The terms “theology” and “doctrine” can be quite polarizing, can’t they? For some, those words make us want to run and hide, fearing some abstract debate that doesn’t have any real impact on how we live. For others, the terms fill us with excitement as we get ready to debate the finer points of the faith using highly technical language. Unfortunately, both responses are extremes and miss the point of why we study the bible and seek to grow in our understanding. We shouldn’t see deeper knowledge of the Scripture as separate from ‘the real world.’ Instead, growing in true understanding of God’s Word should have a dramatic and significant impact on how we journey through life.
The stanza of Psalm 119:121-128 brings this out with clarity. If you read the passage, you’ll notice how the Psalmist transitions from a desperate plea for help to a settled rejoicing in the Lord. He moves from anxiety to committed rest. What brought about the change? These middle two verses:
“Deal with Your servant according to Your lovingkindness and teach me Your statutes. I am Your servant; give me understanding , that I may know Your testimonies.” (vv. 124, 125)
Notice how the Psalmist repeatedly prays for the same thing in multiple ways. He wanted to know God’s Word on a deeper level. This was his prayer in the midst of facing oppression from “the arrogant” (vv. 121, 122). Yes, he prayed for deliverance, but he came to focus on his need to understand Scripture (v. 123). The Hebrew words for “teach,” “understanding,” and “know” in verses 124 and 125 reveal that he wasn’t asking for mere head knowledge. That, by itself, “makes arrogant” (1 Corinthians 8:1).
The problem is we can so easily slip into the trap of thinking more knowledge about the Bible is all we need. We should desire to know more about the context in which the bible was written, how certain themes are developed throughout Scripture, and the importance of certain Greek and Hebrew words. Yet those don’t necessarily make us more ‘spiritual,’ nor do they automatically make us better Christians. The reason is that God isn’t primarily interested in how much knowledge we have. He wants our hearts, and we give Him that as we follow Christ. Our knowledge guides our Christian walk.
That principle is seen here in Psalm 119. The Psalmist begins to transition as he prays for true understanding. He begins to have a right lens. Though he was suffering wrong, he began to see the bigger issue: “they have broken Your law” (v. 126). No longer is it an anxious plea of “God, defend me.” Rather, it is a confident prayer, “God, I know You will defend Your name.” His deeper understanding of Scripture brought a new perspective. The oppression was still there, true, but now the Psalmist was equipped to see the problem in the proper light.
Not only that, but his deeper understanding led to a proper lifestyle. In the middle of his prayer, he identifies himself twice as the Lord’s “servant” (vv. 124, 125). Again, he wasn’t satisfied with mere head knowledge. What he learned from the Bible directed his life and reminded him that he was not his own. We are reminded of this truth time and time again (example, 1 Corinthians 6:19, 20). If we sit around discussing doctrine without it moving us to serve Christ more faithfully, we’re not pleasing the Lord. Greater knowledge alone is not the goal; Christ-likeness is. We are servants of Christ, and that directs every part of how we live.
And finally, the Psalmists’ deeper understanding directed a proper love. The stanza concludes with two verses about how he loves God’s Word “above gold” and hates “every false way” (vv. 127, 128). He loved God’s Word because it revealed truth about God, the way he should walk, and the coming judgement. He wasn’t left alone. As he grew in his love for the Lord and His Word, the Psalmist turned away from what is false. He didn’t want to go down those wrong paths. The same is true for us as we grow deeper in our understanding and continue “seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1).
So yes, doctrine has been misused so as to bread divisions and the idea of separation from real life. However, that’s not the attitude God wants us to have. We should desire to grow deeper in our understanding, but it’s for the purpose of serving Christ. As we keep that goal in mind, we will know better how to approach the study of Scripture for His glory.