Pursuing Sound Doctrine: How and Why

Sometimes I wonder: Am I missing something, or is this all there is to know God? Is God really as shallow as my experiences have been? Is this what knowing an infinite, eternal God is like?

While there is no single factor to blame for an insipid and monotonous Christian life, there are a few notable ones. Maybe it is time to [re]discover prayer. Or bring hideous secret sin out of the closet and slay it.

Or maybe it is time to stop avoiding the word “doctrine” like the plague.

Shallow doctrine plots a shallow Christian life.

When we assume there is only one way to approach doctrine – as a bland academic study – we naturally shy away from it. It sounds dry and lifeless. That, however, is is hideous and costly misconception, and it can be cured by understanding that there is a right and a wrong way to pursue sound doctrine. Let’s look at both.

The Right Approach to Pursuing Sound Doctrine

If we study sound doctrine as a purely academic pursuit, our approach will be dry and hollow. Information is not equivalent to intimacy with God, and intimacy is where vitality comes from.

This wrong approach stands in contrast to the learner who seeks sound doctrine as one who is parched and tastes the sweet waters of a fountain. His thirst compels him to rest by the fountain and dip back in a second, third, and fourth time.

So it is with approaching God by learning sound doctrine. Doctrine deepens out belief and enlarges our vision of God in a soul-satisfying, life-changing way.

Therefore, the right approach to doctrine is to approach it as coming to know God as He really is.

As Joshua Harris writes in Dug Down Deep,

“For many people, words like theology, doctrine, and orthodoxy are almost completely meaningless. Maybe they’re unappealing, even repellent.

“Theology sounds stuffy. Doctrine is something unkind people fight over…

“I can relate to that perspective. I’ve been there. But I’ve also discovered that my prejudice, my ‘theology allergy,’ was unfounded.

“This book is the story of how I first glimpsed the beauty of Christian theology. These pages hold the journal entries of my own spiritual journey—a journey that led to the realization that sound doctrine is at the center of loving Jesus with passion and authenticity. I want to share how I learned that orthodoxy isn’t just for old men but is for anyone who longs to behold a God who is bigger and more real and glorious than the human mind can imagine.

“The irony of my story—and I suppose it often works this way—is that the very things I needed, even longed for in my relationship with God, were wrapped up in the very things I was so sure could do me no good. I didn’t understand that such seemingly worn-out words as theology, doctrine, and orthodoxy were the pathway to the mysterious, awe-filled experience of truly knowing the living Jesus Christ.

“They told the story of the Person I longed to know.”

[Go ahead and read the review, download the first chapter PDF of the book, and then purchase a copy…it is worth it]

Doctrine is Basic to Practical Christian Living

In the same vein as Harris, AW Tozer writes in Knowledge of the Holy [Warning: PDF],

A right conception of God is basic not only to systematic theology but to practical Christian living as well. It is to worship what the foundation is to the temple; where it is inadequate or out of plumb the whole structure must sooner or later collapse. I believe there is scarcely an error in doctrine or a failure in applying Christian ethics that cannot be traced finally to imperfect and ignoble thoughts about God.”

So learning sound doctrine is both practical and necessary for Christian living. Shying away from doctrine leads to a shallow understanding of God and cuts us off from the very depth of relationship that we long for.

That should spur us to dig deeper, and here are four ways to do that…

Practical Application

Four ways to tackle learning sound doctrine in manageable chunks:

1. Pray for understanding as Paul did for the church in Colossians 1:9-14.

2. Come up with a morning routine and read just three pages of classic theological work each day and finish in a year.

3. Include in your routine regular Bible reading and study, book by book, so that you build familiarity with the Old and New Testament.

4. Subscribe to Tabletalk after taking a look at 8 Reasons Why You Should Subscribe. I wholeheartedly endorse that monthly publication and strongly encourage you to check out the zero-obligation free trial. Its excellent authors plumb the depths of doctrine every month in a practical, understandable way.

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8 Reasons to Subscribe to Tabletalk

It only took one issue to convince me. It was worth subscribing.

I’ve toted the February issue of Tabletalk around in my backpack, slid it into my Bible case, perched it on top of my bedside reading stack, and even woken up pulled it out at 1:30am to skip a little further ahead in the daily devotional readings.

Here’s a summary of the benefits I’ve gotten from my battered copy.

1. Thought provoking articles.

Tabletalk isn’t a namby-pamby devotional booklet that leaves you starving on a diet of superficial junk food. Tabletalk has meat. Each article spurred me to think more deeply by presenting profound truth clearly. The authors don’t have their heads stuck in the clouds. They write with practical insight. And they write to be understood. Tabletalk is a superb supplement for daily Bible reading, study, and meditation.

2. Short and engaging.

You know what it is like to start fighting dropping eyelids on page three of a dense novel. I never had that problem while reading Tabletalk…because there never is a page three. Each article is only two pages long, and the pages are about the size of a typical DVD case. Small.

3. Further study helps.

After packing a punch with a short article, Tabletalk also offers suggestions for further Bible study on the topic. Reminds me of my Boy Scout days when they set us loose with trail maps to roam the mountains of Yosemite for a few days.

4. Exalts Christ and proclaims the gospel.

The articles and daily devotional readings constantly point back to the cross. Great care is taken to proclaim the gospel through the pages. Often, we are tempted to think that the gospel is yesterday’s news. We’ve moved past it to “deeper” things now that we are saved. That isn’t an attitude that you will find in Tabletalk. It leaves the reader gazing at the beauty of the gospel and understanding the critical, daily need for its message.

5. Sit at the table with qualified teachers.

When you read Tabletalk, you are learning from some of the top Christian thinkers of our day.

6. Important people read it.

People like Michael Horton, Al Mohler, and Ravi Zacharias – just to name a few – don’t just write for Tabletalk. They read Tabletalk. And the way I figure it, whatever they are doing probably deserves some consideration. Not sure who those men are? Don’t worry, they make great company.

7. Subscription costs only $23 a year.

At $23 dollars, the 1-year subscription price won’t break the bank. And two years costs only $39, and three is $49…that’s a mere $1.36 per month. C’mon, you spend more than that on Easter candy and Starbucks.

8. Free 3-month trial subscription.

That’s right…give it a try for three months. Take it for a test drive. And if you like it, subscribe. If not, just let your trial expire. It’s that easy. Your trial subscription will not automatically renew.

If you want to check out the content, you can read select articles and columns online for free. But you need to subscribe to see the rest. Don’t miss the rest of the articles and the daily Bible study material.

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How To Meditate: Series Recap

Why was this series important? Look no further than King David.

Meditation on God’s Word and prayer were the secret to David’s vibrant spiritual life and keen insight. David exemplifies properly approaching Scripture through meditation and prayer for all who would seek to draw near to God in faith.

1. How did David get more insight than his teachers? It wasn’t because he read more books…

David said that he had more insight than all of his teachers not because he read more, but because he meditated on God’s Word (Psalm 119:99). David is a testimony: insight is gained by meditation, not by floods of unprocessed information.

2. Where did David find hope that he would be able to learn and live the truth he saw in God’s Word?

David made it clear that his trust was in the Lord. He prayed that his eyes would be opened to see truth and that the Holy Spirit would lead him live obediently in God’s will (Psalm 119:18, Psalm 143:10).

David was fixated on God in meditation of God’s Word, and David had a heart for prayer because he understood he was inadequate apart from the Holy Spirit’s leading.

Series Recap:

1. 15 Rock-Solid Reasons to Meditate on God’s Word

2. We Need to Meditate And Get More Insight, Not More Input

3. How to Meditate: 3 Steps of Aggressive Mental Engagement

4. A Model of the 3-Step Process of Meditation

5. Embracing the Ministry of the Holy Spirit As We Meditate

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Embracing the Ministry of the Holy Spirit As We Meditate

Our approach to Scripture is usually defunct.

First problem: We read the Bible but gain no insight from the flood of information.
Second problem: Even if we gain insight, we are unable to live it out.

Meditation is a tool for gaining more insight from input, but insight is only useful for holiness if we can live it out. So even if we solve the fist problem with a three-step process of meditation, the second problem still glares us in the face. We still cannot fix our lack of sin-slaughtering love for God.

The difficulty with learning and living spiritual truth is that it differs from learning the steps to work a simple arithmetic problem. As Dr. Kevin Washburn writes, learning and applying a new skill is a five-part cognitive process. However, living out spiritual truth requires a heart change because we are naturally born with an whole-hearted inclination toward evil. Because we were created to employ our minds, we should not neglect the cognitive process. But because we are a fallen creation, we also need need new birth and then regeneration by the Holy Spirit in order to live in accordance with God’s commands.

Since we are wholly inadequate in the flesh, we must turn to the ministry of the Spirit.

The Role of the Holy Spirit

What is the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian learning and living?

Here’s what Scripture teaches:

We are sanctified (made to progressively be and act holy) in truth (John 17:17)…

The Holy Spirit guides us in truth (John 16:3) and enables understanding (1 Corinthians 2:10-12)…

Godliness is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives (Galatians 5:22-23) and by the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13-14)…

What we believe shapes the way we live (Example: we are filled with fear because of our lack of faith in who God is) (Matthew 6:30, 8:26, 14:31, 16:8, 17:20)…

Sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth leads to salvation, and neither of those happen apart from God’s choosing us (2 Thessalonians 2:13).

The Bottom Line: Summary of the Holy Spirit’s Ministry

The Holy Spirit enables us to clearly see truth in such a way that we believe. The evidence that we have believed the truth is that we put to death sinful deeds and the fruits of the Spirt are produced in us (sanctification). Only the Holy Spirit can work such a change in us.

Without meditation, we will not be able to fill our mind with insight from Scripture.

Without the Spirit, meditation will only lead to head knowledge and not belief that transforms our life and motivate obedience from the heart.

As John Piper so aptly put it,

“Today the Spirit still instructs us by the Word of Scripture and we ought to pray earnestly for an outpouring of God’s enlightening Spirit so that the Scriptures really live for us and become intensely personal.”

Do you desire insight find insight in Scripture that will forever change the way you walk before the Lord? Do the same thing every single great man of faith has done through history: Make a habit of prayerfully mediating on God’s Word in humble reliance upon the Spirit’s fruit-producing work.

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Meditation: Modeling the 3-Step Process

Ready to see the three-step process of meditation applied to a passage?

Let’s dig in to Hebrews 11:24-27.

Three Steps for Meditation:

1. Sort Out the Text
2. Zero in on Key Concepts
3. Connect Concepts with Other Concepts and Life

Step #1: Sort Out the Text

Start sorting out the text. The more sorting you do, the more learning you’ll retain later.

Pinpoint Key Words

Read Hebrews 11:24-27 in context (because you know to never read a single Bible verse). The word “faith” stands out like a steeple above countryside pines. Every mention of faith in the chapter ties back in as an illustration of Hebrews 11:1, the key verse. It’s a good idea to working through the chapter and mark the word “faith” with a colored pencil, highlighter, or pen so that it stands out visually.

Ask Questions in Meditation

Now ask a few questions to help you digest the text as you meditate. Take time to mull it over. Why did it take faith for Moses to refuse to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter? Or, to use the words of the key verse, the definition of faith: In what way did Moses show an assurance of of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen?

Because Egypt was in his face and in his grasp. To reject such tangible, immediate pleasure took a rock-solid conviction that the future reward in Christ was a greater hope than the fleeting pleasures of sin in Egypt.

Step #2: Zero in on Key Concepts

As you meditate, distill Hebrews 11:24-27 into a statement that embodies the concept of the passage. A concept is a clear, concise statement of a truth from a text.

You might come up with a concept from the text that looks something like this:

“Faith in the realness and value of the eternal allows us to overcome sinful pleasure on earth, which is fleeting and of lesser value.”

The Reason Your Brain Needs Concepts [Patterns]

Dr. Washburn, who holds a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership, writes:

“The term conceptual blending aptly describes elaboration [elaboration: connecting concepts/patterns]. The brain receives and sorts sensory data causing patterns to emerge. The patterns direct the brain to search its long-term memory stores for previous experiences that illustrate similar patterns…Once recalled, the previous experience provides a reference point for further thinking about the newly received data. Understanding develops as a student recognizes relevant connections between the reference point and the new data, and ‘blends’ these ideas.”

Word of Caution on Concepts and the 3-Step Method

Concepts must be grounded in truth from the text. You want to find what is in the text instead of interpreting the text to match what you want to find. This meditation method takes into account the way the brain best learns and remembers, but there are many varied ways to meditate and accomplish the same thing (and many kinds of people with different needs).

Step #3: Connect the Concept with Other Concepts and Life

The last step is to start making connections between different Scriptures (cross references), and then your life. Each connection you make links more concepts together so that they can blend and shed light on each other. The Biblical cross references pop to mind and/or you may dig for them.

1. Connect Scripture with Scripture and Blend the Concepts

We can link what we learned in Hebrews about Moses’ faith to what we see in Daniel 3:12.

– Moses was able to turn down earthly pleasures because he confidently hoped in more valuable eternal things.

– Daniel’s three friends would not bow down to worship another god and accepted earthly pain as a consequence (1 Peter 3:14-16 teaches this concept as well). The three men evidently had the same value system as Moses, but with a subtle difference in application.

That subtle difference leads us to an important insight…

2. Blend the Two Connected Concepts

Valuing eternal things allows us to not only reject seemingly positive earthly things like the pleasures of Egypt (Moses), but also to accept seemingly negative earthly things like the persecution of Babylon’s fiery furnace (as with Daniel’s three friends).

The concepts from those two passage blend quite well and offer additional insight. (Actually, Hebrews 11:25 embodies the same concept as Daniel 3:12, but I did not see it until just now while connecting the two passages and writing this post).

3. Connect Scripture with Life

Be both intentional and specific in finding and connecting concepts from Scripture to your life. How does this concept specifically connect to what you’ve seen in the past in your own life? If this concept is applied to your life now, what specifically would change?

My Personal Application of the Concepts

If truly believed, the truth of these Scriptures banishes the fear I may have to verbally share my faith. The source of that fear: I value the earthly pleasure of man’s approval and risk losing that if I open my mouth, and I am afraid I might be ridiculed for my faith. The concept illustrated by Moses and Daniel shows that if I value eternal things, I will not fear losing earthly pleasure or enduring earthly pain.

Did you see how that all happened?

The two concepts link together across Hebrews 11:24-27 and Daniel 3:12 and blended, offering additional insight you might have never gotten had you looked at a single passage. Then the Word broke uncomfortably into life and brought conviction. As a result, insight – not just information – is gained and the Bible’s cohesive message is increasingly visualized by additional connections.

The last post in this series will deal with the Holy Spirit’s role in bringing heart-level change once the truth has taken hold in our minds.

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“Quiet Time” Is a Misnomer

The only quiet thing about my quiet time is that I can’t hear anyone or anything else…besides me.

I talk out loud, read out loud, pray out loud…shout, cry, sing, pound the desk, and ruffle pages as if in a Sunday School sword drill.

I don’t see a reason to hold back. God’s Word is alive, and we should engage it as such. We should engage God as a relationship person, not a lifeless book. Not irreverently, but not without emotion either.

Maybe I should start calling it my “morning devotions” since “quiet time” sounds like a misnomer.

What do you call your morning time in God’s Word?

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8 Bible Reading and Memory Plans [Weekend Resource]

Desire Spiritual Growth has two new pages: Bible Reading Plans and Bible Memory Plans under the Resources tab.

Both pages offer a buffet of Bible reading and memory plans, plus some “how-to” heavy artillery. Remember, our hope is not in the methods. But they are tools nonetheless. There’s value in having a plan to follow when reading the Bible. Maybe you want to methodically follow a beaten path by reading the Bible in a year. Or you want to plunge into a 90 day reading plan. Or maybe you’re like me and just want a plan so you can have something to meander back to once you’ve chased the rabbit trails.

Here’s a list for readers of all stripes.

Bible Reading Plans

  1. Tabletalk’s Bible in a Year Plan
  2. Entire Bible in 90 Days
  3. Book-at-a-Time Bible Reading Plan
  4. 5×5×5 Bible Reading Plan
  5. Discipleship Journal Bible Reading Plan
  6. Professor Grant Horner’s Bible Reading System
  7. 6 Ways to Access the ESV Bible Reading Plans

How to Have a Quiet Time

  1. Guide to the Quiet Time
  2. 7 Minutes with God
  3. How to Use Bible Study Methods [Confession From a Recovering Methods Addict]

Here’s everything you wanted to know about Bible memory, and then some.

Bible Memory Plan and Resources

  1. Create Your Own Memory Cards
  2. Fighter Verse Cards

How and Why to Memorize

  1. An Approach to Extended Bible Memory
  2. 18 Tricks To Memorize More Scripture
  3. How John Piper Memorizes Scripture
  4. Why Memorize Scripture?

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How To Meditate: 3 Steps of Aggressive Mental Engagement

We need insight, not another tsunami of information.

We can gain that insight by using an aggressive three-step process of mental engagement for meditation. Its aggressive because it is targeted and intentional. But it is also simple. And the results are staggering.

The main advantage of this three-step approach is taking things an unusual step further by looking to engage the mind in connecting additional concepts together across the Scriptures and into life. This process lends itself to gaining insight by discovering the connectivity of the Bible instead of reading passages in isolation.

Step #1: Sorting Out the Text

Dr. Kevin Washburn teaches that to learn, it is necessary for our brains to “identify, label, and sort incoming data.” We must process what we’ve read, sorting it all out mentally to gain comprehension.

What does sorting out the text look like?

Sorting out the text is nothing more than quality Bible study. Need ideas for creative ways to process the text? Take a look at Demian Farnworth’s 10 creative steps for right-brained thinkers to study the Bible. Do everything from marking key words with colored pencils to making topical lists. Get a grasp of what the text says.

Step #2: Zero in on Key Concepts

Look for key concepts in what you read. A concept is a bottom-line key point of the text. It is a principle, not a description, summary, or theme. It is a clearly-stated truth that likely appears in more than one place in the Bible.

An example concept is in Philipians 2:1-10: God exalts the humble. A wrong way to state the concept would be to say, “Paul wrote that Jesus was humble.”

Step #3: Connect Concept With Other Concepts & Life

Of the three steps, this one is the most overlooked. Yet it is the most important one.

Remember, real learning happens when new information is connected with previously known information so that the two are blended, which enables the brain to learn and lock it all into long-term memory.

So connect the concepts you find in the text you read with other known concepts in other places in Scripture. Then blend the connected concepts. And then connect them to your life.

– Connect the concepts

For example, we can connect the concept in Philipians 2:1-10 to Daniel 4:28-37 where Nebuchadnezzar is only lifted up once he humbles himself in his heart.

Blend the two connected concepts

Once we see the connection, the two concepts can blend. We can see that if we don’t have the attitude of Christ, God may use physical humiliation to bring about humility in our heart as He did with Nebuchadnezzar.

– Connect it all to your life

Now prayerfully consider specific relationships where you might be bringing hurt by acting more like Nebuchadnezzar than Christ. Apply the concept by intentionally connecting it specifically to your life. Where have you seen this concept proven true in your own life in the past? What would your life look like if you applied this concept going forward?

Try it out. See if the three-step process helps  you engage your mind to discover insights.

Next Up: Modeling this 3-step process in-depth on a passage. [We’ll also eventually discuss the role of the Holy Spirit and focus on the heart]

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Meditation: More Insight, Not More Input

Prayer and Meditation on the WordHave you ever read your Bible for half an hour, walked away, and remembered nothing?

I have.

It’s the same feeling a kid gets when his parent asks, “What did you learn in school today?” and he answers, “Uh…nothing. I don’t remember anything.”

Turns out, both of those incidents are related.

And the goal of the coming posts is to help us move past that struggle.

What’s the Solution?

As Donald Whitney wrote,

“…the problem has more to do with the method of engaging God’s Word than anything else. For if you merely read the Bible, don’t be surprised if you forget most—if not all—of what you’ve read.

What’s the simple solution? …The solution is not only to read the Scriptures, but to meditate on them.”

Whitney defined meditation succinctly in his book, Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life:

“Meditation [is the] deep thinking on truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture for the purpose of understanding, application, and prayer.”

We’ve covered fifteen rock-solid reasons to meditate on God’s Word.

Now let’s start moving toward what it means to meditate and how is it done.

How Does the Brain Learn and Remember?

Real learning only happens when the mind is actively engaged in sorting out, processing, and connecting the new information to previously known information.

How does the mind connect the new and the old?

By seeing patterns (concepts).

According to Dr. Kevin Washburn,

“The brain seeks and sees patterns. Patterns, or concepts, aid both memory storage and retrieval. Patterns empower authentic learning.”

When you take in new information and have an “Ah-ha!” moment after reflecting on the new and connecting it with the rest of the puzzle of previously known information, then you’ve learned something you can retain. You’ve seen a pattern in the new that connects with a pattern in the old. The brain learns by connecting. Your brain latches the two together. It sticks.

The takeaway from Dr. Washburn is that in order to retain more of what you read, the key is spending time engaging your mind to process the information and look for patterns. We’ll get into the specifics of patterns/concepts in another post.

The Bottom Line: Another Tidal Wave of Information Won’t Help You Learn

The need is not for additional information but rather for time spent processing the information so that it is understood and learned.

That’s why we need meditation. We need the intentional reflection on what we’ve read. We need to give our minds time to take hold of what we’ve read.

We do not need another tidal wave of information. We need to give our hearts time to sink roots deep into the river bank and absorb the water.

The Palm 1 Model

Look at Psalm 1:1-3 as an illustration of absorbing the Word by mediating on it:

Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree
planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.

The tree can only absorb so much water at a time. We can only absorb so much of the Bible at a time.

Insight is Gained by Meditation, Not More Input

The key is not to find a bigger river. The key is to keep your roots in the water continually. The key is not to flood your brain with more information, but to spend time meditating, absorbing the Word.

Some may object and say, “Christians need to read their Bibles more, not less.” Which is completely true. We can’t get enough.

However, apart from more meditation, more reading has diminishing value.

In order to keep from being a mile wide and an inch deep, we need more insight, not more input. Insight is gained by meditation.

Next up: How to Meditate

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15 Rock-Solid Reasons to Meditate on God’s Word

Prayer and Meditation on the WordI’ve noticed a pattern.

There is a direct correlation between understanding of scripture and time spent meditating on scripture.

More time in meditation generally leads to deeper understanding.

The fact itself is not a surprise, but the magnitude of its effects is.

“Continued meditation brings great profit to the soul. Passant and transient thoughts are more pleasant, but not so profitable. Deliberate meditation is of most use because it secures the return of the thoughts.” —Thomas Manton

But the benefit of deeper understanding is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It, no doubt, is an aid to continual communion with God.

Fifteen reasons why you should foster intentional meditation:

1. It engages an otherwise slothful, shallow-skimming mind to probe for deeper truth

2. It fills you with mind-renewing, life-transforming truth (Romans 12:2, John 17:17)

3. It fills the heart with life-giving words to flow from the mouth (Luke 6:45)

4. It contributes to a life of obedience  (Joshua 1:8)

5. It is a sign of the tree planted by water (Psalm 1:2-3)

6. It feeds the soul (Psalm 63:5-6)

7. It fuels heartfelt praise (Psalm 63:5-6, Psalm 145:4-7)

8. It fixes your eyes on the ways of God (Psalm 119:15)

9. It keeps you from meditating on circumstances (Psalm 119:23)

10. It’s the secret to standing and speaking before kings unashamed (Psalm 119:46-48)

11. It prevents useless replaying of wrongs committed against you (Psalm 119:78)

12. It gives you more understanding than your teachers (Psalm 119:99)

13. It’s better than counting sheep late at night (Psalm 63:6, Psalm 119:148)

14. It leads to wise speech (Psalm 49:3-4)

15. It pleases the Lord (Psalm 104:34, Psalm 19:14)

Why do you meditate on the Word?

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