Yes, I know. Those two words probably sound stuffy and boring to you. I used to think I'd leave those two pursuits to the theological braniacs of seminaries, too.
In fact, you might be surprised to find out that I haven't always loved reading 300+ page books on the incommunicable attributes of God, or wishing I had time to finish up those last few hundred pages in that systematic theology book.
Up until I was about seventeen, I actually preferred reading fantasy over nonfiction. My mantra was, "if a book is about real events or people, it's boring." Maybe you can relate. I had absolutely no appetite for biographies or history books. What really let my imagination fly was anything fictional. I loved boy's adventure novels like G.A. Henty, and fantasy works like the Chronicles of Narnia. It wasn't that I disliked theology or doctrine, but I just didn't have enough of an appetite to choose that over an exciting, rip-roaring tale in far-off places.
So what changed?
Simply put, I found a whole world of excitement right under my nose that was much more fulfilling than the most exciting adventure story I'd ever read.
Like Aslan says to Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,
"I am [in your world],... But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little you may know me better there".
The reason we love fiction so much is because it reminds us of what we were truly made for.
Fairy tales are timeless. Have you ever noticed that virtually every culture in every era has a story with the same basic story line? The beautiful princess is waiting to find her prince charming, the king is reclaiming his kingdom, and the prince must slay the dragon to save the princess so that they can ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. Why do we never tire of the same old story?
Because it's so much more than a make-believe story...
I loved fairy tales, rip-roaring adventure stories, and fantasy books because there's an aspect of truth in them, and I longed for that truth. God made us to love adventure! He made us to work hard and accomplish great things. He gave us those desires for purpose and excitement. If we can just open our eyes to it, we will find that the lives God has given us to live will make fairy tales seem like hollow, shadowy imitations of reality.
In order to find that fulfillment, however, we must accurately and more comprehensively understand what God's overall plan is, what our role in that plan is, and how we can fight important battles, practically, in our own lives.
Sadly, few christians today are taught what a fully Christian worldview looks like, or much less how it relates to their practical life. The Christian church is largely impotent and apathetic. There is a battle raging all around us, and we're asleep. Like the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane, we're deep in apathetic slumber even though we have commands from our Lord to carry out, even though there's work to do... even though there is history being made.
Reality is much more exciting than the most exciting fictional book ever written, you just need to find out how.
And that's what theology and doctrine are all about.
Many people react negatively to the word theology, believing that it involves dry, fruitless arguments about minute points of doctrine. They don't see the connection to real life. But what many people overlook is the fact that every person is a theologian whether they realize it or not! We all have an idea about what God is like and what our highest purpose in life is. If we don't understand what is true about God and our purpose in life, we will (by default), believe a lie. Someone once said, "you don't have the option to be a theologian; the question is what kind of theologian you will be... a good one or a bad one?"
“To be a Christian is to be a theologian—a student of God and his will.”
Theology is the study of God himself- It's the doctrines of God and His nature. The word theology literally means the study of God (Theo= God, logy= study of).
Before we can even begin to understand what it is that God wants us to do, we must first understand who He is. We must first understand and come to love our King wholeheartedly and unreservedly before we can go about His work properly. We all have an idea in our minds about who God is and what He is like. The dangerous thing is that if we have an inaccurate view of God, we are worshipping our idea of God, not the true God. That is idolatry.
So who is this King? Who does He say He is?
Well, that isn't something I can tell you in a blog post, that's an adventure you'll have to take yourself! Here are some books to get you started. (Italicized titles are available in audiobook format).
It goes without saying that you will need to set aside time to pursuing Christ yourself. We are not able to live in a Holy Spirit-controled manner apart from the Vine. Apart from Christ, we are a simply a dead branch. Set aside some time each day to pray and read Scripture. Christ was our example in this (Mark 1:35), and surely if Christ took the time to pray, so ought we.
Doctrine is "right teaching" or truth. Once we begin to understand our King, we will in turn want to serve Him. But that's where we often fall short of the mark.
I once heard a story about a business owner who called one of his employees into his office- fully intending to fire him. The employee hadn't been keeping up on his work, and the employer was distraught at the idea of having to fire him- something he'd never had to do to an employee before. Gathering his courage, the employer began his speech. However, before he had a chance say that he was fired, his employee launched into telling his boss excitedly about his visions for the company and all of the progress he was making towards those goals! He had been working hard to address the problems he had been seeing in various areas of the business, and had great plans for the future of the company.
I am afraid that we can too often be like that employee.
Rather than doing God's priorities, we focus on our own, and get so caught up in what we see as needs and goals. One of the worst things I can imagine is standing before the Lord someday, and not hearing the words, "well done, good and faithful servant". What if instead, I heard, "You did lots of 'good' things, but they weren't what I was asking you to do".
That is what drives me to understand the will of God for me. 1 Corinthians 10:31 tells us to do everything that we do to the glory of God, even the simplest tasks like eating and drinking. We all know the well known catechism question, "What is the chief end of man?", which is answered, "To glorify God and enjoy Him forever". But what does that really look like in practical, everyday life? How do we glorify God?
I like the definition Joshua Harris gives for what it means to glorify God:
"Glorifying God means doing everything for Him, His way, to point to His greatness and reflect His goodness."
How do we do everything His way? That is the question that doctrine answers. It's a huge topic with never-ending possibilities because it's asking how to apply truth to life. You see, while the focus of doctrine is what scholars call "orthodoxy" (which means "right believing"), orthodoxy is inseparably linked to our "orthopraxy" (meaning "right-behavior").
In other words, what you believe automatically changes how you live.
The pitfall that comes with talking about theology and doctrine specifically is that their relevance to real life is often lost sight of. It's easy to study doctrine without understanding it's significance to real life, or how those truths need to reshape how we think on every topic. But doctrine determines how we handle our ordinary responsibilities, as well as how we will respond and cope with significant successes and terrifying trials.
I can't really give you a simple list for this topic because the possibilities are endless! Here are a few book suggestions to get you started on learning the foundational doctrines, but you also need to learn how to apply your doctrine to all aspects of life... and that's the exciting part! As you learn to apply God's will and truth to each detail, you are engaging in spiritual warfare. And that is exciting! (2 Cor 10:31, 1 Cor 10:31).
P.S. If you want to learn more about God's plan in history, be sure you've read my article on the gospel! (It's probably presented a little differently than you're expecting.)
1. Suffering. The call of a Christian is to suffer. We are to take up our cross daily, not to be surprised when persecuted, to take discipline from the Lord as an obedient child, and to count it all joy when we encounter trials (Luke 9:23, 1 Peter 4:12, Hebrews 12:6-7, James 1:2, Romans 5:3). One of the big motivators for me to first study theology was when I saw different people go through trials. Trials can either make us bitter, or better. As my grandmother always says, "never let the Lord waste a trial on you." Trials are given for our sanctification, and therefore, our ultimate blessing. May we learn from them what the Lord is trying to teach us as obedient children that we ask not for our lessons to be repeated.
"Our sorrows shall have an end when God has gotten His end in them." -C.H. Spurgeon
It's also important to understand how to handle trials. Do we praise God during them, staying humble, becoming more sanctified, and drawing closer to our Almighty Father? That isn't easy to do in our flesh. It is through the practice of various trials and a proper theology of suffering and the sovereignty of God that will take us through trials in a manner that glorifies God.
I remember hearing the story of a lady whose husband was killed unexpectedly in a car accident. When newspaper reporters showed up at her door only minutes later, asking her if she was angry with God for taking her husband, she replied that the Lord had been unfathomably merciful to her husband in saving Him. How could she be angry with the Lord for taking him to heaven?
Something I knew early on was that I was going to need a robust doctrine of suffering. I knew couples that had gotten married, only to have a special needs baby a year or two into their marriage, or a miscarriage. I knew I couldn't wait until tragedy struck to learn how to think about trials.
What I didn't realize so much at the time, was that as I developed my theology, it would help me in untold ways as I went through my own trials even before marriage. I remember one particular disappointment when my only thought was "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord."I didn't know where that was from in the Bible, it was just the first thought that entered my mind in response. It wasn't until later that I remembered where it was from- it was Job 1:21. I had read the book of Job over and over again in preparation for trial, and that had trained my heart to respond in submission and praise, when I wouldn't have been able to think through what a proper response would be. Of course, that was just one incident. I haven't been through many trials of true heartache, and I don't always immediately respond biblically. Sometimes it takes work. But trials will come, I want to be prepared for when they do.
Are you prepared for trials?
Some books to read on suffering are:
Whenever I go on a trip, I tend to pack more than I need. I'm notorious for packing a ten pound purse. With at least three theology books, a snack, way too many flavors of lip balm... well let's just say I don't like to be caught without the necessities. But there have been times when I hardly packed anything at all. That's always the worst. Believe me, sitting in the dentist office without a book is misery.
In life, it can be hard to plan ahead. What exactly will you need? Will you get married? What will your husband do for a living? What kinds of skills are you going to need? Will you have a special needs child? Will you live in the country or the city? There is no way to know the answers to these quesitons. But I can tell you, I don't want to be caught unprepared. While we don't know the specifics of our life ahead, we do know that in whatever circumstances lie ahead we will be called to act as Christians, and to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called.
I think we young ladies too often have a very limited understanding of what life as a Christian will take. We all know that we are to glorify God, even in the most mundane tasks (like eating and drinking). But how do we know what glorifies God? Joshua Harris once defined glorifying God as "doing everything for Him, His way." While I think most Christians get the "doing it for Him" part, I think we have too limited a scope on what doing it "His way" really looks like.
There is a doctrine in theology called the doctrine of the "antithesis". This doctrine states that Satan, since the garden of Eden, has been constantly at war with God. On every front, in every detail, satan creates an alternative to the way God wants us to live. We are in warfare, day in and day out, whether we realize it or not. Do you know for whose side you are fighting? Are you saying one thing, while unknowlingly acting upon a philosophy of life contrary to God? This is what growing in sanctification is all about, Semper Reformanda, Latin for "always reforming" to the Word of God. The moment we are saved, we are given a new nature. But we have to learn to live in conformity to that new nature. All of our thinking, habits, customs, and traditions need to be reevaluated. To be sanctified is to learn, by the renewing of our mind, to grow more and more into our new nature; thinking God's thoughts after Him, loving what He loves and hating what He hates.
The more robust our theology grows, the more we will realize that God calls us to so much more than we ever imagined. There are so many topics to study! Just to whet your appetite, let's look at a few areas that young ladies will need to know about. Rather than being a comprehensive list, this is just a list of some of the topics you and your parents can talk about, and perhaps use as a springboard for creating your own plan for topics to study.