When reading our Bibles, a question we cannot forget to ask is, “How does this apply to my life?” When we answer this question, we do the hard work of moving our faith from the theoretical to the practical. We do this because the Bible is not simply a textbook or a history book. Reading the Bible should change the way we live. Every page is meant to shape us more into the image of His Son.
However, when applying Bible passages to our lives, we need to understand that there is a right way to go about it. Applying the Bible without a thoughtful and prayerful approach will almost always result in hurt or confusion. Thankfully, applying the Bible in cooperation with the Spirit, in alignment with an orthodox understanding of our faith, and in the context of community will inevitably result in life change.
Here are six common roadblocks to proper Bible application that you should keep in mind—and try to avoid—as you spend time in God’s Word.
1. Ignorance of Cultural and Historical Ideas
In order to properly apply biblical truth, we need to be aware of the cultural and historical context the passage was crafted in. At face value, the Bible is going to read very differently to a 21st-century American evangelical than it would have to its original, mostly Jewish audience. There are going to be words you don’t understand and analogies that go unnoticed (What is a threshing floor? Why is it important?). Some of the images, practices, or rituals will seem odd or out of place. That is why having the author’s intent and cultural environment in mind can be helpful. Use a study Bible or Bible commentary to educate yourself on the cultural and historical context of whatever book you are reading.
2. Selectivity and Reading Out of Context
We are constantly going to be tempted to make the Bible mean what we want it to mean, rather than what God wants it to mean. One of the most common ways we do this is by selecting singular verses out of context. When we cherry-pick verses solely based on topic or keyword, without understanding the surrounding verses and chapters, we can make the Bible say nearly anything. So, faithful Scripture reading is a dedication to reading complete sections of your Bible. Look for the structure and intent of the whole passage. Rather than coming to the Bible with your own ideas, let the Bible be the source of your ideas.
Take, for example, the popular verse Jeremiah 29:11. When we read this verse out of context, we likely forget it was written to a people currently in exile. By reading the whole passage, we gain a better understanding of what it is trying to say.
3. Overemphasizing Action
As people prone to self-worship, we desperately want our Bible reading to be about us: about what we can do, what we should do, etc. However, the Christian life is ultimately not about behavior modification. While life change and action are results of spiritual formation, they are not the end goal. The aim of your time in the Bible needs to be knowing God, not creating a list of what He wants you to do (John 17:3). So, don’t simply read your Bible looking for practical takeaways or quick tips. Avoid the need to have the application always be action oriented. Instead, understand that proper application may be an invitation to rest or simply know something new about God.
4. Ignoring the Role of the Spirit
It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we are formed more into who God wants us to be. In fact, relying on our own power when applying the Bible to our lives will inevitably result in exhaustion and despair. As you look for application, be prayerful that the Spirit would guide you and empower you to actually change (John 16:5-15). Understand that on your own you can do nothing (John 15:5).
5. Christianity Without Seeking Christlikeness
The call of Jesus is not just to a list of behaviors but also to a specific way of living them out. It is not enough to simply do what Jesus did. We must also do those things with the same gentleness, humility, and compassion that Jesus had when doing them. When you apply the Bible, make sure that you are not just becoming a smarter sinner or a more pious legalist. Reading the Bible should grow your heart in accordance with your knowledge. If you come away from time with the Lord more self-assured, stuck-up, or haughty, you are doing it incorrectly.
6. Allowing Emotion to Drive
While reading our Bibles can, and should, engage our emotions, these same emotions can also quickly become a roadblock. Maybe we want the Bible to agree with our political opinions or endorse our dating decisions. However, we cannot make the mistake of allowing how we feel about the text to determine what it says about God or how we apply it to our lives. There are always going to be passages that confront our way of thinking or offend our sensibilities. There will be passages that appear boring, confusing, or even nonsensical on first glance. This is okay. God wants you to bring your emotions, fears, and doubts to Him in prayer (1 Peter 5:7-10). Allow the Spirit, more than anything else, drive your Bible application.
Ultimately, God gives us His Word so that we might believe in His Son (John 20:30-31) and learn to live righteously (2 Timothy 3:14-16). We are going to make mistakes along the way. Thankfully, learning to read and apply our Bibles is a marathon, not a sprint. If you are struggling along the way, remember that you are not alone. Get connected with the local church and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Applying your Bible will always be easier in the context of community.