My Study Process
This is part 5 in a series on my personal process of studying the Bible (read part 4).
Ever had to apply medical ointment to a wound? In effect, you are rubbing the healing agent into a damaged part of the body. The agent purifies and helps it reform. It makes us whole again. This is how we apply the text.
I think that many people, when they say “apply the Bible,” mean that they are taking the Bible and making it applicable to their personal life. But, this is not entirely accurate. The Bible is already applicable. It doesn’t need any help from us. Rather, the opposite is true. We need help from it. And therefore, we should make ourselves applicable (or conform) to God’s word. It has been said that we need to comprehend, comply and communicate the word.
On the other hand, if we use the word “apply” in another sense, like the illustration of the ointment, I think that we have a more appropriate use of the word. We should think of God’s truth as an ointment that is rubbed and worked into our life so that we are made whole in Christ. There is no need to make changes to the Bible so that it fits into our life. Rather, we are the ones who need change and the Bible is ready to bring it about (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
This is important to know because it frames the way we make use of the God’s word. Before we are matured by it, we must understand that it alone has the power to save and sanctify us. It is not like processed food. There are no additives required. It is fully capable of changing us on its own. (Granted, the Scriptures never come alone. They are always accompanied by the Holy Spirit.)
Still, the question remains, “How do I apply the text?” I have discovered two responses to this query. The first is simple. You don’t have to do anything! Yea, it is that simple. Since the power resides in the Word of God, then you will be transformed by taking it in (Rom. 12:2). Since we behave as we believe (Jn. 14:23), then changing our beliefs is the most critical part of applying the text. The second is not as simple as the first. It is that you must work hard and diligently (Rom. 8:3). I’ll explain more about that later. For now, let me give you some personal examples of how the Bible applied itself to me.
In my early years of marriage, troubling times had a severe affect on me. I became confused, depressed, disappointed. I was facing life in a new way. The days of bachelorhood were over. I had greater responsibilities. And when things fell apart and led to a distressed relationship with my wife, I didn’t know how to act. Many times, I was ready to “throw in the towel” as they say.
Most of these troubles had nothing to do with my marriage. They were outside of the it. They were things that were often out of my control like financial insecurities, job loss, family deaths, car troubles, and others. The hard times came often and were as various as fingerprints. But one thing was quite consistent, my response to them was utterly sinful. I needed God’s word and I needed it rubbed into my life.
The Lord was guiding me during this time. I didn’t know it, but He was. I like to think that God let me go to the depths of my weakness in order to see a clear work of His word. (This is one thing that I love about God, He weakens me so that I see His strength more clearly each time.)
By God’s providence, my Bible study continued. I didn’t give into the temptation of looking for particular passages in order to resolve my temporal, earthly problems. This was not because the Bible was unable to help. It was because I had a tendency to “read into the text” instead of “draw out of the text” the message that was there. In other words, when I go looking for answers I am tempted to find them where they don’t exist and thereby misinterpret the Scriptures. So, I decided to persevere in reading and learning, verse by verse and book by book, letting it teach me whatever it was teaching.
Subtly and quietly, God’s word was working on me. I didn’t know it and I didn’t see it happening. It was like a secret building project happening and I was it. My perspectives were changing about a number of things. I noticed that I was seeking the good of others rather than myself. I was being honest even when it hurt me. I was more calm since I was more sure of God’s sovereignty. I was loving and careful.
Then, I came across the first chapter of James. And, although I was seeing my troubles quite differently, stuff started to make sense. I was putting my finger on something. It was resolution for my weakness. In earlier times, I was troubled by troubles. But, I changed and didn’t realize it until I studied James 1.
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness haves its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete” (Ja. 1:2-4). The chapter continues and gets even better. This is just a teaser.
Before studying James, I learned that God was going to finish what He started (Phil. 1:6), God is working out His plan (Acts 4:27-28), God disciplines those He loves (Heb. 12:6), and God is powerful to do what He desires (Jer. 32:17, 27). So why am I suffering? Why do I go through these troubles? These questions were all laid to rest.
James teaches us that troubles are what God uses to make us more like Christ. Therefore, a proper response to trials is not what I was doing. Instead, it is joy. And with all this in mind, my perception of troubling times dramatically changed. It was like day and night with me. In fact, I am asked periodically why I’m not so moved by the things that I go through today. It is the power of God’s word. I only had to take it in, God did the rest.
On the other hand, there are occasions when I have to fight hard to overcome temptation and sin. Some things don’t come out passively or subtly. They are like the tearing down of big walls. Paul said that we must “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13). On another occasion, he wrote that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24).
Some sins don’t go away so easy. God, in His providence, has us war against our flesh like a soldier in battle. It is a unto the death. These types of sins are usually more habitual or secretive. They are sins like homosexuality, pornography, use of foul language, speeding, anger, and others. They are different from person to person and require a great deal of outside help like an accountability group and even consistent exercise and dieting. Things that help us show ourselves that our desires are not in control will help us put the death the deeds of the body.
In my adolescent years, I had a habit of cussing. Now, I was no sailor. But, I was no school boy either. I used a few foul words pretty regularly. You might say that I was PG-13. Nevertheless, I needed to stop. It was inappropriate, unnecessary and shameful.
Stopping was not going to be easy. It was habitual. I had been doing it for years and it was part of my vocabulary. Plus, it was normative speech by my peers. But I needed to stop and was resolved to do so. I prayed about it. I asked God for help. I also told my closest friends so that they could help. I needed reminders and accountability. So, I started wearing rubber bands on my wrist. When I cussed, I popped myself. The sting would remind me to stop cussing. (Think of it like a spanking on a smaller scale.) Also, people would often ask me about the bands. This too kept my resolve in the front of my mind.
Gimmicks like these don’t always work since they are man-made. However, they do serve to help us in our yielding and obedience to God’s commands. The ultimate transformation happens when our mind is convinced by the Bible to the point that conviction motivates our actions. This is where the Holy Spirit is most noticeably at work
So, on one what hand we don’t have to do anything to apply the text. It just happens to us when we meditate on it. On the other hand, we must do as Paul says and fight sin in our life with the intention to kill. We do this by doing whatever it takes to get control of our will, by praying, by seeking accountability, and by avoiding things that stimulate temptation.
Applying the text is more of a work of God than it is a work of you. If you think of it like an ointment rubbed into a wound and you see yourself as the wounded one, then consider the Holy Spirit to be the one applying the healing agent. It is our job to keep reading and studying the Bible so that the Spirit will apply more ointment.