As a 19-year-old, I moved miles away from my parents’ faith-filled home into my very own Ikea furniture-filled apartment.
Relying on my own beliefs for the first time proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated. My faith, which once felt simple and clear, grew murky against the backdrop of popular quotes from sermons circulating the internet and common but unbiblical phrases like, “God helps those who help themselves,” or “He won’t give you anything you can’t handle.”
My confusion and uncertainty in why I believed what I believed sent me on a mission to find out for myself exactly what my Bible said. Along the way, I learned how to study the Bible in three steps: observation, interpretation, and application.
Observation–What does this say?
Growing up in the Church meant that I had heard a lot of Bible stories throughout my childhood. I was familiar with Biblical characters (who were usually painted as heroes that taught some kind of moral lesson) and general concepts, but I had a false confidence that I knew more about the Bible than I actually did.
When I started taking the time to observe the text, it forced me to ask questions beyond the words on a page.
Why would he say it that way? This story reminds me of that story, is there some kind of connection between them? What’s up with these pharisees and why are they hating on Jesus so much?
The more questions I asked, the more intrigued I became with the text. The more intrigued I became, the more questions I would ask. It was an endless cycle that felt more like an adventure than a box to check on my to-do list of spiritual disciplines.
In learning to observe text, I grew confident that asking questions wasn’t a symptom of doubt like I had grown up believing. It wasn’t an indication of a weak or small faith, either. Inquisition was an essential tool to grow and sharpen it; it was the first step to standing firmly on my own faith and knowing exactly why I could rely on its foundation.
Interpretation–What does this mean?
Doing the hard work of interpretation showed me that I had a strong tendency to make the Bible about me.
I had a propensity to approach Scripture with egocentric expectations. I wanted immediate solutions to my problems, direction for my life, and to know how significant I was to God.
Before I knew better, I thought the Bible could mean one thing to me, another thing to you, and we could both have our cake and eat it, too.
What I didn’t know then is that the Bible isn’t actually about either of us. The Bible is a book about God written forus, not tous. Interpreting the Bible means uncovering the author’s intended meaning for his original audience. That meaning is objective, not subjective, so it will be equally true for those original hearers as it is for us today.
Interpretation is hard work. But I’ve found it gets a lot easier when I remove myself from a throne on which I do not belong and demand my self-esteem be spoken to. When I approach Scripture in worship with a bowed head and bent knee, I’m far more inclined to let God teach me through a text than to manipulate it to say something I want to hear.
Application–Why does it matter?
Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
I’ve found the accuracy of that verse to be most palpable when tasked with applying the truth of the Bible to my own life. The same verse that comforts a hurting friend convicts me. The same passage I studied last year, challenges me in a new way this year.
Applying the Bible to my life is a protection that prevents me from only engaging with the Bible intellectually. To examine my heart and my life in raw honesty before God and welcome his conviction is to cooperate in my sanctification.
Studying the Bible takes time. In the midst of a global pandemic, most of us have a lot more than usual. As we search Scripture for answers and hope in the face of uncertainty, we can find the satisfaction and peace our souls long for when we learn to handle the Word rightly.
It’s true: there are certainly no shortcuts when it comes to learning about the God of the universe. But when we try – when we commit to growing in our knowledge of God – we’ll find there’s also no pursuit more worthy.
My prayer as we engage with God through his word, is that we would pursue him with all of our hearts, souls, and minds.
As you begin your journey to gain a better understanding of the Bible, you may find these resources helpful: