Go to a Christian bookstore and take a look at their selection of study bibles and many if not most will tout their notes that help you to “apply the Bible to your life.” Some will even go as far as to call themselves Life Application Study Bibles, or something like this.
As another example of this, I was reading a book that was teaching people how to teach the Bible to others, and this book made the point that in every lesson one needs to make sure that people are challenged to discern how this particular lesson or passage will change how they live, or what they will actually do because of this. After all, it’s one thing to be filled with a whole bunch of head knowledge about God and the Bible and another thing entirely to actually do something about it.
After all, doesn’t Paul say, “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Rom 2:13)?
So then, it stands to reason that when we study the Bible, we need to not only ask questions about what the text means, but also what we are now going to do with it or because of it, right?
Let’s back this train up for a second.
Law & Gospel
Some of the obvious reasons why this view is problematic are what you might expect your stereotypical Lutheran to say. There’s a confusion of Law and Gospel here, naturally. It’s easy to turn Christianity into a program of life improvement instead of something primarily to be received. The scriptures stop being a record of God’s promises to his people fulfilled in Jesus, and become the ultimate catalogue of divine life lessons that carry the threat of hell if you don’t follow them well enough. Done poorly, this kind of focus on life application can quickly turn into legalism.
This is all true, but I think that this response doesn’t start back far enough. It fails to get at the real root of the problem.
You see, the scriptures do a lot of inviting us into a new kind of life. There is actually quite a bit that Christians are to do. Not of course, to earn something, but because this is the life that we have been baptized into. Through Jesus we have been made into a new creation, which includes not only having our record of sin/guilt erased, but also beginning to live more in harmony with God’s design for creation. The Law-Gospel analysis is helpful for reorienting us back to the passivity of the Gospel, but doesn’t always help us to understand how we can think about the things that we really are called to do.
Applying Our Lives to the Bible
The main issue with applying the Bible to our lives is that it gets things backward. When we apply the Bible to our lives we start with our lives and then see what the Bible has to say to us. We see if we need to make any modifications to the way that we are already living or if there is any encouragement that our favorite Bible verse can give us in the midst of our own life situation. We start with our own lives and our own experience and perspective, and then see what the Bible has to say to us. However, there is a better way. Instead of starting with our lives, we start with the scriptures. We seek to internalize the scriptures’ way of viewing God, the world, and ourselves. We let the scriptures critique our own way of seeing things. We let our own value system and priorities be interpreted and reshaped by the scriptures. We don’t ask how God fits into our lives, but we ask how our lives fit into the life of God and his work and mission in the world. We don’t ask how the scriptures apply to our lives, but we ask how we fit into the narrative and categories established by the scriptures.
This is a radical, yet subtle paradigm shift and it goes against a lot of values of our culture. It goes against our individualistic tendencies, how we tend to view ourselves as the center of all meaning and significance. It goes against our tendency to criticize everything else from our own experiences instead of criticizing our own experiences from some other standard or reference point.
An example of this is probably helpful.
I often hear Christians talk about how they need to set aside more time for God or how they need to make God the number one priority in their life. These are good pious sentiments and I don’t begrudge anybody who expresses them. My point is that these sentiments don’t go far enough.
For example, it’s true that it’s good to set aside time for daily prayer and devotion. This is a good thing. It’s good to make the time to join with the rest of the people of God for weekly worship where you can hear the Word preached and receive the sacrament. But when we say that doing things like this is setting aside more time for God or something like that, we are guilty of compartmentalizing our lives into God-time (i.e. prayer, bible reading, worship, etc.) and not-God-time (i.e. everything else).
The solution is not to change the balance from less God-time to more God-time, but the solution is to recognize that our entire lives have spiritual meaning and significance. It’s not a question of how we can fit God into our lives, but how we see ourselves fitting into God’s work in the world. One concrete way that this can happen is through the doctrine of vocation (see more on that here). The doctrine of vocation asserts that God works in the world through means. So, God uses people in all their various callings to do his work of sustaining and preserving life in God’s good creation. This means that God is at work through doctors, firemen, bankers, mothers, students, baristas, and trash collectors. It’s often not always glamorous and it often doesn’t feel very spiritual, but these are all ways that God is at work in the world through his human creatures.
So then, if we have a robust understanding of the doctrine of vocation, we can see every moment of our lives as God-time. Our entire lives have spiritual meaning and significance since God is always at work in the world through us. Not only that, be we are always being served by God through other people in their vocations. While we may receive God’s highest gifts through the Word and Sacrament, we also receive God’s gifts through the food on our plate, the coffee in our mug, the mail on our doorstep, and even a cool breeze that blows through the trees. We can learn to see everything and every moment as a good gift given to us by our heavenly father. This endows all of life with spiritual meaning and significance. There is no such thing as God-time and not-God-time. We may interact with God in different ways at different times, which is why things like, worship, prayer, and devotion remain vitally important, but these do not become our only spiritual moments.
Reading the Scriptures Anew
So then, when we read the scriptures, we want to ask questions like, “What does this teach me about who God is?” “What does this teach me about who I really am?” “How do I fit into the patterns described here?” “What does it mean to be the people of God?” or “How does what God is doing here connect/contrast with what God does elsewhere in the Scriptures?”
Through this reflection we probably will (hopefully at least) realize that there are things that we need to do or change in our own lives. But this comes as a result of understanding how we fit into the story of the scriptures, not in seeing how we can use the scriptures to modify our own lives.
And this makes sense, because this is exactly how the scriptures often talk about the things that we do as the baptized and forgiven people of God. In Exodus, the ten commandments begin with “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” The Israelites are first supposed to understand how they fit into the action of God in history before they get to the stuff that they are now called to do. Paul, who is well-known for always including instruction for living in his letters, always starts with what God has done and how his hearers are a new creation in Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Paul begins with this reality, before he moves on to instructing his hearers on how they ought now to live now in light of this reality.
In this way the Bible stops being merely God’s rulebook for life or Basic Instruction Before Leaving Earth, but it becomes an invitation to a new life. It becomes a new way of seeing the world, ourselves, and the God who created it all and is making all things new through his Son. This new way of viewing everything will then have implications, but the implications are not themselves the point. We discover them after training our focus on the true point, the action of God which culminates in Jesus’ life and work. This then disarms all of our questions about relevance. If we start with ourselves we may fail to see how much of the scriptures is relevant to our lives. But if we start with God, then we see very quickly how our lives are relevant to him and his work of making all things new. We are baptized after all. We have been called out of darkness and into light. We have been made new through the Spirit and have been made sons and daughters of the King of all creation.