What is "Application"?

What is "Application"? June 11, 2014

A lot of books talk about interpretation and specific ways of obey the Bible. However, there are not many (if any) books that teach people how to apply any given text to one’s life.

I think it is because people assume everyone understands the meaning of “application.” It seems obvious to us. In fact, I find few Christians actually do have a holistic, biblical understanding of application.

Credit: William Murphy via pixabay

Most people think “application” merely refers to what we do.

Unfortunately, this is not even a half-truth. It is “a third of the truth”.

Broadly speaking, application means simply the way we should respond to a text. In other words, how does the Bible intend for us to respond?

Different texts are intended to produce varying types of response. Not every verse immediately applies to some action to be done at work on Monday afternoon or when taking care of your kids at 10 am on a Wednesday. Imagine yourself studying the book of Daniel. You will find very little by way of a “to-do” list. I recall being in a small group in which we read Daniel every week. However, half the group complained that our study was not very practical. They said we needed more “application.” After wrestling with it for a while, it dawned on me that our group had far to small a view of application.

One can obediently apply a text in one of three spheres–the head, heart, and hands. Otherwise said, a biblical passage could have applications for our thoughts, affections or desires, and finally our actions.

If we expect the Bible always to tell us “what to do,” we will be sorely disappointed. It’s quite likely that some people will think Scripture to be too abstract and “theological.” (I’ve heard many people use the descriptor “theological” with a negative connotation.)

In truth, many Scripture passages say nothing about what we should do, . . . in terms of our actions. Rather, some texts seek to change the way we think; likewise, they may expose our desires. Godly actions arise from godly thinking and right desires.

Applying the Bible is Like Using the Bathroom

Every single thing we ever do in our life follows the certain sequence, whether we are talking about getting married or going to the bathroom. Our actions are born out of the same process, one that can never be skipped.

  • First, we have a thought or idea (whether it be true, false, conscious, or unconscious).
  • Second, we have some sort of heart or volitional response to that idea.
  • Third, the head and heart then produce in us an action expressing that idea and want.

That’s the way God made us; it’s inescapable. Why does this matter? I’ll briefly mention a few reasons.

1. If we skip immediately to actions (as if that were the only true meaning of “application”), then we will inevitably have to motivate those actions with something else.

However, that idea in the head or desire in the heart may not be all that pure and holy. Actions that appear godly may in fact be motivated by the ambition to people-please or get some other benefit. Mere external conformity to a standard can hardly be considered the obedience God wills for our lives.

Basically, it is all too common to focus on one kind of the fruit to the neglect of other types (i.e. love, joy, peace, patience,….)

2. What you look for will greatly affect what you find.

If we insist that application is “really” about our hands (rather than head and heart), then we will overlook countless texts with their implied applications for our lives. In other words, we will only obey (apply) a small fragment of the Bible and ignore the rest.  What we look for greatly influences what we find. We need to be aware of this dynamic; otherwise, we will misinterpret and misuse a lot of of Scripture. We will skip major portions of the Bible.

Consequently, it is no surprise when people find the Bible boring and irrelevant….they neither understand themselves nor what the Bible is trying to accomplish.

I often talk about the danger of compromising the gospel by settling for truth; in the same way, we should be careful not to compromise full obedience (head, heart, hands) by settling for merely one kind of application (i.e. hands).

In Part 2, I will offer a simple method to guide us in this process, a simple approach to applying the Bible’s teaching.

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  • Joseph

    “Applying the Bible is like using the bathroom.”

    Tonight I lead a small group study that was preceded, interrupted, and followed by trips to take my preschooler to the potty. I would agree that applying the Bible is a difficult and necessary skill to master that will become second nature in time. However, that wasn’t exactly your point.

    Sure, everything is rhetorical, but that doesn’t mean all rhetorical events are created equal. As providence would have it, our study tonight was on Joshua 1-2. One of our applications was on meditation (1:8, 2:24). This happens to be a key difference between applying the Bible and going to the bathroom.

    Rhetorical situations like hunger or needing to go to the bathroom present one with a clearly defined exigence (or problem that needs to be solved). Rhetorical situations dealing with interpretation must first develop that meaning through meditation (or “invention”). Even in the case of a command in Scripture, we must establish that the command applies to us and in what way.

    Thus while I appreciate your encouragement towards applications to believe and feel, applying the scripture has significant differences from going to the bathroom, and perhaps the holy nature of the former should preclude comparisons with the latter.

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