When I returned to my study of Deuteronomy after a long break, the applications leaped out at me. I was tempted to pursue them without really studying the text. I resisted. Instead, I returned to the Scriptures to discover what the whole passage taught. I was fighting a battle encountered by most readers of the Bible today — a battle to let God speak to us through the Bible.
Studying the text carefully is an expression of devotion to God. God is supreme and the Lord of our lives. He has spoken and, if this is so, we must carefully find out what exactly is meant by what is in the Word. Indeed God sometimes “zaps” us with a message triggered by something in the Word before we do any serious study. This is because when we give time to be close to the Word we become receptive to hearing from God. God speaks to us in many ways, and this is one of them. These sudden messages are equivalent to the author of a book of instructions giving us a special hint to help us along the way. It would be an insult to the writer of the instruction book to depend solely on those special hints without reading the clear instructions given in the book. This is especially true when it comes to the Bible, which is God’s complete and sufficient revelation to us to guide us in all matters of faith and practice.
We must look into the text carefully to find out what the inspired author of God’s Word meant when he wrote the words of the text. This is especially true when we read passages we regard as uninspiring. They may be uninspiring to us, but they are part of what Paul calls “all Scripture” that is inspired by God and therefore “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16).
When we study the Bible, we—the subjects—are humbly looking for truth that is outside ourselves (objective truth) given to us by God and recorded in the Bible.
Two Cultural Obstacles
I can think of two cultural factors today that make the pursuit of objective truth in the Bible difficult.
1. Living in a technological world – ours is a technological generation that has produced many skilled technicians. Many people today are comfortable with dealing with the data found in computers. Grappling with truth is harder for the technology-conditioned busybodies of our generation. We give immediate answers to messages we receive. That is what text messages, e-mail or electronic chatting has done to us. That is often very helpful, but the downside is that people have become too impatient to give time for carefully thought-through reflections. We are so busy with all our e-mail etc. that we have no time to devote to such deep thinking. There is a lot more communication happening between people thanks to the internet. And that is good. But has that reduced people’s ability to grapple with truth?
I am not saying that we should not use computers. I can say that computer technology has transformed my Bible study. I do most of my Bible study on the computer these days. The technology of computers can help speed up our technical study so that we can give extra time to get at the heart of a text and then meditate on it
But the very thing that speeds our study may hinder us from slowing down to give time to grappling what a text means and what it means in the context in which it is found. Because of the speed of technology a lot of effort may be required to slow down to think. The speed of technology may make it difficult to get us to stop and ask the six great questions of inductive Bible study: who? what? when? where? how? and so what? Ours is a generation which is lazy about objective truth. We cannot stop long enough to grapple with the meaning of a text that someone else has written. Today’s world may produce many technicians but fail to nurture thinkers. Because Christianity is a truth-based religion, developing mature Christians in today’s world is going to be a huge challenge!
2. Living in post-modern times – ours is a post-modern generation that is revolting against the idea that we were tyrannised by things like the objective rules in the Bible, scientific laws, productivity, and the efficiency orientation of the modern era. The complaint is that our individual selves were sacrificed because individuals were viewed as cogs in a vast machine of productivity or slaves to rules dictated by a distant God and his representative the church. There is a great quest for “self-actualisation” today: achieving ones fullest potential. And the measures for this are human—from within ourselves—not divine. People don’t look to the Word of God to ask what is an authentic life. Now authenticity is measured not by whether a thing is true but by how it makes us feel. Experience is king. Ours has been called an instinctually stimulated generation. Nike tells us: “Just do it;” and Sprite tells us: “Obey your thirst.”
Culturally, then, this generation does not like the idea of submitting to objective truth. Our focus is on experience. So even when Christians study the Bible, the questions generally asked are, “What does this passage tell you personally?” and “How does this make you feel?” Missing is the childlike faith and devotion to God that humbly sits under the Word and asks, “What is God teaching here?” That somehow seems to be less authentic.
An important feature of post-modern hermeneutics is that it is reader-centered rather than writer-centered. This approach could have permeated into our approaches to reading too. When we read the Bible, we are in danger of focusing on ourselves rather than on what the writer intended to communicate.
We need evangelists for truth today who show the glory of truth and the beauty of the ways of God. The psalmists say so often that the Law, that is, the word of God, is a source of delight. Many Christians think of the teachings of the Word as things that bind us. Jesus said that the Truth sets us free (John 8:32). Society tells us that the truth restricts our freedom.
Christianity Is Counter-Cultural
So this is an area where Christianity must be counter cultural. We will adapt our methods and use means that connect with people in order that we may reach them with the gospel. However, we will not jettison key features of the gospel in order to win an audience. We will labour instead to show people that those features of the gospel, which repel them—like truth—are indeed keys to an authentic life. This is why I said we need evangelists for truth. If people are to accept the gospel—at the heart of which is the fact the Jesus is the truth—they must accept that truth is necessary for an authentic life.
In light of what I have said here, is it any wonder that expository preaching has gone out of fashion? It takes far too much time to follow the steps that are needed for good Bible exposition. We must carefully study a biblical text to find out what it teaches, then we must find out how that applies in today’s world, and then we must choose ways to present these truths in an attractive, convincing, penetrative manner, so that lives are changed by it. We see that today we have big churches that have wonderfully creative music, drama etc (which fit in better with today’s technological and experience orientation) followed by insipid, low quality preaching. The result is malnourished Christians.
May we labour to be good servants of truth in a world that has lost the sense of the glory of truth. This surely is a key aspect of devotion to the God who gave us the Bible. May God use us to help people discover the most authentic and fulfilling experiences that only come along with the grounding of the sure foundation of God’s truth. It is only through this freedom and experience grounded in eternal realities that one could achieve the fullest “self-actualisation.”
Ajith Fernandohas been national director of Youth for Christ in war-torn Sri Lanka since 1976. He and his wife, Nelun, are active in a church ministering primarily to the urban poor. His ministry includes mentoring younger staff and counseling Christian workers. He is the author of eleven books published in thirteen languages.