In this series of posts we’re exploring the different ways the Bible confronts the reader and the appropriate response to each.
#5 – THE BIBLE AS GOD’S PRACTICAL GUIDEBOOK FOR LIFE
The most popular approach to Scripture in modern-day America is to search it for practical principles for daily living. The Bible is God’s “Handbook for Life”, “Survival Manual”, “Guidebook for Living” or, even more basic, the acronym “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. Well, the Bible certainly does serve this purpose. Consider the Proverbs for starters:
“Their purpose is to teach people wisdom and discipline, to help them understand the insights of the wise. Their purpose is to teach people to live disciplined and successful lives, to help them do what is right, just, and fair. These proverbs will give insight to the simple, knowledge and discernment to the young” (Prov 1:2-4).
Here we have an entire collection of inspired God-fearing nuggets of practical wisdom to apply to our lives. As we examine the culture around us few would argue with the claim that good old-fashioned wisdom, discipline, and insight are a rare commodity. And who wouldn’t benefit from some fresh pointers on how to “live disciplined and successful lives” and do “what is right, just and fair”? Such Scriptures speak marvelously to the nitty-gritty details of life — money management, parenting advice, healthy conflict management skills, work ethic and a storehouse of moral guidance and sexual warnings. As a youth pastor I believe the emerging generation is overstuffed with knowledge and information but lacking the wisdom to rightly filter and apply it to their lives.
Besides the so-called wisdom literature (e.g., Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job) we find much practical teaching and personal exhortation within the Letters to the churches. The power of Scripture to be one’s guidebook for righteous living is clear in the pastoral epistles: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right” (2 Tim 3:16). In this way the Bible provides us with a moral compass, a standard of right and wrong to measure things by.
All of Paul’s letters (except Philemon) follow the well-recognized 2-part pattern of (a) theological or doctrinal reflection followed by (b) ethical instructions (Gk. paraenesis) for applying the truth of the gospel to one’s everyday life. Ephesians, for example, neatly divides into 2 equal parts of 3 chapters each. Romans spends the first 11 chapters in deep theological reflection before signaling an obvious shift to the practical ramifications of has just been argued: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship” (Rom 12:1). Romans 12-16 are all about living out the reality of the gospel in grace-filled community.
Jesus invited his followers to become “disciples” (apprentices devoted to living like Jesus) by building their lives on the foundation of his practical teachings of the Kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’s grand unveiling of his radical kingdom ethic. We can’t forget to mention James which is every youth pastor’s go to book for students eager to find practical wisdom on such relevant topics as back-stabbing and gossip, handling trials and tribulations, walking the talk, avoiding greed and hypocrisy, trusting God with their future, and more.
The Bible is certainly our most reliable guidebook for a Christ-centered, God-honoring life. We should approach it as such. However, I believe our current cultural context of 21st century America has become obsessed with a sort of self-help, life-principles brand of Christianity that has insisted this is the only (or at least the primary) purpose of Scripture. I have written on the dangers of this tendency elsewhere. While the Bible does serve this purpose as we have clearly shown above, this should not become our default approach to Scripture. To demand 3 life principles from some passages of Scripture is about as appropriate as trying to get moral guidance from listening to a live performance of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. This is the primary reason for this series of posts.
At the end of the day, one of the central messages ringing forth from Scripture is the ugly truth that humans are not primarily suffering from a lack of ethical instructions and “how-to” principles. The primary problem is not moral ignorance or lack of knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong. The veiled arrogance of individualistic, self-determined American Christians who believe that we can do anything if we just work hard enough and get enough education simply haven’t understood Bible’s diagnosis of the human condition. Paul is quite clear that self-help tips and life principles is not enough:
“I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway…I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me” (Rom 7:19, 21-23).
This is the folly and danger of the “how-to”, life-principles approach to Scripture. While our motives may be pure and our goal is simply to live a more godly life by following the Bible’s teaching; we may unknowingly be buying into a toxic brand of Pharisaic, works-righteousness whereby we earn God’s favor (by our Bible application) rather than accept God’s righteousness as gift.
Most of all, as I’ve argued elsewhere, this approach to Scripture leaves the Bible under our control to serve our needs as we apply its truth as we see necessary. When properly approached and humbly read, God’s Word should not reinforce our tendency to place ourselves at the center of our universe with God’s Word orbiting our felt needs and desires. Instead, our encounter with Scripture should catapult ourselves away from the center and into a life of faith where God becomes our fixed center and our hearts gradually revolve more and more around God’s priorities, God’s concerns and God’s desires.