Studying is something human beings do instinctively. It’s the very first spiritual discipline we ever engage in. From the time of our birth – as soon as we can open our eyes – we begin to study the world around us. The Bible commands us to study. What are the essential components of this fundamental spiritual discipline?
I love to read. I love to study. It’s my favorite past time. It’s part of my job – my vocation. It’s a part of my recreation. When I have to list hobbies – reading is at the top of the list. But, reading and studying isn’t everyone’s favorite thing. I get it.
My eldest son came home from kindergarten and asked me, “How long do I have to do this?” I laughed and told him that he had to go to school for at least twelve more years, sixteen if he wanted to go to college. He just shook his head and went to his room (probably to cry). That same son actually likes to read now, but he has never liked school much. He’d rather be outside with his shirt off mowing the lawn. He’s a hands-on kind of guy. He doesn’t read the instructions, he just digs in and starts trying to put it together by trial and error.
We aren’t all built the same. Yet, the Bible is clear: it commands all of us to study. Study, therefore, is a sacred duty. But that doesn’t just mean reading books.
The purpose of the Spiritual Disciplines is the total transformation of the person. The end goal is to replace old, destructive habits of thought with new life-giving habits. Studying helps to do that. It is a sacred duty.
Studying and the Bible
The apostle Paul tells us that we are transformed through the renewal of the mind (Rom. 12:2). The way we do that is to study the good that God has done in the world. Paul writes, “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” (Phil. 4:8).
Studying is the main way we “think about such things.” Paul goes on to say, “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” (Phil. 4:9).
In Deuteronomy 11:18-21, God told his people to diligently study his words.
Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.”
Jesus spent much of his time teaching his disciples. He told them, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:29, emphasis mine).
Again, Paul said, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15, emphasis mine).
Jesus’ final command to his disciples was, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20, emphasis mine).
There is a learning process involved with the Christian life that you simply can’t escape. To be a Christian – a Jesus follower – is to be a student – a learner. And that means study.
Defining Christian Study
What is study and what is the subject of study for the Christian?
Foster defines study this way: “A specific kind of experience in which through careful attention to reality the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 63). The mind will begin to transform in a certain direction that is determined by the mind’s content of focus.
Studying eventually transforms the mind. What you study will determine what it is transformed into.
There are two broad things that should be the object of study for the Christian.
- The Word of God
- The World of God
The Four Steps of Christian Study*
There are four steps in the spiritual discipline of study.
Repetition creates pathways in the mind that give us ingrained habits of thought. This is not just mindlessly repeating something or memorizing for the sake of memorizing. Rather, it is the attempt to take some critical truth to a deeper level of our mind – to the subconscious.
Through sheer repetition, there are certain Scripture passages that are now a part of me. I don’t have to consciously think about them – they are inside of me all of the time. This is the power of repetition.
Concentration centers the mind. It focuses the attention on what is most important.
The brain is constantly receiving, encoding, and storing millions of pieces of data gathered from constant stimuli. The act of concentration decides which of these data points will be singled out for focus and learning.
Jesus reminded us that it is not just the truth, but the knowledge of the truth, that sets us free. He said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32, emphasis mine). Being exposed to the truth is the first step, but at some point, there has to be comprehension.
My first time through Calculus III, I had all the truth I needed. I still flunked. The second time through Calculus III, I got comprehension!
We’ve all experienced reading something over and over and then, all of sudden, we understand what it means. This “eureka” moment sends us to a new level of understanding, and it leads to further insight and discernment. It provides the basis for a true perception of reality.
Comprehension defines what we are studying (we understand it), reflection defines the significance of what we are studying (we can apply it). The act of reflection brings us to see things from God’s perspective. In reflection, we come to understand not only our subject matter but ourselves.
Jesus spoke often of “ears that do not hear and eyes that do not see” (Matt. 13:15). When we ponder the meaning of what we study, we come to hear and see in a new way. We are transformed.
We do not engage in the spiritual discipline of study simply for the sake of learning, or to feel like we are “smarter.” On the contrary, the more we study the more we realize how little we know. Life transformation is always the end goal of studying.
* The four steps of Study come from Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster.