The Dark Side of Personal Application

bible-blue1A repost from 2009. -JB

This is a thought experiment. Please be gracious and try to understand my line of thinking and let me know if there’s some validity to it. Please also hear what I am NOT saying.

I have long been bothered by a common critique or complaint people have after listening to a biblical exposition of a passage.  “How does this apply to my life?”  I believe this simple request, which sounds so reasonable and innocent on the surface, can have a darker side that has should be considered. Before we explore this darker side let me qualify this statement by saying:

  1.  I believe personal application of the Bible’s message is critical. Absolutely critical.
  2. I believe preachers should help hearers of the Word become doers of the Word.  Of course.
  3. As a youth pastor speaking weekly to teens I really need to work harder at this. I have much room for improvement.

My problem with our personal application obsession is the self-centered, self-absorbed posture of many as they approach God’s Word. Now it seems perfectly appropriate after hearing one of Jesus’ parables to ask oneself how his teaching is personally challenging us. But the operative word there is AFTER.

I am concerned about those who approach the text with their own issues and preoccupations already in mind and ask the Word to magically speak to those issues. I am irritated with an attitude (usually well-meaning and unintentional, by the way) that sounds like: “That’s a nice story Jesus, but can you please address my problem with __________?”  Or, after reading Paul’s monumental Letter to the Romans saying, “Wow, Paul, that was some deep stuff!  Can we talk about me now?”  And a thousand other variations.

The hidden dark side of this posture toward God’s Word is that it reveals a deep-seated self-absorption that keeps us at the center of our universe and insists that God and His Word orbit our needs and serve our interests. Do you see a problem with this posture toward God and the text?

Instead, I would like to offer a different posture toward God’s Word. In fact, it’s the very opposite approach.

  1. First, let’s humbly approach God’s Word as we would approach God himself.  Let’s reverently bow in awe and listen intently to what he is actually saying to us.
  2. Instead of “applying the Bible to our lives” (which again assumes we are the fixed center point and the Word is just a holy ointment to be applied to our souls) let’s instead try to “apply ourselves to the Bible.”  Put narratively, let’s not let give God a convenient place within our own story; but rather find ourselves swept up in God’s much larger Story!
  3. Instead of bringing all of our concerns to the text and forcing it to speak to them, let’s instead let God’s concerns invite us out of our (relatively) petty preoccupations and into the realm of heavenly realities. “Set your mind on things above, not on earthly things” (Col 3:2). Or, as The Message Bible puts it: “Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective.” When we get a glimpse of “God reality” all of our own earthly concerns are seen in a new light.
  4. Finally, personal application must come only AFTER one has given God’s Word a fair hearing. Let God lead the conversation where He so desires. When we’re done letting God’s Word speak then we can ask the Spirit to give us a personal assignment in response to God’s challenge.

I’m sure there is a better way to say all of this.  But I hope you see my point. Now I wonder what you all think?

Am I the only one who has noticed this?  Do you agree that many approach the Bible with an irreverent, self-absorbed posture?  How do you balance (a) letting God’s Word have it’s way and (b) personal application of its message?  

FOR MORE: See Kevin DeYoung’s related article


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Kim says:

    There’s absolutely validity to your thoughts here — very interesting and compelling. Here’s another way to look at it — if we can’t apply the Bible to our own lives and use that application to help those around us find Jesus, will we ever get to the level of spirtuality you are advocating? Perhaps application is the actual road to get there, rather than the roadblock. Just a thought —

    1. Jeremy Berg says:

      Good thought. However, I’m not intending in this post to advocate a level of spirituality to strive towards. I am speaking specifically of the posture and attitude we bring to our listening and study of God’s Word.

      How do we stand in relation to the Word? As scientists forcing Scripture to speak to modern scientific debates (as many people do with Genesis 1)? As politicians trying to gain biblical sponsorship of our particular contemporary socio-political stance (as both conservatives and liberals do)? As pragmatic Americans trying to find bite-sized spiritual principles to help us navigate our busy lives in America (perhaps the most popular approach of the typical person in the pew)? Or, as I mentioned in my response to Mike below, as characters who have found our lives suddenly swept up in God’s epic Story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Cosmic Renewal?

      Are any of these right or wrong? I don’t know. Is there only ONE right approach to listening to and studying God’s Word? Nope. But each has it’s inherent dangers and abuses to watch out for. The danger within the approach I’m critiquing in this post is the tendency for toward self-absorption and our reluctance to let God speak freely (even when a particular text might not address the issues we want it to).

      Good conversation. Peace!

  2. mike says:

    i share your concerns and have long been puzzled by the phenomenon you describe. i think you’re at the heart of the matter with point #2. we post-moderners are all about conforming truth to fit our individual worldviews and the interpretation and application of scripture is not exempt from this tendency. it seems to me we fail to frame the question properly when we ask, “how does this apply to my life?”. we (perhaps inadvertently, perhaps quite intentionally) place ourselves at the center of the proposition making our lives and their trajectories the fixed objects around which we interpret and apply the Word. with some re-framing we might ask “how does my life stand in relationship to this teaching?” making the Word the fixed object around which we shape/apply our lives. but as we post-mods like to say, you can have my subjective truth when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.
    and i wonder if we sometimes forget to keep the large themes and goals clearly in view when we examine and seek to apply specific passages and teachings. Christ-likeness and selflessness are key themes and goals that sometimes get brushed aside or minimized when we focus too much on filtering scripture through our individual lives, needs and wants. if the main purpose and point of studying/applying scripture is to make steps toward living Christ-like lives and if we always keep that goal in view we have a “north star” to guide us when the teachings are hard and the application is difficult.

    great point, great post. i hope more people will join the conversation-it’s an important one.

  3. Jeremy Berg says:

    Thanks, Mike. This isn’t a clear either-or proposition. Some portions of Scripture are meant to applied and lived out immediately (e.g., commands, imperatives, usually the last half of each of Paul’s Episltes, etc.). I just know that there is a huge difference between a primarily PRAGMATIC approach to Scripture and the Christian faith (gaining steam in the Enlightenment) that simply sought practical principles for daily living.

    Yet, other portions of Scripture are meant to evoke worship, provide a glimpse of God-reality, lift us out of our current preoccupations to see them anew from God’s perspective, challenge and subvert worldviews (e.g., postmodernity, other religions), call us to repentance and a myriad of other responses of the hearer.

    My personally preferred approach to Scripture is a NARRATIVE reading of the text. This approach views Scripture as an unfolding drama in which we, the church, have a unique role. This is personal to me because (as I’ve said repeatedly on this blog) I only really came to active, committed faith when in college I stopped writing my own story and instead found my life now swept up in God’s big, epic, reality-defining Story!

    In a Narrative approach, one does not listen to a message as a neutral observer detached and outside the text looking for bite-sized practical principles to apply to my life (again, myself as fixed center point). Instead, one finds themselves lost within the text, as a character is God’s plot at the mercy of the Author’s command wondering what action they should take in light of the realiy just unfolded in the hearing of (or, should I say, embodying of) that text.

    This is very philosophical stuff. But foundational to my approach is N. T. Wright’s 5-act hermeneutic. I will link it to the blog in an upcoming post.

    Again, the question is not whether or not we should let Scripture guide our lives. The question on the table is the posture and attitude of the reader as they approach God’s authoritative Word. Love the conversation.

  4. Mark Galli says:

    Good insight into some of what’s going on when people become impatient for application.

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