As noted in the previous post in this series, we’ve all been in that Bible study where we seem to be having a good discussion, people are engaged, the comments are insightful, and then Bob speaks up. And Bob, bless his soul, somehow always manages to provide some odd interpretation about the passage. We are exploring in this series of posts some of the dangerous approaches to Bible study that David Platt identifies in this “Radical Together” podcast about studying the Bible.
Have you ever been studying a particularly difficult passage of Scripture, on a particularly difficult aspect of God’s character or purpose, and heard someone say, “Well, my God would never ______”? Or what about, “I could never serve a God who does _____”? These are common phrases that flow out of an “emotional approach” to studying the Bible. In his Secret Church study on how to study the Bible, David talks about the “emotional approach” saying,
This is a dangerous way to study the Bible. To go to a text of Scripture and say, “All right. What feels like it works best for me? What feels good to me when I walk away from this?” The only problem is, if you want to have what feels right, you will skip over all kinds of texts in the Bible because some kinds of texts just don’t incite the kind of good, mushy feelings that you desire from Bible study.
You begin reading about the wrath of God in the prophets of the Old Testament, and you will not walk away feeling great. You read Lamentations, and you will just flat out be depressed. We can’t base our understanding of Scripture on what feels right to us.
Ask Good Questions
Now, if the “emotional approach” is dangerous, then what do we do with our emotions? Do we just check them at the door of Scripture? Does God just want immediate, unequivocal submission, with no thought or care as to how we feel about this truth or that command?
These are good questions, but by asking these questions, we fail to ask better questions. You see, God cares deeply about how we feel, both in the trials of our lives and in our wrestling through what we see in Scripture about him and his purposes. He cares so deeply, in fact, that he gave us the Scriptures for this very purpose! So the better question is not, “Does God care about our emotions?” but rather “What is wrong with our emotions?” “What has God done to make change possible?” “What does God intend to do with our emotions as we study the Bible?”
Many of us do not realize the extent of the Fall on all of humanity. When Adam and Eve committed that first sin against God in the Garden, it brought distortion into all the world. Every man, woman, and child since has been born into this world as a sinner. Despite popular opinion, we are not born morally neutral creatures with equal ability to choose the good or bad. We are born woefully distorted people, with an utterly sinful nature.
So it’s not just that we do some bad things, but it is that we are born bad people . . . people who as a result, do bad things. This is the major point of all of Romans 1:18-3:23, as well as Romans 5:12-21. The implication, then, of us not being morally neutral creatures who choose to do bad things, but of being morally sinful creatures, is that actions arise from thoughts and emotion. So we do bad things because our hearts, along with the heart’s desires, are filled with sin, which in turn affects how we reason with our minds. (See Romans 1:21, 24, 28; 2 Corinthians 3:15; 4:4; Ephesians 2:3; 4:17; Colossians 1:21)
So if this is the situation, then what can be done? When Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, he didn’t just provide salvation from sin and its judgment for everyone who believes in him. That would have been woefully inadequate for God’s ultimate purposes. You see, God isn’t content to just save you, and then leave you in the state in which he came to you. Christ’s death and resurrection began a whole new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Col. 1:15-18)! Now, when anyone truly places their trust in Christ, they are brought into the new creation in, through, and with Christ (Eph. 2:15).
As a result, we can now say with Paul, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Not only that, but now Christ dwells in our hearts through faith (Eph. 3:17), and “the eyes of [our] hearts [have been] enlightened, that [we] may know what is the hope to which he has called” us (Eph. 1:18).
And it’s not just our hearts, but our minds too! As a result of being brought into this new creation, we have received the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16), and now that we live according to the Spirit, we can set our minds on the things of Spirit (Rom. 8:5). What this all means is that we now have new hearts and new minds that are capable of feeling the right emotions and thinking the right thoughts.
Yet, we are still in a fallen world in a not-yet fully redeemed condition where we still do not always feel and think as we should. But the difference between how we were and how we are is that who we are has now been fundamentally changed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Now as we read Scripture, we come with the ultimate hope of change. Change in how we think; change in how we feel (Rom. 12:2; Eph. 4:22-23). We don’t avoid hard passages because of how they make us feel, but rather we run to Scripture and ask God to use it to continually change how we think and feel so that we are more like him. Ultimately, the best approaches to Bible study do not check emotions at the door, but rather they bring them through the door in the hope that God will change them by the power of the Holy Spirit as people study and meditate on his Word.