Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. -Romans 12:2
Be transformed by the renewing of your mind. As Christians we desire to be conformed into the image of God – to be obedient to Him and to become more like Him. Our thoughts and ideas are formed in large part by what we pay attention to. Paul says to pay attention to what is noble, what is true, what is right, what is pure, what is lovely, and what is admirable. When we study, we are making a deliberate choice to pay attention to those things.
“Study is a specific kind of experience in which through careful attention to reality the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction.” Study is different than meditation. “Meditation is devotional, study is analytical. Meditation will relish a word; study will explicate it.” Study includes books, but it is more than just that. It also includes analyzing the world around us.
Study involves four steps: repetition, concentration, comprehension, and reflection.
Repetition is to “regularly channel; the mind in a specific direction, thus ingraining habits of thought.” What we repeatedly think becomes habitual, it influences us.
Concentration is centering our mind on what we are studying. It is focus with a purpose.
Comprehension is understanding. It is knowledge of the truth, and as Jesus says, the knowledge of the truth will set you free.
Reflection is defining the significance of what we study. It is seeing how what we learn relates to us and to the world. It is learning to see things as they really are – as God sees them.
When we study books, we seek to understand them, interpret them, and evaluate them. What is the author saying? What does the author mean? Is the author right or wrong? We also consider our experience, remember other books, and discuss what we read. How do our life experiences relate to and interpret what we read? What books have we already read that help form our understanding for what we are currently reading? What insights can we share and gain with others as we discuss what we have read?
The most important book to study is the Bible. Scripture says, “Your word I have put into my heart, so that I will not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11) And, “All scripture is inspired by God, good for teaching, for reproof, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Tim 3:16). The purpose of God’s word is to transform us inside.
There is a difference between Bible study and Bible devotion. Study is focused on interpretation – what does the text mean? Devotion is focused on application – what does the text mean to me? Before we can apply scripture we need to know what it means. What was the author’s purpose and intent? Genuine Bible study is hard work, and it doesn’t always feel good. It requires us to set aside significant time for the task.
When studying the Bible, read more than a few verses at a time. Read a whole book in a setting, or several chapters at once. Read it multiple times. Often our Bible reading is short and fragmented. By reading larger portions of scripture it is easier to follow the structure and flow of the book, and this helps us to better understand the author’s intent. Don’t try to force scripture into preconceived categories, let it speak to you in a new way.
Along with studying the Bible, read classical Christian works. Read C.S. Lewis, read Wesley, read Luther, read Augustine.
Study also includes the non-verbal, “the observation of reality in things, events, and actions”. God’s creation speaks to us. “The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” (Isaiah 55:12). Listen to the birds sing. Observe the beauty and intricacy of a flower. Watch an insect at work.
Study also includes observing relationships between people. Notice how often people must explain themselves to prove that they are right. Notice how some people become unguarded and nit-picky when around their family.
Study yourself. Why do you act the way you do? What controls you? What are your priorities? What changes your mood from good to bad?
Study culture and trends. What things does our culture lift up as valuable and important? Are those things actually important? How is culture changing? Are changes for the better, or worse, or perhaps a little of both? How is our culture in harmony with the gospel? How is it at odds? How can you use that knowledge to advance God’s kingdom?
In the end good study produces joy. “Like any novice, we will find it hard work at the beginning. But the greater our proficiency, the greater our joy.” It is worth the effort.
[This blog post is part 4 in a series about the Christian disciplines, based on Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline. All quotes in this post (other than the Bible references) are from the book. The series introduction is here.]