The conversation had been brisk and lively. We’d laughed, puzzled and provoked each other in our discussion. The leader glances at his watch, and bursts out:
“Oh Goodness, look at the time – just before we pray, how are we going to apply all this?”
I’ve already posted about my hatred of “The Big Bang” at the end of Home groups – when we disconnect what we have heard God say from how we pray to him. But the scene above is just as common in many groups and is just as damaging. (And yes – I was guilty of this for years, and am only just learning to repent of it!)
The problem is that we get so involved in understanding and pinning down the big ideas in the passage, or the theology or the doctrine that’s contained in it, that we leave very little time to the application, so that it all happens in a rush at the end. Or to put it another way – it doesn’t happen at all!
And there are some who think that this is the right thing to do. If we get our theology right, it is argued, then we will automatically live it out. If we so know and understand the truths of the gospel deep down in our hearts, then the life we are to live will just flow out from us.
Love the theory – but doubt the psychology, practicality and truth of it.
Others may argue that Bible studies should be all application, in other words that every little piece of scripture needs to be applied in detail as you read it.
Again, love the idea – but would probably run a mile from a home group like that.
Head, hearts and hands
As usual, the answer lies in the Bible’s creative joining together of the two things, because in their pure form, the first leads to intellectual inaction; and the second to a scary “works religion”. The key is to understand how our head and our hearts and our hands relate to each other.
In our culture, we are adept at splitting these three areas of our lives. We think one thing, feel and desire another, and do a third. I know that eating fatty bacon is a bad thing for my health and weight, I desire to be slim and “heart healthy” but, man, when the smell of bacon frying hits your nose in the morning, nothing but the pig will satisfy.
But in the Bible’s understanding, these things belong together. When we understand the amazing grace that saved a wretch like me, we want to reach out to other wretches with the message that has brought us new life and forgiveness, and so we see others in a different way – we treat everyone as our equals, because we know we are all sinners for whom Christ died. The message of the Gospel is not do this and live; but you live because of Christ, therefore do this. How we live as believers is intimately connected with our God-shaped understanding of the world and who we are; it is gospel-centred living. It springs from the Gospel message.
Or to put it a posh way ortho-praxy (right living) always comes from orth-doxy (right belief).
Or to put it a less posh way – thinking and doing are like a pair of socks*. One is useless without the other. It’s why Paul often wrote his letters in this way. A slab of amazing mind-bending theology up front (like Romans 1-11; or Ephesians 1-3), followed by a therefore, then or so (Ephesians 4:1; Romans 12:1), followed by loads of application. (Romans 12-14; Ephesians 3-6).
Back to the study
So, what this means is that we must never stop at studying theology – we must always take it on to application. Particularly as God also suggests that we will never properly understand the truth unless we start to live it out (see Philemon v 6). And that we will never live out our faith with joy if it becomes a gospel-less pattern of living (Colossians 2:22-23). And squeezing “a little bit of application” in at the end is never sufficient to do this.
The answer? You guessed it from the title. Apply as you go. When you have grasped a particular truth, pause to earth it in practical reality. Make it specific, and don’t move on until you’ve grabbed it.
More on how to apply in due course.
* Got this lovely idea from some children’s Bible studies I did with my kids called XTB. They’re great – check them out here