For a lifetime of growth, continual learning is an essential. Experience alone will not guarantee learning. It’s what you learn from your experiences that will transform your future. Your future is not comprised of the sum total of all your experiences—it will consist of how you have defined them.
So what life-learning dictionary do you use? What meaning do you give to each event?
Remember that suffering will change you, but not necessarily for the better. You must choose to grow better not bitter.
Consistently make your learning greater than your experience by defining each occurrence and setback biblically. It will save you years of cleanup and miles of burned bridges.
The Bible is God’s choice for a life-dictionary. Joseph will help you convert family betrayal into a future of promise. King David will help you through a child’s rebellion. Moses will help leaders with complaining staff. Abigail will encourage those with foolish husbands.
At New Hope we’ve done any number of things over the years to help our church grow, but one thing we’ve done stands head and shoulders above everything else.
It has nothing to do with demographics.
It doesn’t depend on location.
It isn’t triggered by worship style.
It’s developing a self-feeding program, using a simple system of daily devotions.
Some time ago I read in a medical magazine these poignant words: The health of twenty-first-century America will no longer be determined by what people get the doctors to do for them, but rather by what doctors can get people to do for themselves.
Self-feeding will be the heart of a healthy Christian, the heart of a healthy twenty-first-century church. It will be each of us, on a daily basis, recording biblical instructions that contain centuries of wisdom and applying them like an unguent to relational grievances and to life’s cuts and bruises.
At the heart of journaling is an easy-to-remember acrostic: SOAP.
S = Scripture
O = Observation
A = Application
P = Prayer
Let me describe how SOAP works. It’s a basic system that can have profound results. It will help you be productive right out of the chute.
To set the stage, allow me to quote the beautiful words of Psalm 19:9 in the King James Version. It helps us to remember what SOAP is all about: “The fear of the Lord is clean.”
In the last chapter you read how a Bible bookmark (or some other reading plan) will give you an extended reading from both Testaments for every day of the year. As you peruse the entire scheduled reading for a given day, ask the Lord to bring home to your heart one text in particular.
That is a prayer the Holy Spirit loves to answer.
He will highlight one verse or thought that momentarily stops you in your tracks or seems to shine out from the page. He will whisper, “This is for you—this is a promise you can hold to” or “This instruction will get you back on track.” Whatever the text is, write it down in your journal. Copy out the verse at the top of your entry for that day.
Why is it so important to focus on one short text or verse rather than several? Why do I strongly encourage you to find one thing the Spirit is saying to you? It’s quite simple, and I’ve seen this borne out time and again: If you try to catch more than that, I guarantee that at the end of the year you’ll remember none of them. But if you focus on just one a day, by the time December 31 rolls around, you’ll have more than three hundred sixty gems packed away in your heart. And that’s priceless!
By interacting in this way with the Lord through His Word, you’ll be hearing His prophetic voice. You will begin making permanent decisions based on eternal wisdom, not on temporary setbacks.
Let God’s Word hold you up! Develop a daily discipline of devotions that is unshakable.
During the time I almost dropped out of ministry, I ended up spending some time at a “no talking” monastery in California to regain my physical and spiritual equilibrium. Even though my psyche was fried and my energy depleted, I continued my devotions. If it weren’t for the disciplines I’d developed over the years, I doubt I would have found my way home.
It was there, on the verge of cashing it all in, that the Lord spoke once more through Jeremiah: “But as for me, I have not hurried away from being a shepherd after You.”2
That was His prophetic word for me.
In the midst of that dark, dry time, that single verse spoke more to my heart than volumes of eloquent verbiage. And that verse will always illustrate for me the truth of this one: “A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”3
Allow God to speak that apt word to you by focusing on one main thought from your daily reading—not five, ten, or a baker’s dozen.
The question is never “Does God speak?” but rather “Am I listening?” To best hear what God has to say to you, you must still your heart.
Set aside your pressing demands.
Turn off all your electronic distractions.
Rarely does God shout to make himself heard!
As the Spirit highlights that one single thought, observe carefully what the verse says. Think about to whom the passage was originally addressed and why it was written. Ponder its meaning, its tone, its purpose. Take several moments to meditate on it, to let its message soak clear through to your heart.
The first and most important commandment of all, according to Jesus, is to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”4 That means He doesn’t want you to disengage your brain as you listen for His voice.
Have you ever noticed how often in Scripture God requires His servants to “observe” something in order to learn a divine lesson from it? Ponder just a few examples:
Now it’s your chance to do some careful observing and considering of your own. Ponder the message God has highlighted for you.Write out in manuscript form what you observe. It may be only a paragraph or perhaps a few sentences. The important thing is to put pen to paper and make an observation in your journal. Take into context the setting and the situation. Make an observation of what’s happening, who’s affected, what’s taking place. This will increase your comprehension and develop your observation skills.
After you’ve carefully observed what the text says, take some time to write out how you plan to put into practice the lesson the Divine Mentor has just brought to your attention. How will you be different today as a result of what you’ve just read? Application answers the question, “How does this verse or thought apply to me?”
Application is a crucial part of this process, for without it, all you’re doing is amassing facts, trivia, and bits of knowledge. Do you remember what the Lord Jesus thought of that kind of practice? In a classic confrontation with the Pharisees, He said: “I know that you are Abraham’s descendants; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you.”9
Have you ever pondered the amazing irony of the Pharisees’ relationship with Jesus? They were bona fide Jews with prodigious pedigrees. Yet they plotted how to violate the sixth commandment, and then schemed a cover-up by making sure the Romans committed the murder and took His body down from the cross before the Sabbath arrived so the Jews wouldn’t defile the day.
Astonishing. The Pharisees had extensive knowledge of and intimate familiarity with the details of God’s Word … while missing the whole point!
Amassing biblical knowledge without a commitment to applying it to life leads only to massive miscomprehension. Paul agrees: “We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.”10
James created an unforgettable metaphor to say much the same thing:
Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.11
Application is what seals God’s Word to our hearts. Application makes the difference between hearing His will and doing His will. Application is what sets apart a disciple from a dabbler, a follower from a fan. Application states how you will live differently because of what you’ve just read.
A powerful force comes into play when we bring “what we believe” and “how we live” closer together. One of Christendom’s greatest maladies is the phenomenon of living inconsistently with what we believe. Incongruence is one of the foremost causes of anxiety. We espouse one thing yet live another.
Some years ago a pastor friend of mine was carrying on an illicit sexual affair. When it finally came to light, he was reprimanded, summarily dismissed, and put under discipline and counseling. As a friend, I called him one day and asked, “How could you do that?”
“Wayne,” he replied, “I don’t need more people to condemn me.”
I reassured him of my friendship and my heart, but I told him I needed to know how he could tolerate the pain sustained by the massive inconsistency of his lifestyle with his message.
I’ll never forget his answer. “Wayne,” he said, with a heavy sigh. “I wasn’t reading the Bible for life. I studied the Bible only to get sermons out of it. I would find one and immediately give it as a message on Sunday. As soon as I could extract enough lesson material to hand out, I was done for the day. It was never routed through my heart, so it left me starving even though I was overseeing an orchard.”
Knowledge alone is no guarantee of growth. But with God’s help we can dial in the two lenses of knowledge and application. Clarity appears, and focus results. One of the greatest blessings is promised to those who consistently apply what they know: “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”12
The final stage of your journal entry is recording your prayer. It could read as simply as: Lord Jesus, help me to be a person who listens to Your Word. Today I will take time to hear what You are saying to me. Speak, Lord, for Your servant is listening.
Finish your time in the Word with a thoughtful prayer to God. Ask Him to help you apply what you’ve just learned. And don’t forget to tell Him how thankful you are for the power of His Word!
Some people object to writing out their prayers, but I’ve found this to be a wonderful way to cement everything that’s just happened in my mind and heart. Avoid writing your entry in notation form. No CliffsNotes! Write out everything God said to you; when it comes time to pass along what you learned, everything will come back—even the prayer you offered to Him.
Sometimes when I return to an old journal entry, I read the prayer portion—and soon I feel convicted by my own prayer. How often I’ve asked God to return to me the heart I had when I first heard Him. Over the years, our heart can change; it can harden and become calloused. Rereading our own prayers reminds us to keep a supple heart, one that’s always pliable in the hands of the Maker.
Once you’ve written out your prayer, I suggest you return to the top of your entry and give it some descriptive title. Maybe you’ve highlighted Matthew 10:27, which says: “What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops.”
Give your entry a title like “Listening” or “Ears That Hear.” Write it at the top of your entry for that day. Now you have captured a gem in the making. Applying it into the daily-ness of life will make for a vibrant and verifiable faith.
Finally, it’s important to provide a quick notation in the front of your journal about what God spoke to you, and when. The Life Journal has a ready-made place for that, in the very front under “Table of Contents.”
In your table of contents, write out the title you gave to your entry, along with the Scripture reference, the date, and the journal page where your entry is found.
If three months later you were to ask me what God has been saying to me, I can go to the Life Journal’s table of contents and find it in seconds. Everything God spoke to me will return. There I have a treasured record of His wisdom, personalized directly to my heart, and it can never be taken away from me.
When God highlights a verse or thought from your daily reading, put some SOAP on it—Scripture, Observation, Application, and Prayer! Then record it in your table of contents. You will hereby give God’s truth roots into your soul, and you’ll be building a spiritual resource that will enrich your life for years to come.
Over the years many people have inquired as to the best time for daily devotions.
I have a very basic answer.
The best time for devotions is when you’re at your best.
I’m a morning person, so I do my devotions early, about six-thirty. That’s when I’m at my best.
On the other hand, Anna comes alive in the evening. So she usually does her devotions after the sun has gone down, because she wants to give the Holy Spirit the prime moments of her day. In this way she grows more, retains more, and comprehends more.
While her brain is going full speed at 7:00 P.M., mine is shutting down—I’m losing functionality by the second. By the time 10:00 P.M. rolls around, I’m comatose.
My wife and I have different time schedules and different body rhythms. There is nothing wrong with that. I don’t buy the one-size-fits-all idea, the concept that if you want really good devotions, you have to do them early in the morning.
Do your devotions at whatever time is your best time. When you give God your best, that’s when class is in session … for you.
CREATE SOME FERTILE SOIL
By using this simple SOAP method to journal every day, you’ll create fertile soil in your heart. God will plant a seed there, and soon a tree will take root and fruit will come forth:
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers.13
Wayne Cordeiro, The Divine Mentor: Growing Your Faith as You Sit at the Feet of the Savior (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2007), 101–110.