by Eric Garner
Our Lord claimed that the greatest commandment of the law was to: “Love the Lord your God with all you hear and all your soul and all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Aside from the seeming impossibility of this task, what exactly does it mean? What does it practically look like to love the Lord our God in such an absolute fashion?
Study has long been a Christian discipline, and a Jewish one even longer before that. It is the practice of learning about God and contemplating God’s own character and works. The modern sage and scholar Dallas Willard writes:
Relationship with God, as with any person, soon requires a contribution from us, which will largely consist of study. Calvin Miller well remarks: ‘Mystics without study are only spiritual romantics who want relationship without effort.’ […] Our prayer as we study meditatively is always that God would meet with us and speak specifically to us, for ultimately the Word of God is God speaking. (Spirit of The Disciplines, pg. 176-177)
We do not study for the sake of acquiring knowledge nor constructing correct doctrine, but to be in relationship with God. To do the former without the latter is idolatry.
As many of you may know, I am currently a student at an academically oriented seminary (which is perhaps is why I was typecast into writing on the discipline of study), and here the question of what it looks like to love God with one’s mind becomes profoundly important. My days are spent exegeting scripture, pouring over tomes of theology, and translating minor prophets – but is any of this worshipful? Many times have I witnessed other students here use their academic prowess to shame the less knowledgeable, creating a social hierarchy where they can lord their intelligence over others… Dare I say that I too have behaved in such a fashion? Too often we trade knowing God for knowing about God – which I believe is ultimately the worship of ourselves rather than of our Lord.
So how can we study in such a way to glorify God rather than ourselves? In searching for an answer to this problem I turned to one of the most troubling and liberating books of the Bible: Psalms. When I do not know what to say to God I turn to the Psalms, for they tell me that I can worship the Lord in either singing praises or shouting complaints, resting in peace or fretting with anxiety – so too they offer a way to praise God in study without pride. Psalm 119 is famous for being the longest chapter in the Bible; however, its length also results in its seldom being read and even less frequently taught.
The 119th Psalm is a love song to God’s law. The psalmist repeatedly avows that she or he will meditate upon the statutes of the Lord; however, we can see that this is not a single-sided endeavor, for the psalmist twice as often implores God to teach God’s law. This is a relationship of instruction and response where that which is taught is internalized and then lived out. The psalmist’s study does not end in the self, but rather flows outward in all her or his actions. Most importantly, the psalmist takes these statutes to be examples of God’s love, and in turn the psalmist too responds in kind: “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day,” “Therefore I love your commandments above gold, above fine gold,” “Consider how I love your precepts! Give me life according to your steadfast love” (Psalm 119:97, 127, 159). As Saint Paul tells us, “[If I] understand all mysteries and all knowledge […] but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2), and so too our psalmist does not rest in knowing God’s law, but rather in the reciprocal relationship of love it has bred between the two of them.
Study is pregnant with hope and freedom; however, it can also be corrupted into a way of binding others, and thus ourselves. We must remember that study (like all disciplines) is oriented towards relationship with God, and if it is not being practiced to that end, then it is cancerous and must be cured. There is no lasting profit is gaining knowledge of God for knowledge’s sake; knowledge will not save. In relationship with God there is love, and in that love we are set free.
And so walk in love with God, growing continually in relationship with one another through the study of God’s true Scripture given to us.