Most of us can remember times when we were comforted, inspired, or taught by the scriptures, and we treasure these moments, because they can be among our most spiritual and potentially life-changing experiences.
And then there are the other times—those moments when the scriptures seem like a person trying to speak to us from across a wide gorge with a whipping wind in between. So how do we build a bridge over this chasm of centuries, languages, and customs?
Nephi said he “did liken all scriptures [to himself and his family] that it might be for [their] profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23), and modern prophets have told us we should try to do the same. So here are a few bits of advice for bridging the gap you may sometimes feel between yourself and the scriptures.
Sometimes when you broaden your view and look at a scripture outside its immediate context, it’s easier to see how it’s relevant to your life. A quick way to do this is to review some of the headings to the surrounding chapters. And sometimes it’s necessary to ask yourself how what you’re reading fits into other parts of the scriptures—or even into Heavenly Father’s plan in general.
Elder Richard G. Scott has taught, “Search for principles. Carefully separate them from the detail used to explain them. … It is worth great effort to organize the truth we gather to simple statements of principle” (“Acquiring Spiritual Knowledge,” Ensign, Nov. 1993, 86). So, for instance, after reading a chapter of scripture, think of a statement (a complete sentence rather than just a word or phrase) that summarizes a principle taught in that chapter, and maybe even write it down. When you do this, you may find that the principles you come up with and the way you state them will have a more personal application.
Across the world and throughout history, basic human relationships are pretty much the same—parents, children, friends, neighbors, business and work associates, strangers, countrymen, civic and religious leaders. We all understand these relationships, so when you look at the relationships between the people you’re reading about, you can more easily draw connections to your own life.
Do what you do when you read other books—imagine yourself in the middle of the story. For instance, imagine you’re the person writing it, and try to get a sense for his feelings and his purpose. Or think of yourself as someone living at that time and in that place, and ask yourself how you would have reacted to the prophets’ words. Or imagine you’re the person it’s being written to (which isn’t such a stretch, since a lot of times that’s actually the case), and think about how the prophet is trying to connect with you.
Identifying motives is a great way to connect to people of the past. Customs and circumstances may have changed, but the basic things that drive people to do what they do haven’t really changed much over the centuries. People 3,000 years ago sinned, repented, obeyed, and served for the same basic reasons people do those things today. As you read, consider what’s driving the people you’re reading about (love, pride, greed, selfishness, faith), and try to relate those things to yourself and the world you live in.
The language of the scriptures is beautiful and inspiring, but when you sense a language barrier in a passage of scripture, you may need to rephrase it in your mind. Break a sentence down into its basic parts, and then replace difficult words or rearrange the sentence so that it makes more sense. Then you can often more easily see the connection to yourself.
As you diligently study the scriptures and try to forge a stronger connection with them, you will likely find that your mind will be more active and your heart will be more open to the Spirit. When this happens, you will be better able to hear the words of the scriptures speak loudly and clearly across the gap of centuries and continents, and then they can sink deep into your heart. And that will be a cherished experience well worth the effort.