We are firstly a ‘learning community of one’ before we are a learning community with others. We each stand before our God as one who has been singled out for his kingdom and purposes, with the privilege of responding to this grace by walking according to our calling.
If you are reading this book and have read this far, there is a reasonable likelihood that you already know quite a bit about walking the Christian walk. You may be a church pastor or ministry worker, or part of a team that is seeking to lead change in your church or fellowship group. Whatever your role or stage of life, chances are that you would be regarded as a solidly mature believer.
How should mature Christian believers approach their own growth in Christ?
Perhaps counter-intuitively, we need to answer “with urgency”, for this is the example that Paul sets us and that we should set for others. This extraordinary passage from Philippians is worth mulling over at length:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Philippians 3:8-17)
Paul highlights one of the glorious paradoxes of the Christian life. The further along the road we are, the more we long to pick up our pace. The more mature we are, the more urgently we see the need to leave behind our old life, to count as loss all that we previously regarded as gain, and to strain forward to what lies ahead—because the more mature we are in Christ, the more starkly we perceive the contrast between the darkness that still lingers in our lives and the light-filled kingdom of his Son into which he has transferred us.
But how exactly do we press on, and strain forward, and keep putting to death the remnants of our old lives?
Our convictions tell us that the ‘how’ is through the word of God, applied regularly and vigorously to our hearts by the Spirit of God, producing a transformed mind and life, step by step, over time. And because you are a mature Christian who has been around the block several times, you know precisely what is coming next: an exhortation to read your Bible more—and who could argue with that?
This time around, however, we’d like to suggest a variation on that familiar theme. We’d like to suggest not that you read your Bible more but that you inwardly digest your Bible more. This phrase comes from one of the most beautiful and profound prayers of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. It reads:
Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This prayer articulates what we have already been learning about learning—that it is not just a matter of hearing or reading the words that God has caused to be written, but of marking, learning and inwardly digesting them.
This prayer asks that God would grant us a growing intensity of engagement with the word that he has caused to be written “for our learning”—that we would not just hear it, but read it for ourselves; that we would not just read it, but mark it (i.e. take heed of it, pay careful attention to it—as in the expression ‘Mark my words!’); that this careful attention would lead us to learn the Scriptures, to know them thoroughly and intimately, so that we can readily recall and remember their teaching; and that this learning would penetrate to our souls and become part of us, that we would inwardly digest the nourishment of his word.
If your Christian life is anything like ours, there is no shortage of opportunity to hear and read the word of God. In church we hear the Bible read and a sermon preached. Most of us would attend at least one other group in the week where the Bible is opened and read and discussed. Many of us would be regularly studying it at some depth in preparation for leading a Bible study or preaching. We may be reading a Christian book that expounds and explains God’s word. And there is our own personal Bible reading that we will be seeking to maintain (usually with some difficulty).
For most of us, the deficiency is not in hearing or reading, but in marking, learning and inwardly digesting. We hear and read lots of Bible, but we spend too little time prayerfully mulling it over, allowing it to sink in, doggedly re-reading and rethinking those parts we don’t understand until God gives us understanding, pondering how this word opposes or displaces the worldly thinking we currently default to, thinking about how this particular word speaks to our sins and our character, reflecting on the hope this word holds out to us, writing down or committing to memory key verses or insights we want to remember, and above all praying earnestly that God might mould and shape and transform our lives in light of this word.
Hearing, reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting need not be a solitary endeavour. Any and all parts of the process can be very usefully practised in fellowship with others; that is after all why God has given us each other—to help us hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.
But even with the help and fellowship of others, there is a point at which we stand alone before God, with our own sins and struggles and victories and failures. Someone can lead us to food, cook it for us, and even cut it up into small pieces and feed it to us, but in the end we have to chew and digest it for ourselves for it to have any nutritional value for us.
Some of the Puritans called this practice of allowing the word of Scripture to penetrate deeply into our hearts ‘divine meditation’. For them, it was a vital part of the spiritual life. As Thomas White put it: “It is better to hear one sermon only and meditate on that, than to hear two sermons and meditate on neither”.“It is better to hear one sermon only and meditate on that, than to hear two sermons and meditate on neither”. —Thomas White
If there is one practical suggestion we would make in moving to the right in our own personal learning of Christ it would be this: for every hour you spend hearing and reading God’s word, spend an hour prayerfully marking, learning and inwardly digesting it.
For example, on Monday, don’t read a fresh passage of Scripture. Take out your notes from the sermon the day before (whether you were a listener or the preacher!). Read over the passage a few more times; dwell on the key words and sentences; mull over the most important truths and challenges; give thanks for all those blessings and gifts that the passage reminds you of; pray over all that it prompts you to request for your own life and for those around you; and so on.For every hour you spend hearing and reading God’s word, spend an hour prayerfully marking, learning and inwardly digesting it. —Colin Marshall
Over time this practice of prayerful ‘inward digestion’ will bear rich fruit. Indeed, it may be something that you would like to see become part of the culture of your church. But of course, for that ever to happen, it must start with you. If we wish everyone in our congregation to be feeding on and digesting and praying over the word of God, then we cannot ignore the importance of doing so ourselves.
We started by quoting a Reformed Anglican prayer, and we should conclude by returning to prayer. We pray for God to “grant us” this kind of listening ear and mind and heart, knowing that in turn it will lead to more prayer. The more we absorb and digest the truth of God’s word, and the more our trust and dependence upon it is nourished and strengthened, the more we will be moved to cry out to God in intercession for our families, our neighbours, our friends, and for the whole community of Christ-learners that we are blessed to belong to.Prayer comes before transformation, as we beg for God to change us by his Spirit; and prayer follows transformation, as we verbalize and express our growing trust in Christ. —Colin Marshall
We have said this already, and will do so again in what follows, but it can hardly be repeated too often: there is no transformation without prayer. Prayer comes before transformation, as we beg for God to change us by his Spirit; and prayer follows transformation, as we verbalize and express our growing trust in Christ. All the thinking and evaluating and planning and strategizing that we’re undertaking in our Vine Project must be underpinned by constant prayer for God to do what we cannot plan or strategize for—the transformation of hearts.
Excerpt from The Vine Project: Shaping Your Ministry Culture Around Disciple-Making by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, pages 161-165.