Have you ever sat through a Sunday school class or a Bible study where nothing really stirred you? Have you ever felt frustrated because of the direction the class was taking? Have you ever had the sentiment that you might as well be on a psychiatrist’s couch, with questions bombarding you about your feelings, or your reactions to some hypothetical situation?
I have, more than once. I’m sitting there, hoping and praying that the leader or some wise respondent will bring clarity to an initially mysterious passage. We are supposed to be studying a portion of Scripture, but we can’t seem to get there. Instead, the leader intones: “Describe a first-hand experience—serious or humorous—you have had with farming or with caring for plants in some way.” When that doesn’t get much reaction, the leader follows with another command: “Write a paragraph describing how you imagine God sees you.” A few people begin to scribble some notes on a piece of paper, but then stop because the demand is too personal and self-incriminating. The leader finally gives up and begins to ask some questions about the persons in the passage.
My wife and I spent the winter months down south, where it is warmer. We found a church belonging to a sister denomination. The preaching was very good, and the theology was the same as ours, but the Sunday school class was disappointing. I don’t want to blame the session, and I don’t want to blame the leaders, but I do want to criticize the materials being used. The booklet being used was part of the LifeGuide Bible Studies produced by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The author of this particular booklet is a member of a Vineyard Christian Fellowship. That might be cause for some concern, but we need to find out if the proof is in the pudding. Is this booklet producing the kind of Bible study that will strengthen our faith, sharpen our discernment, and increase our love for God? Will our worship be more God-glorifying and more enjoyable if we follow this booklet’s formula? Will we leave the class with heart’s bursting with gratitude for what God has done?
Sad to say, most of us have had too many let-down feelings, coming away with little enthusiasm and lingering doubts as to why we even bother. The reason for such disappointments is that the approach being followed in this series is backward. It starts where it ought to end. It puts the cart where the horse ought to be. It begins with a conclusion and fails to ask the most important leading questions. Regrettably, large numbers of men are finding excuses for skipping Bible studies at their churches. One reason, I suspect, is this overemphasis on personal feeling and experience. For some reasons, too nebulous to explore, the female gender is more accepting of this approach than are men. Look in your catalogs. You will find that the majority of group Bible studies are authored by women. Some of them are very good. Some of them boil down to sentimental mush and superficial theology. As a man, I have tried to get some of my Bible studies published but have been told that men’s Bible studies are a financial risk because the market is too small. They would be more willing to publish if I were a female.
Sunday school, like formal worship, ought to be focused on the Word of God. It ought to start with a high view of Scripture and then proceed to probe its depths, much as would someone who is mining diamonds. The key assumption and assertion ought to be that this is the Word of God. God is the primary author for all sixty-six books. Yes, He used His human agents, but it is His Word. He has given it to us for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17 ESV).
Man’s greatest need is to hear the voice of his Creator, his heavenly Father, the Author of the Bible. We need to open His Book and read the words that He has given us. As you and I peruse the pages of Holy Writ, there are four fundamental questions we should always keep in the forefront of our minds:
What is God doing in this passage?
What is God saying in this passage?
How are God’s people responding to God’s actions and words?
How should you and I respond today?
Such an approach ought to be elementary and thoroughly practiced, but, I am afraid, it seldom is. Too often so-called Bible studies start with number 4 and then try to backtrack into the text. Bad approaches usually lead to bad results, just like bad questions usually produce bad answers. If we start with our “feelings,” we may never get around to asking “What is God doing in this passage?”
We do well to reflect on those calls to worship that tell us to “declare . . . his marvelous works among all the nations” (Ps. 96:3; 98:1; 105:1–2). Reflecting on all the amazing things that God has done in history is an important precursor to meaningful worship. It is also a key component to effective Bible study. The answer to that key question (1) may not be apparent in every passage or in every verse, but it needs to be asked just the same.
Let’s take a look at the book of Daniel, one of my favorites. As we approach Daniel 1, the answer to our question becomes readily available. We are told that “the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with some of the vessels of the house of God” (Dan. 1:2). As we proceed, we are soon informed that “God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs” (Dan. 1:9). Given such explicit statements, we can follow up with such questions as “How did God do that?” or “Why did God do that?” That should lead to some really fruitful discussion about God’s acting in history and drive us into relevant parts of the Bible. We can probably find the answers to such questions in Jeremiah or in Isaiah or maybe Ezekiel. Given some answers there, we need to press the second question: “What is God saying in this passage?” What message is God conveying to us, His readers, with this display of His power?” Good, for God’s Word is its own best interpreter.
As we move into Daniel 2, we might forget to ask the fundamental question. We might focus instead on King Nebuchadnezzar or on his dream. Or, perish the thought, we might get all tangled up in trying to determine how much time elapsed between the giving of the dream and Daniel’s explanation of it. We might forget to ask, “What is God doing in chapter 2?” When we do get around to asking, we might come to realize, through Daniel’s own explanation, that it was God who planted the dream in the king’s mind, and it was God who gave Daniel the wisdom to reveal and explain the dream (see Dan. 2:28). God is the primary actor here in chapter 2, just like He was in chapter 1. Again, we can ask the follow-up questions: “How did God do this?” “Why did God do this?” “What is God’s purpose in planting this dream in the head of a pagan, idol-worshipping king?”
But some may object: Such an approach might work for the book of Daniel, but how do I apply it to the parables that Christ taught? Should I be asking the same questions there? The answer, I would submit, is an emphatic yes! Take, for example, Christ’s parable about the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:25–37. You might get waylaid by the fact that it is a “lawyer who stood up to put him to the test.” You might profitably reflect on the legalistic character apparent in his question, for there is an underlying theme of legalism wrapped up in this story. But don’t stop there. Don’t let that be the substance of your study. Instead, focus more on Jesus’ multiple responses to his question. Jesus is God, and He is crafting His response to this legalistic trap. He creates the story. He is the one who sets up the contrasts between the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan. Then, it is legitimate to ask, Because Jesus is telling the parable, why did He choose a priest and a Levite as the “bad guys”? Why did He not choose a lawyer or a tax collector? Why did He choose a Samaritan as the “good guy”? Was He telling about an actual, historical event, or was He telling a parable to make a point? If we concede that, then we can ask, What message was Christ trying to convey? What was God saying in this passage? How did God’s people respond? How should you and I respond today?
It isn’t wrong to ask for personal feelings and reactions, but that is not where we want to start. Such an approach stifles real Bible study. It becomes man-centered rather than God-centered. Never forget, the Bible is God speaking to us. It is His Word. He is speaking to us through it. Ask what He is doing and what He is saying. You will be blessed! In the meantime, encourage the men in your congregation to get involved. Encourage the fathers to set an example for their children. Above all, encourage the Education Committee and the worship leaders to choose good materials, ones that are designed to let God speak to us.
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.