Tag Archives: Exam Prep

When Challenges Are Opportunities

Study Time!

Studying for the Structural Engineering exam is forcing me to tab and highlight and underline and make margin notes and explore and systematize my steel manual (and most of my other reference books) like I never have before. Why? Because I’m about to be challenged on my knowledge of it like I never have before. But that challenge is a good thing, because it’s forcing me to take the time to study hard and become a better engineer. I may not need to have have every bit of knowledge memorized, but I do need to know where to find what I need and how to correctly apply it when I find it. In the process, I’m learning about seldom-used tables and provisions that are outside of my normal practice. Yet, even in the areas I’m more familiar with, working through practice problems without the aid of the computer programs we engineers have, for better or worse, become reliant on, is helpful. And I think there’s a parallel here for Christians as well, so let’s work through that today.

I remember getting challenged about my Christian beliefs by a colleague several years ago. “How can you call yourself an engineer and a Christian at the same time? Aren’t those mutually exclusive?” I knew that Christianity and science weren’t incompatible in the least, but I’d never prepared for a challenge like that, and it took me by surprise. That challenge exposed a lot of “comfortable Christianity” in my life. What do I mean? I mean that it hadn’t been challenging to be a Christian for most of my life. I hadn’t had to really “count the cost” as Jesus had advised [Lk 14:27-28], like so many Christians around the world have had to do over the centuries, and still do today in around 50 restricted nations. I grew up in the church, and all of my friends were Christians (or at least claimed to be). My first job out of high school was working in an engineering office where many of the employees didn’t just go to church, but went to the same church. I pursued my engineering degree at a Christian college, and came back to that same Christian-friendly workplace every time school was out. It simply was not uncomfortable to be Christian (or at least to play the part), so there was little motivation to really know what I believed and why. It wasn’t like my life depended on it; my family wasn’t going to disown me for choosing that path; my employer wasn’t going to fire me over it; my professors in college weren’t going to fail me or ridicule me over it. It was easy to just float along in the stream of a predominately Christian culture.

But that challenge several years ago woke me up from my slumber, and helped me understand the importance of being able to “give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”[1Pet 3:15 NIV] So, for me, my Bible and a lot of my apologetics and theology books and commentaries look like my steel manual – highlights and underlines and margin notes everywhere. That’s how I learn, but regardless of how you process what you read, the main question is if your Bible is well-studied or just casually skimmed? Like the old Gatorade commercials asked, “Is it in you?” For a casual skimming won’t suffice when challenges come, whether that’s one’s own doubts, or sincere questioners, or cruel torturers. When the apostle Peter wrote to his readers that they should be able to give an answer – a reasoned defense – for their hope in Christ, he was writing to people for whom this wasn’t just an intellectual exercise; he reminds them in that same letter not to be surprised at the severe persecution they were experiencing.[1Pet 4:12-16] They needed to know that what they were getting tortured for was true, and be able to articulate why to those around them, maybe even to the very people persecuting them.

The subject matter in the Bible is simply too important to blow off, both for your own life, and the lives of those you may meet. This is why Paul encouraged Timothy to be diligent to show himself approved before God, rightly handling the word of truth. [2Tim 2:15] This is why King David would talk about meditating on the law of the Lord day and night [Ps 1:2, 63:6, 119:15,48,97,148]. So ask yourself, will I be prepared to answer those who ask before or after the opportunity has passed? And whether it’s a friendly question or a snarling challenge, it is always an opportunity to be an ambassador, so get started preparing. Familiarize yourself with the areas you’re weak in. If you like to hang out in the New Testament, study the Old Testament. If you’re a theology nerd, dig into some biblical history. Learn about the different genres, the historical settings, and the original recipients’ culture. Find a more mature Christian who can disciple you. Set aside time each week for uninterrupted study. And talk to the Author of the Book you’re studying: God. God gave us this amazing revelation of Himself in the form of the Bible, and He will honor the prayers of those sincerely seeking to understand His Word. There’s a thousand lifetimes worth of learning in there, so what are you waiting on? Dig in!

A Matter of Interpretation

Finding gems in unexpected places…

Are there common rules for interpreting books that we can also apply to the Bible? I think so. In fact, I was reminded of that in a surprising way recently, so let’s work through that today.

Studying for an upcoming engineering exam has taken me deeper into some of the various standards and codes than I’ve previously needed to go in my job. Focusing on concrete in particular recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the American concrete code. Unable to find what I needed to solve a practice problem, I turned in desperation to Chapter 1. For many code books, chapter 1 is pretty general, introductory stuff unlikely to help with a particular equation, but I thought maybe there was some helpful tidbit, “misfiled” there, as it were. Well, my answer wasn’t to be found there, but I did come across section 1.5 on “Interpretation”, where, in a book dealing with concrete design, I found the following three truths that can be helping for interpreting the Bible.

  1. Distinguish between the Code and the Commentary. Our American concrete design code, referred to as ACI 318, is arranged in 2 columns on each page: a left column that is the official design provisions (i.e. “the Code”), and a right column that is any applicable background or explanation for that section of provisions (i.e. “the Commentary”). This particular section reminded the reader that the code is mandatory, while the commentary is not. While the code provisions are binding and enforceable, the commentary is simply there to help the reader understand the code. Now, I have several excellent, time-tested commentaries on the Bible from some brilliant theologians. But this distinction applies here especially. No matter how much you may appreciate a particular preacher, teacher, or commentator, no matter how helpful their words are, no matter how universally accepted they are – comments on divine revelation are not on par with divine revelation. This is especially important to remember with the plethora of “study Bibles” on the market now that combine a lot of extra-biblical material into the Bible as section introductions, margin notes, informational sidebars, passage commentaries, and so forth. Being included in the Bible directly can sometimes cast a reflection of inspiration on these generally helpful additions, but it is important to keep the sources of each in mind. 100 years from now, a view stated in a note in your study Bible may be proven false, but “the Word of our God stands forever” [Is 40:8].
  2. Interpret coherently. This section clarified that “This Code shall be interpreted in a manner that avoids conflicts between or among its provisions.” code committees aren’t perfect, but their intent is to write a coherent, noncontradictory standard. Interpret accordingly. This statement has bearing on interpreting the Bible for both the skeptic and the Christian.
    • For the skeptics, don’t interpret two Bible passages in such a way as to paint them as contradicting if there is a third interpretation that reconciles both. Just as I shouldn’t interpret the concrete code in the worst possible light, looking to fabricate contradictions where there aren’t any, the skeptic should refrain from doing so with the Bible.
    • For the Christian, this is a word of caution that we shouldn’t interpret Bible passages in isolation. You can see this in the false “prosperity gospel” so popular today, that latches on to verses about blessings, to the exclusion of all the many passages that speak of good and faithful servants of God suffering tremendously for obeying God. You simply must interpret all the passages that deal with a particular topic in a coherent manner. Ignoring ones that don’t fit your interpretation is no better than the skeptic trying to create textual problems.
    • The concrete code made another statement in that paragraph worth noting here to skeptics and Christians alike: “specific provisions shall govern over general provisions.” In other words, don’t think the code is in error because some general provision doesn’t work for your odd situation, if there is a specific provision that does address it. Similarly, sections like the Proverbs are general rules of life, not guarantees for every possible situation. It is no error in Scripture if a child, “trained up in the way he should go” [Prov 22:6], does, in fact, depart from it when he grows up.
  3. Use the “plain meaning” of words. ACI instructs the reader that their code is to be interpreted straightforwardly, per the “plain meaning” of the words, unless noted otherwise. Moreover, if a term is specifically defined in the book (and they do that in Chapter 2), then that definition applies to their use of the word regardless of how the rest of the world uses the same word. This is important, because words can have many different definitions, applicable in different contexts. This is especially true in technical documents where jargon – specialized terms for those “in the field” – is used as a shortcut to convey big ideas quickly and succinctly. However, our default assumption should be the simple “plain meaning” unless the context makes it clear that something else is meant. Moreover, this also means that we shouldn’t try interpreting the author’s intent based on our own “pet” definition. Atheists often want to define faith as “belief in spite of contrary evidence,” or some similar nonsense, and then decide that Christianity is simply unintelligible. Indeed, it probably won’t make sense if you read your own contradictory definitions into it first. But when trying to interpret something – anything really – you should always do so with the goal of understanding the author’s intent, not reading your own views into their work.

And there you have it – 3 tips on correctly interpreting the Bible… tucked away in with a bunch of guidelines for designing concrete structures! Till next time, keep “examining the Scriptures daily” like the Bereans [Ac 17:11], “accurately handling the word of truth” [2Ti 2:15], striving to interpret what you read correctly [2Pe 3:16-17], and applying it in your daily life, “being doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” [Jm 1:22]. Blessings on you.

The Benefit of Deadlines

Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Pedro Simao

As I’m preparing this year for a big engineering exam, I am reminded of the benefit of deadlines. Yes, I said benefit. As much as I hate the pressure of a deadline, whether it’s on a regular project at work or my upcoming exam, I have to admit, it’s better to have a deadline. The procrastinators out there may disagree at first, but I speak as one of you. And if you’re like me, and have procrastinated and gotten burned before, you know deep down that having an indefinite amount of time to accomplish something is the worst gift we can receive. As I can readily attest, studying can just be blown off too easily without a set goal or deadline, but having a test date set motivates us to study like nothing else. The need to study suddenly becomes very real. As I’m watching videos from a review course, and working through practice problems on my weekends now, and collecting reference books I was missing, and highlighting and underlining and tabbing my books like mad, I’m wishing I’d been this motivated over the last several years! But as important as this exam is to me, this all pales in comparison to the critical importance of being reconciled with God. The Bible warns us that it is appointed once for man to die, then the judgement [Heb 9:27-28]. Sadly, that is one deadline that we often go out of our way to ignore. It’s hard to fix a problem we don’t recognize, so let’s work through two potentially disastrous responses to life’s most important deadline.

Although scientific giant Blaise Pascal lived almost 400 years ago, he diagnosed modern American culture pretty well. He wrote in his Pensées about two dangerous responses to God: diversion and indifference. Although some of the diversions are different now, we still choose to busy ourselves with anything imaginable rather than to think about death or examine our lives. Between our jobs and/or school, and our hobbies, and social media and TV, and encouraging our kids to play on 3 different sports teams at the same time while in band and 10 different after-school activities, we don’t have a minute a day that isn’t filled with hustle and bustle. And though we complain about how busy we are, we actually want the busyness, for it keeps us from contemplation. But, as Pascal warns, “diversion amuses us, and leads us unconsciously to death.”[1] No matter what we fill our days with, we must fill them with something, lest we have time to think, and, as philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it, “look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hole in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it. “[2] Man’s solution is to not think about it – “ostrich epistemology” as Kreeft calls it.

But there is also that second pitfall: indifference. The diverted person is too distracted to even notice his car is about to run off a cliff until it is too late; the indifferent see the danger but don’t care. Pascal rightly observes, “The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us, and which touches us so profoundly, that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is.”[3] And again, “Man’s sensitivity to little things and insensitivity to the greatest things are marks of a strange disorder.”[4] Or as Kreeft puts it, “We are more put out at missing a parking place than at missing our place in Heaven”. [5] Whether this indifference is manifested in a hedonism that says “let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”, or a nihilistic apathy that asks “what’s the point of caring?”, or an arrogant skepticism that says “I glanced at that and promptly dismissed it since it would interfere with the way I want to live”, it is just as inexcusable. If you’ve lived very long on this earth, you’ve known friends and family who haven’t. Death is one certainty in life, and it doesn’t take long to see that it can come to each of us at any time. Sicknesses, accidents, wars, natural disasters, malicious or negligent actions of others like robbers or drunk drivers – the list of ways we can meet our physical death is long, and nobody can predict how much time they will have. Therefore, it behooves us to make wise use of the time given us, and not put off this critical investigation until tomorrow, when tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us.

Dr. Kreeft, reflecting on Pascal’s longer treatment of these two dangers,  warns that “Diversion and indifference are the devil’s two most successful weapons against faith and salvation, the two widest roads to Hell in today’s world.”[6] They are paths of no resistance, for the first blocks the victim’s view of the danger, and the second dulls the perception of it.  But just as diversion and indifference are not reasonable courses of action for me preparing for my exam, neither are they reasonable paths to follow when it comes to your eternal destiny. As Pascal said, “[T]here are only two classes of persons who can be called reasonable: those who serve God with all of their heart because they know Him and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know him.”[7] Listen then, to reason, and seek God while He may be found [Is 55:6-7].


Note: The Pensées (“thoughts” in French) are fragments of Pascal’s uncompleted magnum opus, and were left unorganized at his death at the age of only 39. Different editions organize them differently. If you get a book based on the Krailsheimer numbering, use the reference below with a K. The Brunschvicg numbering is indicated by a B.
[1] Pascal Pensées 171 (B), 414 (K).
[2] Peter Kreeft, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées – Edited, Outlined, & Explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 168.
[3] Pensées, 194 (B), 427 (K)
[4] ibid., 198 (B), 632 (K)
[5] Kreeft, p. 203.
[6] Kreeft, p. 188.
[7]Pascal, 194 (B), 427 (K)

No Time

Author’s photo of Big Ben while on a layover in London in 2013.

“Time marches on” – Metallica;
“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin… into the future” – Steve Miller Band;
“Get busy like a schoolboy making an ‘A’ cause time my brother is tickin’ away” – dc Talk;
“Time, why you punish me?” – Hootie & the Blowfish.

The subject of time is a favorite topic of songwriters and poets from all different genres and eras.  I’ve been studying for a big engineering exam later this year, so time has been on my mind a lot lately, too. As I work practice problems, taking far longer than the average time I’ll have on the exam, I’m reminded of how quickly time can pass when you’re busy. As I look at the calendar and realize I only have 7 months left to study, I find myself echoing Dr. Seuss when he observed (in his classic style), “My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?” And when I get to the exam, time management will be critical. The temptation in an open-book exam is to waste precious time searching for answers. However, you can’t afford to be looking for answers in all the wrong places; you have to know where to go. Another trap is not having studied the right material and being unprepared for the questions asked on the exam. Suppose I’m more comfortable with steel and concrete design, and only study those areas to the exclusion of wood and masonry. I’ll be in trouble when I don’t know how to work half the problems on the exam. Fortunately, while the actual questions are a surprise, applicants are provided a breakdown of what areas of knowledge are required. So I know in advance that of the four design problems in the afternoon session, there will be one each dealing with concrete, masonry, steel, and wood. Knowing that,  and acting on it, I can (and should) be prepared going into the exam.

But as important as my upcoming exam is for me as an engineer, it is insignificant in comparison to the question of where I will spend eternity. Like the exam, I can waste all my time looking for answers in the wrong references. I can go worship Progress at the altar of secular humanism, or tread the Buddha’s Eightfold Path,  or read the Qur’an and the Hadith of Muhammad, or seek “enlightenment” from the  most respected guru, all to no avail. There is only one way to God, and all these other attempts are only dead ends. Trying to get to God by any of the merely human attempts, rather than the way that He opened up for us, is about as useful as trying to design a masonry shear wall from tables in the Steel Manual. It’s simply the wrong book, no matter how much one believes it has the right answer.

I can also simply ignore my lack of planning in certain areas of life, and appear some day before Jesus Christ, the judge of all, woefully unprepared, with no recourse, no appeals, no “retests”, – no second chances. Maybe you’re too busy chasing money, fame, power, knowledge, success – or even admirable goals like family, or “leading a good life”, or “leaving the world a better place” – to think about God. As Jesus famously said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” [Mk 8:36] Don’t blow this divine exam by ignoring the very things that are actually going to be on “the test”. What will we be tested on come Judgement Day? None of those things we like to use to define a “successful” life. Rather, it all comes down to this: Did you accept God’s free gift of salvation [Ro  6:23] on His terms or did you try to demand it be on your terms? If not His terms, you’ve been preparing for the wrong exam.

Maybe you’d rather not think about death and what might occur afterward, and instead just “focus on the here and now”.  Hey, I prefer using structural steel to masonry, but the fact that I’m not as comfortable designing a masonry shear wall is why I need to study that. Whether I like it or not won’t change the fact that there will be a masonry design problem on the exam. I’ll have only myself to blame if stick my head in the sand and choose not to think about what’s coming. Life is pretty short, when you think about it, even if we die of old age. What’s a hundred years or so in comparison to human history? Tragic accidents, disease, or the acts of murderers and drunk drivers and terrorists and the like can make it considerably shorter.  Unfortunately, you never know exactly when that end will come. Don’t waste the time you have been given looking for answers in all the wrong places or simply avoiding thinking about the questions. The Bible is the master reference book that has the critical answers to life’s big questions: How did all this begin? Who am I? Why am I here? How will all this end? Origin, identity, purpose, and destiny are 4 words that drive much of our search for meaning in life, and they are all answered by our Creator in His book. And if you can read my rambling little blog, but haven’t invested in reading God’s Word, then what are still doing here?! Go buy, borrow, check out, or download a Bible and get to studying!*


*I hesitate to advocate stealing a Bible, although I don’t know any Christian that wouldn’t gladly give their Bible to a potential Scripture thief hungry for “words of eternal life” [Jn 6:68].