The Spiritual Disciplines: Learning
August 5, 2014
by Peter Amsterdam
The Spiritual Disciplines: Learning
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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 advancements 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.
It’s beneficial to learn new things, to progress in your knowledge and experience. It can make you more qualified and effective in your field, can make you more capable of helping others, can bring advancement in the workplace, and can make you feel better about yourself. Discovering new things and learning new skills can also be a source of great personal enrichment and fulfillment. Thank God for all the opportunities to learn that are available to people today.
Learning in a Spiritual Context
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—such as parenting, cooking, nutrition, gardening, sport, investing, learning a language, etc.—so should we be willing to devote time to growing in our faith. The Spiritual Discipline of learning focuses on training ourselves to study and learn more about God and our faith on an ongoing basis.
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.” 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. Most of us feel at home in our heartfelt devotion to God and with our experiences with Him. Such feelings are aligned with what Jesus said about loving God with our hearts and souls.
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.
A compelling reason to learn all we can about God was expressed by Donald Whitney in the following terms:
What God wants most from you is your love. And one of the ways He wants you to show love and obedience to Him is by godly learning. God is glorified when we use the mind He made to learn of Him, His ways, His Word, and His world.
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.
Reasons and Results of Learning About God and Faith
You don’t have to become a Bible scholar to embrace learning as a Spiritual Discipline. But you do need to spend timelearning about God and Scripture and faith. Developing the discipline of learning takes loving God enough to want to learn all we can about Him. 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.
When you love someone, you want to learn all you can about what they’re like, their likes and dislikes, their history—you want to know everything you can about them. 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. To properly do this requires study.
One of the goals of practicing any of the Spiritual Disciplines is to become more Christlike. Being Christlike inherently means a transformation, conforming more to the ways of Christ and less to the ways of the world. Scripture speaks of not being conformed to this world, but being transformed by the renewal of your mind. One major way of renewing our mind is by learning the ways and mind of God through diligent study of His Word.
The Word of God must go through our head if it’s going to change our heart and life.
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.
The Spiritual Discipline of learning also affects our sharing the Gospel with others, as 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. 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. There are a number of books available which teach how to answer difficult questions people ask. Some examples are When God Goes to Starbucks (Paul Copan); Tactics (Greg Koukl); Hard Questions, Real Answers (William Lane Craig); Love Your God with All Your Mind (J. P. Moreland); To Everyone an Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview (edited by Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, & J. P. Moreland).
Disciplining ourselves to learn helps us when we are teaching others about the faith. An overseer, as God’s steward, must …hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine. For the sake of deepening our relationship with the Lord, of growing to be more Christlike, of becoming mature Christians, and being more effective in our mission work and teaching others, disciplining ourselves to learn through studying God’s Word is a worthwhile endeavor.
Difference Between Devotional Reading and Study
Of course, we learn spiritual things from our devotional input, but the discipline of learning extends beyond this. 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.
The discipline of learning focuses on studying the meaning of Scripture and what it conveys, as it is through Scripture that God has revealed Himself, His instructions, His plan, the means of salvation, and His expectations of us. Studying Scripture, and books that teach the meaning of Scripture, or teach about the meaning of specific books of the Bible, or the doctrines which Scripture teaches, are all part of the discipline of learning.
I like to read the Bible, and I generally feel like I understand what it’s conveying. However, when I’ve coupled my reading with using a study Bible, or when I read books or listen to lectures which more thoroughly explain what different Bible passages mean or the context in which they were given or why we, as Christians, believe what we believe based on what Scripture has revealed, I find it brings a deeper understanding of the Bible—of what it teaches and how it relates to my faith and my life.
I’ll readily admit that the study of theology and doctrine isn’t always easy. It takes work and sometimes requires wading through complicated material. 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—then 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.
Being an Intentional Learner
The benefits of learning and study are many, but the path to spiritual learning isn’t easy; it takes work, study, time, and discipline. From personal experience, however, I can say that it’s worth the effort. Learning more of the “inside mechanics” of my beliefs has opened up the meaning of Scripture to me and has deepened my faith. While some of the reading and studying I’ve done has been pretty dry and academic, sticking with my study program has also opened up a deeper understanding of God and His truth. I have tried to condense the theological basics gained through my studies in The Heart of It All series, with the aim of making it a good foundation for basic study and learning of Scripture.
The discipline of learning means becoming an intentional learner instead of an accidental one. Donald Whitney expresses the point this way:
Age and experience alone don’t increase your spiritual maturity. Becoming like Jesus doesn’t happen incidentally or automatically with the passing of birthdays …Those who are not trying to learn will only get spiritual and biblical knowledge by accident or convenience. Occasionally they will hear a biblical fact or principle from someone else and profit from it. Once in a while they will get a brief burst of interest in the subject. But this is not the way to Godliness. The discipline of learning helps us to be intentional learners, not accidental learners. …It takes discipline to become an intentional learner.
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. It’s not necessarily an easy course, and it takes time to work through it. He covers eleven major beliefs in 178 classes that are between 15 and 30 minutes long. Transcripts of the classes are available online as well. It does take discipline to work your way through such a course—but any comprehensive course one takes will require the same. Most theology books that cover the same ground are at least 1,000 pages long. One that is shorter is Theology: The Basics, by Alister E. McGrath.
You may not have a lot of available time, but even committing to just reading a few pages a day, or listening to one lecture each morning, will eventually get you through the material, which will help you understand your faith more deeply and will strengthen your understanding of and connection with God. Understanding Him 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.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Matthew 22:36–38.
 Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1991), 226.
 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2 ESV).
 Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 228.
 Hebrews 5:12–14; 6:1.
 1 Peter 3:15.
 Titus 1:7,9.
 Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines, 228–229.