A few years ago, I was preparing for a small group Bible study on Luke 14:26 according to my church’s recommended steps. The Bible study steps culminated with “application” (i.e., “How can you apply this to your life?”), which is common in contemporary Bible studies. Yet I struggled to understand how to “apply to my life” Jesus’s call to “hate . . . [your] own life.”
As I wrestled with the text, I began to see the limitations of the practice of “application” (at least, as it was presented to me). Throughout Scripture, the Lord calls us to more than minor tweaks and slight adjustments to our already stable lives. Instead, Jesus’ call in Luke 14 (and in all of Scripture) is much deeper, wider, and even more practical than the language of “application” captures.
3 Common, Faulty Assumptions
Again, my concern isn’t about the importance of “practicing Christian doctrine” (to borrow Beth Felker Jones’s helpful phrase). Indeed, the gospel of Jesus Christ changes every aspect of our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit, and Scripture helps us see the many outworkings of that.
My main concern with the language of “application” is that it can carry faulty—and harmful—assumptions about how we approach Scripture. Here are three.
Assumption #1: I should start with me and my questions.
The task of application implies using an external object to support a person and his or her purposes (e.g., applying sunscreen or a productivity technique). “Applying Scripture” can therefore assume a prioritization of me and my life as the starting point—from which I can utilize the external object of a biblical truth. We often begin with our own perception of the world and then read the Bible to discover “what it means to me,” looking to address our lives, our questions, and our problems.
The danger is this assumption makes me the center of the interpretive solar system, with everything revolving around me and my life. The more a truth “applies” to my life, the more gravity it has. Anything that seems unapplicable to me gets dismissed and is relegated to the status of space debris.
Proposed alternative: Start with God.
Rather than allowing our questions and assumptions to have the first say, so that we “eclipse the biblical narrative,” we can begin with God’s story and the reality of the world as he established it. We start reading Scripture with God as the fundamental reality, just as the Bible begins to tell the story: “In the beginning, God” (Gen. 1:1).
This doesn’t mean we can’t bring our questions or present our problems to God as we read Scripture (e.g. turning to particular Psalms in seasons of pain, fear, or grief; or reading Proverbs in family devotions to cultivate habits of wisdom). But it does mean we “seek first the kingdom” and consider our questions and problems within that orientation. We should avoid what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls the “unbiblical” search for a solution from the “vantage point” of humanity.
It’s likely many of our questions will be addressed when we locate ourselves within God’s story, the true story. Yet it’s also possible the Lord’s response to us—like his responses to Job and Peter (Job 38–41; John 21:22)—isn’t a direct answer to our questions or an immediate solution to our problems but rather an even greater solution: his presence.
Assumption #2: The Bible is (primarily) a collection of principles.
Shallow approaches to application make assumptions about the object of our search. We turn the Bible into an answer key, a collection of principles, or “eternal truths” waiting to be “discovered” and “applied.” We read biblical stories, poetry, prophecy, epistles, and apocalyptic literature and ask, “What nugget can I take away from this?” Sometimes it seems Scripture would be better suited to us if it were in the form of an Excel spreadsheet—a series of lists of statements, rules, principles for life, and facts of the world ready to be applied to any given situation with a quick Control+F.
Like the rich young ruler who came to Jesus looking for some sage insight he might use in his already decent life (Mark 10:17–22), we come to the text of Scripture looking for a principle we might apply to our lives, our jobs, and our cars’ bumpers. Yet in doing so, we too may miss out on the life-engulfing invitation of God in Scripture.
Proposed alternative: Scripture is (fundamentally) the story of God and his work.
My attempts to use Scripture primarily as a collection of principles can dull its living and active power (Heb. 4:12). Are there principles in Scripture? Certainly. But it’s fundamentally an account of who God is and what he has done to redeem creation from the deleterious effects of sin.
Scripture is, as has become popular to say, a “story” or “drama” of God. Rather than picking out principles from the story (leaving the story behind once we’ve derived the principle, like it’s the kernel in a husk), the nature of this story inclines us (with all of ourselves) to be engrossed by it and to encounter its Author.
Assumption #3: The goal of reading the Bible is improving my life.
With this assumption, the application of Scripture ends up being more like a divine stamp of approval on pursuing my own goals for my own benefit. This reflex has led to an onslaught of (both good and bad) books and sermons on the “biblical way” to do X (whether X is to make money, vote, dress, raise kids, do business, or even diet). Having been trained in these “application habits,” I open my Bible and look for immediate personal benefits from the words of Scripture—such as three takeaways or one minor behavioral change I can make on the spot.
It’s unsurprising we find it difficult to appreciate the aspects of Scripture that seem to defy immediate application—the Old Testament’s peculiar stories, Israel’s ceremonial customs, and the early church’s apocalyptic expectations. These need not be shunned by the church because of their seemingly limited applicability but rather embraced as parts of God’s story and God’s work to redeem creation.
Imagine asking a friend how her day was and two minutes into her summary interjecting, “Wait, tell me how this applies to me?” We’d never do this. And yet we do it to God. We exchange the feast of relational intimacy and holistic formation for the porridge of minor behavioral change and practical nuggets for our optimized life.
We exchange the feast of relational intimacy and holistic formation for the porridge of minor behavioral change and practical nuggets for our optimized life.
Proposed alternative: The goal of reading the Bible is communing with God.
When we start from our problems and perspectives, looking for principles to improve our lives, we often miss God’s invitation in Scripture to know and commune with him. God reveals himself in Scripture not primarily to make some aspect of our lives better on our terms but to bring us to himself—to reveal his love for us and his desire to be with us.
This is where we find true “improvement”—the abundant life in Jesus (John 10:10). Yet we don’t come to the abundant life by gradual life hacks toward our own goals on our own terms. We die to ourselves and find our lives in Christ (Gal. 2:20), orienting all aspects of ourselves toward God himself and communion with him.
Reorienting Our Reading
I’ve grown to love Scripture (and the God of Scripture) more as I upend the three faulty assumptions listed above. As we reorient our Bible reading, we begin to see the activity more like reading a good autobiography—where we get to know and love the author—than an instruction manual. Reading Scripture shouldn’t lead to changing one aspect of our character or giving up some small amount of time; it should remind us that Jesus is calling us to give up everything (Phil 3:8-10), even our own lives (Luke 14:26), so that he might change all of us (1 Thess. 5:23).
As Dorothy Sayers says, “Surely it is not the business of the Church to adapt Christ to men, but to adapt men to Christ.” So, if we must choose between “applying the Bible to our lives” and “applying our lives to the story of God,” Sayers asks us to consider the latter—to orient ourselves toward God, his true story of the whole world, and communion with him.