I took an online class this fall taught by one of the leading experts in the world on connection design. He chairs several structural committees and has written much of the reference material for connection design for 30 years. I was struggling to follow what he was doing, and some other people were too, judging by the questions being asked. He chided us – rightfully so – for having become too reliant on computers and forgetting our “first principles”. For the structural engineer, these are things like free-body diagrams, moment and shear diagrams, and the equilibrium equations. These are foundational analysis methods for us, and it’s incumbent on the engineer to be familiar with the basic principles at work in complex situations. Sometimes, we might get lost in more advanced classes because we didn’t really comprehend the basic material when we studied it. Other times, it’s a case of never using it in practice and forgetting it. But in either case, the engineer lacking in these areas is responsible for correcting the situation, whether by studying hard to learn it anew, or refreshing old memories. In a class, it might be embarrassing to not remember the basics, but on the job many tragic engineering failures were ultimately traceable to neglecting basic principles.
Likewise, Christians have “first principles” that are critical for them to understand. Doctrines about the Trinity, our sinful nature, salvation, justification and sanctification, and the deity of Christ, are not just “Christianese” buzzwords or dry, musty subjects for seminary classrooms. These are not concepts reserved for the “professional Christians” to preach about on Sundays. Rather, these are foundational explanations of what it means to be a Christian, and our understanding of them impacts our daily lives whether we know it or not. Like my class instructor, the writer of the book of Hebrews also chided his readers, saying, “For even though by this time you ought to be teaching others, you actually need someone to teach you over again the very first principles of God’s Word. You have come to need milk, not solid food.” (Heb 5:12). There is an expectation of all of us to continue growing and maturing in our faith, both for drawing closer to God in our own lives, and for being able to pass on the what we’ve learned to those we care about (which should be everyone, by the way).
So how do we start living this out? Consider what Luke wrote in Acts 17:11 about when Paul came to speak at the Jewish synagogue in Berea: “Now these [Bereans] were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” When you hear a preacher, do you zone out, or think about your shopping list or tasks to do later? Does the sermon go in one ear and out the other? Could you remember the main points after a few days? How can you apply lessons in your life that you don’t even remember? Instead, let me suggest taking a page from the Bereans’ playbook of intentional listening – take notes, go home to study each day, and confirm the truthfulness of what was said and how it can apply in your life. Just like notes and homework help reinforce our academic lessons, we need to internalize and comprehend far more important spiritual lessons.
Or maybe you are striving to learn, but getting watered-down milk at your church and left craving some meatier material to sink your teeth into. Then be proactive.
- Seek out mature Christian mentors to learn from. They may be old with the wisdom gleaned from a long life, or they may have packed a lot of painful lessons into a short life while attending the “school of hard knocks”. Be prepared to learn in humility from whoever has something to teach you, always verifying their teaching against God’s Word. And remember, discipleship doesn’t happen in an hour every Sunday. It’s usually a long-term, committed, intensive, small-group or one-on-one training.
- Read the classics. If there’s one benefit to our “Information Age”, it’s that many of us have more resources at our fingertips than most people throughout history have had even if they traveled to large historic libraries. Our problems often aren’t as unique as we like to think, and you may find your question was actually answered centuries ago.
- And above all, follow in the footsteps of the Bereans and go back to the source: Scripture. Like them, that is the standard we measure everything else against.
I say this not as a criticism of anyone, but rather as a challenge to all Christians – myself included – to ensure we understand the groundwork of first principles that provide a foundation for an unshakeable faith.