How Learning Greek Can Help You Love God
I recently asked my 1st year class what studying Greek has to do with the Christian life and loving God. I was even able to alliterate my question, by invoking linguistic parlance, asking them: what do paradigms have to do with prayer? After a short discussion we had three answers:
- Studying Greek is difficult, so we must depend on God in humble prayer
- Better exegesis means better understanding and more biblically shaped prayers
I appreciated those answers, especially the third, because I think it’s how most students feel but are afraid to admit. And I imagine many readers would echo the sentiment. Can we really claim that learning Greek has anything to do with loving God?
How does learning technical syntax or memorising vocabulary furnish the Christian life? Can we really say that poring over verb paradigms and studying grammatical exceptions is beneficial to our faith? I told my class that I’m fully convinced it does. But my reasons for this belief might surprise some of you, as it did them. Developing a point made by the 20th century theologian Simone Weil, I argued that learning Greek trains our attention, which is something profoundly indispensable to prayer. And prayer—of course—is fundamental to loving God.
Prayer Demands Attentiveness
In her outstanding essay titled Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God, Simone Weil makes the simple observation that “prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.” Put differently, prayer is premised on our ability to focus, screening out distractions and avoiding mental drift. Thus Weil suggests that a key to any appropriately Christian conception of studies recognises the relationship between prayer and attention.
Weil is referring to an idea that goes by various other names, including discipline and habit. I appreciate her point for two reasons, one relates to my Greek students and the other to everyone else. Firstly, Weil doesn’t locate the benefits of studying Greek in the distant future. By her point I can insist that rote learning irregular verb paradigms is an exercise in spiritual discipline and good habit formation. Linked with this—and secondly—training our attentions in order to turn our undistracted hearts to God in prayer isn’t limited to the study of New Testament Greek. In fact, it isn’t limited to theological studies.
The Value of Study Isn’t Limited to Content
As Weil writes, “Quite apart from explicit religious belief, every time that a human being succeeds in making an effort of attention with the sole idea of increasing his grasp of truth, he acquires a greater aptitude for grasping it, even if his effort produces no visible fruit.” An aptitude for attention and disciplined devotion can be learned in many places. Whether you’re studying Greek or geometry, history or homiletics, the concerted application of attention is a training ground for prayer. Occasions where we must necessarily strain our minds are moments of habit formation. Thus, as Weil writes, the applied effort in our studies has benefits beyond gaining knowledge.
Weil is worth quoting at length, before I offer up a short conclusion: “Students must therefore work without any wish to gain good marks, to pass examinations, to win school successes; without any reference to their natural abilities and tastes; applying themselves equally to all their tasks, with the idea that each one will help to form in them the habit of that attention which is the substance of prayer. When we set out to do a piece of work, it is necessary to wish to do it correctly, because such a wish is indispensable if there is to be true effort. Underlying this immediate objective, however, our deep purpose should aim solely at increasing the power of attention with a view to prayer.”
Don’t Waste What You’re Learning
Studying New Testament Greek is very difficult, therefore prayerful dependance is appropriate. Furthermore, one the aims as we learn Greek grammar is more careful Bible study. This in turn should bear fruit in our prayers. But Weil reminds us of something I’ve written about often: growing in Christian character matters much more than gaining information; heart formation trumps information. As you learn Greek—or anything that requires discipline, focus, and attention—don’t forget that the value of those for prayer. I’ll give Weil the last word: “Whoever goes through years of study without developing this attention within himself has lost a great treasure.”