By Monica Guaglione
About thirty years ago, a good friend of mine put an old, dusty book in my hands with pages falling out called The Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. I’m so grateful that she did because this book changed my life.
At the time, having to transition from the college party scene to a “born again” Christian, wife, and mom at twenty-years-old was difficult. Between halting my studies, getting married, moving to a small apartment, and caring for a baby, I started to devour this book as well as the scriptures in order to learn all that I could about navigating my new life.
Rewind. I was always the girl who needed to know everyone and experience everything! I looked forward to the next party or thrill available, and the more people on these adventures with me the better.
This pursuit most likely was instilled in me during childhood. I grew up with five sisters and one brother in an Irish Catholic family where my dad sang romantic songs to my mom, took us on adventures, and treated his daughters like princesses. My formative years were more akin to the Brady Bunch than Modern Family. In fact, I saw everything through rose-colored glasses until my dad died suddenly of a heart attack at age 43.
At this time, alcohol, which was already a stronghold in half of my extended family, soon became an issue for me, as I could no longer enjoy a simple night out to a movie without a drink in hand. At parties, while it seemed I was intent on listening to a friend’s conversation, I would really be thinking about my next refill. It was during this time that I met my future husband, who thankfully at the same time as me gave his life to Christ.
After becoming a new believer, God gave me the opportunity to move to Center City in Philadelphia and experience an internship with drug and alcohol patients. Seeing the end result of what the partying lifestyle produces had a sobering effect on me and this happy-go-lucky girl suddenly needed to fill the emptiness in her own soul. I called out for God to help me and His presence became so real that I began to long for Him more than any temporary substance or thrill.
Fast forward. Now married with a baby and pretty much inoculated from the rest of the world, as new moms often are, I became obsessed with the discipline of study. I was shocked to discover the impact that immersing oneself in the Bible could achieve. I learned that Anthony of Egypt in the third century escaped to the desert for months to study God’s Word, and when he returned to civilization an entire town was converted.
Similarly, St. Patrick in the fifth century, after being a slave in Ireland for six years, developed such intimacy with God through study that within 50 years of his influence, pagan rituals ceased, there were no longer human sacrifices, and the majority of the population in Ireland were no longer slaves. In fact, the impact of Patrick’s life is still celebrated to this day, though we’ve clearly forgotten why! If all of this transformation was possible through a deep discipline of study, I knew that I had to give it a try.
Of course, I couldn’t disappear for months to read the Bible day and night, and rather than trying to save an entire civilization, I was more intent on surviving the day to day. Figuring out how to be a healthy wife and mom was my priority. So I carved out times during the day that worked for me to study no matter what.
Whether it was in the early morning when the kids were still asleep or during their nap time (when all I wanted to do was sleep too!), I made time to read, even if it was for 15 minutes. The great part about study is that once you have a verse or a portion of a text in your head (God’s written Word or “logos”), you can contemplate it for the rest of the day, asking the Holy Spirit to give you revelation (God’s living Word or “rhema”). This discipline sets your mind on “things above” so that you have and further hear heaven’s perspective on your own life while going about your earthly duties.
After getting in a rhythm of study that fit my life, I quickly learned that study itself was not the end goal. Rather it allows us “to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us,” as Foster suggests. Far from a religious and boring exercise, it’s a work of grace and a door to freedom! The beauty is that the more we choose to put ourselves in a place of discipline, the more transformation occurs.
So study in its essence allowed God to totally transform my soul. When I studied, my old destructive habits gave way to new life-giving ones, beginning with my thought life. There I was, continuously thinking about the next thrill and wanting to be anywhere but in my mundane apartment with mouths to feed, diapers to change, and dirty dishes, but then my perspective shifted when I read Ecclesiastes 1:8: “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.” I realized right then and there that no experience can satisfy my hunger more than God himself.
As I meditated on that verse for a few months, somehow I was miraculously set free from having to experience the next thrill. That in itself was a thrill! I began to love “study time,” and it excited me—with the same passion that some of us have for playing a sport or going out on a date! Time spent alone studying God’s written Word (logos), hearing His voice (rhema), and receiving revelation became my new love, and it still is to this day.
Over time though, this honeymoon period wore off, and I began to cry out to God once again to make Himself real to me. Two kids and three more pant sizes later, I’d journal in my study time, asking God to speak to me in visions and dreams as well. I had just started teaching myself guitar and writing songs and would daydream about reaching people through music. Meanwhile, early in the morning God would whisper the same command to me each day, “Don’t eat those pancakes!” You know how the voice of God works. You say, “That was a really weird thought! I am asking God for big things, to use me to change the world through music, and He’s asking me to not eat pancakes instead!”
I would wake up each morning for months to this same prompting, roll back to sleep for several hours, then wake up again, and make those pancakes! Each day, I’d wake up with these big dreams and little energy, still bent on eating those pancakes. After months of ignoring the still, small, voice of God though, I finally responded in obedience, and it set me on a course to freedom. The energy I needed to be with my kids everyday and change the world was now readily available as I rejected those pancakes. Suddenly, my crankiness was gone, and my pure joy for the moment entered in. Who knew it would be that simple, with one word from God? You might think, “I could have told you that,” but God has a way of putting His finger on the very area that would set us free, and for some reason I wasn’t putting it together myself.
In my desperation to know more about God and continue to pursue this freedom in Christ, I continued to read and listen. I would read out loud to my kids almost every night. Sometimes, we’d make family trips to Barnes and Noble to read just for fun. And now, even though they are all grown, we still read together. In fact, this past summer we visited Harvard’s library and bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On that visit, we discovered the inscription over the door: “The truth shall make you free.”
It fascinated me that this verse would still be displayed in such a prominent location at Harvard. But even more fascinating is that it’s missing the second, very important part of the scriptural context: “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’” (John 8:31-32). Merely entering the library one day is not what brings freedom, it is continuing the habit of studying both His logos and rhema. Doing something over and over again creates a habit, and over time that habit will eventually bring you freedom.
Freedom comes over time by continuing in God’s Word on a daily basis. It’s the “pancake struggle” every day. There are times of freedom and times where you sink back into routines that kill your soul. Furthermore, freedom does not come solely through the study of many books. Solomon, the wisest man in history said, “The words of the wise are like goads. . .collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them” (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12). In these days of too much information (TMI), it’s continuing in the truth through selective study, particularly Christ’s words, and I would argue, rich classics that have stood the test of time, that is imperative.
It is through taking time to understand, gain insights, and be changed by profound truths that we become free. Ultimately, the function of Bible study is to come to know a life, the life of Jesus Christ. And it is the Spirit of God who illuminates scripture for us, pointing us to Jesus and guiding us into all truth through the Spirit’s still, small voice. He will speak to us about what to study, how to study, and then how to apply what we’ve studied, if we simply ask.
The discipline of study goes way beyond the printed page though. While reading has become a lost art and our brains now shift from one distraction to the next, rarely able to reflect on anything of substance, we have lost the ability to be present and mindful in our physical world and in nature. We have lost the ability to study and pay attention to how God speaks through what He has made.
It wasn’t always so. I love the story of George Washington Carver, who would wake up at 4 a.m. and walk through the woods communing with God and studying the wonders of His beautiful creation. During one of these times, Carver made a request, “Show me the mysteries of the universe.” God responded, “That’s too big for you. I will show you the mysteries of the peanut.” Consequently, he invented over one hundred uses for it, teaching poor farmers in the South to grow peanuts and sustain themselves in a time where cotton was the main crop.
Similarly, God wants us to pay attention to our surroundings, spend time with Him, and ask Him bold questions so that He can bless us. Though study can be applied to God’s Words (logos and rhema), a rich classic, or even the natural world, the human soul itself is by far the most fascinating topic for me to study.
People love to go to school for counseling today, and practically everyone has a therapist. I even received my undergraduate degree in Psychology, taught the subject for years at the high school level, and still marvel at all the money spent trying to figure ourselves out. Don’t get me wrong. I am an advocate for counseling; however, we must remember according to Hebrews 12:1 that we have many counselors and are not alone.
Rather, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and are cheering us on: “Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us” (Hebrews 12:1).
Through the study of their lives, we are all the more enriched and enlightened. Some of my witnesses have been Daniel, David, Deborah, Esther, St. Monica, St. Patrick, William Penn, Dorothy Day, William and Catherine Booth (founders of the Salvation Army), Francis and Edith Schaefer, Kay Smith (wife of Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel), Joe Focht, and a host of others.
Whether you study books, nature, people, or any other topic of interest, it all reflects the wonder and the beauty of God. If you believe that “all truth is God’s truth,” you will find His creative design in all things and not be tempted to put Him in a religious box. As with all spiritual disciplines, it starts with offering your body in order to transform your soul. Paul says it best in Romans 12:1-2:
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing, and perfect will.”
Ninety percent of life is showing up—despite our constant failures and perhaps despite that feeling that we are still battling those same struggles that we began our journey with God navigating. My hope this year is that, as a church, we begin to allow God’s spiritual disciplines to transform our lives and community. We will never achieve perfection or completely overcome what I call “the pancake struggle” here on earth, but we can gain ground and be victorious, as we plug away and spend time with God.
If we do this, we will begin to see and hear more clearly and have more authentic experiences with each other. From that place of continuous intimacy and revelation, I can only imagine what God will do through us in the next five to ten years. I’m confident that He has great plans for us because I’ve already seen how far we’ve come—both ccdelco and the grand narrative of the church itself.
WAYS TO INCREASE YOUR DISCIPLINE OF STUDY
Create habits of repeated exposure to the object of your study. Decide on a time and place and stick to it! Be patient and persistent but not legalistic with yourself.
Remove unnecessary thought clutter and continually return to the object of your study. Turn off electronics and practice disciplines such as sacred reading, Biblical meditation, and The Prayer of Examine to improve.
Reflect deep enough to reach an “aha” moment, as it is the Spirit of God who illuminates scripture and provides insights into science, history, and every human soul, leading and guiding us into all truth.
Consider how what you study applies to you personally and the real world around you. Linger long enough with God over your studies, and He will surprise you with powerful and practical revelation.