Last week I wrote discussing how I had come to terms with—and in fact really embraced—the idea that my knowledge of music, brass pedagogy, and basically everything about my profession should be always growing but will never reach completion. There is simply too much out there to learn and know and perform and teach, even in the miniscule slice of the music business occupied by low brass players, for one person to be able to master everything. And yet, the diligent pursuit of this unattainable level of mastery is what enables a thriving and successful career. Pivoting on this idea just a bit (or a lot), should I not, as a Christian, expect my experience studying God’s Word to be the same, except on an infinitely greater level?
I still remember as a younger man feeling like I knew the Bible very well. My parents had raised me in the church and forced me (sometimes despite my…er…lack of eagerness) to participate in Bible Drills, a Southern Baptist program in which young people memorize verses or longer passages of Scripture and learn to locate them quickly. Over twenty years later, I am thankful for this foundation of biblical knowledge I received in this and other programs, knowledge which I became eager to increase as a young adult, particularly after reading the Left Behind novels. (Some of you might find that humorous, but the story of how that Arminian, Baptist, dispensational premillennialist became the Calvinist, Presbyterian, amillenialist I am today will have to wait for another time, though it is alluded to in other posts on this blog.) By age 25 or 26 I knew the Bible better than a lot of older folks that I knew seemed to, and that might not have been mere youthful arrogance. After all, a quick Google search will yield the results of dozens of studies of varying quality demonstrating alarmingly low levels of biblical literacy among American evangelicals. Happily, three things were to happen in my life that would demonstrate that while I did know quite a lot, I still had a long way to go.
One was undertaking a bit of formal theological education. Just a bit before turning thirty I decided to undertake a certificate program in systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. I discussed this at greater length in another post a few years ago. Suffice it to say for now that I entered that program thinking that I knew a lot, and ended it knowing a great deal more than I knew before—but also being more aware than ever of how much I had yet to learn. Just “dipping my toe” into the great sea of knowledge of God’s Word that great thinkers have produced over twenty centuries showed me that while my own reasoning from the Scriptures was often quite sound, it was rarely original. The same things had been said better, more clearly, and more completely, by men both smarter and godlier than me. I was nowhere near as “mighty in the Scriptures” as I had once fancied myself.
The second was becoming a parent. Parenting seems easy enough to those with no children. Use the right teaching (both sacred and secular), the right disciplinary methods, and the right family structure and the inevitable result will be happy, obedient children who become productive, Christian adults. Right? Honestly, I’m not sure how anyone can be a parent and not become a Calvinist. Even very young children provide eminent displays of the total depravity of humanity, and even the best behaved will lead a believing parent to despair of anything saving them except the sovereignly electing, redeeming, and regenerating acts of God himself. In any case, knowing the letter of the Bible and reading quality books along with it will not in themselves produce Christian children. If my son is to emerge from childhood as that happy, productive, Christian young man that I hope he will be, the experiential knowledge and application of that Bible must be my first priority. And that will begin not in the study, and not in my teaching him what I have studied, but on my knees.
Finally, “life happened.” A Christian young adult raised in a middle-class American household has seen relatively little that will test his faith, provided that he has been taught the Scriptures well and knows at least some reasonable counterarguments to prevailing secular perspectives on various issues. Add 15-20 years of even mild difficulties, and that faith has been more tried. Sickness, loss of loved ones, job insecurity, financial challenges, parenting, church difficulties, marital difficulties, and other issues that we all experience to a greater or lesser extent have a way of moving one’s faith out of the theoretical realm and into the morass of daily life. Being able to quote large amounts of Scripture and even offer theoretical applications is one thing; it is another thing entirely to need to cling to those same truths, those same promises when all lesser hopes have been stripped away. I am certain that I have only barely begun to know what this is really like.
So am I suggesting that studying the Bible is no good and practical application is the way to go? Not at all. I have read the Bible through over fifteen times in multiple translations, and each time I discover things that I had not noticed before, and come away with a greater love for both it and the Christ revealed therein. Likewise when reading good books about the Bible, listening to fine preachers and skilled lecturers, etc. Good books, after all, are those that reward repeated reading with new insights, and God’s Word is the very best of Books, having been “breathed out by God” himself. (2 Timothy 3:16) There is much to be gained from studying the Word of God.
Still, we must not forget that God intends for our knowledge of this Word to be no mere academic pursuit. It is to manifest itself in action (Ephesians 2:10, James 2:14-20), and most of all to lead us to Christ Jesus, “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” who is the only way to the Father (John 14:6), and the One upon whom we are to fix our eyes as we run life’s proverbial race. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
When preparing to teach Sunday School a few weeks ago I was struck by the following passage, more so than I have been by this story in the past.
Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Were Martha’s activities bad, or unimportant, or sinful? No. Nevertheless, Jesus gently reminds her that “the good portion” is to sit at his feet, to learn from him, to love him. Will that manifest itself in action, in service, in good works? Of course. But that begins with knowing Christ, and where do we find him? That’s right. The Bible.
So just like in my worldly profession (and I’m sure yours as well) but on a far greater level, I find myself constantly approaching this wonderful Book and seeking to learn it better and to know better the Christ revealed in its pages. Will I reach full mastery? Nope—who can expect to fully know an infinite God, even in eternity? But I must still seek to know him better and better, resting in the hope that one day, “when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” (1 John 3:2)