Applying the Bible, Part 3: General Principles

This is Part 3 of a series:

We’ve talked about why thinking critically about the way we apply the Bible is important, and we’ve looked at some common ways that people do it, appreciating what can be helpful in those methods as well as seeing their shortcomings.

Before launching into some thoughts on how we might apply the Bible to today, I wanted to go over some general principles that I think any method of application should recognize however they decide to engage with them.

1. It’s ok not to have an application

There’s nothing in the Bible that says everything it contains has to be applicable to you in some way.  That’s an extrabiblical assumption people bring to the Bible.

The biblical writings occur in specific contexts to specific people at specific points in history.  Many times, there will be things that you can take away from these writings that apply to your own contexts and point in history.  But there will be times where this isn’t the case, and that’s ok.  Not every verse in the Bible has to have an application for you.

Let’s take, for example, 2 Timothy 4:11-13:

Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. (NRSV)

If you were to ask me how these verses applied to my life, I would tell you, “They don’t.”  They don’t.  Even by implication, there isn’t a changed belief or moral imperative to be found here.  The verse gives specific instructions to specific people at a specific time.  I couldn’t replicate this even if I wanted to.  The cloak just isn’t there.

This example is obvious, but the principle applies even when things aren’t as obvious, and it’s something we always need to keep in mind no matter what passage we’re reading.

He said to them, “When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “No, not a thing.” He said to them, “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” He replied, “It is enough.”

Luke 22:35-38 (NRSV)

Here, Jesus is talking specifically to his disciples in the upper room.  He reminds them that there was a time when he sent them out without belongings and they were fine.  He didn’t send you or me out without belongings, but at one point, he sent them out, and they were fine.

Now, however, is a different time.  Now, he’s asking his disciples to buy swords.  Why?  Because, at least as far as Luke’s text is concerned, he has to be associated with criminals (presumably so that he’ll be arrested) and his disciples carrying weapons around will do the trick.  And they scrounge up a couple of swords and that’s good enough to make it work.

How do these instructions apply to your life?  I would argue they don’t.  Jesus is giving specific instructions to a specific group of people that accomplish a specific goal.  In fact, Jesus even contrasts this with a prior set of instructions (which I hope we can agree also don’t apply to you – they don’t even apply to these disciples anymore in the story).

“But wait,” you object, “Jesus is regularly addressing his disciples directly.”

Yes, which is precisely why this principle is so important.  Virtually every passage in the Bible has a greater or lesser amount of “particular circumstance” to it.  It’s always a possibility the passage is not meant to go any further than its own circumstances, and it’s ok.  It’s fine for a Bible passage not to apply to you.

Note, this doesn’t mean the passage has no value or importance.  It just means that it doesn’t have something for you particularly to take away from it to apply to your own life.

2. How Do You Apply History?

Imagine that you’re reading a book on the American Civil War.  The book contains mostly narratives about the war and the events surrounding and following it.  It also contains some letters, some songs, and some formative political documents.

How would you go about applying all that to your life?

If you’re a high school student, you’d probably say, “It doesn’t!  Stop making me learn stuff!  And when will I ever use Calculus, either?”

But aside from that, I think most of us would consider that these things could be useful to us in the present day.

One, it helps us see these things through the eyes of the people who lived them.  We understand these people better.  We empathize with them.  An experience that on the surface seems kind of alien to us all of a sudden becomes a very human, understandable, and relatable thing.  We begin to understand what was important to them, and we begin to think about the things that are important to us, and we find overlap or wonder if there should be some.  What are the things so vital to these people that we have lost, so many generations distant from the Civil War?

This leads to two, how are we a part of this story?  What are some things about our country that are explained by the Civil War?  Is that good?  What are the things that we are glad to have lost, and what things ought we recover, if any?  Are there keys in here as to how we might begin to repair some things that need repairing?  Are there important impacts of these events that we have overlooked and are now coming home to roost?

Modern America is a product of, among other things, the Civil War.  It behooves us to think how these events have shaped our values and practices, and not just as an academic exercise, nor simply a greater relationship with our ancestral past (which is very important), but with an eye toward what we should keep, what we should discard, and what we need to work on.

Which leads us to three, how can we avoid the mistakes shown to us in the Civil War and how can we promote whatever good things we may have seen there?  Can we see things in contemporary society that, based on what we saw in the Civil War, may indicate that we might end up in another one?  Have we truly settled the issues from the Civil War, or did we momentarily beat them down with violence only to have them crop up again?  How will we know them when we see them?

And depending on our life circumstances, there are other things we might take away.  Military commanders might get some good tactical principles (or notice bad ones) from the battles.  Statesmen might learn some things about diplomacy and political force that could hep them in their current efforts.  People visiting their relatives in the deep South might decide that an honest conversation about Robert E. Lee is something best suited for a one on one talk and not the Thanksgiving dinner table.

My point is that history is rarely -directly- applicable to your situation.  We’re not living in the Civil War or even fighting in a second one.  But it’s applicable all the same.  Many of the tools we use to make our knowledge of history useful in the present day are tools we can also use in our reading of the Bible.

3. The original meaning shapes the trajectory of our use of it.

You can hammer nails with screwdrivers, but it’s usually not very effective.  You use hammers to hammer nails, and you use screwdrivers to screw screws.  Or you can use screwdrivers to loosen yourself up at dance clubs.  Wait, loosen up?  Is THAT why they’re called screwdrivers?  Huh.

Anyway, the point is that these things were shaped for an intended purpose.  When you use them for their intended purpose, things usually go well.  The further you get from that intended purpose, the more difficult their use becomes.  If you get too far away, they are totally useless.  I can’t use a screwdriver to bake dough, and no, that isn’t a challenge.

The text we find in the Bible was also formed for a purpose.  If we can determine that purpose, that is the key that unlocks our use of the text as well.

This step is typically where many application approaches go wrong.  One of the problems with the “What does this text mean to me?” or a highly moralistic approach is that you can do it with almost any text at all because the original intent of the text is irrelevant.  I can get a “personal application” or a “moral imperative” out of a passage from a biography of Julius Caesar or a driver’s manual or Goodnight, Moon.

When I used to be a trainer, I was teaching a class how to make tables in HTML, and I suggested sketching the table on paper, beforehand, because that made it clearer what HTML you needed to write.  The next day, one of the students told me how amazing that advice was because, if she could just get her life goals on paper, it became clear what she needed to do to achieve them.  This is not that different from how people are with the Bible.  Although, I was also glad I could help her out with her life goals even though that wasn’t my intention, and I sometimes wonder if this isn’t how the Spirit sees this whole thing, too.

I’ve driven Jeremiah 29:11 up one wall and down the other, so let me pick a different example.  Let’s ruin Psalm 42:

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
    and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
    a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
    have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God, my rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
    because the enemy oppresses me?”
As with a deadly wound in my body,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

– Psalm 42 (NRSV)

I’ve often heard this Psalm held up as a model for the passion we’re supposed to have for God.  We need more of it.  We need a passion for God like the psalmist feels, here, like a thirsty deer panting for water.  The moral imperative, here, is to long for God more.  If you aren’t longing for God like this in your life, then you need to address it.

Other times, I’ve heard this Psalm held up as a model for dealing with spiritual discouragement.  In this view, the psalmist represents someone going through a period of spiritual dryness but remaining faithful, knowing the day will come when they are going to feel more spiritually vibrant.  You, too, can face your times of spiritual dryness with faithfulness, knowing that they are just a brief season that will someday be replaced with spiritual joy.

Those may both be things that have meaning for people as they read this passage, but is that David’s intent?

Look at the historical particulars in this Psalm.  David remembers when he led multitudes to the Temple, and he longs for that to happen again.  He no longer can do this.

David remembers God from the land of the Jordan (the mountains also represent that region with Mizar representing the Temple mount).  He is no longer in those locations.

David is oppressed by enemies who taunt him saying that his God cannot help him.

This psalm is not in response to an ebb and flow in someone’s spiritual condition; it’s a response to being oppressed by enemies who have driven him from the holy land and the place of God’s worship.  David, the true king of Israel, has been driven from his land, Jerusalem, and the Ark of the Covenant.  Between him and these things sit oppressors who mock him.

Many commentators believe the background for this Psalm is Absalom’s rebellion and David’s flight to the Kidron.  Whether that is the specific event or not, the Psalm shows us the particular events that have occasioned this writing.  The true king who rules true Israel has been driven from the promised land and the localized presence of God among His people.

Granted, this causes a lot of emotion for David.  Why did this happen?  “Why have you forgotten about me?” the king of Israel asks?  My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?  And, yet, he determines to be faithful, remembering that, despite his circumstances, God is steadfast in His love and will restore to him the land, the throne, and the unmitigated presence of God.

What we’re getting a window into is not a spiritual poet being dramatic about the waxing and waning of a passion for God; we’re seeing an expulsion of the king from Jerusalem and God’s presence at the hands of political enemies – almost in defiance of God’s actual covenant and promises to the king and the people.  But the king believes that this is not a breaking of God’s covenant even though it may feel that way, but a season that will be triumphantly overcome in time.

And this eschatology bears out.  Absalom was put down.  David was restored, and Absalom was buried in the very valley that David was “exiled” to.

Once you understand the original contours of this psalm, you can see why it makes it into Israel’s songbook, as they also are exiled from their promised land, oppressed by enemies with other gods who mock the strength of theirs, and control the Temple.  It, too, looks like God has abandoned them to their enemies and forgotten His covenant.  They can understand their experience through David’s eyes.  This has happened, before, and they can have the same hope.

You can also see why apostles seeing Jesus would see in him the culmination of the expression of this Psalm: the faithfulness of the king and loyal Israel in the face of the power of his enemies resulting in his return and exaltation.  The ultimate overturning of the oppressors, casting them into the very fate with which they threaten the faithful.

As you see the later applications of this Psalm, then you understand that it’s the original meaning that defines the path.  Absalom does not conquer Israel later.  He’s dead.  But the meaning of these events in Israel’s past provides them an understanding of their present, which enables them to have a similar hope and look for a similar outcome.

So then, what about today?  Do these sets of circumstances have relevance for the church today?

At various points, there have certainly been some similarities.  We might think of believers who have to meet in secret because of the political threat to their lives, or even periods like Communist Russia in the early to mid 1900s when churches (and synagogues and other religious buildings) were destroyed.  Believers having experiences like this might easily take this Psalm for their own.  Perhaps they foresee an actual political overturning like David and Israel did, or perhaps they simply know that God has not abandoned them and one day, somehow in some way, they will be vindicated.

Also, we might think about what constitutes a political threat to the people of God, now.  For America, it isn’t another country nor our government (sorry, America – Christians are not persecuted here).  But there are certainly forces at work in the world that threaten to marginalize Christians from a political standpoint and this has already happened many places in Europe.  Again, I’m not talking about active persecution, but I might be talking about a sort of exile.  We are moving rapidly from “the default” in the West to “the crazy uncle,” and it’s not clear where that trend will stop.

Part of that may even be good for the world.  We haven’t been very good stewards of power for the most part.  It’s difficult to argue that places where Christians have been in power look very much like Jesus was running the show.

But at the same time, it is difficult and becomes increasingly difficult to maintain our claims on a world stage where our corner of it is getting smaller and smaller.  We are less relevant.  We sound less credible.  And the loss of our territory has caused many to panic and lash out.  More hatred, more invective, more tyranny.  And the world looks at that and goes, “I think their portion of the stage is obviously still too big.”

But Psalm 42 reminds us that the path forward is faithfulness in our confession and accompanying actions.  God has not forgotten His covenant.  He commands His steadfast love in the day and is our song and prayer in the night.  He is still here.  And if we use this opportunity to consider our faithfulness in the same way Jesus urged his followers to consider theirs, we have reason to hope for a restoration in the world.

I don’t know about you, but meditating on that and thinking about our current story in the world is much more moving, vibrant, comforting, and convicting to me than “7 Steps to Spiritual Restoration in Psalm 42.”  Your mileage may vary.