After reflecting in a garden and “weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart,” St. Augustine, in his autobiographical work, Confessions, was directed to “take and read, take and read.” It was the voice of a child nearby. He picked up a Bible and read from Romans 13 and, after battling much inner turmoil throughout his life, finally decided to convert to Christianity. Augustine was informed and transformed by the Bible, the Word of God.
The spiritual discipline of study is an “inner discipline,” according to Richard Foster, and a “discipline of engagement,” in the words of Dallas Willard. It involves the careful reading and study of the Bible. Willard writes, “In the spiritual discipline of study we engage ourselves, above all, with the written and spoken Word of God.”
Study, as a spiritual discipline, is not passively reading or skimming Scripture or devotional texts. It is an engaging read for information and, more importantly, transformation in our spiritual lives. For the spiritual discipline of study, we cannot read the Bible the same way we would read the sports section of a newspaper or a novel.
The Bible itself makes its case for the spiritual discipline of study. In Deuteronomy 11:18, the Israelites were commanded by God to “fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” God wanted them to remember their story and journey thus far, the Laws and everything they had been through.
Jesus tells his disciples to “love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy” (Mark 12:30 The Message). And the Apostle Paul calls us to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). For Paul, being transformed included the mind and our mental capacities. The “renewing” doesn’t simply happen. It is by study—along with prayer and God’s grace—that we are renewed.
For me, practising the spiritual discipline of study is where I am most spiritually fed. I aim to read and study the Bible daily. I love to read devotional texts—some of my favourites are by Henri Nouwen and Richard Foster. Even theological and ecclesiological books can be read in the spirit of study and can inform and transform.
Two essential reads when exploring spiritual disciplines—especially the discipline of study—are Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard.
For Foster, the discipline of study involves four steps:
- Repetition. Simply read, reread and reread again.
- Concentration. “Concentration centres the mind,” writes Foster. “If, in addition to bringing the mind repeatedly to the subject matter [through repetition], the person will concentrate on what is being studied, learning is vastly increased.”
- Comprehension. Understanding and defining what is being studied is critical before we can apply it.
- Reflection. Whereas comprehension is defining what a text means, reflection involves defining its significance for us in our walk with God.
In the third and fourth steps, our faith moves from the pages of the Bible to our daily lives. Our first doctrine declares: “We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments were given by inspiration of God, and that they only constitute the Divine rule of Christian faith and practice.” This holds significant implications for us, personally and corporately. Allowing the Bible to inform and transform our Christian faith and practice will change the way we view everything—from family life to political issues. We will treat people differently. We will treat the environment differently. We will fight for the cause of those who cannot fight for themselves.
For Dallas Willard, “ultimately the Word of God is God speaking.” But are we listening?
Practise the spiritual discipline of study. Take and read.
Captain Mark Braye is the corps officer of Temiskaming Community Church in Temiskaming Shores, Ont.
(Photo: © iStockphoto.com/RonTech2000)