Tag: Study

Pray About What Books to Read

I once heard Iain Murray suggest in an interview that Christians should ask the Lord to guide them in what books to read. When I first heard this comment several years ago, I thought it interesting but unrealistic. Recently I’ve become convinced he is entirely right, and for two specific reasons.

First, the process of reading and seeking knowledge is an intimately spiritual exercise. Scripture has taught me and experience confirms that one is only able to attain true knowledge as he is walking in the fear of the Lord (Prov 1:7). Fear of the Lord requires that we read reverently (relying upon God’s Word) and humbly (not for the praise of men). Continue reading “Pray About What Books to Read”

Why Do You Study Theology? Thoughts from Packer's 'Knowing God'

knowing-god.jpgI recently started Knowing God by J.I. Packer. I had previously heard many encouraging things about this book from Christians of all ages (as it is, of course, a book that can be considered a true contemporary classic), but it wasn’t until just recently that I started reading it. What’s more, it seemed that when someone would ask whether or not I had read it, I would often times have to endure their looks and groanings of disbelief and astonishment: “You haven’t read Knowing God?”

But last week I started on the journey up the mountain, as Packer describes it.  “We are in the position of travelers who, after surveying a great mountain from afar, traveling around it, and observing how it dominates the landscape and determines the features of the surrounding countryside, now approach it with the intention of climbing it” (20).

There was a quote, however, in the introductory chapter, that I thought would be appropriate to provide here, considering the content of much of this blog. But not only that, I think that Packer’s wisdom should he pondered and digested by all Christians regarding our motivations for studying Scripture and theology:

…before we start to ascend our mountain, [we need] to stop and ask ourselves a very fundamental question-a question, indeed, that we always ought to put to ourselves whenever we embark on any line of study in God’s holy book. The question concerns our own motives and intentions as students.  We need to ask ourselves: What is my ultimate aim and object in occupying my mind with these things?  What do I intend to do with my knowledge about God, once I have it?  For the fact that we have to face is this: If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us.  It will make us proud and conceited.  The very greatness of the subject matter will intoxicate us, and we shall come to think of ourselves as a cut above other Christians because of our interest in it and grasp of it; and we shall look down on those whose theological ideas see to us crude and inadequate and dismiss them as very poor specimens.  For, as Paul told the conceited Corinthians, “Knowledge puffs up…The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (I Corinthians 8:1-2).

To be preoccupied with getting theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher a motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception.  We need to guard our hearts against such an attitude, and pray to be kept from it.  As we saw earlier, there can be no spiritual health without doctrinal knowledge; but it is equally true that there can no spiritual health with it, if it is sought for the wrong purpose and valued by the wrong standard.  In this way, doctrinal study really can become a danger to spiritual life, and we today, no less than the Corinthians of old, need to be on our guard here (21-22).

So why do you study?  Is it merely to know all the answers? Is it only to enable yourself to debate with others? Is it to gain applause for your knowledge?  Or is it to know Christ intimately and walk in obedience to Him?  The former motivations will bring death and sickness to your soul, the latter will bring life and health.

Don't Have Time to Read?

Brothers we are not profFor those of you who love to read, want to read, but don’t have time to read, take this encouraging word from John Piper’s book, Brother’s, We are Not Professionals 

We think we don’t have time to read.  We despair of reading anything spiritually rich and substantial because life seems to be lived in snatches.  One of the most helpful discoveries I have made is how much can be read in disciplined blocks of twenty minutes a day.

Suppose that you read slowly, say about 250 words a minute (as I do).  This means that in twenty minutes you can read about five thousand words.  An average book has about four hundred words to a page.  So you can read about twelve-and-a-half pages in twenty minutes.  Suppose you discipline yourself to read a certain author or topic twenty minutes a day, six days a week, for a year.  That would be 312 times 12.5 pages for a total of 3,900 pages.  Assume that an average book is 250 pages long.  This means you could read fifteen book like that in one year.

Or take a longer classic like Calvin’s Institutes (fifteen hundred pages in the Westminster edition).  At twenty minutes a day and 250 words a minute and six days a week, you could finish it in twenty-five weeks.  Then Augustine’s City of God and B.B. Warfield’s Inspiration and Authority of the Bible could be finished before the year’s end.

This astonishing discovery freed me from the paralysis of not starting great, mind-shaping, heart-enriching books because I lacked big blocks of time.  It turns out that I don’t need long periods of time in order to read three masterpieces in one year!  I needed twenty minutes a day, six days a week. (66-67)

Don’t despise building in small increments. You will be amazed at what you can accomplish in only 20 minutes at a time. And this approach can help you make progress in other disciplines, such as writing.

Study Devotionally

Last week I was asked to give the devotional in our Basics of Biblical Greek class at seminary. I chose the text from 1 Timothy 4:16 where Paul exhorts Timothy, “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and those who hear you.” I encouraged all of us, as we are being equipped for ministry, to labor to avoid the fatal (and I mean fatal) mistake of studying functionally instead of studying devotionally.

In order to “Pay close attention to [ourselves],” we must take our studying seriously, and by this I mean that we must always be primarily seeking to study for the sake of our souls , so that our preaching, teaching, and overall ministry will be an overflow of our relationship with Christ, instead of something fabricated and conjured up by mere gathering of information to give to others. In order to highlight and illustrate this truth, I read a portion from Shepherding God’s Flock by Jay Adams:

While fixing the shoes of others, the shoemaker’s own soles may wear through…It is so easy for the minister, in spite of Paul’s warning (I Timothy 4:14-16), in becoming a servant to the flock, to neglect himself. This may be remedied by continually remembering that he must glorify God and by recognizing that there is a proper self-concern that ultimately is for the benefit of the whole congregation. At the bottom of all problems of preaching and pastoral effort, there is always one basic deficiency: the deficiencies of the pastor/teacher himself. Our churches will hear better preaching only when it is done by better preachers; the congregation will receive better shepherding only when it is done by better shepherds. How vital it is not only for his own sake, but for everyone else as well, for a pastor to cultivate and sustain a vital relationship with God.

One great temptation, for instance, is for the minister to read Scriptures only in terms of sermons and ministry. Since he must preach to others, counsel with others, and in a dozen different ways minister from the Book to someone else, it is not hard for the minster to neglect the sort of reading that is calculated to penetrate his own heart and affect his life. Couple that with the problem that the seminary graduate faced every time that he studies a passage of Scripture; how can he read the English Bible “devotionally” when he wonders what the Greek or Hebrew and the commentaries have to say about the passage? If he does not reach for his study aids, he is troubled; if he does, he has ceased to worship. What is the way out of this dilemma?

One answer that has commended itself to many men is to stop divorcing personal “devotions” (as they are usually called) from study. Instead, the minister must develop a new practice of studying devotionally. When he studies for his sermons, his general reading, or whatever the occasion may be, he will study first with the aim of personal application leading to personal worship and prayer. Thus the meaning of a Greek verb tense understood for the first time may lead to praise and thanksgiving or perhaps conviction of sin and confession…Such study, that snags the life of the man as he works, that buffets and refines and shapes the student, eventuates in a different sort of preaching and teaching of the Scriptures. The man who studies first with his own relationship to God in view is a man who will preach more vitally to the lives of others (pgs. 23-24).

From having experienced the ill-effects of heartless, functional study, I would say that this is not an optional aspect of the ministry–it is a matter of spiritual life and death. If we constantly deflect truth from God’s Word onto those we are ministering to rather than absorbing it ourselves, we will dry up and be blown away – either by the trials of ministry or by disqualifying sin–because we never drank the water we were giving to others.

Photo: Aaron Burden

Studying Scripture and Theology for the Right Reasons

In the introduction to Marriage to a Difficult Man, John Piper writes,

Edwards made it plain in his preaching and in his living that he believed great thoughts about God without great love towards people are sure evidences of hypocrisy and the pathway to hell.  For Edwards there was no separating high views of God and the demands of husband and father.  The link was Edwards’ grasp of the religious affections.  For him feeling and thinking were inseparable because God’s glory was only half-reflected in right thinking.  The other half shone in right feeling.  Therefore, Edwards measured holiness, especially his own, with attention to the humble emotions and not just high thoughts.  This had profound affect on his relationships.

This is one great thing I want to learn from Edwards.  I desire that all theology I embrace make me a better husband and a better father” (xiv).

O how I need to learn from this!  I don’t want to consume myself with study and high thoughts about God without love toward Christ and mankind!  My studying should make me a better husband, a better friend, a better employee, a better churchman, a better son, brother and uncle. Iain Murray, in Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography helps me with his insight into Edward’s private life:

Study and writing were not ends in themselves.  They were for the service of the gospel.  This brings us to what is most important of all in any understanding of Edwards private hours.  His view of his public work as a calling to speak to men in the name of God was inseparable from his conviction that the first demand in such a calling was that his own knowledge of of God should be personal and first hand” (142).

It changes everything when a shepherd of people studies with true love in his heart for the good of others and with an affection for God and Christ.  When I go to study with a desire to know Christ, not merely with my intellect, but with my heart as well, it has a tremendously positive impact on my whole life.  In fact, we learn from experience that love in our hearts is the only way to truly profit from studying.  Richard Sibbes, in the Bruised Reed, aptly observes,

And because knowledge and affection mutually help one another, it is good to keep up our affections of love and delight by all sweet inducements and divine encouragments; for what the heart likes best, the mind studies most.  Those that can bring their hearts to delight in Christ know most of his ways (103).

So when we open our books, let us make sure that our hearts are engaged along with our minds so that we might, through our growth in knowledge, love God and love people better.

Photo: Aaron Burden

Reading and Prayer

It is often humbling to learn, by experience, that John 15:5 applies to everything in life. When Jesus said that apart from Him I can do nothing, He really did mean nothing, as I have learned–sometimes painfully–throughout the years.

In my case, reading was one area that I didn’t think immediately appeared to require dependence upon the Lord.  Now, I would probably never come out and say that, (i.e., that I don’t need to depend on Christ when I read), but I think my general practice has demonstrated, sadly, that I may actually believe that more than I would like to admit.

Looking back, I can say that there have been plenty of times when I have worked through a book on theology, or Christian living, or the Church, or Christian engagement in culture, and approached the endeavor entirely relying on my own intellectual prowess (or lack thereof!) to guide me in my reading; only to find myself with little to no spritual or intellectual fruit.

Well I have had enough dry and unprofitable times over books-not to mention times where I have cultivated pride more than learning-to know that something is amiss.  So, as I have considered the discipline of reading and the necessity of prayer in the humble observance of John 15:5, I have gleaned somethings that I hope will be beneficial to you as well.

(1) Pray for understanding.  I am convinced, by Scripture and experience, that “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God” (I Corinthians 2:14), and to the degree that I am leaning on my own mental might, to that degree am I forfeiting true knowledge that only the Holy Spirit endows.  The result might lead (or should I say ‘has led’) to confusion more often than real learning.  Therefore, it is essential to pray for understanding as we read.  Our minds our sinful and in need of great help; help which the Holy Spirit is most willing to provide.  Proverbs 2:1-6 is insightful at this point:

My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you…if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding…if you…search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God.  For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.

God gives wisdom and understanding into His Word to those who ‘cry out’ for it and ‘search for it as for hidden treasures.’  Practical application: pray for understanding as you read.  Pray for help in understanding the arguement, in following the train of thought, etc.

(2) Pray for clear judgment.  How easy it is to rush through a book, or misread something out of haste or prejudice, and then subsequently misstate that person’s position in conversations (or blogs).  Again, I believe the work of the Holy Spirit in overcoming the blinding effects of pride in our hearts is crucial here.  We need help to see things accurately and fairly.  We need help to keep our zeal from misconstruing what is actually said.  We need help to apply Proverbs 18:13, “The one who answers before he hears (i.e. truly understands what he reads is probably a reasonable application), it is his folly and shame.”  We need clear judgement.

(3) Pray for discernment.  Here we need the Spirit’s help to accept truth and set aside error.  To agree whole-heartedly with the good and disagree (just as whole-heartedly) with that which is evil, wrong, and untrue.  I think it is wise to pray as we read, “Help me, Lord, that I might see and believe what is true and according to your Word and reject that which is not.”   

(4) Pray for a heart that is soft to truth. We not only want minds that can tell the difference between truth and error, but we also want hearts that readily receive and rejoice in the truth.  A.W. Tozer rightly observes, “One reason why people are unable to understand the Christian classics is that they are trying to understand without any intention of obeying them” (quoted by J. Oswald Sanders in Spiritual Leadership, 103).    

(5) Pray for right motives.  We need to pray for a heart that desires to read and learn for the sake of our souls and the sake of our obedience.  I think our reading will malfunction at a fundamental level if we learn in order to impress others with our knowledge. Edwards’ wisely instructs,

Seek not to grow in knowledge chiefly for the sake of applause, and to enable you to dispute with others; but seek it for the benefit of your souls, and in order to practice.  If applause be your end, you will not be so likely to be led to the knowledge of the truth.

These suggestions primarily deal with texts that are, for the most part, theological in nature.  However, I don’t think that the Holy Spirit is loath to help us in reading other kinds of literature as well; because in all of our reading we should, at some level, be seeking real understanding, exercising clear judgment, practicing discernment, desiring hearts that are soft to truth and always reading for the right reasons.

May we read well.

Some Thoughts on Reading

Recently, I have been reflecting on reading.  This would only make sense since I am reading regularly.  It is something I enjoy, plus my job requires that I read, and read a lot.  As I consider the discipline and/or hobby of reading, I often find myself thinking of ways I can read better, learn more, etc.  Perhaps you regularly find yourself with similar musings.  If you do, then here are some thoughts to help you in your reading; be it recreational or rigorous.

(1) “Read much and not many.”  This was the advice of Charles Spurgeon. He exhorted his readers to resist the temptation to hasty reading and the accumulation of bibliographic notches on their belts.  “Little learning and much pride comes from hasty reading,” was Spurgeon’s observation.  If you find that you are not learning much when you read, it could have everything to do with your motivation for reading.  Are you reading in order to say that you have read several books?  Or are you reading because you enjoy reading, because you want to learn, and because you want to feed your soul, regardless of who finds out how many books you have read?

(2) Be purposeful.  I learned this from Al Mohler.  He observed that we learn more when we spend significant time on a given topic.  This is accomplished in reading by developing reading “projects.”  Choose a topic you want to read about, begin purchasing good books on that topic, and begin to read through those books.  This approach, I have found, is much more conducive to learning than the “I think I will read this book now” approach.

(3) Mix it Up.  A few months ago, my wife told me that she was getting tired of a book she was reading.  From my judgment, it didn’t have anything to do with the content; she had been really enjoying the book up to that point.  I suggested that she try reading more than one book at a time.  This practice has a tendency to promote thought, keep the mind fresh, and helps us stay motivated in our reading.  It is easy, after spending several hours in a book, to become weighed down in that plot or topic.  On the other hand, this dilemma can be countered by reading more than one book at a time.  This practice has helped me tremendously.  I often have several “projects” going at one time and I rarely get tired of any one book.  American history is a refreshing change after pondering justification by faith in all its exegetical depth, and vise versa!

(4) Have Fun.  It is also important to always take in some fun reading.  Read fiction.  Read children’s books.  Read the comics.  This, like the previous suggestion, will help keep your mind fresh and motivated to keep reading.

(5) Write in your book.  Many of us have been through many books.  But many of those books have never been through us.  That is because we rush through them and never take time to write down our thoughts, to make notes, and to make the book our own.  One practice that I have learned from a colleague of mine is to turn the blank pages in the front and back of a book a place for notetaking.  In the front of the book, I write down the page numbers of significant portions of the book and an appropriate sentence that explains that portion.  Then, when I go back to the book, I can open the front cover and be reminded exactly what the book was about, the insights I had, etc.  As Mortimer Adler observed,

There are two ways in which one can own a book. The first is the property right you establish by paying for it, just as you pay for clothes and furniture. But this act of purchase is only the prelude to possession. Full ownership comes only when you have made it a part of yourself, and the best way to make yourself a part of it is by writing in it. (How to Mark a Book)

(6) Don’t lose precious minutes.  How many times have you been in a situation where you have an extra five minutes while you are waiting for your parents, or your spouse, or sitting in a doctor’s office?  These spare minutes pop up quite often and are perfect for getting some reading in.  Recently, I have been trying to remember to bring a book wherever I go.  Who knows, but I might get an extra five minutes here and ten minutes there.  At the end of any given week, we might have accumulated 1-2 hours of extra reading time!  Imagine that!

There are many more things I could say about reading, but I hope these few suggestions help you as you pursue to redeem the time by good reading.