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Monday, August 3, 2009

What Does God Require Concerning Bible Study?

This is a sticky question in Christian circles. It really makes Christians look ignorant, or at the least, silly, when they know nothing about the Bible they claim to defend so vehemently. On the other hand, Christians, like everyone else, are usually busy. Time constraints are probably the number one reason why many Christians don't know as much about the Bible (and the basic tenants of their faith) as they ought to.

At the other extreme, I've heard of some Christians who have rigorous standards for studying the Bible, such as demanding that all Christians should rise at 5:00 a.m. and read five chapters in their Bible (taking notes) before they can do anything else. I met someone once who had been told to follow a routine similar to this, or else face God's wrath because "God must be put first in our lives."

This had some amusing implications in my mind, but I kept them to myself at the time. I didn't want this person to feel that I was mocking a sincere (albeit misguided) effort to please God. Still, my mind immediately saw an error in the logic of this idea: What if I followed such a Bible study routine, but woke up one day at 4:45 a.m. needing to run to the bathroom? Would I be putting God second to the "demands of the flesh" if I headed there, first, or should I scramble to read five chapters before getting up?

Okay. As soon as my readers stop snickering, I'll get to the heart of the issue. What is a reasonable Bible study, and why are we supposed to do it, anyway?

To start off, I think that the directive to "put God first" has been completely misinterpreted in the above example. It's not a matter of the time of day, but rather it's a matter of the spirit and the heart. Do you ask God before making an important decision in your life, or do you make a decision and expect God to come along with you? Do you consider what will please God in every aspect of your life, public or private, or do you only do what pleases God to make some showing in front of other people? If you aren't thinking about God first, you aren't putting Him first in your life. In this way, it is possible to read the Bible with timing and accuracy to rival an atomic clock, while still putting God second in your daily life.

On the other hand, it isn't a bad thing at all to have some sort of a study routine. God has told us to study the Bible regularly: "Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Timothy 2: 15 KJV). We study it so that (1) We have the approval of God, who told us to study it, (2) So that we don't have the shame of being stumped or confused before God and man on an important topic, and (3) so that we can properly identify or delineate truth from falsehood. Notice that we aren't instructed to study the Bible to punish the flesh or burden ourselves. The Bible is a weapon, above all things, against lies. If you know the truth, no one can trick you; like a diligent student in school, you can "ace the test" because you knew the material so well.
I do believe that God told us that we should study the Bible diligently, but I don't believe God requires us to make Bible study into a crushing burden, because this is almost a sort of works salvation.

So, how much of a priority should Christians make Bible study? Well, that question is up to the individual believer to answer. Some people insist that the Bible should be read in the morning to start the day well. Personally, I've read the Bible on my lunch hour before, because that was the largest uninterrupted time slot in my day. Lately, I've been reading it every night before I go to sleep, so that God's word will be on my mind instead of the worries of the day. When people have asked me what I thought they should do, I just told them to try to work in some Bible reading every day, but not to be unreasonable about it (such as reading it into the wee hours the night before a test or a long drive, or fretting over forgetting to do it one day). In my opinion, the more you know, the safer you are--at least against those who would try to deceive you or lead you into sinfulness--so study the Bible as much as you can.

Paul wrote to a church that was full of Christians who had apparently embraced the news about Christ with rejoicing, but never pushed themselves to learn anything further about God's ways and His requirements. This had resulted in many people slipping back into the sinful lifestyles they had once followed, because they had not armed themselves against the lies that made it all seem "okay" again.
Paul wrote to them, commending them for their love of Christ, but warning them about the terrible danger that ignorance brings. Hebrews chapter 5, verses 11-14, outline Paul's concerns:
We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.
Paul wasn't worried about people drinking milk or eating meat. This concerned spiritual food, rather than literal or physical food. Their faith was very young and undeveloped. Because their faith was undeveloped, they were incapable of exerting any sort of "spiritual muscle" which comes with knowledge of God's will. They could not challenge lies and defeat bad logic, much the same way that a baby cannot wrestle a foe to the ground or fight in battle. The Hebrews had known they needed to arm themselves for some time ("by this time you out to be teachers," that is, so familiar with the material that they could teach it to others). However, they had neglected their studies, and their ignorance was showing in their inability to distinguish good from evil.
Remember that the source of deception is that ancient, cunning foe, Satan. Satan has had many centuries to plot a Christians' demise. No Christian should attempt to combat evil with a cocky attitude, as if he or she is a professional playing against a little-league team. If you want to be an "approved" student of the Bible, you should never go into any situation unprepared, with flabby spiritual muscles. If you do, Satan and all of his time-worn tricks just might get the better of you.

So, speaking to the rest of Paul's metaphor, Christians need muscle-building meat, that is, hard-to-understand and uncomfortable-to-digest passages that really force us to analyze both the situation and ourselves. This is all a part of becoming "wise as serpents" as my blog header reminds us to do.

Though Paul corrected the church in his letter, he did not end the discussion with a note of scorn for how the church people were neglecting their studies. Instead, he tried to encourage them to envision the results of all those hours of study, and reach for a goal that he was fully confident they could achieve. Later on, at the end of that same discussion, Paul wrote,
Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case—things that accompany salvation. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. (Hebrews 6: 9-12 NIV)
Understand it this way: If we were students in school and God was our teacher, Christians would be the students who had grasped the concepts well-enough to pass the class. However, there is more to Christianity than just "passing." We can also be highly-successful students, enjoying the benefits of our success. Paul wanted his fellow Christians to not just barely "pass"; he wanted them to be ace students, without the fear of "failing," or falling away, at the last. He wanted their "hope [to be] sure." Even beyond that, he wanted them to enjoy the security that such knowledge of God's will brings: When we know God's will so well that in our daily lives, we don't have to worry about unknowingly displeasing Him; when we we are released from the fear that Satan might catch us by surprise and overpower us; and finally, when we are able to confidently approach God and ask Him for the guidance and help He has promised us in His Word.