More than a decade ago I pastored a church near a small town with two small universities. One school was the main educational institution of the largest evangelical denomination in the state. Known for producing students zealous for Christ’s Kingdom, this university consistently led the dozens of other schools in its denomination in numbers of alumni on the mission field. One complaint I frequently heard from students in the religion department, however, related to the apparent lack of spiritual zeal among two or three of the professors. To many students, these were men with overgrown theological brains and pygmy-like, passionless hearts. We’ve all heard teachers or preachers who could anchor a theological Mensa Club but whose Christianity seemed as dry and stale as the inside of a basketball. But that just doesn’t sound like the Lord Jesus, or even the Apostle Paul, does it?

In this same pastorate a man who was a deacon in his church once said to me, “I never liked school, and I don’t want to learn anything when I come to church.” Somehow there’s something unlike Jesus in that attitude as well, isn’t there?

Why do we seem to think we must choose between the two? Why do many Christians live as though they’ve been told, “Choose you this day whom you will serve: scholarship or devotion”? I maintain that a biblically balanced Christian has both a full head and a full heart, radiating both spiritual light and heat.

If absolutely forced to have only one or the other, we must choose the burning heart. If we have the truth in our head but our hearts are not right with God, an awareness of the truth will only magnify our guilt before Him at the Judgment. But if we have properly responded to the gospel from the heart, in the end we shall be saved even though the rest of our doctrinal understanding is shallow or muddy. Not only would I choose that option for myself, but I would prefer that for those I pastor as well. It’s much harder to get a ship out of the harbor than to correct one on the sea that has drifted off course.

But let us be both out of the harbor and on course. Christians must realize that just as a fire cannot blaze without fuel, so burning hearts are not kindled by brainless heads. We must not be content to have zeal without knowledge.

Does this mean we must be brilliant to be Christians? Absolutely not. But it does mean that to be like Jesus we must be learners even as He was at only age twelve, “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46–47). Does this mean we must have several diplomas hanging on the wall to be first-rate Christians? It certainly does not. But it does mean that we should discipline ourselves to be intentional learners like Jesus, of whom it was marveled, “How did this man get such learning without having studied?” (John 7:15).

An examination of the word disciple reveals that it means to be not only “a follower” of Christ but also “a learner.” To follow Christ and become more like Him, we must engage in the Spiritual Discipline of learning.

Whitney, Donald S. 1991. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

We have just completed a 13-Part Study of Donald Whitney’s classic book, Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life. It is available as part of Good Questions Have Groups Talking Lesson Subscription Service. It is also available on Amazon