Pastors – Studying and Reading (3)

February 17, 2006

Next comes the question of "how you read and study." My comments so far obviously indicate that reading will be a major aspect of your ongoing study as a Gospel minister. That is wholly appropriate, especially in light of our evangelical doctrine of revelation – God communicates to us in propositions (no matter what our poor, confused, postmodern friends think!).

But let me add just a little to this. There are five main ways in which your ongoing study will be aided: reading, reflection, writing, teaching and living. I’ll say no more here about reading, my emphasis on it is already apparent.

On the subject of reflection, I will only say that you need to go to the Puritans to learn their practice of Christian reflection or meditation, in order to gain the most from your reading. Packer has been a great help to me on this. I think he dubs the Puritan approach as "discursive meditation" in order to distinguish it from the mind-emptying, anti-Christian, approaches to meditation prevalent in the new spiritualities. Christian reflection, of course, also includes prayer. And so everything edifying thing we read needs to be turned into adoration, praise, thanksgiving, petition, confession, and intercession.

Regarding writing, let me simply say that there is no discipline more suited to force the mind to organize and communicate the truth than that of writing. If you can’t communicate a truth you don’t understand it. If you can’t communicate it in more than one way you don’t understand it. If you can’t communicate it clearly you don’t understand it. Writing helps in all these areas. A perfect forum to practice this skill is in your church publications. If you find that you have or develop a gift in this area – then share its fruits with your brethren (since your gifts don’t belong to you, they belong to the church!).

In regard to teaching, it—like writing—is (or can and should be) a tremendous aid to self-education and grace-growth. When you have venues to try your hand at it, take them. I’m not just talking about your regular preaching (which will naturally contain a component of teaching in it) or simply speaking of Sunday School opportunities. I’m talking about settings that push you to understand and convey truth at a higher level (lectures before undergraduates, seminary classes, public addresses and the like). When you have those opportunities, take them. And push yourself in preparation for them.

But the thing I want to emphasize here, precisely because it is so often overlooked among those who are devoted to study, is the importance of living to learning. By that I mean on the one hand that one ought to be constantly asking how one’s learning is playing out in one’s life. We should be asking oursevles: "Because of my learning am I loving God more, loving Scripture more, more devoted to Christ, more committed to kingdom ministry, more Christlike, a better Christian husband and father, more loving of my neighbor, more just, merciful and humble, and growing in grace?" Jesus regularly emphasized in his teaching that our doing shows what we really love and believe. Hence our attitudes, actions and priorities in living reveal the secrets of the heart. If your learning is not helping you in your living and pastoring according to biblical standards and emphases, then it is learning gone bad.

By the importance of living to learning, on the other hand, I mean that it is the school of Christian experience under God’s providence that is the testing ground of all true learning. Especially God’s dark providences—suffering, trials, tests, disappointments, "losses and crosses" as the Puritans called them—reveal the extent of our learning. Benjamin Disraeli once said that "Seeing much, suffering much, and studying much, are the three pillars of learning." In so doing, he was simply echoing a dictum that can be found from Luther all the way back to the Bible that "Prayer, meditation and temptation [meaning trials and testings] make the Christian." Indeed, Luther put it more provocatively than this, when he said that a preacher is not made by reading books, but by "living and dying and being damned." In other words, God makes preachers in the crucible. Never forget that. God makes a minister of the Gospel by breaking his heart. Isn’t that one thing that Jesus meant when he beckoned us to take up our cross and follow him?