Do you find it easy or difficult to connect the Bible to people’s lives in meaningful ways? To help you answer the question, let me give you a quiz of sorts for some self-evaluation.
I will give you two sets of questions: one on Bible Passages and the other on Life Struggles. For the Bible Passages category, you must think of a contemporary life situation to which you could apply the given passage. For the Life Struggles category, you must choose a Bible passage you believe would address the problem. Each question may have several “correct” answers. Answer each question before reading the succeeding paragraph. (You’re on the honor system!)
Let’s start with Bible Passages.
1. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6).
More than likely, you thought of situations such as the following: “trusting in God to overcome worry in a financial crisis,” “dealing with a loved one’s impending death,” “facing final exams,” “giving your first sermon series,” “doing beach evangelism on a summer missions project.” What do these answers have in common? They are all situations that can provoke anxiety or worry, right? The passage appears to speak about how to handle worry so, naturally, anxiety-producing situations come to mind as places for potential application.
2. The Story of Joseph (Genesis 37)
Perhaps situations like these came to mind: “how to respond in a godly way when fired unjustly from your job,” “persevering in hope when facing persecution from non- Christians,” “maintaining a perspective that God is working out his purposes even in a series of setbacks, like the ending of a two-year relationship or a pay cut at work.” The way you answered this question depends on what you think the story of Joseph is about and how much you used Joseph’s experience and character in your application.
3. The Philistines capture the ark of the covenant (1 Samuel 4).
This passage may be less familiar to you. For that reason alone, potential applications may not easily come to mind. But if you read the passage, does anything come to mind? Unlike the Joseph story, there are no characters to emulate. (You definitely don’t want to be a Hophni or Phinehas!) Unlike the Joseph narrative, there appears to be no happy ending. Here is a passage where the ark, the dwelling place of God, gets captured by Israel’s archenemy. The glory has departed! How “applicable” is this, really? And should it be applied in isolation from what happens in chapters 1 Samuel 3 and 1 Samuel 5?
4. “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. You too should be on your guard against him, because he strongly opposed our message” 2 Timothy 4:14-15).
If your first thought was, Huh?! that’s quite appropriate! (If your response was, “Watch out for angry atheist welders,” you get extra points for creativity!) Seriously, what should you do with a passage like this? Can you really apply it to a contemporary life situation? If you were able to come up with a potential application, what interpretive “moves” allowed you to generate that application? Should it be that easy?
Now let’s move to the Life Struggles category. For each problem or situation below, consider what biblical passages might apply.
You may have chosen passages such as the following: “‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27); “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20); “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Much like the first question in the Bible Passages category, this seems easy, right? In all likelihood, the passages that came to your mind mention anger in some way and, I would bet, are command-oriented. But did you consider the story of Cain and Abel? Isn’t that a story of anger? What about the many Old Testament passages that talk about God’s anger? Could you have chosen one of them? And didn’t Jesus get angry with the Pharisees? Finally, is it ever appropriate to choose a passage that doesn’t explicitly speak about anger to help an angry person?
2. Conflict in Relationships
How about this? “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3); or “Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful” (2 Timothy 2:23-24); or possibly, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful” (Colossians 3:15). Again, it’s not too difficult to generate a list of passages that are fairly direct in their treatment of conflict.
3. An infertile couple wants to know what technology is biblically permissible to use to achieve pregnancy.
Not so easy, right? No single passage of Scripture comes to mind quickly, I would suspect. With more thought, you might consider Paul’s response to the Corinthians, who were testing the bounds of Christian liberty: “‘Everything is permissible for me’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Corinthians 6:12). OK, but do you realize that Paul is focusing on sexual immorality in this passage? Is it appropriate to apply it to such a different problem? Or would you go to Psalms 139 and build a case that life begins at conception, as a guard against the creation of multiple embryos? Or is there something more important in order to minister the gospel wisely and compassionately to this couple?
4. A gambling addict with bipolar disorder, now taking three different psychoactive medications, has a daughter who just attempted suicide.
Let me save you some time. The most appropriate answer here is Job’s response: “I am unworthy—how can I reply to you? I put my hand over my mouth. I spoke once, but I have no answer—twice, but I will say no more” (Job 40:4-5). In other words, this is too complex to solve with an easy appeal to the Bible. This is not to say that Scripture is irrelevant to this man’s struggle. Quite the contrary! But it’s important to realize that the ease of considering the relevant testimony of Scripture has declined significantly from our first example.
Now, let’s go back to my initial question: Is it easy or difficult to connect the Bible and life? It depends, doesn’t it? I’m going to call what you just experienced the “Ditch vs. Canyon Phenomenon.”
What I mean is this: sometimes use of Scripture in ministry has the feel of stepping across a ditch (easy!), and sometimes it has the feel of stepping across a canyon (impossible!). The challenge, really, is how to bridge the gap between an ancient biblical text and a present-day life situation. How do we attempt to bridge that divide? Most of the time we assume that a direct line of connection must exist between the situation then (in the text) and the situation now. Or at the very least we think we can extract some “timeless principle” from the text and bring it to the present. This mind-set, where we assume some kind of one-to-one correspondence between a text then and a situation now, is admirable in its goal to “make” the Scriptures relevant for the believer today.
And, in fact, it often works when the passage speaks specifically about a situation or experience we’re facing. Here are some examples of “ditch” passages. If you’re not familiar with these passages, look them up as you go and see if you agree.
Psalms 23 for fear
Psalms 51 for repentance
Proverbs 22:15 for disciplining a child
Matthew 5:27-30 for understanding the depth and breadth of adultery/sexual lust
Ephesians 5:22-33 for marriage roles and relationships
Philippians 4:6 for anxiety (as mentioned earlier) along with Ephesians, James, and Proverbs passages on anger
Other passages seem to fit in this category, but they stretch the width of the ditch a bit more. What I mean is, these passages might not speak as specifically and explicitly about a particular struggle or situation, but they seem “close enough” to allow for a relatively quick connection. Sometimes it’s because of the positive or negative example the passage provides, and sometimes it’s because of a general principle derived from the text. All in all, the path to application still feels relatively direct. For example:
Numbers 11 as a warning against grumbling and complaining about your job
Philippians 4:8 for training your mind against sexually lustful thoughts
Joshua 1:9 as encouragement as you begin an evangelistic crusade in your church
The story of Joseph as an encouragement amid harassment or persecution from others
But looking for the more direct connection ends up backfiring when we encounter passages that seem far removed from our day-to-day experiences. For example, when was the last time we demolished a house because of a mildew problem (Leviticus 14:33-57)? Or used Numbers 5:11-31 as a test for adultery for couples in our congregations? When have we used the regulations for the building of the tabernacle (Exodus 25; Exodus 35) to encourage someone? What life-changing application have we made lately from the first nine chapters of 1 Chronicles 1, which is essentially a list of names? What should we do with Obadiah (a prophecy against Edom)? When have we used Revelation 17 (the woman and the beast) in a counseling session? What should we do with very specifically directed passages, as noted earlier with Alexander the metalworker in 2 Timothy? Suddenly we find ourselves facing a canyon! Now what?
Our tendency, of course, is to gravitate toward the “ditch” passages because they seem easier to apply; it’s easier to make a connection between then and now. Ditch passages resonate more quickly with our experiences. They have a greater immediacy, so we hang out in these tried-and-true passages and we skim—or avoid altogether—those pesky canyon passages. But what is the result?
In practical terms, we end up ministering with an embarrassingly thinner but supposedly more relevant Bible. Did you ever wonder why publishers sell the New Testament packaged together with Psalms and Proverbs? Why not sell the New Testament with Leviticus and Esther? Or the New Testament with 1 and 2 Kings and the Minor Prophets? A value judgment is being made. The New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs are deemed more relevant for contemporary life. The New Testament is included because it’s about Jesus and the church. Proverbs makes the grade because of all that pithy, helpful, concrete advice. And the Psalms are important because of the emotions they evoke and because of their use in worship. (Of course, one must overlook the difficulties of using, for example, Psalms 3:7 in a ministry situation: “Arise O Lord! Deliver me, O my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked.”)
Have you succumbed to this mind-set even if you don’t frequently use an “abridged” Bible? Take a look at the Bible you regularly use—which pages are the dirtiest and most dog-eared? Hmm. The hard reality is this: genealogies, dietary laws, battle records, and prophecies against ancient nations all take a backseat to parts of the Bible that connect more easily and naturally to our modern lives. And this is true despite believing that all of Scripture is “God-breathed” and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). We confess that all of Scripture is helpful for all of life, but that’s not the way the Bible actually functions in our lives and ministries.
The challenge is not just in moving from the Bible to everyday life but also in moving from present-day problems to the Scriptures. Many modern-day struggles and problems don’t seem to be addressed in the Scriptures; there seems to be no point in exploring the biblical world for guidance. We are confident that the Bible speaks relevantly and authoritatively to ditch problems, the everyday issues we all experience, such as anger, conflict, pride, fear, and money. It’s easy to think of a passage (or passages) that deals with those life problems, right? You experienced this earlier when you took the quiz.
But where would you turn in Scripture to address anorexia and bulimia? Or (as we saw) the challenge of infertility? Should you counsel Mr. and Mrs. Jensen to separate in the midst of their troubled marriage? Should Christian parents homeschool or send their children to Christian schools or to public schools? Is it OK to place your children in day care so you can work? How do you help someone who obsesses about the contamination of objects around her and washes her hands repeatedly, to the point of bleeding? What does the Bible say about helping a child diagnosed with Asperger syndrome? Or a person diagnosed with bipolar disorder? The list is infinite!
If you have a passage that you think quickly captures any one of these issues fully, I would almost guarantee that your hearer will find it superficial or irrelevant. The direct approach doesn’t seem to work with these canyon problems. But if the Bible becomes functionally irrelevant, people will turn elsewhere for guidance on these thorny questions and issues.
[Editor's note: This article will conclude with part 2.]
In CrossTalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet, Michael R. Emlet gives you the tools to connect the Bible to your life and to the lives of your family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers. You will learn to understand people and God's Word in ways that promote gospel-centered, rich conversations that help you and those you know grow in love for God and others.