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:
- I believe personal application of the Bible’s message is critical. Absolutely critical.
- I believe preachers should help hearers of the Word become doers of the Word. Of course.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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