I'm sitting in a coffee shop preparing next semester's courses. What a privilege to pour through various books and articles as I tease out the nuances of the subjects I'm going to teach (Introduction to Theology and Christian Spirituality at a local university). The reasons I have to read are immensely practical - that is they all are for a goal I have in mind. So I can quickly tell if an article or chapter is going to be helpful or not. That is primarily what turns a task that could be an odious chore (I can spend upwards of 14 hours on a 3 hour lecture!) into a task of joy.
When we set out to study we know we are undertaking a noble task. But when we fail to connect the texts we are reading to the things we are trying to do the resulting disconnection can sap the life right out of the process. I wonder if this isn't the reason why study is not as valued as it should be for many Christians. If you find yourself dreading the very idea of studying then consider these tips, they might be just what you need to pull open that book you have been avoiding. I hope that they can help foster an atmosphere of diligent study so that we will all be approved workers of God's Word, the Word that transforms everything!
1) Know when to stop. No one should feel forced to finish a text - that will just discourage you from continuing to read and learn. If you are not connecting with a book you have two viable options. A) you can drop it. Seriously, the book might be great for another time and it might have helped out oodles of your friends, but if it isn't connecting now then it is not going to give life. B) skim to see if what you hoped for isn't just waiting beyond the next paragraph, chapter or section. Study does not mean reading every word - it means understanding what you need to understand from a text. If you are a student understanding what is going on in a text is way more important than having read every single word. Find the stuff that gives life and sometimes it will draw you back to how the author got there - if not take the best and forget the rest.
2) Read while it gives life - ponder lots. That means go for quality over quantity. You would be much better off if, when you read something that seems to resonate deep within, you stopped and pondered why and how this bit of text is resonating with you. Take it to prayer, some of my best conversations with God spring out of such times. The object is not to learn a bunch of stuff - but for us, as pastors and leaders, to be transformed by God so that we can better serve God's purposes in this world. Sometimes a single idea can completely overturn our whole outlook on life!
3) Don't be afraid of dead ends. Sometimes we get caught in the trap that everything we do must have some sort of 'fruitful' conclusion.* Pruning is fruitful - it makes way for better fruit to come and strengthens the whole vine. One of my favourite theologians, Jurgen Moltmann, will sometimes explore ideas until they fail. When an idea fails it can fall off and makes way for new ideas to grow and produce the fruit of wisdom that God is hoping to produce in our lives.
I hope these tips encourage you to study on your terms. To not let unreasonable expectations rob you of the joy of study (nor of its benefits). That you will be able to chase down what God is really saying to you as you study - even if that word is "this idea needs to be pruned." The Bible exhorts us to get wisdom at any cost - I hope and trust that your study will bring you great wisdom and that all you do for Christ will richly benefit from that wisdom.
Be blessed as you study!
Frank Emanuel, Freedom Vineyard, Ottawa.
* I suggest reading Schaeffer's Addicted to Modernity for some keen insights into the problems with utilitarian thinking among evangelicals. It's a great read.