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Learning To Study


"Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth." (2 Timothy 2:15)

Whenever I have heard or used this passage from the New Testament, the picture that has come to mind has been of someone faithfully poring over a textbook or memorising Bible verses.  Never mind that the Bible as we now know it did not even exist at that time.
But lately I have been enabled (with a little prodding from my wife) to see it from a perspective that is more consistent with the circumstances under which it was first written; and the result has been a far more exciting picture of what it means. I will attempt to explain that in this article.

The two words that seem to jump out at us in the passage above are "study" and "word". Because of these two words, it seems quite reasonable to think that the passage is talking about studying a book of some sort. But when the Apostle Paul was writing that in a letter to young Timothy, the New Testament had not even been fully written, and even the Old Testament was not available to the average believer. Books as such rarely existed in the average home. So what could he have been talking about?

Because the passage talks about us needing to be "approved unto God", we get the idea that he was talking about something important. Tradition has said that studying the Bible is important, to the point where the Bible almost BECOMES God. But if it's not specifically the Bible that Paul was encouraging Timothy to study, then what was it? If we really want to please God, the answer to this question should be worth searching for.

Another phrase suggests that it may have something to do with some kind of practical skills. Paul talks about a "workman who needeth not to be ashamed". Certainly in any type of work, whether painting a car, planting onions, filling in tax forms, or preaching a sermon, it is important for "workmen" to be able to do jobs for which they need not be ashamed. So it is possible that the "study" we are talking about here is as simple as doing a good job at school, in an apprenticeship, or when working for an employer... so that you become a "workman/workwoman who does not need to be ashamed" of the work you are doing.

But then there is the final phrase: "rightly dividing the word of truth". This suggests something more than a well designed cabinet or a well executed jump shot in basketball. There is something about the kind of studying that Paul is encouraging that will help someone to find truth, and more than that, to be able to divide or discern the truth from what is untruth. This phrase in itself should have told us years ago that the verse is probably not talking about the Bible OR about getting ahead in our jobs.

My own feeling (now) is that this is talking about discernment, about wisdom, about counsel, about thinking. God wants us to think... to use our minds... to consider the issues that are put before us daily and try to discern the best way to apply them in our lives.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about "counselling" and the need for all members of any organisation or community to take an active part in decision-making. It means being able to debate the issues in our minds, to consider the pros and cons, to "trouble-shoot". Yet these seem to be some of the rarest traits in the world today. Everywhere you look there are people who are prepared to become puppets for the nearest puppet-master. They don't want to think; they just want someone else to make the decisions for them, so that they can take comfort in the fact that they are in safe hands.

This picture of mindless zombies is often presented with regard to new religious movements, and yet it is, in my opinion, far more prevalent in the workaday world. There are people who reach retirement and just can't handle the responsibility of having to decide for themselves when to get up in the morning, what to do throughout the day, and when to change from one thing to another. It all reflects the way they have lived their lives, never questioning, and rarely taking initiative.  Sadly, the world is full of people who are only too ready to enlist as pawns for the nearest power-broker.

For almost 30 years my oldest son lived with me and worked with me in the Christian community that my wife and I set up.  He was one of the most helpful members of that community, and all because of his ability to question things, and to argue his case well. True, his disagreements used to drive me up the wall at times, but even when he seemed to be arguing just for the sake of arguing, it required him to think. As a result, I knew that if he was left in charge of any situation, he would be pretty much able to handle it. And all because he had learned to think.

I never took debating in school, but it sounds like one of the best subjects one can take. Most people think, "Ugh! Arguments! I hate them. How depressing! How negative!" But, of course, what happens on a debating team is that they teach you to argue whichever side you are instructed to argue, and not just the one that you would prefer. In other words, overall, you are forced to consider both sides, all of the pros and cons. In short, you learn to think.

I wish that more Christian believers would actually learn to question their faith at times, just so that they can think through the issues and come out more convincing and more convinced in what it is that they do believe.  

Thinking outside the box will invariably generate controversy, but all of that will better equip you for whatever it is that you ultimately decide to do with your life.  Whatever it is that we believe or do right now will eventually become dead traditions if we don't know why we chose them, and if we are not continuing to keep the issues clear in our own minds and in the minds of others.

I was thinking about the word "rational" the other day. It comes from the same root word as "reason" and we often talk about "reasoning" as a form of arguing. But more than that, the word "reason" on its own is linked with the word "Why?" And that's the word we need to be asking ourselves constantly if we want to keep from losing our way. Why are we doing this? Why do we think it is important? Why does someone else oppose it? Why were we put here on this planet? If we are not questioning our motives and the motives of those around us, we are sooner or later going to start sounding pretty irrational (i.e. "without reason").

Some people go quiet in a discussin because they say that they are not good at arguing their position.  But you don't become a good basketball player by only playing chess. It's practice that makes perfect, and if you know that you are inexperienced in arguing your point, then even that little piece of truth should help you to be more tentative and humble in the points you try to make.
Successfully arguing a point is not just a matter of being able to rant and rave.  It comes from thinking seriously about what you believe and from being able to honestly examine the weaknesses as well as the strong points. 
With practice, you will gain more confidence, and you will be prepared for the counter-arguments that your own statements are going to elicit, so that you don't put your foot in your mouth (or at least not so often)!

In closing, let me encourage everyone to take practical steps toward kicking their brains into gear on any of the hundreds of issues that surround you every day. Think about what could go wrong. Think about what could work. Listen to what others are saying. Then move forward with confidence as well as humility, knowing that you are actively seeking to be "a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth" in all that you do.

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