Learning as a Spiritual Discipline
By Peter Amsterdam
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Learning is something that we do throughout our lives, and it enhances our lives in various ways. We learn through studying, as well as experience. Schooling in our younger years teaches us the basics and provides us the tools for further learning. As life progresses, many of us engage in further study, including after joining the workplace. Over time, some people become experts in their fields. Even then, they continue to put time and effort into keeping up with advances in their field through further study.
People who want to become proficient in anything discipline themselves to read, study, learn, and practice. They spend time and money, purchase books and attend classes, conferences, or seminars. They may get coaching or tutoring. They take tests and earn certificates and degrees showing their proficiency in their field or profession or any given area of interest.
In the context of our spiritual lives as Christians, learning also plays an important role. Just as we’re willing to devote time to learning in order to advance our careers, or to improve our skills in a variety of aspects within our lives, so should we be willing to devote time to growing in our faith. When Jesus was asked, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” His reply was, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment.”1 The discipline of learning is all about loving God with our minds.
Generally speaking, Christians are most comfortable with loving the Lord with our hearts and souls. We consecrate Him as Lord of our lives, worship Him above all other things, and commit our heart and soul to Him. We enter into His presence with devotion and praise; we are moved when we sing, worship, and pray. We hear or read testimonies of His wonderful work, we experience His hand in our lives, He answers our prayers.
Loving God with our minds is also part of the great commandment and is often more difficult, as it involves disciplined learning. Many consider Christian doctrine or theology “dry as cracker dust,” and feel that it’s stuffing one’s head with information which isn’t necessary or even helpful. However, theology is the study of God, and studying doctrine addresses what we believe as Christians and why we believe it. Knowing these things is important if we are to understand our faith and come to a deeper knowledge of God.
William Lane Craig explained it like this: “As Christians we are to love God not simply with our soul, not simply with our strength, but we are to love Him with our minds. And the study of His truth is one of the best ways in which you can express your love of the Lord—by wanting to know what He is like and what His truth is. So the study of Christian doctrine is a way of showing your love for God by disciplining your mind to love and to know His truth. Study of doctrine is an expression of loving God with all of our minds.”
When it comes to our relationship with God, the path to discovering Him and knowing Him intimately is learning what He has revealed about Himself in Scripture. It requires learning about Jesus, the meaning of the life He led, the message He preached, and the death He died. It means coming to an understanding of God’s plan of salvation and how it unfolded throughout the Old Testament and culminated in the life and death of Jesus. It’s about understanding who God is—His attributes, nature, and character. It’s learning about what He wants from us, His creatures. To properly do this requires study.
As Christians we are called to love God with all of our minds. We are expected to continually grow in Christian maturity through becoming skilled in the knowledge of God and His Word. “Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity.”2
The more knowledgeable we are about what the Bible teaches, the better position we are in to answer individuals’ questions, and when challenged, to knowledgeably defend our faith. “Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”3 People these days are less willing than in the past to receive salvation without first asking and receiving answers to their questions—questions which often challenge the biblical view (or in some cases are a result of a misunderstanding of what the Bible says). Being able to capably make a defense or to answer the questions people ask about the faith makes you a more effective witness.
Learning as a discipline means committing to study what Scripture means, what was being conveyed to those for whom it was originally written, what truths it reveals, and the doctrines which emanate from those truths. The focus of devotional reading is reflecting on “What does Scripture mean to me? What is its application in my life today?” That is important, and a significant way in which God speaks to individuals’ hearts about their needs, their specific sins, etc. It’s often experiential in that the devotional, the sermon, the story that is told, can inspire, uplift, cause a positive feeling, and bring us closer to the Lord, and all of that is very valuable and is certainly a part of learning about God and His ways. However, the discipline of learning focuses on in-depth study of God’s Word and taking in knowledge and understanding through it.
Studying the meaning of Scripture and what it conveys is important, as it is through Scripture that God has revealed Himself, His instructions, His plan, the means of salvation, and His expectations of us. It’s making the effort to gain a more comprehensive perspective on what God has revealed to humanity by means of His written Word. It’s very different from reading the Bible devotionally or reading a daily devotional or listening to an inspirational speaker. Studying Scripture with the purpose of learning about God helps to increase our understanding of God and our faith. It’s a means of loving Him. By learning and studying in this way, combined with devotional input, we love God in all the ways He has asked—with our heart, soul, and mind.
As you engage in this type of study, you learn the “mechanics” of your faith. You more deeply understand the “whys and wherefores.” When you have learned more about Scripture, its context, and its overall meaning—including the history of God’s interaction with humanity in general and ancient Israel specifically, and the picture of God’s plan of salvation through Jesus—who He is and why He does what He does comes more into focus. You learn more about Him, know more of what He wants from us, and understand why. In short, you can come to personally know God in an even deeper way. As you learn of Him at this foundational level, based on a deeper understanding of what He’s told us about Himself, this knowledge brings a better understanding of the reasons He wants us to be and live a certain way, as well as how we can better align our lives with Him.
It can be difficult to find the time to study and learn, but it’s worthwhile. Such learning is often done through reading but is not limited only to that; there are audio and video courses available online which do a good job of teaching the reasoning behind Christian faith. If you find it easier to learn by listening rather than reading, I would recommend the Defenders course by William Lane Craig. It’s enlightening, educational, and feeding, and gives an excellent explanation of all the major Christian doctrines. Understanding God and His Word better will help you to be a better person, a better Christian, and a better witness to others. It will open up a further avenue for you to love God, as you seek to love Him with all your heart, soul, and mind.
Originally published August 2014. Adapted and republished February 2019.
Read by Jason Lawrence.