This is the sixty-fourth lesson in author and pastor Mel Lawrenz’ How to Live the Bible series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
See Mel Lawrenz’s most recent book is How to Study the Bible: A Practical Guide, from which today’s lesson is adapted.
There are two basic ways we get to know the Word of God. The first way is to come to Scripture with an attitude of discovery, letting the words of the biblical authors have their impact. In this approach, we allow the Word of God to set the agenda, form the issues, shape the questions, determine the emphases. This is when we read Exodus and see new things about God’s love and power, or we read a Psalm and get a fresh sense of the main heart issues that come through, or we read 2 Corinthians and understand the angst out of which Paul approaches a church that has given him many headaches. Reading the Bible in this way is true discovery. It is a spiritual attitude that says: God, my mind and heart are open. Say what you will, tear down what you will, build what you will.
The other way we study the word of God is to come to it with our questions. Your friend wants to divorce her husband, and you go to Scripture to see what it says about grounds for divorce. Your church gives you the option of having your newborn baptized or waiting until he or she can express faith, and you wonder: what does Scripture actually say about baptism? Your country is about to go to war, and you think there must be a difference between just war and unjust war—but what does Scripture say about it?
Both approaches are valid, and both build us up in different ways. If we only use the first method, we will miss opportunities to go searching for principles on which to make good decisions. But if we only come to Scripture with our questions (the second approach) we will never let God have the first word, and we will miss the big ideas of Scripture that our questions would never anticipate.
The best long-term way to build a superstructure of faith is to strengthen our belief system through the first, open-to-discovery approach to the Bible. But yet there are times when it’s appropriate and wise to go to Scripture with our questions, looking for answers. So how do we approach Scripture with our questions?
There are proper methods and deeply flawed methods. For instance, it is a mistake to go to the Bible hunting for a single verse that perhaps God will use to solve a dilemma we’re in. If you’re deciding whether to take that job in Cincinnati and you happen upon a passage where God tells someone to “go forth,” that is not a biblical answer to your question.
We can find good answers in Scripture when we ask questions of principle. For instance:
- What is the meaning of sin?
- What principles should govern my personal finances?
- What is the basis of a good marriage?
- What should I be trying to do in worship?
- Am I responsible for the mistakes of my kids?
- What is the work of the Holy Spirit?
- What does it mean to be a believer living in a secular society?
- How should I pray?
- How can I forgive someone who is not asking for forgiveness?
If we’re trying to decide what car to purchase, what city to move to, what person to marry, what bank to do business with, when to move on to a different job, we will not find specific passages that give pat answers. But such decisions will be easier if we have internalized a broad-based value system from Scripture, which can be applied with intelligence and prayerful dependence. But we won’t find a single verse that tells us which way God wants us to go. That is simply not the purpose of Scripture.
Often the questions we ask get reshaped as we go looking for the answers. We realize we have not been asking exactly the right thing. For instance, one of our most common questions is: How can I know the will of God for my life? Using a concordance or an online resource, we can go looking for the phrase “will of God.” What we will find is that the idea of “the will of God” virtually always relates to the moral quality of our lives. 1 Thessalonians 4:3 (ESV) is typical: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” This implies that we do not need to go through every decision of every day wondering what the will of God is. “God’s will,” as Scripture uses the phrase, has nothing to do with deciding between a two-door or four-door car, or getting a family pet, or what classes you sign up for in college. In such matters there are good choices and bad choices, and so we ask God for wisdom, but our study of the idea of “the will of God” in Scripture reframes the very idea of God’s will. So we reframe the question itself.
Whenever we are considering a big idea or ideal in Scripture, one that can shape the course of our decisions, it is well worth looking at the idea from numerous angles.
And so we have these two approaches: studying the Bible and taking it as it comes, and searching for answers to life’s important questions. In both approaches, we study Scripture as an act of obedience and submission.
In order to do the second, we need to know how to do a thematic or topical study of Scripture, the subject we come to next.
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Mel Lawrenz (@MelLawrenz) trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a PhD in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, including How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.