In college, I spent countless hours studying: polishing essays, working through complex derivations, learning new vocabulary. In the busyness, I was often drawn back to the greatest commandment: “Honor the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” I wondered especially about honoring God with my mind. So much of my time and effort were spent learning for school and for work, but did I need to do something else to specifically learn for God? Acquiring facts and knowledge is not an end goal in itself, because things that stay in my head without practical implications are meaningless. But—if I am an emotional, rational, and physical being, then I need to worship my Creator, my God, with each of these parts of myself.
One of the most logical applications of loving God with my mind and my rational capabilities is to study his Word. After all, part of worshiping in spirit and in truth is the “truth” part. Learning about who God is helps me worship more fully, because the fuzzy outlines of an infinite Being who created the universe become a more concrete King: just as mysterious, just as incredible, but nonetheless more intimate.
Studying and learning from the Bible also help me explore fundamental questions of life. Who is God? Who am I? What actually matters in life? The kingdom of God is built on values and principles that are countercultural to every human context and culture. James Plueddemann gives a great example of this in his book Leading Across Cultures. In contrast to individualistic cultures, Christians are called to submit to a Master who is greater than ourselves, and to serve each other in community. In contrast to community-based cultures, our identity isn’t only in fulfilling the roles set out for us, but in Christ. As I learn about God’s character and what he cares about, I’m also learning what I should cherish, and what things matter in life.
All of this, though, is meaningless if it’s only in my head: just another collection of useless facts that don’t influence my life. So where should the things I learn about God be applied?
Perhaps, the answer to that is here.
Here, meaning where God has placed each of us. To engage well in our social circles, our cities, and our country, we need to learn about where we are. This is a question to be asked on multiple scales.
On a personal level, what can we learn about and from the people around us? Each person who crosses our path has a unique story that’s beautiful because of the joy, tears, and everything in between. The act of exchanging stories is an act of community, of honoring the people around us, and an opportunity for the storyteller to invite us into their lives. By knowing where people come from, and where they are, we are better equipped to love them the way God loves them, and to see them the way God sees them.
What is the story of the homeless man you drive by on your commute? Of the woman who is crying in the airport terminal? Of the Black teenager at your church who is unfairly treated at school?
To engage well in our society, though, we also must learn about our past and our present too—and not a sugarcoated bedtime story of exceptionalism and triumph. We must learn about both the beauty and the brokenness and sin that collectively we have been a part of throughout our history. We must learn about the narratives that are untold, the stories that history has left behind because those people were not the “winners.”
Taking the time and making the effort to learn about God and the people, society, and context he’s placed us in is a key to not only being hearers of the word, but also doers. It is in understanding God’s character and the places we are in that we learn to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. And this kind of learning is not merely a fact-finding exercise for your mind: it is a learning that convicts us, transforms us, and moves us to action.
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Laura Li-Barbour.