Why Prayer and Bible Study Are Not Enough

That title sounds pretty bad on the face of it. So don’t hear me diminishing the importance and significance of prayer and Bible study in the slightest. In fact, I originally started one of the chapters in my book this way: “If you do nothing else, other than read your Bible in faith every day, pray, and do what it says, your life will change.”

(Unfortunately, I had to cut that out when I had to cut that chapter in half to save on paper costs. [Frustrating? Absolutely.])

So, prayer and Scripture and absolutely fundamental and critical to a life pleasing to the Lord. The issue is this: the Scriptures are clear that there are people who are very committed in the devotional component of life, and yet aren’t walking in a way that is fully pleasing to the Lord. So, what’s missing?

One obvious answer is: they aren’t doing what they are learning. That is certainly a key point.

But let me suggest something else, which is quite surprising: failure to understand and value secular thinking.

We see this, for example, in Philippians 4:4-9, which is itself one of the chief passages of Scripture that underscores the importance of prayer.

In this passage, Paul first of all exhorts us to be devoted to prayer: “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God…” But notice that he doesn’t stop there. For example, even though after exhorting us to prayer he had promised that God’s peace would be with us (verse 7), in verse 9 he exhorts us to obey the Scriptures, and promises peace as a result of that as well: “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” So, obedience to the Scriptures is just as essential to the Christian life as prayer and Scripture. Obviously. It would (should!) be hard for anyone who reads the Bible to miss that point (cf. James 1:22).

But notice something else Paul told us, sandwiched in between these two things: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (v. 9). This is a call to do more than read the Scriptures. It includes that, but is a call to understand, ponder, and learn about truth from all arenas, pertaining to all areas of life. For Paul is telling us here to think about whatever is true, honorable, and excellent. As Ligonier Ministries noted in a recent Tabletalk devotional:

The true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy things to which Paul refers in Philippians 4:8–9 are not only those things revealed in sacred Scripture.

… Instead, Paul is [also] telling Christians to think on the excellent things they find in the surrounding culture. We have an explicit teaching here that believers are free to enjoy the good things around us even if they do not come from an explicitly Christian source. We are to appreciate the truth and beauty we see even in the art, literature, science, politics, music, technology, and so forth produced by unbelievers. All human beings are made in the image of the true and beautiful God, and though this image was marred in the fall, it was not totally eradicated (Gen. 1:26– 279:6).

In other words, God intends his people not only to be wise in the Scriptures, but also to be wise in the true and helpful things that are taught in the arena of secular thought.

This is not an optional extra. It is an essential component of the Christian life, for Paul commands it here.

Failure to pursue, learn from, and understand secular thinking can be a sign of an inward-focused Christianity that is more concerned about its own comfort and interests than the needs of the world. In fact, I would suggest that one of the reasons people outside the church sometimes feel like Christians “don’t get it” and are not exhibiting the love of Christ the way one would expect of a Christian is because there are some things the Lord expects us, even as Christians, to understand from secular thinking. If we haven’t learned those things, we are going to seem overly inward and out of touch, and more than that, we’re going to be just plain wrong in some of the things we believe. And how helpful is that?

Don’t fall into that trap. If we are going to truly live the lives that God calls us to, we must understand both the Scriptures and true, significant secular thinking.


  • Sam

    I wonder why Paul would drop an exhortation to learn things from the secular world in here? Seems a little random.

    In the context of Phillipians isn’t Jesus the one who Paul has shown to be lovely, noble and praiseworthy?

    This fits in with his prayer that their love abounds more in knowledge and depth of insight so they can discern what is best… Which Paul goes on to show is The Lord Jesus and his pattern of self sacrificial service in this life.

    I understand your concern that Christians are not out of touch with the world but I think your final sentence is phrased very strongly. Paul in Colossians is keen to make the opposite point… In Christ are hidden *all* the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and so we don’t need to go elsewhere.

    I would expect that as I learn Christ I will understand his world better.