This post is by Andy McLean, Andy is the editor of The Gospel Project for Students at LifeWay Christian Resources. He earned an MA from Biola University, and an MDiv and ThM from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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Learning and Spiritual Formation
The truth that learning is an essential component of spiritual formation seems self-evident. In fact, one might say that learning is essential (though not sufficient) to growing spiritually. The Scriptures seem to support this belief in several instances. Paul tells Timothy that all of Scripture is inspired by God, and is given “so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). We see this modeled in the life of Jesus Himself. Even from a young age, the Bible tells us He was listening and asking questions to those in the temple as He grew in wisdom and favor with God (Luke 2:41-50).
So there seems to be a clear biblical precedent for learning as it relates positively to spiritual formation. However, like many biblical precedents, biblical truth doesn’t always make it down to our everyday actions. When it comes to learning as a regular spiritual discipline for the Christian, I’m fearful that this is one of those biblical truths that becomes neglected in the lives of many.
There’s no need for me to rehearse at this point statistics and anecdotes about biblical illiteracy in America, even among professing Christians, in order to make my case. Those reports do exist, and while somewhat comical at times, they should overwhelmingly serve as a sobering wake up call for the church that something deeper is taking place within the hearts of many Christians.
My best guess as to why this is the case is that many people don’t truly believe that learning will contribute positively to spiritual formation. For them, spiritual formation has been compartmentalized from other aspects of their life, being regulated to areas of value and opinion, instead of reality and fact. Or, equally worse, they reduce spiritual formation to that of feelings only, rejecting the notion that the mind can contribute anything to the heart.
Whatever the case, learning and spiritual formation are not mutually exclusive, but can, in fact, be mutually supportive. God uses “means” to shape believers into the likeness of His Son, and one of those “means” is the discipline of learning. If the goal of spiritual formation is to make much of Jesus by enjoying Him more each day, then actively learning about Him and the world He created seems like a necessary prerequisite.
Of course, as with anything originally designed to be used for good, learning itself could also, if not viewed and used properly, lead negatively toward spiritual formation. For starters, learning itself can become a personal heart idol that leads to a form of pride that craves the praise of man, as opposed to greater love for God and others (1 Cor. 13). Or, in another way, one can easily fall in love with the discipline of learning and fail to love the One whom the learning is pointing to. C.S. Lewis captures this last point well in his book The Great Divorce, where a painter becomes more captured by the act of painting than the beautiful landscape that is set before him. The same could be said for the theologian or for the apologist as well—becoming more engrossed in the arguments for God’s existence that he or she fails to enjoy God Himself.
So don’t neglect the life of the mind and the discipline of learning when it comes to your own spiritual formation. But don’t be fooled into thinking either that a healthy dose of active learning will automatically contribute to positive spiritual formation. It is necessary, but was never intended to be an end in itself. Like all disciplines, learning is a potential means of cultivating greater love for God and those around us.