Reading the Bible without applying its teachings to your life is like reading a recipe and not making it–you have an idea of how things are supposed to be done but you miss out on the intended benefits. If you struggle with how to apply God’s word to your life, these three practical steps will help.
We know applying God’s Word is important. After all, how gross is it to claim to base our lives around God and His Word yet remain completely unchanged by it? As James says when he exhorts us to “be doers of the word and not hearers only” (1:22), it’s like coming to a mirror and spotting a huge chunk of spinach wedged in your teeth, only to walk away and forget about it. (Okay, James doesn’t say the spinach thing. That’s me.)
James’ point is that hearing God’s Word must lead to doing God’s Word. When the Word exposes the proverbial “sin spinach” in our soul’s teeth, we are supposed to acknowledge the sin and work with the Lord to remove it.
But applying God’s Word can be more complicated than spinach removal. The basic question for application is ‘How should this change the way I think and live?’ It’s a fantastic question, but the answer is not always plain.
For example, I remember someone encouraging other young women and I to workout daily, because the Proverbs 31 woman ‘makes her arms strong’ (v. 17). This did not settle well with me. Though it could have been a result of my natural distaste for the gym, I think the feeling was the beginning of discernment. It’s not hard to see how this application could go wonky in a young woman’s mind, causing her to form a distorted view of what the Lord values.
Certainly, God’s Word must be applied—but it can be applied inappropriately. For the glory of God and for the building up of the church, we should strive to apply God’s Word well. But how?
STUDY WITH INTEGRITY
To apply God’s Word well, we must study it well. In fact, poor study habits can result in anti-gospel application. For example, we may identify with the hero rather than remembering God alone is the hero. (Then we miss the good news of rescue and are burdened with a role we aren’t designed to play!) We can read a psalm and create laws for ourselves though poems aren’t primarily intended for instruction—they’re meant to be experienced. (Then we are burdened to follow commands that aren’t necessarily God’s idea!)
Before we apply, we need to gain intel on the context of the passage. (A study Bible is a great resource.) Who wrote this book and to whom were they writing? Did they write it as a letter, a poem, historical narrative, law, or something else? What was going on in the world when this was written?
After we have some sense of context, we can read to understand rather than read to be transformed. (There are lots of tools out there for how to do this! Google “inductive study tools” or ask a seasoned Bible reader in your church for help.) The general rule is that we shouldn’t try to squeeze application out of passages we haven’t wrestled to understand.
SLOW YOUR ROLL
As we study with integrity, we may have to intentionally hit the brakes. Our success-oriented culture praises productivity, so it’s tempting to view the Bible as a quick self-help manual. We come to Scripture like we’re seconds from soccer practice starting and sitting at a drive thru window, shouting, “Transformation with a side of fries please!”
Of course, transformation can’t be ordered and served up like a Happy Meal. I recently taught John 6—a chapter that contains Jesus’ miracle of feeding 5000 people with a boy’s lunch. I realized if you weren’t careful with application, you could deduct from the passage that it’s good to take food from a kid. That’s what Jesus did. Aren’t we supposed to live like Jesus? Give me your lunch, little boy.
Quick application is bad for hungry little boys and bad for hungry souls. Truly, answering the application question is often a slow dawn rather than a flick of a switch. This is good news for the woman desiring to be shaped by God’s Word, because it means she is free to say, “I don’t know how to apply this yet.” God loves a humble heart!
Sister, receive this grace: You do not have to read your Bible like you are being haunted by the ghost of January 1. Instead, faithfully come to the Word and wait for God to plant, prune, and water within you. In faith, you can give yourself permission to be more crockpot than microwave.
LET THE SPIRIT WORK
After studying a passage with integrity and considering application slowly, we may be able to intellectually answer the application question (and that’s a win!), but knowing the answer is not the same as being transformed by the passage. That’s the job of the Holy Spirit.
The most significant transformation I have experienced in my life has happened in this way: Through careful study, I carry a passage in my heart. I have an experience that rattles me, and the Holy Spirit surprises me by calling the passage to mind. I hold the passage up to my experience, and voila! The gap in my discipleship is exposed. The spinach is plain, and through His Word, God offers me the tools for extraction. (By the way, journaling is a helpful practice for processing all of the above.)
This experience can initially feel shameful because the Holy Spirit has a way of calling us out with great precision. However, the Christ follower never has to look at all she lacks and lament hopelessly! Instead, she can say, “God is still growing me here, and Jesus bore my sin and shame on the cross.” Then, she can partner with the Holy Spirit and marvel as God shapes her more into His image.
What a gift it is to have a Word that is living and active, that cuts like a surgeon’s knife to bring us health and abundant life! Applying God’s Word is a beautiful experience, and as you seek to study the Bible with integrity, apply it slowly, and let the Spirit work, you will develop a deep affection for God and His unfailing friendship. After all, it’s a good friend who says, “Hey, there’s spinach in your teeth. Let’s get that out.”
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