Things I wish Christians would stop saying: “The Bible is our instruction manual”

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:

  1. Open the File menu and choose Save As. The Save As window opens.
  2. 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.
  3. Type a name for the document in the File Name box.
  4. Click the arrow at the end of the Save As Type box and choose PDF.
  5. 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.

“Things I wish Christians would stop saying” is an occasional series. You’ll find other posts in this series here, here, and here.


10 responses to “Things I wish Christians would stop saying: “The Bible is our instruction manual””

  1. sobershutterSteve Avatar

    An interesting post (as always) however, this is another that is oddly contradictory. With one sentence you make your point about the bible not being an instruction manual, and with the next paragraph you clearly explain how it is, and I will say some of the best explanations I have seen in print. I reread n your article on “God won’t give you more than you can handle” and it was the same (however i would agree that trials dont specifically come from our creator ). I am no expert but in my reading I have failed to find any aspect of the human experience not covered somewhere in some bible chapter or other and it is certainly true that context must be considered. Incidentally, i have used more than a few of the actual instructions you use as an example and most are grossly overrated and seem written for people who are experts with the program in question. I guess it comes down to perspective. Instructions do not by any means guarantee results and results do not guarantee that a given situation no longer exists or has not left its mark on us.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      The point I am making is that while the Bible can guide your life, it takes study and thought and meditation and discussion and life experience, repeated throughout life. A manual is meant for the reader to get in, get the nugget of accurate, factual, complete info they want, and get out. If you try that with the Bible, you can badly misinterpret it. And the main point of the Bible is to reveal God’s nature anyway.

  2. davidvanilla Avatar

    Why, it is like going to church on Wednesday. We’ll just call it Bible study. *grins*
    I think your point is well expressed. The Bible is much more than a manual. It is a road map to a relationship with our Creator, a means by which we may see His love for us, a guide to understanding how we may reciprocate His love.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks so much, David. You put your finger right on it: the Bible helps us build our relationship with God.

  3. jpcavanaugh Avatar

    An interesting post on an interesting topic. As a Catholic, I do not experience this as much as you probably do, as we have never subscribed to Luther’s doctrine of Sola Scriptura (that scripture alone is the source of the entirety of the Christian faith.) After all, what did they do during the first decade or so when virtually none of the New Testament was even written, or during the next 300 plus years before there was some authoritative agreement on what books would be included therein.

    I think that a lot of folks (Catholics included) have a vague idea that the Bible just sort of dropped down out of the sky, and have never really looked into where it came from and how it came down to be in our homes today. Without much background in its history, it is probably much easier to consider it as Life’s Manual. My own take is that if Christ had really set out to leave us a manual, he could have done a lot better with it had he done it himself instead of subcontracting the job. :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Even though I’m in a church that essentially teaches sola scriptura, I’ve moved beyond it. There is a deep, personal experience with God that also informs my faith. The Bible is necessary, essential even, but not sufficient.

      I wish the history and context that surround the Bible’s books were taught more. I’m going to admit a sad secret of the denomination I belong to: there just isn’t enough real scholarship.

  4. kiwiskan Avatar

    Well said Jim

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you!

  5. Just Bits and Pieces Avatar

    When I think of manuals I think of that little booklet that comes with my new TV stand. It tells me all of the parts and pieces I need and a step-by-step instruction of how to assemble it. I think that’s what you’re trying to tell me the Bible is not. I believe the Bible shares with me all the ways people have formed relationships with God; how Jesus formed relationships while on this earth and to let me know everything I experience can be found in His word for my life. Manual? probably not…life guidance through relationship with Christ…I think so. Your thoughts are well said, well said indeed.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Sounds like you beat me to the conclusion! :-)

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