Part 1, 6 Dangers of Practical Application I also posed several questions at the end: 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?
As I did in Part 1 I want to do now in Part 2 and reiterate that I don’t think practical application is bad or unnecessary. To the contrary, practical application often moves us from theory to practice. From thoughts to actions. In the information age we live in where there is so much noise from too much talking, a refocusing on action is good; we need that.
But again, at what cost? To the expense of what? Do we overdepend on practical application as our main solution to the problems or struggles in our lives? And if so, is it training us to trust more in people (including ourselves) rather than on the Holy Spirit of God?
6 Dangers of Practical Application
1. the Spirit, 2. God, 3. the church, 4. the Word, 5. the mission, 6. the Gospel
Part 1 of 6 Dangers of Practical Application I touched on the first three areas of how an overdependence on practical application can be dangerous and even stunt our spiritual growth in Christ. I don’t want to rehash that here. Go back and read Part 1, I think you’ll find it helpful.
4. It CAN teach us to hunger more for the words of man rather than the Word of God AND it can alter or add to the interpretation and meaning of the Word.
The Bible is the Word of God. It also contains the very words of God. And Jesus is the Word made flesh. The Word is crucial to knowing God, learning about ourselves and sin, hearing His glorious plan of redemptive grace for mankind and being equipped for the mission He has called us too. Eugene Peterson once said in his book Eat this Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, “we ought to not go before the Bible with pen and paper but with fork and knife.” Enough said. What else can satisfy our hungry and thirsty souls but the very Word of God in our lives?
“Go before the Bible not with pen and pad but with knife and fork.”
Yet in our current culture and age we live in with information overload, digital content explosion and the loud noise of social media, everybody is considered an expert. Every person’s opinion is equally as valid and valuable. And to some extent, this is absolutely true. As a Christian, I do believe all people are made equally in the image of God and therefore have equal value and their opinions are equally valid and important. But this “everyone’s an expert” perspective can dangerously lead us to place more emphasis on what people say over what God our Creator says. It creeps in very subtly, especially in and among the church and the Christian subculture. Just take 5 minutes and walk-in to a neighborhood Christian bookstore and see the plethora of books filled with endless words, thoughts, ideas, opinions, interpretations, applications, theories and practices. Whew, it’s overwhelming. Where do we start? Oh, I know let’s find a handful of people who’ve read these books already, rated them, reviewed them for us so we can weed through the junk to get to the treasures? Ahem, enter Amazon, Good Reads, Discerning Reader and organic book clubs. Again, not bad. The problem? Oh yeah, the people discerning the value and validity of these books are just that: PEOPLE!
So do we distrust every person? No. Do we throw out whatever people say? No, of course not. My point is we run toward books (blogs, podcasts, articles, sermons) written by people while our Bibles often sit dusty on our shelves or hold up our broken coffee tables missing legs. Someone else said it best: camp out in books, but live at home in the Bible.
So if what I’m saying is read the Bible more than we consult what other people say and write, then how do we know we understand, interpret, apply and multiply what we read in the Bible? I’m so glad you asked. It’s called Biblical Hermeneutics. That’s a big phrase for the study of biblical interpretation: learning to rightly read, understand and interpret the Word of God. But then who teaches me a proper biblical hermeneutics? Ok ok already. You’re right, it’s helpful to have a wise, honest and authentic teacher help you with this. Someone who is not teaching with a biased agenda or ulterior motives other than to teach you how to rightly understand the word. It will require some time, some work and some motivation. But it will teach you properly understand the Word, historical contexts, interpretative contexts, the story of the Bible and more. You don’t have to necessarily know Greek and Hebrew. But the same care and trust we give to authors, bloggers, podcasters, speakers and any “expert” online we ought to give infinitely more to God’s Word and the writers He’s inspired to write down the Bible.
Because when we’re parousing through the bookstore at home or online it’s hard to know what to believe, who to trust and how to respond to what we hear. An overdependence on practical application from other people places their opinions over God’s. It trains us to wean ourselves off of that old, black, dusty archaic book of irrelevance and hear something new, fresh, pop, hip and maybe more culturally relevant to our day and age. The unchanging timeless truths of the Word will have one main interpretation with a vast array of possible applications depending on our situations or contexts.
When we read the Bible, the Holy Spirit has the power to illuminate our minds and hearts to help us understand and apply what we read. We have to believe that! He will give everyone the same interpretation but different applications. Let’s not obsess about how to apply and out of panic or ignorance run to our bookstores and online experts. Instead let’s read, reread, meditate, pray, ask, seek, knock and wait until the Lord shows us what to do next. Just like when I have a headache, where do I run for my solution? Typically I run first to an ibuprofen then if I think about it I pray and ask God for help. I’m not saying medicine is bad, it is a gracious gift from God for sure. But what is my second-nature immediate response when I am in need? Typically that will reveal what I trust in more. In this example, I often trust in medicine (man’s inventions) rather than running first to God.
Man’s words can appease our hunger and thirst sometimes. But nothing can consistently and powerfully satisfy the deep longings of our soul’s thirst and hunger like the Word of God. It is healing to our bones and sweet to the soul (Proverbs 3:8; 4:22; 16:24).
I believe if we go to the Word in faith expecting God to speak, that He will. And if we ask in faith for help to apply practically in our lives, we can also expect His Holy Spirit to “speak” and move in us too. Let’s be a Word-saturate culture of people. Dependent on God’s Word to move and breathe. Trusting it. Knowing it. Memorizing it. Hiding it in our hearts. Sharing it. Obeying it.
Ultimately we’ll obey and do what we hear & believe the most: man or God.
5. It CAN complicate and cloud out the mission of God.
The mission of God is very simple; not easy, but simple. It is this: to rescue sinners and make a people for Himself for His great name’s sake. That’s the overall story of the Bible and the overarching purpose of life. To know and be known by God. When we overemphasize practical application, it can begin to cloud the clarity of the mission and complicate the simplicity of the call of Christ on our lives.
“When we overemphasize practical application, it can begin to cloud the clarity of the mission and complicate the simplicity of the call of Christ on our lives.”
It’s true the mission of God to rescue is very simple: Go, make, teach, baptize and behold. 5 action words and 1 purpose: to make disciple-making disciples who make disciple-making disciples for sinners like you and me to be rescued back to God. But when we take our focus off of the mission and onto “how” we fulfill the mission, it can easily complicate things. How do I go? Where do I go? When do I go? How do I make disciples? What does that look like practically? How do I baptize? Who I do baptize? Where and when do I baptize? What do we teach? How do we teach it? Where and when do we teach it? Who will teach and who should be taught? And this is just the beginning of the questions we often ask. I myself am a questions guy too. I think they are very helpful in fleshing out our theories and the teachings of scripture into practice and context. But when we begin to shift our focus from mission to method, we begin to lose sight of the mission.
“When we begin to shift our focus from mission to method, we begin to lose sight of the mission.”
Somehow we’ve got to trust the Spirit in the methods of our mission. He will show us how. He will show us who. He will show us when. He will show us where. He will show how often. We have to keep our eyes focused on the why (God’s glory and name) and the what (to rescue sinners and make disciples). I’ve been in so many meetings with well-intentioned people who have well-intentional purposes and wasted a lot of unnecessary time discussing the methods at the expense of doing the mission. Sure, planning is good and wise and well. But there’s something powerful in asking the Spirit what’s next and doing it when He answers.
“There’s something powerful in asking the Spirit what’s next and doing it when He answers.”
The mission is not meant to be complicated. And when we complicate it with too many questions and side-angles and what-ifs, we lose its simplicity and thus end up questioning ourselves into immobility.
Not only is the mission simple but it’s clear. There is no question about what we are called to do. So when we overemphasize practical application of it we cloud out it’s clarity. Our questions are like a sky full of clouds on a once clear night blocking the light of the north star. The north star points to true north and takes you true north, if you can see it to follow it. Clarity of focus is crucial when it comes to fulfilling any mission, especially the mission of God. If we lose our clarity, we can lose the entire mission itself.
“If we lose our clarity, we can lose the entire mission itself.”
Asking questions can help identity how the mission can be accomplished in different contexts. But when we ask too many questions or spend too much time obsessing over the details of those questions, the mission is easily clouded and becomes hazy. I’ve experienced this too in churches most of my life. Well-meaning people seek out answers to the hows and whens and wheres and whos and the mission gets lost in translation. Again the Holy Spirit can translate the methods of the mission into our context for us. We need to trust Him, He is God. His “job” is to lead us into all truth, comfort us, convict the world of sin, righteousness and judgment and guide us through our sanctification on mission. He can handle our method questions. If we would only consult His infinite wisdom and power to accomplish what He’s asked us to do. Think of how freeing it would be and how empowering to trust in Him more. To redirect our questions toward Him instead of each other. To learn patience as we wait on His answers. To learn trust as He speaks. Think of how much more powerful our ministry and service would be if we kept the mission clear and front and center. But too easily the clear skies of the mission grow overcast with our countless questions and conversations about methods, means and modes.
“The clear skies of the mission grow overcast with our countless questions and conversations about methods, means and modes.”
6. It CAN change the Gospel to practical good advice instead of powerful good news.
The word gospel means “good news”. News is about something that has already happened and taken place. News is announcing, reporting and proclaiming something that has occurred. The gospel of Jesus Christ is about how God sent His only Son Jesus Christ to come and live and die to make His enemies His children. It’s news we’re called to respond to and live in light of. The problem comes when we turn the gospel into more of what are supposed to do instead of what Christ has already done.
We don’t need good advice, we need good news. Bad news needs good news not okay advice. When we focus too much on practical application, tips, tricks and tools the focus is on us and not Jesus. The gospel is about Him, who He is, what He has done for us because we could not do it ourselves. Good advice says be better, do more and you’ll be changed. The gospel good news says Jesus is better, Jesus did more and trusting who and what Jesus did will transform and change you. Good advice is shared as a suggestion. Good news of Jesus is proclaimed as truth to accept and either obey or disobey. It’s a vast difference. If we make the gospel about us and good advice we have lost the gospel, period. It’s no longer good news. It can’t save with power. It can’t transform.
“If we make the gospel about us and good advice we have lost the gospel, period.”
Anyone can give good advice. Only God can give good news! Sure the gospel has practical implications for our lives, but that’s more of the Holy Spirit’s job to apply than other people. It’s easy to let the gospel get hijacked by practical application and it becomes about how to have a better marriage, better finances, be more successful or productive, better parenting, live healthier, have better friendships, how to find a job, how to pay down debt, how to do whatever however. Again, the gospel has implications that touches every area of life. But let’s ask the Holy Spirit to apply those implications to our lives by grasping onto the good news for dear life!
Striking a Tough Balance
I’ll be the first to admit that there is probably a balance of sorts when it comes to practical application. People in our lives (friends, family, pastors, teachers, leaders) often speak into our lives with great truth and power. And they often offer very helpful practical applications and tips for us to move from theory to practice. No doubt.
My point in both of these parts is to show the dangers of trusting too much in practical application for the sake of practical application. Trusting men over God can be dangerous and can stunt our spiritual growth. It can teach us to neglect the Spirit, can shift our focus to how and what instead of who and why, can squash creativity and unique individualism among the community of the church, can alter the meaning of God’s word and even cause us to trust men over God, can complicate and cloud out the simplicity and clarity of the mission and most importantly it can change the gospel from good news to good advice.
Yet the church is filled with fellow image bearers, precious people who have been redeemed. People who are important and valuable. People who can help our spiritual growth and fulfill the mission with us. But those people are not God nor His Spirit nor His Word nor His gospel.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree? Disagree? Am I missing something? What would you add or change? I’d love to hear what you think.
Practical Application (I couldn’t resist)
I want to leave you guys with what I like to do but in a way I rarely do it: with the Spirit and not with myself. One question: