadly misplaced choices.
The doctrines of Christ are what bring us to Him. We need to understand and have them be a part of our very being. We cannot become converted without being converted TO something. What we are being converted to are the doctrines or teachings we have been given from God.
The doctrines teach us why we are supposed to live the way the prophets tell us to live. They teach us how to understand the love of God, his consistency, his mercy, his tolerance, and his sense of justice. The doctrines explain and hold the whole plan of salvation together. They are the reason for the plan existing.
It has been my sad experience to note that in too many instances members of the church, as good as they are, still have no real idea why they do what they do. They are spiritually lost in the fog of ignorance. They come to church out of habit more often than out of conversion to a principle of the gospel. Again, I repeat, conversion of the soul has to be based on the doctrines of the gospel, not a social habit or nicety.
Doctrine is what will save us. Understanding the doctrine or teachings of Christ will draw us closer to him and increase our love for him. The Spirit leads us to salvation by helping us to understand the doctrines or teachings of Christ. We can’t live properly a teaching we don’t understand.
When you decide that you are going to have a go at reading the scriptures for doctrine, you can tackle the whole elephant and look for any doctrine or you can look for specific doctrines (see Reading for Topic below).
Reading for History
This method goes along with reading for the stories. Remember that at any point in the history of the earth, somewhere on the planet the Lord was dealing with a prophet. (Often more than one prophet.) Somewhere He had people to whom he was trying to teach the truth. It becomes very confusing or difficult to place a real time line of events if you have absolutely no idea as to what else was going on in the world at the time you are studying in the scriptures.
It changes our perspective of the Lord’s dealing with the children of men when you consider things like the following: Did you realize that at the time Lehi and his family were just settling into their new home in the Americas, that just a few week’s journey from their home the Jaredite civilization was ripening in iniquity and beginning the process of completely tearing themselves apart and slaughtering each other by the millions?
Lehi was clueless as to what else was happening on the land he had just been brought to live in. It was sometime during the next three hundred years that the last surviving Jaredite, Coriantumr, wandered into the Mulekite city of Zarahemla, lived nine months, then died, ending his race. This means that the prophet Ether actually lived somewhere between one hundred to three hundred years after Nephi died. Both races were living on the American continent at the same time, neither one knowing of the other’s existence.
Try reading your scriptures for history, at least once. As you try to piece events that were taking place elsewhere in the world at the same time, your eyes will be opened and you will see that the Lord’s hand is actually ever present and active at all times and in all places.
Reading for Topic
To read for topics is what you do when you have a talk to prepare or a lesson to give. You have a narrow subject and you need to find information on just that subject. This can be difficult to do if you don’t already have a good store of scriptural stories in your personal arsenal.
Often what we find when we search for topic is just doctrinal teachings. The stories that back them up are elsewhere or have to be drawn from your personal life. Once you have searched the scriptures and have accumulated as much information as you can from them, that is a good time to hit LDS.org and look up conference talks. Hopefully you will be able to find a number of talks that use the same keyword you are using for your topic. That will give you the stories you need to piece together the doctrine.
Another good source for stories and doctrinal sermons are the devotionals given at all three of the Church universities, as well as the CES firesides given over the years. If you want something more generic in nature, try looking up the broadcasts of Music and the Spoken Word. These are always appropriate for those both in and out of the church.
The thing to remember when studying for a specific topic is that no single doctrine in the gospel of Christ exists outside of all the other doctrines. They are all intertwined. They all affect each other. They are all part of each other. This can make trying to think of your topic and your topic only, rather difficult, because your topic doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Search for answers
Sometimes we are puzzled by something we heard at church or someone has challenged us with a principle that we can’t explain because we don’t really understand how it works. These are the times when we start to search for answers. Warning: searching for answers will open doors you did not know were there. Prepare to have your mind and your spiritual eyes opened to things you did not anticipate you would find!
When accompanied with prayer, or prayer and fasting, searching the scriptures for answers can be especially powerful as a learning tool. Thoughts will pop into your mind from seemingly out of nowhere. Be prepared to write them down.
To look for answers you can use any of the methods already discussed. Searching by topic or keyword can get you started. Once you have looked up your topic or keyword, consider the listing of additional scriptures and see if any of them sound like they might give you additional information or lead you to a story that will illustrate the topic you are researching. The more you know ahead of time about scripture stories, the more this method will help you.
Another interesting way to search for answers is to have a place where you can jot down thoughts as they occur to you. I like to carry a small spiral notebook in my shirt pocket so I can write down article ideas or thoughts that I can address later. If I have been thinking along certain lines, I can attend one meeting and come away with multiple ideas to explore for later.
My point here is that scriptures are revelation. We all have the gift of the Holy Ghost, who brings the revelation. When we spend time immersing ourselves in the Lord’s words, the Spirit begins to bring those words that we need most to the forefront of our minds, causing us to ask questions He is prepared to answer for us.
Having paper and pencil to record our own insights and promptings is an important part of our studies, as all spiritual knowledge is a gift from God. Don’t cut off any avenue that might bring you greater insight.
There are more ways to study the scriptures than what I have presented in this three-part series. The main point behind scripture study is that you have a reason, a purpose for your study. Just wandering aimlessly through the scriptures will do little for your soul. Once you begin to study the scriptures with real intent, knowing ahead of time how you are going to study, and what you are seeking to learn, you will make great headway in your learning.
Plan on reading and rereading the scriptures over and over again for the rest of your life. This is why it is okay to plan on reading straight through on one visit, reading for history on another trip through the scriptures, and for answers on yet another time. As long as you study with a reason, that is what is important. Be sure to invite the Spirit to help you in your studies at all times. Studying the scriptures without the Spirit is a fruitless endeavor.
The Lord wants us to feast on his words. That means he wants us to enjoy them, like you enjoy a feast. Revel in his dealings with his people in days gone by. Seek deliberately to find relationships between things, peoples, places, prophecies, principles, and the like. Take delight in learning of Him, and he will take delight in revealing himself to you.