And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (2 Peter 1:19)
In one sense, God’s gifts of presence and love come to us whenever they come, however they come, and wherever they come. But in another sense, there are things we can do to at least try to put ourselves in the path of God’s mercy.
Sunday I preached about the discipline of study. I subtitled the sermon: Paying Attention to Word, Works, and Table. I’ll share my reflections on each of those three loci of study in a series of blog posts over the next few days: the Word of God, the Works of God, and the Table of God.
Study is, at its heart, paying close attention. Study is carefully observing a text, an event, a creature, a relationship. To study something is to mull it over and to know it and to comprehend it more fully. To study is to go beyond a surface skimming and into the depths.
Think of study as a door to your mind and heart that you open, wider and wider… it is still the Holy Spirit who comes into the space you’re opening and dwells with you… but by repetition, and by devoting your time to the object of your study, you prop open a door the Holy Spirit can come through.
Romans 12:2 urges us to “be transformed by the renewing of [our] mind.” That call is preceded by another summons: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.” Conformity is the default, whether to the patterns of the world, or to the same cycles we develop in our thought life.
Something is going to make up our minds’ preoccupations anyway, so it might as well be, as Philippians puts it, those things which are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable—whatever has these traits, “if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
We need to practice the habit of study so our minds and hearts are themselves renewed, so we can be Christ’s agents of renewal in the world.
God’s Word: Pay Attention
Scripture is probably the first thing we think of when we ask, “What can we study?”
Ironically, we don’t have to study very long at all before we find many Scripture passages that call its readers to careful engagement.
- 2 Timothy 2:15: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (To do so requires more than just vague familiarity.)
- Psalm 119: “I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.” And, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”
- And Psalm 1: “Their delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law they meditate day and night.”
For us Christians, we read these verses and have two Testaments to meditate on. But even in the Old Testament, the Law, or Torah, was not just a set or rules, but all the life-giving words that proceeded from the mouth of God.
So we give our mental energies to understanding Scripture, the words of God. We do well to read it, as best we can, on its own terms.
We can cut the poets more slack, and take them line by line.
We can appreciate the genealogies—even if we read through them as fast as we can, or skip them—as testaments to God’s faithfulness to particular people at specific times and places.
We can do our best to let Jesus speak for himself, and take seriously his radical calls to discipleship.
God repeatedly calls his people to the discipline of study, and he wants his words to be our focus.
- Deuteronomy 28:13: “The LORD will make you the head, not the tail. If you pay attention to the commands of the LORD your God that I give you this day and carefully follow them, you will always be at the top, never at the bottom.”
- Proverbs 4:20: “My son, pay attention to what I say; listen closely to my words.”
- Proverbs 22:17: “Pay attention and listen to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach….”
- Hebrews 2:1: “ We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.”
God wants us to pay attention.
And think about the word pay in pay attention: to pay is to agree to a cost, to give up a kind of currency in hope of gaining some good.
There is sacrifice involved in taking the time to pay attention to the words of God. We might consider how we forego multi-tasking when reading the Bible, and making it our sole focus. We might decide this week that we need to put some Bible reading into our calendar like we would any other appointment, to make sure it doesn’t get just two minutes here, three verses there.
Study God’s Word: How?
Nuts and bolts: how can we study the words of God? How can we pay attention closely?
You could read through a book of the Bible, start to finish, taking notes and writing down questions as you go. If it doesn’t kill you to write in your Bible, take notes in the margins, highlight, color coordinate. Or use a little pocket notebook to write down all those things that move you, that you want to hold on to, or whatever incites your curiosity and requires further study to really understand. Or you could find a small group of fellow church folk to meet with and dive in to study together.
Repetition is helpful—you might take a single Psalm or chapter from a Gospel and read it once every day in a week. See how your understanding of it progresses as you spend more prayerful time working through the text.
Another tried and true method for paying closer attention to Scripture is through a word study. Perhaps you’re on Psalm 23 and you read, “The LORD is my shepherd,” and you start thinking about shepherds. Our default might be to say, “Oh, that’s really nice. God is my shepherd. Baaa baaa.” And then we move on.
But really take time to consider “shepherds” in the Bible. Use a concordance or study Bible, or if you don’t have one of those, visit biblegateway.com to find all the other times the Bible uses “shepherd.” Who are the good ones and who are the bad ones? What does it mean to be under the care of a good shepherd?
You would probably uncover pretty quickly, in such a study, that many titles or aspects of God’s character are quickly followed by some kind of human response. “The Lord is my shepherd… (response) I shall not want.” How do the ones a shepherd guards respond?
And don’t go it alone, either—there are many centuries of devotional classics and rich commentaries on the Bible that can aid us in our study.
Memorize the Bible
In addition to studying the Bible in greater depth, we can memorize it.
Adele Calhoun, who writes about spiritual disciplines like study, says that memorization “gives the mind somewhere to go when all the media is turned off.”
Memorizing the Bible also gives your mind a good place to go when there is too much media turned on, and you need to regroup!
If you need to start small, you could work through a compendium of the shortest verses in the Bible: “Jesus wept” and, “Pray continually” … but then study the context and get behind what they mean and what they say to us today. You could memorize well-known passages like Philippians 2 or John 1 or Psalm 46.
We should study the Word of God.
Next up: the Works of God—both as seen in creation, and as seen in salvation history.