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Spiritual Disciplines: Study

by Marion Van Driel

September marks the beginning of the academic year.

Students – eager, reluctant, passionate, indifferent or anxious – fill learning centers from kindergarten rooms to university lecture halls. But study is far more than an intellectual exercise. In his book Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster asserts that focused and repeated study molds patterns of thought. The Discipline of Study transforms us, freeing us from perceptions that hold us captive. Our worship, our spiritual experiences, our prayers, our kingdom work – none of these can set us free from anxiety, doubt, or habits from which we desire release. Only knowledge of the truth can bring us freedom.  “You will know the truth and the truth will make you free”  (John 8:32).

Life and bread

Laura Toews, a mother of four young children who runs her own business in Abbotsford has attended church all her life, but began studying scripture very intentionally and regularly, five years ago. “I was at a point where I was very hungry to know [scripture]. I was invited to a Bible study that uses the inductive method*, and [the leader] walked us through Psalm 23, a very familiar passage. I understood it with new eyes and I was hooked.” The inductive method consists of observation (who, how, what, when, where and why), interpretation and finally, application.

Toews makes her Discipline of Study part of her morning routine, “or else it wouldn’t happen,” she says. “God’s word has become daily bread for me.” She is convinced that “as believers, it’s the number one way God sanctifies us.” In her own life, Toews has experienced ‘huge growth’ in terms of fruits of the Spirit; in addition, repentance comes much more readily. Other people in the study have joined as they notice changes in the lives and behaviours of those involved.

How to study

Two modes of study exist: verbal (books and lectures) and non-verbal (observation of nature and reality). Foster reminds us that we can go through a major crisis without learning anything from it. “But if we carefully observe and reflect upon what occurred, we can learn a great deal,” he writes.

Four steps – according to Foster:

1. Repetition changes patterns of thought, and further, behaviour. For this reason, counsellors often prescribe repetitive affirmations (I love myself unconditionally). It is unimportant whether the person believes what they are saying. The mind will, over time, respond by conforming. To think on things that are gracious, lovely, pure, honourable and true changes our thought patterns.

2. Concentration or focused attention on the subject of study increases the ability to retain and ingrain what is being studied. Few people spend an entire day focusing on one thing. Concentrated focus on just one thing – without ambient distractions – increases the value of our study or practice.

3. Comprehension is the result of repetition and concentration, elevating our knowledge to another level. Who of us have not experienced a time when we’ve read or heard the same text, poem or song for the umpteenth time, to have an eye-opening moment of insight?

4. Reflection helps with our comprehension. We understand the subject matter in relation to ourselves, submitting to its wisdom. Foster writes, “Jesus speaks often of ears that do not hear and eyes that do not see. When we ponder the meaning of what we study, we come to hear and see in a new way.”

Giving study its due

Most of us give little thought to the importance of learning how to study; we believe reading the material and hoping it will sink in, is enough. Foster calls study “an exacting art involving a labyrinth of details.” He explains that three intrinsic factors are crucial to our reading: understanding, interpreting and evaluating. Very often we jump to an evaluation (our opinion) before taking time and care to consider the other two. “Time for critical analysis,” he writes, “comes after careful understanding and interpretation.” Personal experience, other books, and live discussion help us understand at a deeper level. Commentaries and other writings help to contextualize our subject, and should be used to gain deeper understanding. Discussing the subject with other people can reveal details or gems of insight we might not otherwise discover.

The Book, and more books

The most important book we can study is the Bible – not just devotional material. The devotional study, Foster notes, places a high priority on application. “What does the Bible mean for me?” But application cannot properly be understood until we know what the passage means in its context – what the author’s intent was. “We are willing to pay the price of barren day after barren day until the meaning is clear. This process revolutionizes our lives,” Foster explains. He suggests auditing a university course, finding a good teacher in your church, or setting time aside for a retreat.

Foster suggests taking one of the smaller books and reading it through each day for one month, or reading through a larger book (preferably in a sitting) before delving into chapters or sections of it. Add to these a good commentary, and Christian literature classics by giants of the faith like St. Augustine, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Juliana of Norwich and C.S. Lewis. Toews uses commentaries and other books, but only after she’s done her own work of observation and interpretation. Although she’s attended church her entire life, for Toews today, “[the word is] life and bread for me . . . it grounds me in my faith.” She explains that she’s more able to confidently engage those who come to her with questions now.

Other arenas of study

Equally or even more important than the study of books is our observation of the world around us – of plants, animals, mountains, rivers, lakes and sky. We are enriched as we wonder at the opening of a flower or watch bees working in a community. Whether we study the natural order of things in a structured setting or on our own, we see the hand of God, marveling at the infinite complexity of the created realm the deeper we delve into its mysteries.

As careful observers of human relationships and behaviour, we learn lessons in compassion and wisdom. Asking questions about how our society thinks and works may provide glimpses into a better way, compelling us “to perceive the consequences of various forces in our culture and to make value judgments upon them,” which Foster claims to be an important calling of Christian prophets of our day.

Water is necessary for our physical health. People who realize they’re not properly hydrated notice their thirst mechanism really ‘kick in’ as they ramp up their intake. The Bible study that Toews attended five years ago began with five people; today that group has increased to 200 – a testament to the thirst for God’s reality the lives of His people.

For the inductive method:

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