Almost any group of humans to which you could belong has catch phrases, favorite terminology, slogans. I suspect it’s sort of inevitable. We’re meaning-making beings, and words help us sometimes to articulate and sometimes even to make the meanings around which we unite. I don’t really think this is a bad tendency in itself, but I’ve noticed that frequently these catch phrases lose their power as we use them over and over again, and they turn into cliches or otherwise pick up associations or accretions which the original composer of the thought never intended and which make it less “sticky,” like lint in a strip of velcro.
The circle of Christians with which I still most strongly identify has a word we like to use to try to sum up what we believe a Jesus-follower’s relationship with the Bible should be: application. Although it doesn’t use the word, there’s a passage in the first chapter of the biblical book of James that describes what we’re aiming for with application of the Bible, and what we’re trying to avoid:
22 Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. 23 Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. 25 But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.
This is wise counsel and really merits its own blogpost someday, but for now let’s just think of it as an informing construct for the idea of biblical application. We don’t want to be people who, spiritually and metaphorically speaking, notice in the mirror that we have something dangling from our nostril and then walk off as if nothing’s amiss. So we attend Bible studies in which we are asked how we might apply what we learned to our lives. We listen to preaching which is intended to make the message relevant enough to us so that we can know not only what was happening in the original context, but also what the application is for today. I love that kind of teaching from the pulpit–in my opinion, expository preaching is the best there is. (This is probably why I don’t preach that often; I’m not sure I know how to preach expositorily, even though I love to listen to it.)
But I’m not sure applying Scripture is how I want to relate to it anymore. Let me explain:
I have a bumper sticker on my car. I applied it to the bumper. It says “forgive.” You might infer from that that forgiveness is an important concept to me (it is), but the bumper sticker itself doesn’t make me (or my car, or a brick wall, should the two ever unfortunately come into contact with each other) forgiving. Also, I have another bumper sticker on my car. It’s a blatant advertisement for my husband’s and my favorite Fair Trade coffee roaster. It is exactly the same size and shape as the “forgive” bumper sticker. I applied it to my car in exactly the same way. The coffee bumper sticker is more colorful (maybe more compelling?), and although it might not make me a coffee drinker any more than the “forgive” bumper sticker makes me a forgiver, it is much more likely that I excel in drinking coffee than that I excel in forgiving, because the first is much easier to achieve. Either way, both of these bumper “applications” are simply affirming something either already true about, or already desired by, me. They didn’t make me forgiving or make me coffee.
Or how about this analogy?
I have a smartphone. I assume you do, too. On my smartphone–as I assume also on yours–are many apps (oh yeah–that stands for “application”! I genuinely forget that sometimes) and one operating system. Most of the applications on there, besides the basic ones like the clock and photos and stuff that pretty much everybody uses, are ones that came separately from the phone. I added them myself, and they say more about me than about the phone. They are dependent on compatibility with the operating system in order to work–they don’t make the operating system work. There are some apps which, after they’ve been added, “latch on so tightly” (I know that’s not an accurate way to talk about computer-y stuff, but I’m out of my wheelhouse here, you guys) to the OS that if you try to remove them later, they might mess the system up, but they are still not the thing that makes the phone a smartphone, that makes the phone do what it’s supposed to do in the world.
Here’s something that I realized today: When I ask, “How does this Scripture apply to my life?” I’m making my life the priority over Scripture. Me. My life. My life is the OS and the Scripture is the app, in other words. I’m putting myself over and above the Word of God. I’m pretty sure this is not the intent of anybody who advocates Scripture application, and I know a number of these advocates who genuinely live out Scripture consistently and winsomely. But I do think this priority-flip is a subtle danger inherent in the idea of applying the Word of God that actually plays out incredibly frequently. I suspect it is at least a part of what’s behind the identity crisis happening in some streams of the Church right now.
I looked up apply in a couple of different Bible translations recently. It shows up in the NIV eight times, and in the KJV only four. (It’s more frequent in more “modern” translations, which is…interesting.) In all of the KJV instances, and most of the NIV ones, what is being applied is not Scripture to the person, but the person to Scripture. “Apply thine heart,” says the King James Version, four times.
And so I guess that’s why I’m not so comfortable with talking about applying the Bible to my life anymore. I have a Bible app on my phone. But I don’t want the Bible to be an app on my life. I want The Word to be my operating system.