Leaders Ask Application Questions

The point of this post is to challenge leaders and teachers. To be effective in leading your class, make sure to ask application questions that lead your group to spiritual growth. This is perhaps one of the most quoted passages in the Bible Study business:

But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it. (James 1:22-25)

To study the Bible, or to take a class on prayer, or discuss compassion for the poor but not do anything about what one has learned, is a waste of time.

The Word of God holds up a mirror in which we can see our own face: our character, values, attitudes, and habits. It offers us a perspective on our situation and relationships that we can’t get on our own. It also opens up a window into the realm of God, in which we see the face of Christ looking back at us. We get to compare our face to that of Christ, noting the similarities and differences. The Bible promises that we can change (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Extensive psychotherapy doesn’t change most people all that much. When change does happen, something on the order of a miracle is occurring. But the gospel insists that the Spirit of God (through the Word of God and with the help of the people of God) can and will perform this miracle in any person willing to cooperate.

So many study groups settle for educating people about God and the Christian life, but they don’t believe it’s possible for them to really become like Jesus. People like the idea in theory, but the actual process scares them.

  1. Do we really want to take a hard look at ourselves in the mirror, week after week? Can we bear to see and examine the face of Christ?
  2. Do we really want to give up our familiar paths and strike out on the uncharted territory of God’s ways?
  3. Do we really want the Spirit breaking up our concrete habits with a jackhammer?

Likely, your group contains decent people who sort of want to follow Christ but aren’t all that eager to see their lives disrupted. They are busy people who have jobs, families, bills, and housework that don’t leave them hours and hours to contemplate Christ and their lives. Discussion questions that invite them to apply the Word of God to their lives need to take into account both the mandate of the gospel (big changes) and the realities of the human condition (big obstacles to change).

Go Slow and Deep: People who are asked to take drastic action too often and in too many different directions eventually go numb in order to survive. Consider the person who hears a Sunday sermon, reads the Bible even once or twice a week, and attends Sunday School each week. If this person encounters three, four, or more calls in one week to change drastically, it’s overwhelming. Over time, people learn to tune out the guilt feelings triggered by such calls.

In your small group, learn to ask, “So what?” regularly and systematically, but ask, “Now what?” sparingly, yet with focus and detail.

  1. “So what?” invites group members to think about the implications of what they are studying. “Now what?” asks them to take action individually or together, to do something concrete about those implications.
  2. “So what?” is theoretical, general application. “Now what?” is practical, specific application.
  3. “So what?” helps people think an issue through. “Now what?” guides them step by step in a realistic plan to be doers of the Word.
  4. “So what?” questions work in at least two dimensions.
    1. The first dimension is when: helping the group bridge the gap between when the passage was written (then) and our current situation today (now).
    2. The second dimension is who: discerning how a passage applies to people in general, to them as individuals, or to them as a group.

Then and Now: One common error in Bible study is to assume that something God told someone to do in 605 B.C. is what God wants each of us to do today. A related error is to assume that God wants us to imitate everything the first Christians did without regard to the differences of situation. These errors overlook the fact that God deals both in timeless principles and in unique situations.

  1. “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) is a timeless principle.
  2. “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household” (Genesis 12:1) is an instruction to a particular person, Abram.

When we get the particular and the timeless confused:

  1. We may conclude that God wants all men everywhere to be circumcised and all women everywhere to cover their heads.
  2. We may conclude, like many 19th-century Americans, that because Paul treated slavery as OK in A.D. 50, it was still OK in A.D. 1850.
  3. We may decide that since God told Joshua to practice genocide against the utterly degenerate Canaanites, then maybe our enemies deserve genocide, and maybe we have been called by God to imitate Joshua.

1. “So what?” questions always begin with what was then. The first “So what?” question should point to the original purpose of the writer or speaker in the passage:

  1. What do you think Jesus wanted His audience to do in response to this parable?
  2. What action does Paul tell the Galatians to take?

With a story, it may be more helpful to ask about how the various characters responded to the challenges they faced:

  1. How did Abram deal with his doubts?
  2. How did the apostles handle the conflict between the Greek- and Aramaic-speaking believers?

2. Next we look for bridges between then and now by asking how our situation is like and unlike the situation addressed in the passage:

  1. What conflicts do we face in our ministry? In what ways do they resemble the conflict described in Acts 6? In what ways are they different?
  2. Do you identify with the Galatians in any ways? In what ways are you similar or different?

As the leader, you should always ask yourself, “How is our situation different?” This question will help you guide the group away from erroneous applications. Joshua’s conquest of Canaan was in many ways a unique situation. The founding of the first Christian community in Jerusalem was also unique in many ways.

3. Finally, with the similarities and differences between then and now in mind, we can ask whether the passage offers any timeless (always) principles, like, “What can we learn about good and poor ways of handling doubt from Abram’s example?”

Principles can include a sin to avoid, a promise to trust, an example to follow, a command to obey, or a truth to believe. It is essential not to generalize a universal principle from a specific situation without careful thought about the differences between then and now.

Sometimes you’ll want to help people apply the passage to their personal lives. At other times, you’ll draw out a group application. Most of the Bible was written not to individuals, but to groups. The “you” in many passages is plural.

Another way of asking, “So what?” is to point people toward listening to the Holy Spirit:

  1. What do you sense the Holy Spirit is saying to us about how we relate to others in our lives who don’t know Christ?
  2. What is one key truth from this passage that you sense the Spirit is urging you to embrace?

Set aside 15 minutes at the end of your group meeting to contemplate questions. Pray, asking the Holy Spirit to speak. Then talk, with ears open.

Now What? “So what?” questions are general and ask for relevance. “Now what?” questions are pointed. They ask us to take action.

  1. How can you put this insight into practice this week?
  2. What can you do to cultivate this into a habit?
  3. What will it mean, in practical terms, for you to seek God’s kingdom first this week?
  4. How can we, as a group, obey Isaiah’s call to a true fast?

Many of your discussions will end with “So what?” questions. It is not a waste of time to help people think and feel more biblically. But sometimes, action is called for.

“Now what?” questions require specific, realistic, and measurable answers.

  1. Specific means that definite actions, rather than general goals, are specified.
  2. Realistic means that the person has devised a plan he can reasonably carry out within the limitations of his life, with the power of the Holy Spirit and the help of the group to back him up.
  3. Measurable means something concrete will be done, and at the end of a month or a year, the shift in the person’s attitudes or actions will be noticeable by an observant outsider. We shouldn’t become obsessed with measuring spiritual growth, since the most important changes are internal and may take time to affect our behavior dramatically, but it is possible to ask ourselves. What can I do to become a significantly more compassionate person by this time next year?

Bear in mind that questions about the future are often more intimate than those about the past or present. Most people don’t talk about their hopes and goals casually. When the group has been together for about six sessions or more, members will find it extremely bonding to begin discussing their hopes for who they want to become and how they plan to pursue their goals. One way of formulating this question is, “In what ways do you want to be different as a result of our studying Philippians?”

Counting the Cost: Jesus told a parable about two sons, in which one son agreed to do what his father asked but then didn’t follow through, while the other balked but eventually obeyed (Matthew 21:28-32 ). People frequently talk about how a passage applies to them but don’t do anything about it after the discussion. One reason for this is that they don’t consider the risks and costs of living the gospel. Jesus urged His followers to count the cost and to be sure they knew what they were getting themselves into before embracing the kingdom of God. Here are some questions you can use when studying a passage that you know asks something difficult, such as turning the other cheek:

  1. What are the risks of doing what Jesus says here?
  2. What would it cost you to do that?
  3. What obstacles hinder you from living that way consistently?

Then, having looked squarely at the downside, invite people to weigh it against the upside:

  1. What would be the benefits of living like this?
  2. What would motivate a person to take those risks?
  3. How can you overcome those obstacles? How can we help?

Not Just the Facts: Application questions provide the potential for spiritual growth. They take us beyond learning facts about a passage of Scripture. We discover how the passage applied to its original readers, how that ancient situation connects with our modern world, and how to do something with what we’ve learned. This process helps us become doers of the Word, not merely hearers, and as the Scriptures promise, such people (and such small groups) “will be blessed in their doing.”

Thanks to Karen Lee-Thorp, Discipleship Journal, July/August 1998 [print_link] [email_link]

Five Questions to Ask Your Wife

I recently read a blog that had five questions that a husband should ask his wife that would communicate to her just how much he really cares for her. It is my goal to ask these questions this weekend…

What is the most romantic thing that I’ve ever done for you? You might be surprised! When we get married we think about “wowing” her by taking her to nice places and spending lots of money, but in reality it may be the little things that communicate to her how special she is.

What is something fun we can do together? Men, our definition of fun and hers is usually completely different. One of the things about most women is that they want to feel connected to their husbands, to feel like they matter and are important, and one of the ways they do that is by simply having fun. It’s not about taking her to something that you like doing. It’s about asking her what she wants to do, and then making that happen. It proves to her that you care.

What is one thing I can do for you this week that will relieve stress from your life? Men, we have no idea how much stress our lady carries around with her, and because she is a woman (thus everything is connected to everything) we should be willing to do all we can to relieve stress from her life. This may include giving her an afternoon to herself, without the kids. It may include you cooking dinner one night or cleaning up afterwards. Whatever it takes, do it!

How Can I Pray For You? It is amazing the number of men that will not ask their wife this question. We are called to lead our homes spiritually, which means we should provide protection and direction. When she asks you to pray for something specific, we must resist the temptation to go ahead and be the answer to her prayer by solving the problem she’s bringing to your attention. She asked you to pray–not fix it. I know we have a tendency to try to fix everything, but she doesn’t want us to fix her problem, she wants you to listen to her.

If you could change one thing about our marriage–what would it be? This one takes guts! We think we are the perfect match for her, and all is well. But she can give you some really great insight into what she considered to be important, and we should be motivated to work as hard as we can to honor her request.

Ephesians 5:25 says we are to love our wives as Christ loves the church…

  • He never stops loving the church
  • He never stops pursuing the church
  • He always comes home for the church
  • He never cheats on the church
  • He provides for the church
  • He never stops thinking about the church
  • He takes the church seriously

I am definitely not the perfect husband, but more and more I am realizing that my marriage not about what I deserve or can get out of it, it’s all about what I can give to her and how I can serve her. As men of God we should go all out to show the world how awesome Jesus is through loving our bride like He loves His.

[print_link] [email_link]

A Full Body Scan

I remember living in Richmond several years ago and while driving in to work every morning, there was this commercial on the radio for an imaging company that offered a special on a full body scan… although, I forget the name of the machine. A lot of men seemed to be getting these scans, especially as they approached age fifty.

As I read Psalm 139:23-24, I thought about how God can also do a full body scan! God can check the heart, the mind, the hands, the eyes, the feet, the mouth, you name it. I found the following questions helpful for every man to look deep inside where no one but you and God can see. Ask these questions and petition God to guide you on the road to everlasting life. 

  1. Have I been proud in my inmost thoughts, or “imagination”? Do I focus on myself and my selfish desires instead of the needs and desires of others?
  2. Do I blame or have I been judgmental of others?
  3. Do I get frustrated or even angry because people don’t respond exactly the way I want them to? Do I feel inadequate thinking I have nothing to offer?
  4. Do I spend much of my day dreaming or fantasizing about a life different than the one I have? Do I live in a state of real contentment, accepting and being grateful for what God has done for me?
  5. Where do I remain in denial about myself? If Jesus were sitting here with me (which He is!), what would He tell me about the true condition of my heart? What would He say about what needs to be dealt with?
  6. Where am I “digging in my heels” through pride, insisting that “I am right” about something at the cost of my relationship with my family, friends or co-workers?
  7. Is the Holy Spirit “haunting me” about something that I will not admit or agree with Him is a problem?
  8. Is the Holy Spirit convicting me while my pride pushes back insisting “I’m justified” in my resentment and anger about the issue?
  9. Am I being called to humble myself with someone, to settle a conflict or a difference, but my pride pushes back and says “No, I will not!”
  10. Have I been offended by someone that I will not forgive – really forgive – or am I holding onto resentment, anger, or bitterness towards this person? Do I replay the offense over and over again in my mind and justify the emotions I feel in the name of “Yes, but look at what they did to me!”
  11. Do I have things or people that I give more power and influence to then God Himself? This can be very subtle – is there anything in my life that bears more weight with me than what Jesus says about it?
  12. Do I care more about the approval I get from people than I do about pleasing God? Is there anything I care more about than pleasing God in secret obedience?
  13. Do I have a secret – something I am spending mental, emotional and spiritual energy to keep someone else from knowing – that I am hesitant to confess to God and to others, or even flat-out refuse God’s conviction to bring into the light?


Ten Questions to Ask Your Wife

Do an Internet search on the “ten questions” and you can find them listed, but here I can add some commentary! I was working at the home office of the International Mission Board when Dr. Tom Elliff came to be the Special Assistant to the President for Spiritual Formation (I doubt that title will even fit on a business card). Tom Elliff  is now former president of the IMB. Tom’s original position was a rewarding one for the staff. I remember hearing quality teaching, not only out of the Bible but also flowing out of his extensive life experiences as a missionary, pastor and teacher. On one occasion, during our Spiritual Emphasis Week, Tom shared these ten questions.

Since the Men of Steel are “in it to win it,” we intend to be the best husbands and fathers we can be, not working in our own strength but in the strength found only through our connection with Christ. The base line challenge today comes out of 1 Peter 3:7 where Peter says,

“…husbands must give honor to your wives. Treat your wife with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God’s gift of new life. Treat her as you should so your prayers will not be hindered.

Did you get that? Our relationship with God can be hindered by the way we treat our wives! You know, the Bible records that Jesus asked a lot of questions. So, it might be good for us to ask a few questions as well. These are the 10 questions we should ask our wives every year. Ask, and let her respond. The goal is to know her heart:

  1. What could I do to make you feel more loved and cherished? The emphasis is on feeling and not knowing. Think about verbal affirmation of your love. She knows you love her, but does she feel that you love her?
  2. How can I best demonstrate my appreciation for you, your ideas, and your role as my wife? We may speak to others about our wives being the “better half,” but do they feel that their ideas, concerns and input is really up to half in the relationship? Do you brag about her to others? What do her friends tell her about what they heard you say about her?
  3. What could I do to assure you that I hear and understand your heart? Maybe her answer might be, “Asking me these questions is a good start!” A lot of couples have very little understanding of the other. Often times we build walls around us to protect ourselves from pain or shame. We don’t want our wives to know the truth because deep down we believe they will respect or love us less if they only knew the truth.
  4. What could I do to make you feel absolutely secure? How do you protect your wife? Physically is one way, providing a safe place to live without fear, but how about emotionally, spiritually or even morally? Tom told us a story about a husband who was watching TV and the wife watched him watch TV. The point was, watching a television program is one thing, watching TV (flipping channels looking for stuff) is something else. Can our wives see our moral integrity and the marriage relationship going down for the count?
  5. What can I do to ensure that you have confidence and joy in our future direction? The key word in this question is “our.” Does your wife feel that you are both together looking forward to and building the future, or is she just following you? Each cannot be just “doing their own thing” and living under the same roof.
  6. What attribute or practice would you like me to develop or improve? Is there something in my life you would prefer I eliminated? Face it, life means always seeing the opportunity for improvement.
  7. What attribute would you like me to help you develop in yourself? How can I help you in the best possible way? Not all problems can be solved with words. She can now help you to get the picture! How can you be a true partner with your wife?
  8. What achievement in my life would bring you greatest joy to your heart? The Bible is filled with examples of people whose lives were not over until it was over; like Caleb and Joshua, the spies and the Promised Land. The goal kept these two going through 40 years of wandering. A husband needs clear and positive objectives for the second half of life. Nothing encourages a man more than the privilege of accomplishment.
  9. What would indicate to you that I really desire to be more like Christ? Perhaps a deeper prayer life, full commitment to learning the Word of God, sensitivity to sinful activity, elimination of bad habits, friends, practices, a life marked by the Holy Spirit (bearing fruit – Galatians 5:22-23), that Christ is running the show rather than you.
  10. What mutual goal would you like to see us accomplish? Marriage is not about me, it’s about us. How can we make the most of our time spent on this earth?

Tom and his wife set aside a weekend retreat each year. Will you commit to ask these questions of your wife?

PS: if wives are looking for ten questions to ask her husband, check out what Tom’s wife asks him every year.