I'm going to be so bold as to suggest that we make two huge mistakes when we read the Bible or when we seek to apply Christian truth. Certainly, these are not the only mistakes we can make, but they are all too common and, unfortunately, highly tempting. And I've made them both far more often than I care to admit, and I still do.
The first mistake is to apply certain truths primarily to others. We do this especially with the hard parts of Scripture, with the exhortations and the pronouncements of sin. A preacher might make a point, say that Scripture commands us to forgive others who hurt us, and we immediately say to ourselves something like, "Boy, I sure do hope my spouse is listening!" Or we're sitting in a Bible study and we read a verse or two of judgment or condemnation and our first thought is, "Those infidels in Hollywood need to hear this." It might be Republicans, or Democrats, rich people or poor, or pretty much anyone other than ourselves; it really doesn't matter, so long as we can keep the truth safely separated from us.
The truth is, we preachers are prone to do this a lot in our sermons. By that I mean that we'll pound the pulpit against people who aren't even in the room, ranting and railing against the sinners "out there." It makes us feel virtuous - after all, we don't do "those sins" - and our congregants don't have to squirm a bit the entire sermon. Everybody goes home feeling good and mighty happy. But nobody goes home changed.
The second mistake is to be selfish in our application. We do this especially with the more affirming, encouraging parts of the Bible. Here's a specific example I see a great deal, one involving Philippians 4:13. The New King James Version reads this way, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." No wonder we love these words from the Apostle Paul; he sounds like the ultimate positive thinker, the quintessential motivational speaker, the coach or teacher who exhorts us to greatness.
Here's how we think it through. I want to accomplish great things. Doing so will make me really happy and God wants me to be happy. Paul assures me that Jesus wants me to do those great things and, even better, He's going to help me to do them. What a team - me and Jesus!
So, you want to make the Middle School Volleyball Team? Well, Jesus is on your team and you just work hard, pray hard, and you've got it. All things, right? You want to start a business and become really successful, even wealthy? Guess who wants to be your partner in this enterprise? Now you see why athletes and business people love this verse.
Now, it's not that Jesus wants us to fail nor that He doesn't care about our lives and the things that are important to us. The problem is that this is an incredibly shallow and selfish way of reading and applying Scripture. We're simply looking for something that will give us what we want, something that will meet our needs and fulfill our desires.
Certainly, biblical truths do apply to others beyond ourselves and our churches. And, those truths may inspire and encourage us in our daily lives. What's more, we may indeed achieve levels of greatness, success, or wealth as we practice those truths. We may make the team, score the touchdown, live the dream, start the business, or get the PhD. But it shouldn't end there.
You see, there's a third way, a better way, to read Scripture and apply its truth. That is, we apply it to ourselves first, all of it, both the tough parts and the affirming parts. And we do it not for what we can get from it, but for what it can do to us, in us, with us. Meaning, we read in order not to receive but to be transformed, not to be continually affirmed but to be challenged. So, when we read the exhortation to forgive, instead of thinking about someone else who needs to put it into practice, we examine our own lives to see where we may be harboring some unforgiveness. Instead of focusing on the infidels in Hollywood, or anybody else not in the room, we ask God to turn the spotlight on our own lives and to show us what needs to be changed.
Now, what about Philippians 4:13? Reading the whole chapter, it becomes obvious that Paul is not particularly concerned with the outcome of a ballgame or whether someone's wildest dreams come true. Rather, he's speaking specifically of experiencing contentment in any and every circumstance, whether in trial or triumph, in abundance or need. It's not too much of a stretch to say that he is more interested in how we'll handle not making the team than in whether we do or not.
When we read Scripture this way, sometimes it comforts us but others it leaves us uncomfortable. Sometimes it convicts; sometimes it affirms. But it never leaves us the same. And that's just the way it should be.