What do I do now?
We all say this more than once in our lives, at times when we seem to have no options or when all the things we know to do aren’t working. At these times, many of us naturally seek counsel, coaching, or advice.
Those of us who are Christians also turn to God through prayer and Bible meditation. It’s wise even in good times to seek ongoing guidance from the creator of our universe.
But once in a while, I’ll hear a Christian say that the Bible is life’s instruction manual. And I wince. Because it’s really not.
I used to write instruction manuals for a living. Manuals are about teaching skills and accomplishing tasks. For example, I once wrote a manual for a device that telephone companies used to collect network telemetry. I included a schematic diagram, a line drawing of the device’s front panel with all the controls called out, and paragraphs detailing every configuration option. Technicians used this manual to install and configure the device, and to troubleshoot it when it misbehaved. My manual was factual, comprehensive, detailed, and complete. It covered every situation.
I’ve also written piles of step-by-step instructions. Here are some I whipped up just for this post, about how to save a document as a PDF in Microsoft Word:
- Open the File menu and choose Save As. The Save As window opens.
- If the window does not show the location where you want to save the PDF, in the pane at left, click the location to use. Then in the folder list at right, click the folder to use.
- Type a name for the document in the File Name box.
- Click the arrow at the end of the Save As Type box and choose PDF.
- Click Save.
Notice how specific these instructions are. If you follow them to the letter, you will have your PDF.
The Bible, in contrast, offers neither step-by-step instructions nor specific configuration and troubleshooting information for life. There are two primary reasons, the least of which is that life, with all its richness and complexity, can’t be boiled down in this way.
The bigger reason is that the Bible is really about revealing the nature of God through his relationship with his people, and about telling the story of his people.
The Bible can, absolutely can, help guide your life. But rather than turning to page 207 and following the five steps you find there, you must rather keep reading the Bible throughout your life, studying what you find there in the context of culture and history in the times it was written, discussing what you read with others who are farther along this path than you, and meditating and praying over what you’ve studied. If you do this, you will gain insight into what it means to be a Christian and the kind of life God wants you to live. You then apply this insight every day, adjusting and adapting as you go, all the while continuing to study, discuss, and pray.
Opening the Bible expecting specific guidance on a specific topic can lead to misapplying God’s word. Some Scriptures are bluntly unambiguous: don’t murder, don’t sleep around on your spouse.
Others only seem crystal clear. Here’s one: Philippians 4:13. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (NASB) Do you want to make more money? Do you want to find a loving partner and get married? Do you want to win the big game? Then let yourself be strengthened by God and you can have it! Or, at least that’s how it is sometimes interpreted.
But if you study this verse in its context, you learn some startling things. Paul wrote this book from prison — he was living in oppression. Now consider the verses that lead up to this famous verse:
11 Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (NASB)
Paul isn’t saying that God will help him achieve all of his dreams. He’s saying that no matter what difficulties come, God can help him through them. The message is that God can help us push through when life hands us loss and defeat.
Study, discussion, prayer, application. Repeat, repeat, repeat, all your life. God’s word will surely change you, as rushing water slowly shapes rock. You will come to know God, you will come to know the people who have followed him throughout history, and you will see how God loves even the most imperfect people, including you.
Last updated on 4 March 2020 by Jim Grey