When reading my Bible the other morning, I realized that what I was reading wasn’t reaching my heart.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. I enjoy studying and learning, and while that can be a helpful skill to apply to God’s Word, it often backfires. On this particular morning, I was gaining great head knowledge from commentaries and word studies—but my heart wasn’t in it. What I was reading and learning wasn’t being translated into more love for God or into a practical takeaway for my life.
A couple of days later, I noticed a problem. But this time, my mind was jumping immediately to how this passage should affect my life.
“But wait,” you might say, “isn’t that a good thing? If the problem was that your knowledge wasn’t affecting your life, don’t you want to focus on how God’s Word applies to you?”
Well, yes—but also no. Let me explain.
Interpretation vs. Application
We all know we need to apply God’s Word. When we apply Scripture, we put it into practice in our lives. Application is how we become like Jesus in practical, real-life ways. It’s how our attitudes and actions are shaped to reflect the truth of the gospel. Application is how we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord over our lives by obeying Him faithfully.
But if we jump straight to applying God’s Word without first understanding what it says, we’re missing a crucial step: interpretation. When we interpret God’s Word, we figure out what it means. We compare the passage we’re reading to other sections of Scripture so we can understand the overall message of God’s Word better.
Most of us have a tendency to overemphasize one of these steps at the expense of the other: either we interpret without applying, or we apply without first interpreting. In my own life, I often swing back and forth between the two, relying too heavily on either application or interpretation rather than regularly practicing them both.
But both of these steps are essential to our Bible study, and I would argue that it’s difficult to grow spiritually without both interpreting and applying Scripture.
Problem #1: Head knowledge without heart change
When we rely too heavily on interpretation, we acquire a lot of knowledge about the Bible and even about God, but it doesn’t change our lives in any meaningful way.
This is an easy trap to fall into, especially for those of us who have grown up in Christian families and have been familiar with the Bible since childhood. It is so, so easy to know a lot of facts about the Bible—even facts about God Himself—without ever internalizing those facts in a way that changes our hearts.
I know I’m falling into this trap when I spend more time reading commentaries about the Bible than reading the Bible itself. My default response to a question about Scripture is often to look for an answer using my own research skills rather than asking God to make His Word clear to me. Don’t get me wrong, commentaries and other books about the Bible are wonderful tools that have helped me understand Scripture better—but they aren’t God’s Word, and they certainly can’t replace a living relationship with God Himself.
We don’t study our Bibles just to know more about the Bible. We study our Bibles to know God—not to know facts about Him, but to really know His character, what He values, and how He thinks. That kind of relationship with the living God changes us profoundly. To truly know God is to love Him, and when we love Him, we seek to obey Him and become more and more like Him.
Getting to know God through His Word changes my heart, and if my heart is changed, my actions can’t help but follow suit. If my Bible study increases my knowledge about God without affecting my heart or my actions, I’m likely focusing too much on interpretation and not enough on application.
Problem #2: Focusing on the wrong person
Reading the Bible should change our lives, but don’t swing to the other extreme, where we apply Scripture without taking the time to understand it.
When we place too much emphasis on application, we jump right to what a passage means “to me.” The problem with this approach is that we forget the Bible is not primarily a book about us; it’s a book about God.
The entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, describes God’s relationship with humanity. When human beings chose sin over a relationship with God, it was God who made the first move toward restoration. It was God who pursued His people over and over again, inviting them to repent and return to Him in spite of their sins. It was God who gave up His Son to save us from our sins, and it is God who promises to one day eradicate sin and death and sorrow. Behold, I am making all things new…
The Bible shows us God’s kindness and mercy, and it depicts what it looks like to live as people who have received God’s mercy. It shows us what God values, how He thinks, and what He expects of His people. It teaches us to consider our lives and our identities in light of who God is and what He has done for us.
When we overemphasize application, we turn the Christian life into a series of checklists instead of a relationship with the living God. Our focus becomes living a Christian lifestyle rather than knowing and loving the Christ who saved us. On top of that, when we don’t interpret Scripture before applying it, we risk applying God’s Word incorrectly. Even worse, we risk drawing mistaken conclusions about who God is when we misunderstand His Word.
Christian conduct always comes from an intimate, personal knowledge of God. If we attempt to apply the Bible to our lives without first getting to know God Himself through His Word, we’ve missed the point entirely.
How to balance interpretation and application
So how do we interpret God’s Word and apply it to our lives without overemphasizing one over the other?
First of all, it’s important to remember that your time with the Lord might not look exactly like mine. We all have different personalities and we’re in different seasons of life, and that can have a huge impact on how we structure our time in God’s Word. You might need to experiment a little to find a rhythm that works for you, and it will almost certainly change as you move through different seasons of your life.
That said, here are a couple of general tips to get you started:
1. Keep a “cheat sheet” in your Bible
If the concepts of interpretation and application are brand-new to you—or if, like me, you tend to default toward one and neglect the other—try jotting down a few prompts for each on a sticky note in the front of your Bible. Each day, you can pick one or more prompts from each list to focus on.
Prompts for interpretation might include:
- Looking up the meaning of words
- Following cross-references to see what other passages have to say on a topic
- Writing or sketching an outline of the passage
- Summarizing the passage in 1-2 sentences
- Rewriting the passage in your own words
Prompts for application might include:
- What have I learned about God today? How does this aspect of God’s character affect my view of myself?
- Is there any sin I need to confess to God?
- What commands are there for me to follow? What might that look like today, this week, this month?
- What principles in this passage apply to my life? What might that look like?
2. Alternate between interpretation and application
If you’re short on time, you can focus on interpretation one day and application the next. One day, you can read a passage and jot down the main points in the passage. The next day, you can reread the passage, scan your notes from the previous day, and then journal and pray about how the passage should affect your attitudes and actions.
3. Use an acronym
My favourite way to make sure my Bible study time remains balanced is to use an acronym as a guide. Each letter of the acronym stands for a particular action to take while engaging with God’s Word; if you work through each letter, you’ll end up moving through the steps of interpretation and application by the end of your study.
Although the specifics of how we approach interpretation and application may vary from person to person, my hope for each of us is that we grow closer to God through our study of His Word, that we may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. // Colossians 1:9-10
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