Practical application. We love it. We need it. We can’t get enough of it. We are obsessed with it and maybe even overly dependent on it.
In our busy, fast-paced fast-food society we crave quick tips, simple advice and easy steps.
In our busy, fast-paced fast-food society we crave quick tips, short advice and easy steps.
People say “get practical”. What are some “practical tips”? I need “application”. How do we “apply this to our lives practically”? You know what I’m talking about. I’m guilty of this too. Even in how I do my own podcast show I’ve built in a “practical application” section at the end of each episode called “The Action Round”. And with the best intentions in mind.
Hear me out though: I’m not saying practical application is a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s a good thing and it’s often necessary for us to move from theory to practice in our daily lives. Practical application gives us simple advice, tips and tools we can use to live out the truth that we hear and say we believe. It can take us from high theoretical 40k foot perspectives to street level action steps. We all need that. I know I do!
But if I’m being honest, I’m also becoming more and more aware of the dangers of practical application. In and of itself, it’s harmless and actually very helpful. But overly depending on it, especially when we rely on getting it from others, can be dangerous and even harmful to our spiritual life. Yes harmful. Let me explain.
6 Dangers of Practical Application
I see 6 main dangers of overemphasizing practical application that deal with 1. the Spirit, 2. God, 3. the church, 4. the Word, 5. the Mission and 6. the gospel.
1. It CAN teach us to trust people more than we do the Spirit.
[I use “CAN” in all caps for these dangers to show that these are not hard and fast rules but rather possible outcomes based on my personal observations and gut heart feelings.]
Oftentimes, but not always, we receive practical application from other people. For Christians, this happens all the time especially during our Sunday and Wednesday church gatherings. Again, this doesn’t mean that trusting people is bad, that people are bad (in the sense that nothing they say can be trusted) but rather trusting people over the Spirit is dangerous.
Many times throughout the story of the Bible, there are stories of negative outcomes that come as result of people putting too much hope and confidence in what others (leaders, speakers, rulers) tell them to do instead of what God is telling them to do (or has already told them to do). Especially in the New Testament and the book of Acts and Pauline letters (Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon), you see many examples of the church and disciples of Jesus putting too much confidence in the power or ability of other people. This overconfidence comes from a heart that places too much value and importance on what our fellow man says and thinks instead of the Holy Spirit. It often displays itself through an over attachment to a particular leader or person and an acceptance of nearly all their theories and practices simply based on the fact that they possess them.
Also, it comes from a love for objective, tangible, practical advice of humans versus a strong discomfort for the subjective, intangible, spiritual voice of the Spirit. Can you see that? Don’t give me meat to chew on, give me milk. Something easy to digest and go down. I need practical wisdom that I can understand, then I’ll trust it and do it. I think this caters to our flesh some, not always. It feels good to take what others tell us and trust it and do it. It’s easier that way. But trusting the Spirit is risky, unclear, hard and often difficult to decipher and follow. Often messier than we are comfortable with. Both God and Jesus agree that we are to live not by the flesh but to “walk by the Spirit and you will not gratify the actions of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). That the Spirit is sent to comfort us, advocate and help us (John 14:26) and lead us into all truth (John 16:13).
God gave us people to be in relationship with, in community with and friends with. We walk with them through life together. But more than people, God has given us His Holy Spirit to live among and inside of us to empower and motivate us to live for Him. The Holy Spirit is God and He can be trusted. Who better for us to trust, follow and ask practical advice from then the very Spirit inside of us?
The Holy Spirit is God and He can be trusted.
So, what would this look like practically? Seriously? Did you just ask me that? Nice try. Keep reading.
2. It CAN shift our focus to the “how” and “what” instead of the “why” and “who”.
I don’t know about you, but I’m often obsessed with how we are supposed to do things and what’s next. The mechanics rather than the mission. This comes out of a good desire to want to get to work and get things done. To put into action what I believe. But I think that an overemphasis on practical application or our obsession of it can shift our focus from “why” and “who” to “how” and “what”.
We hear truth and typically the first thing we ask is, “ok, so how do we do that”. Or we ask, “okay but what do we do now/next?” Good and necessary questions no doubt. And it’s not wrong to ask others for help with this. But too often we tend to seek out an easy 3-step plan or one next thing instead of laboring through the messier “why do I believe this?” or “why am I doing this?” Why we believe something or why we should do something is infinitely more important than how we do it. Understanding the reason and purpose can better inform us for how we do what we do.
Understanding the reason and purpose can better inform us for how we do what we do.
The truth is the how will often come when we begin to grasp the why. The details and next steps will begin to be clearer the more we understand the big picture. I imagine a forest ranger trying to radio a warning ahead to his ranger camp but he’s standing on the forest floor instead of being in his 75 foot tower above the trees. How clear will his perspective be? He knows the forest is ablaze and out of control, but the smoke is so dense and thick his sight distance is only a few trees into the woods. In order for him to figure out what to do, he has to rise above the smoke and ash to see clearly what is actually going on. Once he’s in his 75 ft. tower high above the trees and the fire, he has now gained a newer and more accurate perspective on the fire: where is it, where is it going, how big is, maybe even where it came from. In the tower, he now knows a lot of the why that will better inform his how.
Likewise with practical application, we can often get too caught up on the details of how to do something. We can easily let our fear of the unknown or of being unprepared stop us from asking and answering the why. What if every time we wanted to know how to do what’s next instead we asked the Spirit, “why do you want me to do this Lord?”
What if every time we wanted to know how to do what’s next we instead asked the Spirit, “why do you want me to do this Lord?”
Let’s not focus on the how so much as the who. God and His Spirit are the who.
3. It CAN squash creativity, initiative and individual uniqueness.
Think about it. Your quest for practical advice is constantly catered to by other people. It’s almost like being spoon fed. You don’t even have to think for yourself. Just listen and put into action whatever they say to do.
I think this can end up squashing three God-given gifts in people: 1. creativity, 2. initiative and 3. individual uniqueness. First creativity, because when you think up and share ideas for people instead of letting them explore and discover their own it squashes creativity. Somehow we all have learn to think for ourselves. Sure others can help us think better and bigger. But not at the expense of doing it for us too much. Creativity flourishes in an environment where people are free and encouraged to think on their own. And I think God is greatly praised when His creation reflects His nature in this way.
God is greatly praised when His creation reflects His nature in this way.
Second, this bleeds into initiative. From as early as I can remember my mom and especially my dad taught my brother and I both the principle of taking initiative. It wasn’t just about reacting to my parents’ requests to obey or do right but learning to be proactive. I mean doing something without having to be told a hundred million times: “Jonathan, take out the trash. Did you take out the trash? The trash son. Please!” To which I would typically respond in a gingerly fashion, “alright already mom get off my back I’m going.” Wow, how did I not get slapped everyday as a kid? Sheesh! If we are constantly reminded and prodded and spoon-fed everything we’re supposed to be doing and how we’re supposed to do it, will we ever learn any initiative on our own? No, I think we’ll begin to be crippled to depend on being told.
Finally, not only does creativity and initiative suffer but so does the uniqueness of each individual person. God made us all different and gifted us in various ways to compliment each other and display His creativity. If we are all taught the same practical applications to go and do, it can lead to a homogenous group think. Before you know it, we’re all talking the same, dressing the same, thinking the same and acting the same. Bad? Not necessarily. Uniformity is not always a bad thing. But I think unity in diversity is more beautiful. Part of the mystery of the Holy Spirit and how He moves in our community is by speaking to us as individuals as well as a believing collective body. He is greatly honored in each of us displaying our own personal unique personality and nature. My fear is if we succumb to the same list of to-dos are we just settling for a boring, homogenous uniformity? Let’s allow the Holy Spirit to speak to each one of us in different ways for different reasons showing us different next steps. That’s exciting!
Let me ask you?
What do you think? Are we obsessed with practical application and tips and advice these days? Do we depend on it too much? Why is that? What holds you back from trusting the mystery of the Holy Spirit’s leading? Do you ask men for advice more than you ask the Spirit?
I’d love to know your thoughts. Please share it here or leave me a voicemail.
Part 2 next time I’ll discuss the Word, the Mission and the gospel and how an obsession for practical application affects them all.