The word "study" comes from the Latin word, studium, meaning "zeal." From this is derived the Latin verb studeo, "be diligent." Thus, from the derivation of the word, it becomes evident that the art of studying implies a diligent application of the mind in memorizing or mastering certain words or ideas. And like all other arts, the ability to study must be learned. There are few natural-born students. Proficiency in studying can be obtained only by hard work and after years of practice. Just as the musician must continue to spend many hours in practice to retain proficiency in his art, so the minister, once having attained the art of studying, must continue to practice if he would hold the advancement he has made, and grow in a knowledge and understanding of the Word of God.
Some time ago I read a significant statement made by Lord Bower, a distinguished English judge. In commenting on the powers and qualities required for success at the bar, he said, "Cases are won in chambers." That is, so far as a barrister is concerned, success is not the result of some extemporary flashing appeal in a public court, but it follows a disciplined argument, solidly put together by careful preparation in his private study.
If this is true of a barrister who has to do only with cold facts and legal arguments presented before a jury, how much more is it true of a preacher who is dealing with living truths before a waiting congregation? An audience may be amused or entertained by a flow of extemporary talk, but men's hearts are not touched, nor their spiritual hunger satisfied, by such patter. Mere talk will never save men, neither will it point a sinner to "the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world."
Preaching that costs nothing in preparation accomplishes nothing upon delivery. We must realize that only when Zion travailed did she bring forth children. Just so, ministers need to remember that the first requisite of a successful ministry is careful preparation and soul anguish alone with God. Our study, will be useless without that deep heart searching which will make us clean channels through which the Spirit of God may flow. But soul anguish is not enough. There must be hours of deep study of the Word of God and other books that throw light on the Word.
A successful ministry is largely bound up in one word, "study." Paul, writing to a young minister, advised, "Study to show thyself approved unto God." This is good counsel. It comes from a man, probably one of the most successful workers that the cause of God has ever known, who was himself a student. Paul was a reader of books, a searcher after truth, a real student of God's Word. He never felt that he had attained. He kept his mind active, ever searching through books and parchments for what would help him in his work. Even in the dungeon cell, when he knew that the time of his departure was at hand, his mind turned to his books, that he might use the few remaining hours in spiritual edification.
The first requisite of profitable study is hard work. Successful ministry, soul-stirring sermons, and deep spiritual truths do not come to us by inspiration, but rather by perspiration. Even the prophets, who wrote under the inspiration of God, "inquired and searched diligently" concerning the great truths of salvation. They realized, and we must also, that "the soul of the sluggard desireth, and hath nothing : but the soul of the diligent shall be made fat." Prov. 13:4.
It has truly been said : "A preacher who dislikes study and avoids it as far as in him lies, is a misfit for the work that he has chosen." I hope I may be excused for paraphrasing Solomon in the following, without doing any injustice to the original : "Seest thou a preacher diligent in his study? He shall stand before leaders of men; he shall not stand before mean men."
We need to guard against self-deception in the matter of our study hour. Some think they are working hard, when in fact they are only loafing. Their study is a lounge instead of a workroom. They sit back in a big, comfortable chair, and read some chosen book as one would read a story while on a holiday. They may find the book interesting, even helpful, but such reading is not study. Profitable study is much more than passive reading. This brings us to the question: How are we to study?
At best our memories are very poor. No memory system will make it possible for us to retain all we read, or recall where we read some helpful passage or important fact. So it becomes necessary for us to have some system in study, if we are to get the most out of our reading and research. Without system we may think we are working, when in reality we are only passing time away.
Eight Suggestions on Organizing Study
So, when we enter our study, we should not be desultory or trifling. We may waste considerable time, before getting down to the waiting task. But by organizing our work, budgeting the time, and carrying out a program of study, we may accomplish five times as much as we would in aimless reading or unorganized study. As to the proper system, each man will have to work out his own plan to follow in the circumstances under which he is laboring. Some suggestions might include the following:
I. Marking Passages—Read with colored pencil in hand and mark your book, underlining important passages. Make notations in the margins, or possibly at the close of the chapter. Cross references may be noted in order that you may find relating quotations in the future without too long a search.
2. Sermon Notebook.—In your reading you will often come across a passage that grips you. You say, "Here is the foundation for a sermon." You read it carefully, reread it, and mark it, but even then you may lose it, as memory is so fleeting. So it would be well to have a sermon suggestion notebook. Record in the notebook the main thought of the passage and where it is found. Then you can come back to it at some future time and use it when needed.
3. Text Ideas.—The same plan may be used in Bible study. We come across a text and' as we study it, a whole sermon begins to come to mind that could be developed from the text. We may not have time to outline the sermon at the moment, but unless we jot down the text, with a brief mention of the thought it has suggested, we shall probably lose it. So a sermon suggestion notebook will often preserve the fleeting thought and make study more profitable.
4. Related Reading.—In your study of a subject or theme, do not be satisfied with one or two sources of information. Take advantage of the best that scholarship can offer you in the interpretation of the Word. Have a study table large enough so that you can surround yourself with six or eight volumes dealing with the subject in hand. Then study them one by one. Make notes, use the volumes of the Spirit of prophecy freely, and find out the full setting of the subject, its background, and how best to develop it. Look up the Scripture passages in the original languages if possible, or in other English translations. Find out the precise conditions under which the words were written, how the text has been used in the writings of the Spirit of prophecy, or by other authors.
5. Historical Imagination.—Take time to think and meditate. Cultivate the power of historical imagination. By this I mean the power to reconstruct the past and see again the people and places and the moving life of Bible times. I believe it is this power that makes some of Ellen G. White's books so intensely interesting. When you read The Desire of Ages, you can see again the Saviour walking among men. Through the gift of historical imagination men and events live again before you, as you read Patriarchs and Prophets.
I would urge that you endeavor to cultivate this latent power. It will take time, thought, and study, but it will be worthwhile, for by it you will bring new life to your preaching, and vitalize many of the beautiful stories of the Bible.
6. Retain Individuality.—AS you consult other minds and gather about you the product of other men's research, there is danger that you will be overwhelmed by them and lose your own individuality. But a minister should be himself. He should think for himself and not be an imitator of other men's thoughts. By this I do not mean that a minister should go off at a tangent and work on the assumption that special light has been revealed to him alone. The Holy Spirit is our teacher, and when we are taught by the Spirit, there will be no contradictions or variance in doctrine. But the light of truth has a thousand rays shining from its source, and each of you should seek to discover some of these rays for yourselves, make them your own, and give them in all their freshness to your congregations. One ray of light so discovered will enlighten your soul more than a hundred rays borrowed from someone else's study, and it will also shine more brightly as you give it to others.
So my counsel would be to dig deeply into the mines of truth for yourself. Find the precious jewels there and do not allow yourself to become only a mouthpiece through whom other men speak to your congregations. You can and will consult authorities, study diligently the works of great scholars, but through it all you should preserve your own individuality, and respect the processes and findings of your own mind and the results of your own study. Then you will find that your sermons will have a freshness and an originality that will arouse a new interest in the message you bring to the people.
7. Temper with Time.—Another study suggestion should be mentioned. When you have discovered a new thought or a new aspect of truth, do not feel obliged to preach on the theme the next Sabbath. It frequently happens that a message is presented only half digested and quite immature. You have had a flash of light and think you see the sun, while in reality there are a good many clouds still obscuring the fullness of light which will ultimately shine on the subject through prayerful study. Many sermons would be greatly improved if, after the preliminary work had been done, they were laid aside for a while and allowed to rest. When next they are taken up, the clouds will disappear, arid the light of truth will shine more brightly. Sermons are often picked too green. They should be allowed to ripen through a long process of meditation, deep study, and earnest prayer. Ministers who are ready to preach on any subject, if given a day's notice, will never be men mighty in the Scriptures. So in your preparation cultivate the ability to study a subject not once or twice only but over a period of time until it has reached maturity. James says, "Let patience have her perfect work." It will take patience to bring your work to perfection.
8. Observe Life.—Not only within the four walls of his study does a minister have opportunity of gaining valuable information and inspiration for his work. He will find it helpful and stimulating to talk with men from all walks of life and wherever he may find them. He will thus keep in touch with the pulse of life and the common, everyday affairs that occupy the time and thought of people. Such association keeps a minister from soaring in the clouds, and reveals to him the needs of humanity.
The Saviour was our example in this. He lived among men, talked and walked with them, became acquainted with their lives, their homes, their daily occupations. Such contact, from the standpoint of sermon preparation, is most valuable. You will, as a result, be able to deliver a message related to the life of your community, and will, I believe, be more likely to unlock the door into the troubled hearts of your people.