Spiritual Disciplines: Study
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. ~ Philippians 4:8-9
The idea of meditating on Scripture, I must admit, rather perplexed me for most of my young adult years. I was very much in the habit of reading my Bible until a verse or passage popped out at me, assuming my first impression was all there was to the verse, and then moving on with the rest of my day. It was a practice born partially of ignorance of what it means to really study scripture and partially of arrogance, assuming my brief flash of insight was new, novel, and the entirety of what any particular passage of Scripture had to offer.
Meditation, in my mind, was all about sitting still and quiet waiting for, well, something. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school studying pastoral ministry I began to understand what it really meant to meditate upon, or study, scripture. Part of it, yes, came from the chance to study scripture academically. I loved being introduced to commentaries and reading great Biblical scholars from throughout history as they struggled to understand all God was trying to speak.
But even more so, I began to learn about different strategies to study scripture. Long standing traditions such as lectio divina, or outlining a particular passage, or even just being aware of the various themes which weave throughout the entire Bible and how a particular passage contributes towards a deeper understanding. I began to appreciate that, over the ages, the culture influenced the lens through which we would view any given Scripture. I learned what it meant to sit with a single passage of scripture not just for a minute or two, but for hours, days, weeks, or even months.
The discipline of study is a discipline which requires us to slow down, to not hurry through Scripture. While I do believe there is a certain value in plans which challenge you to read through the Bible in a year (or something similar), this discipline focuses on the quality of the time spent in scripture, and not the quantity of the Scripture read. To study means to focus, to repeat, to memorize, to really let the truth of particular passage be revealed layer by layer. It requires us to be open to having our assumptions challenged and be willing to learn from various points of view.
What are some practical tips to help you dive into the discipline of study without enrolling in some graduate level theology courses? Good question. First and foremost, slow down! This isn’t a race or a contest. Set aside time in a way that works for you. Personally, I do better when I can set aside at least an hour and preferably two or three with minimal interruptions. I know others who can only focus for 15 or 20 minutes at a time so they do better when tying in their study time to certain routines of daily life.
Secondly, limit known distractions. A huge distraction for me is unorganized areas of my home so right now, as I’m working from home this week, I have very strategically positioned myself so I’m looking at my nice, clean, organized book shelf in the corner of my living room. When I glance up from my screen, I can’t see the recycling I need to take out, or the laundry I need to fold, or the dishes I need to do, or the unpacking from the retreat two weeks ago I haven’t found the time to tackle. I know lots of people who need to silence their phones so they don’t feel compelled to answer every telemarketer phone call or respond instantly to every text message. Another common distraction is often eliminated by shutting off the TV. For others, they need to get out of the house and go someplace like a library or a coffee shop. While our world will never be distraction free, do what you can to limit your main distractions while devoting time to study.
Next, choose a focus. And yes, saying you are going to focus on the Bible or on Jesus is too big and broad. It might be a verse, chapter, or book of the Bible you have always wanted to dig deeper into. Maybe it’s a theme found throughout scripture or a person Scripture tells us about. Choose something you are going to focus on over time as you spend time in study. One of the great gifts for me in studying is that I am always discovering more questions to ask and explore, I’m always discovering new things to learn about any particular topic which inspires me to dig even deeper wondering what else there is to learn.
While you should always start with Scripture, and always end in agreement with Scripture, you should also branch out. I promise you, no matter how smart you are or how much education in theology you have, someone smarter, wiser, and having more time on their hands has studied any passage or topic you can come up with and studied it with greater depth. If someone claims to understand all there is to know about God, they fully understand only their version of God. God is beyond any human understanding so there are always questions seeking answers with it comes to faith in God. So, to that end, seek out commentaries and books written by well-respected authors. Talk to those in your life who you look up to when it comes to faith and ask them what their thoughts are or if they have come across anything on the topic they have found helpful. Network so when a speaker is in your area who has been known to have some knowledge on your chosen focus, you can go and hear them in person. We live in a time where we are unknowingly blessed to be able to access hundreds of thousands of resources on any particular topic if you just willing to put the smallest of efforts into looking.
And finally, be true to yourself. Very few engage in the discipline of study intending to come out an expert scholar on the other end, and even fewer succeed in that endeavor. For most of us, to engage in the discipline of study means we gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for just how deep and complex a topic can be while, at the same time, how simply we are called to live it out in our lives. Let’s look at the topic grace as an example. In doing a quick Google seach for “Books about God’s Grace” there are over 100,000,000 websites to sort through. That’s way too many. So I narrowed it down and went over to Christian Book Distributor’s website to search for the same thing. They have 3,600 different titles available. Again, that’s way too much for the vast majority of us to ever dream about tackling. Search out resources which speak to you where you are at in life. Not everyone is cut out to enjoy reading St. Augustine’s “Confessions” and that’s OK. Acknowledge where you are at with your faith and study and find something which challenges you take the next small step, not a giant leap.
Ultimately, the goal in study is not to sound smarter than everyone around you, or to prove your point of view to be right, but to gain a deeper understanding of some aspect of God and faith. I’ve had the priviledge to study with multiple expects when it comes to Scripture and theology and what I have admired about each of them is their willingness to acknowledge just how much more they have yet to learn. To truly study is often to be deeply humbled in the realization of just how big God really is and how little we have truly figured out.
To engage in study is to be brought always back to the very basic foundations of what it means to be a Christian. Fundamental truths such as God’s love for us and Christ paying the price for our sins on the cross become the cornerstones to which you constantly return and by which you evaluate all else you learn along the way. To study God’s word is invite more deeply into your heart and bring it more clearly to the forefront of your thoughts.
- What is one focus you have always wanted to pursue when it comes to studying God’s Word? Why do you think that focus in on your heart?
- There are so many resources out there to help one study Scripture today. How do you evaluate the resources you do use or would potentially use? Develop a plan which includes trusted mentors who don’t always see things the same exact way you see them. This will help you keep a good balance between allowing yourself to be challenged to see things from a different perspective while not venturing to areas of heresy and falsehood.
- What is your greatest distraction or obstacle when it comes to fully engaging in the discipline of study? If God is calling you to purposefully dive into this discipline at this time in your life, how can to minimize the challenges and best set yourself up for success?
Helpful Resources Used:
- "Understanding Study" by Richard J. Foster
- "Spiritual Discipline: Study" by Caylee Collins
- "The Spiritual Discipline of Study" by Brad Dudley
- "Bible Reading as a Spiritual Discipline" by David Burnette