Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Celebration of Discipline: An Experiment in Study

This was originally a monthly series for Soul Munchies, but as Soul Munchies is on hiatus right now, the series will continue here.  The other posts in the series are: 

I felt that I failed at prayer and fasting, but this month practicing the discipline of "study" has been (as expected!) pretty great.  I chose to adapt one of Richard Foster's suggestions, to read a short book of the Bible every day.   I chose Galatians.  Instead of reading every day, I read as often as I could, but not only did I read the book of Galatians, I read it in a couple of different translations, and I read a couple of commentaries as well.  I journaled notes.  I wrote down questions.  I looked up other Bible passages that were referenced in Galatians.  I wanted to go back to it again and again and again.

Through study, I felt something in me come alive.

For some time now, I've neglected reading my Bible.  I've been reading a lot of other books, but my Bible, though I take it to church with me and it sits near my computer, has really served to just be there when I need to look up a verse here or there.  Reading Galatians, and thinking about what it means, what words mean, wondering about context and original intent and connecting it to other writings in the Bible made me realize how much I miss studying the Bible.

I've struggled for a long time with "Bible Study" because often, a Sunday school class or small group is not Bible Study; it is "Bible Application Time".  Foster writes in his book,

"We must understand, however, that a vast difference exists between the study of Scripture and the devotional reading of Scripture.  In the study of Scripture a high priority is placed upon interpretation:  what it means.  In the devotional reading of Scripture a high priority is placed upon application:  what it means for me.  All too often people rush to the application stage and bypass the interpretation stage:  they want to know what it means for them before they know what it means!"

That is what I have found over the years, and why I get so much more out of leading small groups than participating.  When I lead a group, I can study ahead of time and it is study that helps to speak to me.  I know that isn't the case for everyone, but it is definitely the case for me.

When I actually studied Galatians, rather than gave it a cursory read, asking "what's in it for me?", I was able to look at a bigger picture, I was able to come up with a myriad of ideas that I want to explore further through conversations, more reading, and through writing.  I don't get that out of "Bible Application Time".  In Bible Study, I can ask questions about Galatians 1:4 (who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father) such as:
  • Why was the time described as 'the present evil age'?
  • How are people set free through Jesus' sacrificial giving of himself?
  • 'Set us free from present evil age' doesn't sound like subsitutionary atonement/penal substitution but a lot of Christians focus on that aspect of "sacrifice". So how do we read it without reading into it?
  • The annotations say that the 'present evil age' is to be contrasted with the age that comes with the return of Jesus, so is this a reference to the Jewish idea of olam haba?
I can't ask those questions in Bible Application.  In Bible Application, I would have to ask such things as:
  • What evil things am I facing in my life?
  • What evil things are in this world today?
  • How does Jesus set me free from these evil things?
The problem, here, with this Bible Application Time, is that we don't actually need the Bible to ask these questions or discuss our experiences and responses to them.

I don't understand, either, why it is that we seem so scared of studying the Bible.  I have heard many times that we don't want people to think it is boring, that we want to make sure people know it is relevant to their lives, that we don't want to scare them away from it.  We want people to think the Bible is easy to understand, but, the problem is that the Bible is not easy to understand.

I also suspect that part of the problem we have with not studying the Bible is that we tend to equate Jesus with the Bible, and we think that doing Bible Application time is the same thing as working on our relationship with Jesus.  I think that it then scares us that if we don't understand the Bible, then we don't understand or have a good enough relationship with Jesus.

We need to be able to separate these from each other.

We can study the Bible.
We can read the Bible devotionally.
We can better develop our relationship with Jesus.

But those are all different.  Studying and reading the Bible are good, and they can help us with our relationship.  But so can other activities (which is what this experiment in spiritual disciplines really is all about).  Let's stop being afraid of not understanding the Bible.  Let's study it and get to know it on its own, with its own issues and contexts.  Let's use the freedom we have in Jesus, that we learn of in Galatians, to study the Bible regardless of how it applies to us devotionally, and see how we can experience growth through it.  


Naomi said...

Thanks, Kelly! Just discovered this series. My "small group" is reading Celebration of Discipline right now, so I forwarded them this post. We just discussed the Study chapter last night--perfect timing!

Kelly J Youngblood said...

Thanks Naomi! I am glad you found it and that it will be useful to you. How is your small group doing it, time-wise? Weekly? Biweekly? Monthly?