We’re into December already — crazy. As we approach the holiday season, Christmas, and the New Year, we’re focusing on Bible-study habits. Last week, we looked at how to study the Bible on one topic. That was episode 1998, a very practical episode where you, Pastor John, just walked us through how you do a word study on a single term or topic. It was simple, hands-on.
Coming up later this month, we’re going to look at the grammar of the Bible and the importance of that little word therefore. There are about five hundred of them, five hundred therefores in the New Testament. What does that term mean for us? What should we see? It’s another granular and super helpful Bible-study principle we need, and that’s coming on December 14. Then we look at why a daily Bible-reading habit is essential for us in 2024, for some motivation. That’s coming up on December 18.
And then we return after Christmas to look at a very common hindrance to the discipline. Inevitably, throughout the year, when my Bible reading seems flat — when I read, but my heart is dull — what should I do? What can I do? That’s on December 28. So, a big month ahead on Bible reading, all to hopefully equip and motivate us for a successful 2024.
Today we talk about learning — specifically, how to learn from the material world around us. Learning from “general revelation,” as it’s sometimes called. Pastor John, you have a new book out titled Foundations for Lifelong Learning: Education in Serious Joy. By my count, this new book contains only the second time you’ve ever mentioned Proverbs 6:6 in a book project. The verse says, “Go to the ant.” Study the ants. Learn from the ants.
This text, Proverbs 6:6, was also in your earlier book Think. But in this new book, it shows up three times: in the intro and in chapters 1 and 5. From one angle, the new book reads as a wonderful celebration of what God is teaching us through nature. How does this new book relate to Think, your previous book? How is it different? And as you wrote this recent book, what did you learn as you put all the pieces together about how the Bible pushes us outside the Bible to learn? What struck you in a fresh way?
The book Think (which was published in 2010, the year after Bethlehem College & Seminary was founded, and acted as a kind of launching vision for the school) is a plea. The book is a plea, especially to Christians, to embrace serious thinking as a means of loving God and loving people.
It’s a plea to reject either-or thinking when it comes to head and heart, thinking and feeling, reason and faith, theology and doxology, mental labor and the ministry of loving hands. I don’t want anyone to choose between the two halves of each of those pairs. So, the book is a plea to see thinking as a God-ordained means of knowing and loving God.
I think when Jesus said in Matthew 22:37, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your . . . mind,” he did not mean that loving is the same as thinking, that simply by thinking right thoughts about God, we’re loving God. I don’t think that’s what he meant.
“Truth about God is like dry firewood that we throw into the furnace of our hearts.”
What I think he meant is that thinking, the right use of our minds, is a means to loving. Loving is the fire of admiration and affection and desire in the furnace of the heart, and thinking is how the fuel of knowledge is thrown like good dry firewood into that furnace. We use our minds to grasp the truth of God in Scripture, and that truth about God is like dry firewood that we throw into the furnace of our hearts, to set our hearts to burning with love for God. That’s Think.
Two Different Books
This new book, Foundations for Lifelong Learning, grows out of my experience as a pastor who spent a huge amount of my 33 years trying to use my mind to grasp the God-intended meaning of biblical texts. That’s what I did mainly. What I have found in teaching and preaching, and in all the mental labor that goes into both, is that the very habits of mind that I use when I come to the Scriptures are the same habits of mind that I use when I deal with any reality in the world.
Foundations for Lifelong Learning is an effort to shed light on those habits of mind as we use them in reading both of God’s books, so to speak. The word, the Bible — that’s one book. And the world — that’s the other book.
This way of talking about “two books” goes back at least to the Belgic Confession of 1561, which says, “We know [God] by two means: first, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book. . . . Secondly, He makes Himself more clearly and fully known to us by His holy and divine Word.” That’s the Belgic Confession of 1561.
Same Six Habits
I have spent, I suppose, most of my life focusing my mind on the Bible and then trying to help others to see the greatness of the reality that I see through preaching and teaching and writing. I’ve tried to let the Bible itself inform how I approach the Bible. What has emerged over the last fifty years is that there are these six habits of mind (or mind and heart) that make up my approach to the Bible:
- Observe carefully and thoroughly what’s there in the text.
- Understand accurately what is observed. What does this text mean?
- Evaluate fairly, truly, what has been understood. Is it a sweet and precious reality like God’s grace, or is it a horrible and fearful reality like hell?
- Feel appropriate emotions in response to the kind of reality observed and understood and evaluated — emotions like love, fear, hope, joy, admiration, revulsion, peace, or desire.
- Apply all of this in wisdom to situations and people for their good and for the glory of God. I have not handled the Scriptures rightly until I am moved to make them a means of love and worship. “Be doers of the word,” James said, “and not hearers only” (James 1:22).
- Express in speech and writing all that has been observed and understood and evaluated and felt and applied, so that more and more people can share in what is seen.
That’s how I approach the Bible or texts in Scripture. And what you can see is that — at least, it became plain to me over the years — these very six habits of mind are the way God wills for us to deal with the world as well as the word.
Whether it’s politics or grass seed, coronavirus or computers, cars or clothing — whether you’re looking up at clouds or down at ants — these are the realities that we deal with every waking hour, sometimes even in our dreams. And these realities in the world, the Bible itself tells us to pay attention to them. Like at the end of Job, where God essentially says, “Look, Job. Look, and humble yourself.” Or in Psalm 1, or Romans 1. These realities in the world are to be handled with the same habits of mind and heart that I have used in dealing with Scripture all these years.
This has become increasingly clear to me, especially as I tried to articulate what we are trying to do at Bethlehem College & Seminary, which is the origin of this book. That’s what this new book draws attention to: observe the world thoroughly, understand the world accurately, evaluate the world truly, feel the world appropriately — and then apply all of this and express all of this with wisdom and power, for the good of others and for the glory of God.
Learning as Living
And you asked, Tony, what struck me in a fresh way as I was putting these pieces together. Here’s one answer to that question: I realized that the foundations for lifelong learning are also the foundations for lifelong living.
“Thinking, the right use of our minds, is a means to loving.”
In fact, I got to the end of the book and that’s what I wrote the conclusion about, because it was fresh to me. I didn’t start the book thinking that way. I started the book thinking, “I’m just going to talk about lifelong learning.” But these six habits of mind are a way of describing the Christian life. It’s just what we do as Christians because of who God is and what he made us to be.
We observe because that’s why God gave us physical senses and spiritual senses. We understand because that’s why God gave us minds. We evaluate because God revealed himself as the measure of all worth. We feel because that’s why God gave us emotions. We apply and express because God calls us to love. I’m not sure I had ever seen so clearly as I do now that the path of lifelong learning is the path of lifelong living.