Spiritual Disciplines- Study

Did you read this week about the gorilla and the 3-year-old in Cincinnati? You’d probably have to live under a rock in a zoo like Harambe not to have. But if not, the gist of the story/controversy is that a toddler fell into a gorilla exhibit at the zoo, and the zookeepers had to shoot the gorilla (Harambe), killing it, to save the child.When news broke, some took Harambe’s side—how dare an innocent animal have to die (a highly endangered one at that), when he was just protecting the child? Some even said that they should’ve let “survival of the fittest” rule. Then there was the other side—how dare anyone put the life of an animal ahead of that of a human? Why would you even think twice about this choice—the zoo made the right decision.

But there was also a third camp. This was the group of people who said yes, of course the human life was top priority, but what was the mother thinking? How was she so negligent to let her child wander off, climb a fence, crawl through some bushes, and fall off a cliff into a moat where there was a 400 pound “king of the jungle” guarding his harem? These people called for a criminal investigation of the mother, for maybe taking her toddler and her other children away. The petitions got hundreds of thousands of signatures.

I pondered this story for several days. I wondered if I was a bad person for finding myself aligning more with that third camp and not the “it isn’t even a question—humans come first” camp. I contemplated why. I wondered if it was because I don’t have kids myself, or if it was because I wasn’t walking with God enough to see things through his perspective. I basically had a spiritual crisis over this silly gorilla, and I studied the news stories trying to figure the situation and my beliefs about it out.

Then finally today, it hit me. It wasn’t that I cared too much about a gorilla, and it wasn’t that I cared too little for a child. No, it was my justice-oriented self, saying, “That mother didn’t even apologize!” It was as simple as feeling entitled to a public display of regret from the “guilty party.” I realized that my anger came not from a gorilla’s death but rather because of a human’s unwillingness to accept responsibility. I realized that if she’d only said, “Wow, I made a mistake. I’m so sorry”—even if her excuse was something like “I was on my cell phone instead of watching my kid” – I would’ve gotten over it and moved on and that would’ve been that. But in my mind, because instead she said, in essence, “Accidents happen!” she deserved a full-blown FBI investigation.

And that’s when it hit me on a deeper level. I don’t say sorry. I do the same things as this mother, except to God. And while I was yet a sinner—while I was far from repentant—Christ died for me and set me free. And I must forgive others how he has forgiven me, even when I think they don’t deserve it. Even when they don’t ask for it. Even when they don’t want it.

And that’s when I realized that, through my infatuation with this gorilla story, I had inadvertently “studied” it.

When you think about the spiritual discipline of study, what do you think of? Reading your Bible every morning? That’s part of it—studying written literature. But there’s another part too. Study is learning about God through the things you observe, in writing or in the world. The dictionary.com definition of “study” is “application of the mind to the acquisition of knowledge, as by reading, investigation, or reflection.” Richard Foster’s definition in Celebration of Discipline is “a specific kind of experience in which through careful attention to reality the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction…Perhaps we observe a tree or read a book. We see it, feel it, understand it, draw conclusions from it.”

The Bible talks a lot of “study”—if you take the time to study it, that is. Psalm 119:15-16 says, “I will study your commandments and reflect on your ways. I will delight in your decrees and not forget your word.” Jesus says, “And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). But what’s the day-to-day application of study, besides sitting down with your Bible and then forgetting what you read in the next five minutes? Foster says, “Meditation is devotional; study is analytical.” And, according to him, study involves four steps: repetition, concentration, comprehension, and reflection. The dictionary definitions of these words are:

1. Repetition—the action of repeating something that has already been said or written.

2. Concentration—the action or power of focusing one’s attention or mental effort.

3. Comprehension—the action or capability of understanding something.

4. Reflection— serious thought or consideration.

What do you notice about these definitions? Me, personally—I notice that study starts with effort. The first step isn’t “come to some crazy realization and write a blog on it.” Rather, you start with nothing more than repetition, like any student would when preparing for a test. Repetition is simply taking the time to review or read something more than once.

Then concentration—simply making the effort to focus on whatever you’re studying. Comprehension is next, and it comes through the first two steps—“All of us have had the experience of reading something over and over and then, all of a sudden, we understand what it means. This ‘eureka’ experience of understanding catapults us onto a new level of growth and freedom. It leads to insight and discernment” (Foster). Don’t worry if you don’t think you will ever have your “eureka” moment in study. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit be your helper—“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth” (John 16:13). Even the wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon, and many of the other Old Testament kings prayed that God would grant them wisdom and discernment (Psalm 119:66 King David; 1 Kings 3:9 King Solomon, to name a few).

The last step is reflection. Once we understand what we are studying, we can reflect on it and what it means. This is the step people often associate with a cow “chewing the cud.” Foster says, “In reflection we come to understand not only our subject matter, but ourselves.”

In the gorilla story, repetition is me reading all the news stories. Concentration is muting the TV and ignoring Matthew and the dog (not necessarily advisable) while I comb the darkest corners of the Internet for more tidbits of information (including the mother’s Facebook page). Comprehension is that, “Oh, but I’m just the same!” moment. And reflection is the pondering of the “So what am I going to do about it?” question.

Like all the other disciplines, you’re going to have to “study” this one more yourself. But sister, know that—whether you’re inadvertently studying a primate in the Cincinnati Zoo, or the biology of life, or the leaves on a tree, or human behavior, or God’s written word—“the heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out” (Proverbs 18:15).

 -Carolyn

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