In this article, I am not going to deal with Biblical interpretation or the nuts and bolts of exegesis. Rather, I want to offer a few practical suggestions about overall attitude and approach to help you as you study. I am a strong advocate of study. Pastors must study! Shepherds must know God and His truth intimately if they are going to be any help to our people. Here are a few suggestions to aid you in your pursuit of spiritual knowledge.
1. Don’t Study Merely to Teach. Charles Bridges in The Christian Ministry says it well, “For if we should study the Bible more as ministers than as Christians, more to find matter for the instruction of our people than food for the nourishment of our own souls, we neglect to place ourselves at the feet of our divine teacher, our communion with him is cut off and we become mere formalists in our sacred profession.” We must always, as much as we can help it, study for our soul, faith, and obedience first and foremost. “Our churches will hear better preaching only when it is done by better preachers,” writes Jay Adams in Shepherding God’s Flock, page 23. Therefore, when we come to the text, or book, or article, etc., we should come to first teach ourselves, not others. We certainly do not want to become those that teach others and yet do not teach themselves (Romans 2:21; see also Matthew 23:1-4).
2. Don’t Compare Yourself with Others. According to the apostle Paul, those who compare themselves with others are not wise (II Corinthians 10:12). So it is when it comes to the pastoral ministry. Some of us do not read very well; some of us read very well. I am in the former category. I am a slow reader; and if I try to keep up with other men who can read several books a week (Al Mohler) my soul will shrivel up because I will be laboring for the wrong reasons and I probably won’t learn much. On the other hand, when we are freed from tyranny of comparing ourselves with others by realizing that God has gifted us each differently, we will find our study to be much more enjoyable and profitable.
3. Remain Teachable. The book of Proverbs is a book about being teachable. Nothing will keep us further from error than a humble, teachable spirit. We should long for instruction in the truth and beware of thinking we have nothing more to learn: “Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool” (Proverbs 28:26); “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (26:12). A humble, teachable spirit will keep us thirsty for knowledge and will actually serve as an impetus for regular and consistent study. “Give instruction to a wise man, and we will be still wiser; teach a righteous man and he will increase in learning” (Proverbs 9:9).
4. Have a Plan. It is helpful also to have a plan as to what we are going to study; otherwise, all of our good intentions for growing in knowledge might never come to actual fruition. So, make a plan. In regards to reading books, Al Mohler suggests forming reading “projects.” Determine a subject or topic you would like to study, begin purchasing (good) books on the topic, and begin to read. Mohler likes to have several projects going at a time: theology, literature, culture, etc.
He also points out that this approach of reading several books on the same topic is probably more conducive to learning than just “random reading” or the “This book looks good maybe I’ll read this now” approach. As far as studying the Bible is concerned, I would recommend two things: One, always be reading through the Bible and two, always be studying through a book of the Bible. The latter can coincide with your sermon preparation, but as I mentioned above, it shouldn’t be done just in order to teach others; it should be done first of all for your own walk with Christ.
5. Allow Freedom In Your Discipline. On the other hand, planning and discipline can choke the life out of us if we do not allow freedom in our discipline. Sometimes, things will not go according to plan and we will not have as much time to study this week as last week. That’s fine. There are many reasons why this may occur and we should probably see such things as divine interruptions and avoid the temptation to growl at the person or situation that takes us away from our study.
Also, while it is good to have a plan, to set aside books and reading projects, etc., it is also helpful to remember that God can teach us apart from our discipline. Don’t despise knowledge simply because it didn’t come by way of your rigorous discipline and instead came from perusing a random book on your shelf, on in a conversation with a friend or while browsing the web. If we combine both disciplined planning with this freedom, our learning will be greatly enhanced.
6. Write. Our studying and thinking will be much more profitable if we train ourselves in the discipline of writing. Write in your journals, on scraps of paper, in notebooks, on your laptop. Write! This practice will help you to think more clearly, more carefully, more precisely and will force you to form your arguments in logical order. It will also preserve your thoughts for later use. Not all of our writing should be for public use, and not all of our writing should be for private use. We should write for our own clarity of understanding in notebooks never intended for publishing, but we should also use our gift of writing to strengthen and edify God’s people in articles, books and now, blogs.
7. Pray. Lest our labor come to nothing, we must pray and plead with God to open our eyes and enlighten our understanding with His Holy Spirit (Psalm 119:27, 33, 34, 36). Unless God opens our eyes, we will remain blind. So we must pray and plead and cry out for understanding (Proverbs 2:3) and that God would guide our sinful minds to rightly understand His Word. If we fail to do this, we may very well open ourselves up to error because we will be relying on our own strength and mental prowess.
Luther gives great counsel, “That the Holy Scriptures cannot be penetrated by study and talent is most certain. Therefore your first duty is to begin to pray, and to pray to this effect that if it please God accomplish something for His glory–not for yours or any other person’s–He may very graciously grant you a true understanding of His Words. For no master of the divine words exists except the Author of these words, as He says: ‘They shall be all taught of God” (John 6:45). You must, therefore, completely despair of your own industry and ability and rely solely on the inspiration of the Spirit” (Legacy of Sovereign Joy, John Piper).
May we approach all of our study in such a way.