Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The SOAP method of Bible study

Vintage graphic from The Graphics Fairy
I've written about this in passing before, but haven't really put together a specific post about this wonderful method of meditating on God's Word.  I can't remember where I first read about the SOAP method, but have seen it many places since then.  One example may be found here: SOAP Bible study method.  It has certainly revitalized my quiet time, and I recommend this to anyone interested in digging into God's Word on their own. There are a few cautions with using this method, so I'll just be sharing the way that I go about using it.

Simply reading Scripture is wonderful, and of course I highly recommend it. But for digging a little deeper and  learning to apply it to one's life, something more is needed.  You will find with this method that you start seeing things in familiar verses that you never noticed before, mostly because you didn't previously slow down enough to really read every word or think about what you were reading.  Sadly, many times we just read a portion of the Bible to cross "Bible reading" off our daily to-do list.  And yes, I've been guilty of that!

One concern that some people have expressed about this method of Bible study is that sometimes verses will simply be chosen at random.  You know -- sort of like opening the Bible anywhere and just picking a verse to study.  I don't recommend that.  God is a God of order, and I believe we will get more out of His Word if we are less random with it.  So, in choosing your verses, I recommend that you either read through a chapter or a book, or your daily Bible reading, and choose a few verses from there,  or use a reading plan for a Bible study (like the ones from Love God Greatly, for example).  I am currently finishing up with their Made for Community reading plan.  I believe their study of Galatians is ongoing now. Any of their reading guides would be a great place to start with the SOAP method, and you can download any of them for free.  There are many other good Bible study plans out there as well.

Another concern that I've read about the SOAP method is that in your observation of the verse (see below) it's very easy to take the verse out of context -- and that can change the meaning completely from what the writer intended.  So as you will see, when I make my observations of the verses, I do all that I can to be sure I have the context right.  I've never been to Bible school or taken any Bible classes, so I want to be extra careful.  And also, it is very interesting to consider when the verses were written, who the intended audience is, and so on.

So, if you've never done this before, you are probably wondering -- What exactly does S.O.A.P. mean?  It's a simple acrostic.  Here it is:

S- The S stands for Scripture.  For this first step, you take up your Bible and a pen and notebook and actually write out the Scripture verses you are studying that day.  Sometimes it's truly amazing what you notice when you take the time to slow down enough to write out what you are reading.  You may well see things that you never noticed before.

O- The O stands for observation.   Write down what you see in the verses you’re reading. I like to use a study Bible and I will often go back to the summary of the book to see who wrote it and what his intended purpose was.  I note too who he was writing to -- who his intended audience was and what was going on in their lives right then.  I also like to read the relevant verses on either side of the ones I'm studying to really get the context.   Is there a repetition of words? Do some words stand out?  There are certain words that prompt me to ask questions.  If a verse begins with "but" or has the word "but" in it, there will be some change of direction in the thinking or teaching, so I note what that is.  Another word prompt is "therefore".  I always ask myself what it is "there for".  Because of something that went before, "therefore" something else is happening or needs to happen.  Again, I need to be a detective and find out what that is.

I often summarize the main points of the verses I'm reading.  Other times I try to restate them in simpler terms.  If I am reading several verses or if my verse has several points, I might state the main points in a bulleted list or in the form of an outline.  My goal is to get at the meaning of the verses as much as possible.  Once in awhile I will even turn to a commentary, a Bible dictionary, or a Bible study of a particular book to help me understand a little bit more.

A- The A stands for application.   This is making God’s Word personal.  How can I apply what I just read to my own personal life? Are there changes that I need to make? Is there an action that I need to take?  Sometimes it's a sin or character flaw I see being addressed in the Scripture and need to address in my own life.  Other times it might be a principle I need to put into practice.  There is always some way I can apply what I just read. 

It might not be something I need to change, but instead might be something I need to thank or praise God for.   Sometimes, in the psalms, for instance, I will read something the psalmist is praising God for which may echo something God has done in my own life, and I will want to praise Him for that.  Or I may read about an attribute of God that I can see at work in my own life -- His mercy, for example, or His love -- and again, I will want to praise Him for that. 

(And never forget that without applying God's Word to your life, anything you study is just reading and learning -- it is not spiritual growth.  Application must be happening for real spiritual growth to take place.)

P- The P stands for prayer. Here's where you pray about applying what you have learned.  If He has revealed something to you during this time in His Word, that you need to change,  pray about it. Confess if He has revealed some sin that is in your life.  Ask Him to help you make the necessary changes.  Pray God’s Word back to Him. If it is a matter of praising God for one of His attributes or for something specific He has done in your life, spend some time in praise and thanksgiving.  I usually write out a simple prayer for this point so that I don't forget what I prayed about.  I most often do this SOAP journaling just before my prayer time, so when I pray I simply incorporate this written-out prayer into my time for that day.

For journaling Scripture using the SOAP method, what has worked well for me is a simple composition book like this:
You can find them in many different colors and patterns.  I've had this pink and orange argyle one for awhile.  These can often be found at Walmart or the dollar store for $1, but recently, for back to school, Walmart had them for 50¢!  You will be surprised at how much journaling you can fit into a book like this.  I have notes from two retreats, a study of planning/time management, and two Bible studies in this one!  I also like that this size of notebook allows space for me to glue in (well, I use double stick tape; less messy) my reading guides for the particular study I am doing:
Made for Community -- the study I am just finishing up
Psalm 119 study that I have finished
I have used smaller journals, but have found that this size works best for me all the way around.

I also like to use two alternating colors of ink to help me see which point of the SOAP I am on.  For example, I will write out the Scripture in black ink, and my observations in blue ink, then the application in black, and finally the prayer in blue ink.   It's just easier for me that way.  You could choose any colors of ink you prefer; just make sure whatever you choose is easily readable, because you will likely want to go back and re-read your journaling over time.

Studying God’s Word like this can take as little as 15-20 minutes, but I find that most days it takes me somewhat longer.  Whatever the amount of time it takes, it's well worth it to me for the learning and growth that results.

How do you study God's Word for yourself?  Have you tried the SOAP method?  What do you think?

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