Youth Ask the Wrong Questions of the Bible

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This series asks youth workers why teenagers don’t feel comfortable reading the Bible. Authors share observations from their experience and offer solutions to help students feel more comfortable opening the Scriptures.  

In his book “Bible Study: A Student’s Guide,” Jon Neilson quotes Barnabas Piper, who expresses concern with the way many teens approach Scripture. Piper shares:

“One big problem with youth Bible study is the propensity of teen studies to treat the Bible like an answer book for problems, both moral and emotional, rather than as a narrative of God’s redemptive work. Often the big idea is to obey God, but without God as the big idea, that is pretty lame.”

In 2005, sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton published sobering findings in “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.” In their research, they identified several core beliefs held by teens—a system they called “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Essentially, the average American teenager thinks that there is an uninvolved god who simply wants us to be nice and happy. In light of this prevailing religious framework, then, it is not surprising that many teenagers approach Scripture as merely a divine instruction manual. But the Bible actually says something very different about itself. 

In 2 Timothy, Paul writes to Timothy to encourage him and further instruct him in his ministry. He says that the Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation in Jesus Christ”(2 Timothy 3:15). Peter also writes, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:10-11). Here Peter mentioned the prophets, which we know to be in the Old Testament. Furthermore, when Paul was writing to Timothy, the only Scriptures they would have had were what we know to be the Old Testament. These passages say two very important things: 1) that the Bible is one big cohesive story, and 2) that this story is all about how God is redeeming everything in Jesus Christ. 

You may be thinking, “Well, what about the verse right after 1 Timothy 3:15—the one that says that the Bible is ‘useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work’?” Yes, that verse is no less true that the one prior. However, the order is significant. It matters that verse 16 follows verse 15. 

Illuminating the significance of this order, there are both indicatives and imperatives throughout Scripture. Indicatives communicate to us what is—things that are true, period. Indicative passages in Scripture tell us who God is, who we are, what this world is like, how things got to be the way they are, what Christ has done for us, and what is guaranteed to come in light of God’s promises. Imperatives, on the other hand, communicate commands or requests—things that ought to occur because of what is true. Imperatives operate in light of indicatives. 

Ephesians 5:1-2 is a beautiful example of this. Paul writes, “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Paul calls the Ephesians to be imitators of God (imperative), but he includes the word “therefore,” indicating to the hearers that this command is given in light of his preceding exposition of the gospel. He goes on to say that they are to be imitators as dearly loved children, again reminding them of their identity in Christ (indicative). They are to live a life of love (imperative), just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us (indicative). If we were to simply approach this passage asking, “What am I supposed to do?” we would completely miss the beautiful truths of what has already been done for us in Christ. In doing so, we could try very hard to imitate God and live a life of love, all the while forgetting that we are dearly loved children. 

When teenagers come to Scripture only asking, “What can I get out of it? What does this tell me to do?” they will be confused by much of the Bible, because they are not looking at the whole story. Furthermore, they will read instructional passages out of context, which leads to misapplication and some pretty weird stuff. Most importantly, they will miss the gospel. 

To help students better study Scripture, Neilson offers the “Five Looks Method”:

  • Look at the passage. What jumped out at you as you read this passage? What is actually going on in this text?
  • Look at the people. What are they doing? What are they learning? What mistakes have they made? How are they responding to God—either negatively or positively? Where are they in the Story?
  • Look at God. What can we learn about God’s character from this passage? What were the people in the passage taught about God? Since God’s character is perfect and unchanging, we can learn about the God who is by looking at the God who was. 
  • Look at the gospel. How does this passage show us humanity’s need for redemption from sin? How does this passage give us a hint that God will need to save his people in a drastic way? Does this passage specifically foreshadow Jesus in any way? 
  • Look at your life. What difference should the truths of this passage make in the way I think, act, believe and live? Does this call me to change the way I think about God? Does this passage call me to actively respond in a certain way? 

As a self-absorbed people and culture, we desperately need to look outside of ourselves to Christ. Only once we have looked out can we see how we fit in to God’s magnificent Story.  

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