7 Strategies for Understanding Difficult Bible Passages

Have you ever been reading your Bible and come across a passage of scripture that didn’t track for you? Sometimes, scripture can be difficult to understand, but that doesn’t mean we should jump over it! “Why not,” you ask? 2 Timothy 3:16-17 tells us:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for instruction, for conviction, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work.

That means, if a passage from scripture was included in the Bible, it is there for a reason, it is useful to us (even if we don’t understand it at first glance), and is worth our time!

Not sure how to start? Here are 7 Strategies for Decoding Hard-to-Process Passages:

Start With Prayer.

No, seriously! Before you attempt to understand God’s Word, take a moment to ask Him specifically for discipline and tenacity, wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and new insight. It’s also a great time to ask Him to help correct any lies you’ve been believing and to give you both passion and humility about what you learn. By beginning with prayer, you are preparing your mind and heart for what God has for you, and you will most certainly have a more fruitful time of study than if you dive in and attempt to do it on your own.

Read the Passage in Context!

Just like with any work of literature, passages make more sense when they are read in the setting from which they came, as opposed to being randomly plucked as a stand-alone verse. When you encounter a passage of scripture that you don’t understand, it’s a good practice to back up several verses (or even to the start of the chapter) to get acclimated to what is going on. (If you want to take a deeper dive into biblical context, check out our blog post, “Why Is Context Important When Studying the Bible?”) Sometimes, this strategy alone is enough to help provide clarity for a difficult scripture. If not, don’t sweat it…there are other things you can try!

Ask the Right Questions.

Sometimes it can be hard to understand a passage of scripture because you aren’t asking the right questions (or don’t know what questions to ask). The Bible is a complex book, made up of various styles of literature—from narrative to history, poetry to prophecy, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all way to digest every part of it.

However, here are some good questions to consider:

  • What does it say? (Can you paraphrase it to make it make sense to you?)
  • When was it written? (Some parts of scripture tell us this, others do not. Many Bibles have introductions to each chapter that can help you find this answer, or you can always google it!)
  • To whom was it written? (Again, sometimes the beginning of a book can offer this answer—sometimes it may be written to a general audience, other times to a group of people or a specific individual—knowing who the intended audience was can change how we read/perceive it)
  • Why was it written? (Was it to inform? Instruct? Warn? Chronicle? Knowing the purpose for the passage can provide clues for what should be drawn from it.)
  • Additional questions to consider are: What does this passage show me about God? What does it teach me about people? What does it show me about relating to God? What does it teach me about relating to others? Does this scripture give me insight into what God wants me to think/believe/desire/do? Sometimes, finding answers to even some of these questions can aid in our understanding and appreciating a hard-to-understand passage.

Try Reading the Passage in Multiple Translations.

I know for some (I’m talking to you, die-hard KJV readers!), this can be a stretch, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. I have several Bible translations that I prefer and different purposes for which I consult them.

For example, often, on my first read-through, I prefer the NLT, as it is an easy-to-read version that translates sections of the Bible as complete thoughts, rather than word-by-word. After getting the general idea of the passage, I tend to gravitate toward the ESV, which balances word-for-word translation with readability—making it accurate and easy to understand. Another well-loved, reliable word-for-word translation is the KJV, also known for its reverence and poetic language.

The internet has made comparing Bible translations especially accessible with various sites and tools to help you do just that. (blueletterbible.org and biblegateway.com both have great parallel view features that allow you to open multiple versions side-by-side for easy comparison!) Often, seeing the same verse written out in different words/styles can make it easier to decipher its meaning.

Familiarize Yourself with Bible Study Resources.

Speaking of Study Tools…side-by-side comparisons are just the beginning! Online tools make it fast and easy to look up the original words and their meanings, so if you are dealing with a particularly hard-to-understand verse, you can always go back to the basics and try to get a better grasp of the original intent of the language used. Likewise, you can cross-reference other scriptures that use the same word, which may help you to get a feel for the tone or meaning.

Again, blueletterbible.org is one of my favorite resources for online study tools. If you have more of an old-school approach to Bible study, Strong’s Concordance with Hebrew and Greek Lexicons is also an excellent resource. You might also consider looking into a trusted commentary. However, I would recommend doing this with great caution to be certain your source is knowledgeable and reliable and hold loosely to any interpretations outside of the Bible, testing them against scripture to be sure they stand up. Looking for more tools to aid your Bible study sessions? Check out our Free Resources!

Get a Fresh Perspective.

At the Bible Study Collective, it’s no secret that we are big proponents of studying God’s Word for yourself. That said, we are absolutely still in favor of group Bible studies and discussions over scripture! One of the best experiences I’ve had in growing my love for studying God’s Word has been attending and teaching for an interdenominational Bible study group. Each week, everyone would read the same passages of scripture and then come together to discuss what the Lord had revealed to us. I was amazed by how many times the Lord helped my understanding of scripture through this time of discussion—not to mention it was excellent accountability.

If you’re not already in a group and still in need of an assist, consider discussing it with a friend over coffee (give them a heads-up first so they can do their reading and come prepared), or even through text or email correspondence. This may not work with every one of your friends, but it’s helpful to take stock of who your Bible study buddies are. I have 2-3 that I know I can rely on and genuinely appreciate the deep, scriptural discussions we’ve had over the years. Bonus: It also sets you up for having some built-in prayer partners.

Allow Some Time to Reflect and Revisit.

Sometimes, you just hit a Bible study wall. Maybe you’re tired. Maybe the content is disturbing or difficult for you to read because of personal experiences. Maybe you’re distracted. Maybe the enemy really doesn’t want you to get it.

When you find yourself stuck, it’s ok to give yourself permission to take a time-out. Make sure you make a plan/schedule some time to try again (otherwise, you might miss out on the blessing God has in store for you!). Scripture implores us to meditate on the Word of God, day and night. Even if we aren’t actively engaged in study, it is not uncommon for the Holy Spirit to bring God’s Words back to us. When you notice the Words of scripture ringing in your ears, allow yourself to focus on it—sometimes, the Lord may be trying to bring clarity to something you read or experienced earlier.

If you’re able to, steal away and meditate on these words or the difficult scripture you were puzzling over before. Pray through it, and listen for answers. Sometimes, this may require a change of scenery or simply removing the noises or distractions surrounding you. I strive for a relationship with the Lord like the one David had when he wrote in Psalm 5:25.

Lead me in Your truth and teach me, For You are the God of my salvation; For You I wait all the day.

The next time you find yourself puzzling over a difficult passage, remember--His words are weighty, and understanding them is worth the wait! Take the time to let scripture simmer, and use these strategies to help you wrestle through those problematic passages. Be sure to bookmark this page so you can have it handy when you need it!


We want to hear from you! Let us know your thoughts or which translation(s) you enjoy in the comments!



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