You Might Be Reading the Bible the Wrong Way

I’ll never forget the time I was preparing to teach an adult education class at a church and I was told by the director to make sure that each lesson had a personal “takeaway” for each member of the class. “Application is the key,” he said. “The only point of teaching people the Bible, and the only thing that will hold their interest, is the personal application.”

This is an interesting statement, and it’s at least half true. The true part is that we read the Bible with the expectation that we’re doing more than learning ancient history. At the end of the day we hope to get something beyond information. We want it to say something to us, to be relevant to our lives, maybe even to do something deep and significant in us.

This is good and proper. So what’s the problem?

The problem is a set of expectations that typically go along with our longing for a Bible that’s always relevant to me, today, right here. There are likely more, but here are three key ones:

1. Talk to Me.

We begin by assuming the Bible is speaking directly to us. Maybe if we stopped and thought about it a little we’d remember that, oh yes, these are letters to people in first-century Corinth, or songs from ancient Israel. But it’s easy to forget and just start reading the words straight off the page and into our hearts.

2. Talk Small to Me.

Problem #1 is only strengthened when the Bible we have is broken up into bite-sized pieces easily taken out of context. Reading Bible “verses” reinforces the idea that I can pick the tidbit that is just for me. And since some of those bits clearly don’t have anything that applies to me, I can safely stick to the good ones and ignore the rest.

3. Talk to Me Alone.

Finally, we forget the Bible was written overwhelmingly to communities, not individuals. When we isolate the words and think only about our individual situations, we don’t even consider how a group of people would put the Bible into practice together.

So if these mistakes are distorting our Bible reading, what can we do to stay more clearly on track?

Let’s take up these correctives in the same order:

1. Listen In.

The Bible is a collection of writings from the ancient world that we are essentially listening in on. The initial step in reading well is to consider what the various books meant in their own world first. The words were given in a context—historical, cultural and religious. God was speaking to other people before he was speaking to us, and to know what he’s saying now we begin by knowing what was meant then.

2. Read Big.

The Bible is a collection of writings that were intended to be read in their entirety. The books are each a particular kind of ancient literature that work in their own way. They are stories, songs, letters and more, and have to be read as the type of writing they are. Then, they come together to tell the ongoing narrative of God’s saving work in history. So read whole books instead of always jumping from little piece to little piece. Then put the books together and read them as a big story. (It’s easier to do this if you get a new reader’s edition without all the modern reference numbers.) We find our identity as a part of the story more than in individual promises or truths.

3. Think About Us.

The Bible is a collection of writings to communities, seeking to tell them what God is up to and how they can join his project of reclaiming the creation for good. God is creating communities of restoration that are meant to showcase where the story of the world is going. Our individual lives are crucial parts of this bigger story, but the transformation happens through entire communities of God’s people working together toward redemptive goals. Read the Bible with others.

So here’s the thing: The Bible was never really intended to give you a personal application from each and every little verse. Sometimes it’s okay to simply read, learn and understand what God was doing in the history of his people. We can relax, read big and listen in. There is no need to force some application where there is none.

We need to give the Bible time and take away the pressure to constantly apply it.

But don’t worry. If we engage the Bible regularly and well, it will have more than enough to say to our lives right now. We will inherit a deep knowledge of God and his longstanding work to change the world. This kind of formation in us takes time, but is deeper and more transformative than the kind of instant application so often urged upon us. This kind of formation will take shape when we know the books of the Bible intimately and begin to live out the story in our own setting.

So yes, the Scriptures are useful to us today. But they are meant to be useful in a particular way. We have not been given a handbook filled with on-the-spot practical tips. We have been given a library of books from the ancient world that tell us the first part of God’s great story. The Bible slowly unveils the shape of God’s restoration and healing, and then it invites us in to take up our own roles.

We are players in the drama of redemption. And the most useful tool we have to help us learn how to live like this is the Bible—the script of the story that came before us.

Read it. Learn it. Live it. That’s the kind of application the Bible was built for.

This article originally appeared on InstituteForBibleReading.org.

Look for Paauw’s article on becoming people of the Book again in the March/April issue of Outreach magazine.