Last week I spent 24 hours with three friends who are pastors of different churches- Speke Baptist Church (just outside Liverpool), Avenue Community Church (in Leicester) and Hockliffe Street Baptist Church (in Leighton Buzzard). We meet up like this three times a year. We’ve known each other for a while now so our times are always marked by a lot of fun, an enjoyable meal out (although this time did feature a lengthy trip round Milton Keynes in search of somewhere to eat after our we discovered our favourite haunt was closed) and meaningful prayer that gets to grips with some of the deeper issues in our hearts.
Most times when we get together we try to read or study something useful. This time we listened to David Powlison from the Christian Counselling and Education Foundation on the theme of applying Scripture to our lives. (We listened to him at 1.3 times the normal speed- which you can apparently do with Windows Media. It is still possible to understand it and it saves time!) I’ve long appreciated the material that comes out of CCEF and this was no exception. I’ve led sessions on applying Scripture myself and so it was humbling to learn an awful lot of new ideas through these sessions.
Two things particularly struck me. The first was the call for Scriptural application to get us out of ourselves. The essence of sin is that I tend to see myself as central to the universe. There is a certain danger to asking the question- “How does the Bible apply to my life?” for it still leaves me central in my thinking. The truth is that the Bible is the story of God’s plan (“We are reading someone else’s biography”). The right question to ask in the light of that is “How do I fit into God’s story?” rather than “How does God fit into my story?” Powlison puts it like this- the world and the story of the Bible is somebody else’s party of which I am invited to be a part. I think this would change our approach to application. I remember the impact that the conclusion of Chris Wright’s monumental tome The Mission of God had on me. He writes this:
“We ask, “Where does God fit into the story of my life?” when the real question is, “Where does my little life fit into the great story of God’s mission?”
We want to be driven by a purpose tailored for our individual lives, when we should be seeing the purpose of all life, including our own, wrapped up in the great mission of God for the whole of creation.”
The Bible shows us God’s plan for the world and we fit ourselves into that- not the other way round.
However, this isn’t intended to diminish the reality of the struggles and pressures we face. The second point from Powlison’s lectures that struck me deals with this issue. I love the way he puts this: “When you put Truth and honesty in the same room, redemption happens. This is the battle of the universe.” The problem comes when we have only one of these- “Truth without honesty does not connect. Honesty without Truth is self-absorbed.” I’ve seen both of those happen. It is all too easy for Bible studies to be conducted in a slightly bizarre vacuum disconnected from the struggles and sins that we face. Likewise I’ve been in situations where people have poured out their struggles but God has been absent from the picture. True change and transformation comes from combining these two things. Powlison goes on to describe the process of triangulation that he uses as a grid for personal application of Scripture:
Situation we are in (often suffering or awareness of our sin) + Truth (Reality of God’s character, purposes and plans) = A life of faith expressed in love.
Powlison notes that this is often the way God works in our suffering- not through a quick fix but by slowly applying the reality of who He is to us in the midst of our situation so that we are changed and enabled to endure. He observes how this process of triangulation is worked out in many of the Psalms. Consider Psalm 51 as an example. The obvious situation is the sin of which David is aware. He then remembers God’s mercy and unfailing love. The transformation by the end of the Psalm is clear- David wanting to teach other sinners and to have his mouth opened in praise. The same process applies to many other passages. I’ve found it helpful as I’ve begun to work on my passage for this Sunday morning. Consider the words of Jesus from John 8:12
“I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
What do we see there? We see honesty about the natural situation of humanity- the darkness that represents confusion and sin. We see the Truth about Jesus- he is the light of the world. And as we see those two realities brought together we see the transformation it brings- a desire to follow Jesus.
It is pretty simple in many ways but I am convinced that the battle for change in our lives starts here- putting honesty and the truth of God from the Bible in the same room. I can imagine that thought shaping my personal Bible study and my preaching- a useful outcome from my 24 hours last week.