Are you interested in studying the scriptures by topic, but not sure how to develop a study routine? This article will walk you through how to approach the scriptures by topic, rather than chronologically.
Since the scriptures are organized as books, reading chronologically often seems the most natural approach. And there is value in that approach. But as we strive to grow, we usually grow principle by principle. Topical scripture study may help you reach your spiritual goals more naturally.
Elder M. Russell Ballard said:
“From time to time [we need to] read all that the Lord has said on repentance, faith, or some other principle.”
Step 1: How to Choose a Topic to Study
Did you know the Topical Guide is nearly 600 pages long, with over 3500 topics? Enough for a lifetime of studying the scriptures. But the breadth of topics can also be overwhelming. Where do you start?
1) Your Interests
What scripture topics do you currently have on your radar? Has something made you curious lately? Your interests can extend beyond just those things you think are interesting, to those things the Spirit has recently brought to your attention.
Consider studying a topic you couldn’t stop thinking about in a recent General Conference, sacrament meeting, or Sunday school lesson.
2) Your Calling
What topics do you need in your calling? If you’re a teacher, you may consider studying a topic related to what you need to teach for your next lesson. If you’re a den leader (like me), you may want to study patience.
There are many ways that your calling will interact with gospel topics, and can start you on a course of study.
3) Your Challenges
The scriptures can bless us in times of need. Topical study can be one powerful way to unlock those blessings. What struggles do you have? What Christ-like virtues are you struggling to develop? Those areas can be good places to start your topical study of the scriptures.
One other consideration as you choose a topic is how much time you have to spend on that one topic. If you only have a week to study the scriptures, you probably don’t want to study something as broad as “Faith.” Instead, consider narrowing it down to something such as “How can faith in Jesus Christ bless my life?”
Step 2: How to Find Scriptures by Topic
Once you’ve settled on a topic to study, you then need to find the different scripture verses that address that topic. You’ll want to start with the Topical Guide, of course, but there are lots of other ways to either start or build a list of scriptures to read for your topic.
1) The Index to the Triple Combination
While the Topical Guide does include some scriptures from The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, it’s not nearly as thorough as the Index is. Use it to help supplement what you find in the Topical Guide.
2) Preach My Gospel’s Questions of the Soul List
If your topic takes the form of a question, you should check out the list of questions of the soul listed in Chapter 5 of “Preach My Gospel.” The table lists several verses for every question that can get your topical study jump-started.
3) The LDS.org Topic Pages
The Church has expanded the number of topics covered on their website quite extensively. The essays are very well written, and they include many scriptural references that can supplement what you find in the Topical Guide or other places.
4) General Conference Talks
Head over to LDS.org and search for your scriptural topic. Then narrow your search to only General Conference addresses. The end of those talks will have long lists of scriptures that could relate to your topic.
Another way to build your scripture list is to head over to BYU’s LDS Scripture Citation Index. If you start with one verse, you can then find all the general conference talks that quote that verse. You can then find more verses that those talks quote, and repeat the process.
5) Unofficial Sources
While not from the Church, other books and materials can be useful to get your study started. You can find The Encyclopedia of Mormonism online. “Mormon Doctrine” by Bruce R. McConkie is another favorite unofficial source of many members. A quick trip to your local church bookstore could unearth other helpful resources.
Perhaps the best unofficial sources, though, are your friends and family members. Ask at dinner, or post a message on social media where you can instantly connect with dozens of people who may share their favorite related verses with you.
Step 3: How to Read and Understand the Scriptures
Once you’ve found a list of verses on your topic, you need to start reading through them and trying to understand what the scriptures are trying to say.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “Please read the scriptures with more questions in mind.” When you begin your study of a topic, you’ll want to have several questions in mind that you hope to discover throughout your course of study. Review those questions every time you return to your scriptures.
You also want to ask questions of a verse as you read through it. Take the time to try and answer your questions before you move on to another passage.
One struggle in understanding the scriptures is that language can change over time, and sometimes the scriptures use obscure words we’re not familiar with.
For the Doctrine and Covenants and The Book of Mormon, define words using Webster’s 1828 “American Dictionary of the English Language,” which probably best identifies how Joseph Smith understood the words he used. Also consider the Oxford English Dictionary, which tracks how word meanings have changed over time.
For the Old and New Testaments consider using the Blue Letter Bible, a dictionary of the root Greek and Hebrew words used in the Bible.
Understanding verses within their chronological and cultural context can help you understand them the best. Consider reading the entire chapter around a relevant verse, or save time by reading the chapter heading.
The Bible Dictionary defines important cultural concepts that may affect the meaning of a verse you are reading.
One powerful way to make sure that you understand a verse before you move on in your study is by summarizing the meaning in your words. A study journal can be a great place to start writing your personal summaries.
Step 4: How to Find Patterns in the Verses You Read
After you’ve finished reading through the list of verses on your topic, you’re going to want to see what it all means together. This requires recognizing patterns.
1) Reread Summaries
The summaries that you write in your study journal can be a great place to start recognizing patterns. Look back through them and see if the same words or concepts appear more than once. Make a note about what the reoccurrence could mean.
One approach I use to recognize patterns in my summaries is by creating small diagrams where I use arrows or equal signs to note the relationships between concepts. When I start creating a new diagram, I can usually recognize that it’s very similar to another one I made.
2) Make Lists
Lists can be a great way to answer the questions you brought into your study and also to recognize patterns. Start out with a question like, “What can I pray about?” Then go through the verse or summaries and list all the things that anyone prayed for.
Tally marks can be a way to begin to find patterns within a list.
3) The Elder Bednar Approach
In a devotional at BYU, Elder Bednar described how he found patterns within his scripture study. He noted that this approach is not right for everyone, but it does work for him.
- Make a copy of every scripture on your topic
- Mark verses with similar phrases or points with the same colored pencil
- Then put the verses with the same colors into a pile
By examining the different piles he created, and how large each was, Elder Bednar identified themes and patterns.
Step 5: How to Apply the Scriptures to Your Life
The ultimate purpose of most scripture study is to apply the principles in your life to grow and become more like our Savior. But drawing the connection between patterns and applications can be difficult.
Ultimately the Spirit will be able to teach you what changes you need to make in your life. Always pray when you read the scriptures, and consider asking specifically to know what improvements you can make.
Take time after your prayers to listen for impressions and write down any promptings you receive.
2) Connect to your challenges
Each of us has areas of our lives where we struggle. Look back at the themes and patterns you identified in the previous step, then think specifically how that principle could apply to your specific challenge.
3) Think of Characters
One great advantage of reading the scriptures is knowing that we are not the first people trying to apply the topics we are learning about. So as you ask yourself how to apply the topic in your life, ask how the people you read about in the scriptures applied the same principle.
4) List Goals
Not every goal needs to have a specific number behind it, but you should write down what improvements you’ve decided upon, and review the list throughout your week. Consider praying for your
Heavenly Father’s help as you work to reach your new goals.
How do you study the scriptures? What other ideas do you have for our readers on how to make the most of their study?