Start Somewhere: Perfectionism in Bible Study

January 21, 2021  - By Lindsay Cournia

Start Somewhere: Overcoming Perfectionist Paralysis in Bible Study

Studying the Bible

I started reading the Bible when I was a teenager. I knew it was important, and I wanted to obey God. But it didn’t take long to feel discouraged and confused. I wasn’t sure where to begin. If I tried reading a passage, most of what I read didn’t make sense. If it did, I had endless questions about what it meant. I felt bogged down by genealogies and laws and wars in the Old Testament. The New Testament was easier to understand, but I couldn’t get through even one chapter without forming lists of questions in my mind—and I wasn’t sure what to do with them. The Bible didn’t seem like my “roadmap for life” as it was so often described at youth group. Or, if it was, I had no idea which direction I was facing, or what my route was supposed to be.

After a while I picked up some devotional books by popular Christian music artists, thinking they would help me. They had glossy covers and catchy titles, and I had glitter gel pens at the ready.

These books were so much easier to read. The authors seemed to know what I was going through at school and at home and with friends, and I soaked up their relevant, encouraging prose. I enthusiastically scribbled answers to their “How About You?” questions in colorful ink. At the end of each entry was a short list of verses to look up, but since I already felt so uplifted by the other content, I skipped the “extra reading” and snapped the book shut, arranging it next to my Bible on my nightstand.

New Habits Die Hard

This quickly became my habit. I finally had a quiet time routine! I was “spending time with God” and walking away feeling encouraged. Sometimes I looked up the verses listed in the devotional if I needed an extra boost, but often my Bible remained shut. I kept this routine through high school and most of college, occasionally mixing it up with a new devotional book.

On an overseas mission trip one summer in high school, our team leaders scheduled an hour each morning for mandatory personal devotions. I filed into the courtyard the first morning with my Bible and pen and found a quiet place to sit, silently wondering how I would fill the hour.

When I looked around me I saw heads studiously bent over Bibles, and I suddenly felt very lost without my devotional books. I clicked my pen for a few awkward moments, then turned reluctantly to the Psalms. For a moment, I shuffled around, turning the page whenever David started talking about his enemies. (Did I have enemies? I didn’t think so. I certainly didn’t know what to do with David’s pleas to God for vengeance and vanquishment.) So, I tried to pray; my thoughts wandered. Then I clicked my pen and scanned the pages of God’s Word for something enlightening to underline. Finally, the last minute ticked by and I rose, tucking my disappointment away with my Bible until the next morning.

Well-Watered Women Blog-Perfection Paralysis Prevented Me From Studying the Word

A New Perspective

After college, my devotional habits hardly changed, but my perspective shifted significantly. I had now been a professing Christian for two full decades and I had no idea how to read or study my Bible. I had heard enough sermons, attended enough conferences, and read enough devotional books to give me a working knowledge of the Bible. I could probably hold my own in a game of Bible trivia. But I had read very little of God’s Word myself—let alone studied it. I was an adult still feeding only on spiritual milk—and not even drinking it myself, but being spoon-fed its sustenance (1 Corinthians 3:1–4).

Instead of motivating me, this revelation introduced shame. I was deeply ashamed to admit that I was a grown woman (now married, with kids) who had never studied my Bible. 

I hid behind my piecemeal Bible knowledge and continued setting the Word aside. By now I had abandoned the devotional books, craving what would truly satisfy but still unsure how to partake. Perfectionism paralyzed me. I wanted so badly to read and study with confidence and to do it the “right” way, but the roots of bad study habits ran deep and pride prevented me from seeking help.

We had recently moved, and at our new church, some friends invited me to join the women’s Bible study. I recoiled inside. I had never been to a Bible study but assumed they were all fronts for gossipy prayer requests and feelings-based discussions—heavy on fellowship and light on thinking. A lot of arrogant assumptions festered in my heart, but I was desperate, and I said yes.

Starting Somewhere

I sat at a table of my peers that first Thursday morning of the study and opened the book of Daniel with trepidation. As I glanced through the binder of homework questions the leaders passed out, I felt simultaneous fear and anticipation. This would be hard work, no doubt. But I craved the nourishment. God kindly lifted me out of my perfectionist paralysis, and I took my first halting steps as a student of the Word.

Studying Daniel was incredibly difficult, and I finished the semester with many unresolved questions. But not only did I read the entire book—I wrestled with it, in community. I beheld God in His Word. I asked questions. I watched fellow students disagree agreeably. I listened to women teach with wisdom and humility. When the study finished, I signed up for the next semester. And the next.

At home, I still faced paralysis when I didn’t have the structure of a study to follow. Even now, when I’m not doing a community study, I get “stuck” easily. I wonder what to read next or what study method is best. I doubt my ability to study well on my own. A few days of indecision turn into a few weeks, and soon I’ve gone a month without open my Bible just because my fear of failure keeps me from even beginning.

Pressing On Past Paralysis

So I start somewhere. I choose a book of the Bible (most recently, Matthew) and a journal and read one chapter a day. I write down observations and questions. I write down what I learn about God. I look for one way to apply what I’ve read to my life. I pray. Sometimes I go deeper. Some days I simply read and write down one thing, when I am too weary to do anything more.

Perfectionism and pride paralyzed my spiritual growth far too long. Learning God’s Word secondhand may have seemed “safer,” and it was certainly easier to benefit from others’ study instead of doing the work myself, but it was not the better way. Neglecting to read and study God’s Word myself was slothful and disobedient.

Even if I study the “wrong” way, God will use His Word, by His Spirit, to shape and mold me into the image of Christ (2 Timothy 3:16). Even if I feel overwhelmed by questions when I read or seem to retain little, His Word will not return empty but will accomplish His good purposes (Isaiah 55:11). Even if I don’t feel connected to the women in my Bible study, God is honored when we gather in His name to feast on His Word (Acts 2:42).

If you are paralyzed by perfectionism in approaching Bible study, I pray you will be encouraged today to take one shaky, faithful step forward and start somewhere.

Your friend,

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  1. Jen V says:

    Amen. This is what my heart needed to read this morning. I gather all of my materials- pens, highlighters, journals, bibles- but when I sit down, I am lost of where to begin. I am scared to put ink to paper because, “what if I’m doing it wrong”. My perfectionism has 100% halted me from opening my bible. I have a stack of studies and books and devotionals, but my bible, my bible often comes as an accessory to those. This post spoke to my heart that I need to push through my anxiety of perfection and read the word myself. God doesn’t need perfection to speak truth to my heart. Thank you so much.

  2. Sharon says:

    Thank you for sharing, I share the same struggles. Resolving to make time, and then sitting sometimes overwhelmed as I try to start something. I had to smile at your view of the Psalms as I will often skip over the vengeance parts thinking “Oh my, I don’t want to pray for anyone to get hurt!”. It helps to know I am not alone. The Give Me Jesus journal has helped along with the study guides WWW has offered.

  3. Love this testimony! Thank you for writing this. As someone leading in women’s ministry it is helpful to hear another perspective on what might be holding people back from joining a Bible study. I love to watch how God breaks through though! Just like He did with you, in your new community.

  4. God only knows how much this post blessed me! Thank you, Lindsay. Thank you SO much for your vulnerability, humility & transparency. 🙌🏼💕

  5. Bethany Soulé says:

    Yes yes yes!!!! 🙏🏻🙏🏻🙏🏻 Oh sister how I needed to read this. Thank you for your vulnerability.

  6. Erin N. Ballard says:

    “Instead of motivating me, this revelation introduced shame. I was deeply ashamed to admit that I was a grown woman (now married, with kids) who had never studied my Bible.”
    This paragraph about brought me to tears. I’ve been feeling so much shame lately. I just happened to stumble upon this post, and I’m so glad I did. Thank you so much for sharing, encouraging and letting me know I’m not alone.

  7. […] Bible reading won’t just happen for most of us; the world, our own flesh, and the enemy of our souls are all set against our communing with the Lord through his Word. But we want to be women who are becoming more and more like Christ, and the Bible is the best tool we have for shaping our souls and minds: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2a). To get in the Word consistently, we need a plan! […]

  8. […] feel stuck and don’t know where to start. You open the Bible and distraction upon distraction saps away the time you set aside to study. I […]

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