The pitfalls of Christian “best practices”
Many best practices have evolved over time. We have best practices for work, scientific research, health, online security, and the list goes on. Without realising it, however, we can also use the Bible as a set of Christian best practices and apply “the things a Christian should do each day” or apply “guidelines for successful prayers”, for example. While these can certainly be helpful for us to grow in spiritual maturity and discipline, following such guidelines without a broken and contrite heart and the guidance of the Holy Spirit can lead to several pitfalls, namely presumption, judgment, self-righteousness, religiosity, and legalism.
Psalm 51:17 ESV The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
We do not fully know God through the Bible alone
Studying and obeying God’s Word is one way of fulfilling the highest commandment, which is to love God. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to meditate on God’s Word day and night and to be careful to do all that is written in it. Then we will prosper in whatever that God has prepared for us to do.
John 14:15 ESV “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
Joshua 1:8 ESV This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.
Ephesians 2:10 ESV For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Yet studying the Bible alone does not help us know the thoughts of God. Only God Himself can open our minds to understand His thoughts and the Bible because His ways are far, far higher than our ways.
Luke 24:45 ESV Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures,
Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
God’s majesty is far above earth and heaven, and there are mysteries that He has not revealed to us through the Bible. Even if all the greatest minds on earth came together, we would never fully grasp all of God’s vastness, immense power, and unquestionable wisdom.
Psalm 148:13 Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his majesty is above earth and heaven.
Deuteronomy 29:29 NLT “The LORD our God has secrets known to no one. We are not accountable for them, but we and our children are accountable forever for all that he has revealed to us, so that we may obey all the terms of these instructions.
This is why the Jews, who searched the Scriptures religiously and knew God’s Word better than anyone else, failed to see that God had sent their Saviour in the form of a carpenter’s son from Nazareth who proclaimed Himself to be equal to God. In the end, they crucified Him!
John 5:39-43 ESV You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him.
John 1:45-46 ESV Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
The Bible, as we know it, may seem to be a large library of text but in reality, it alone cannot reveal all of God’s mind. We need the help of the Holy Spirit to understand the things of God because we are all very limited in our natural human state.
1 Corinthians 2:10-11,14 ESV these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.
While studying God’s Word can teach us wisdom, it would be an error to follow every word without seeking the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and instruction as well. There may be times God’s ways are much higher and greater than we can imagine.
Take for example, the call in Ephesians 5 for wives to submit to their husbands. Yet we see the story of Abigail who went behind her husband’s back to stop David from killing him and all the males in their household due to her husband’s boorish disrespect and lack of gratitude. Abigail’s God-given wisdom saved Israel’s future king, David, from bloodguilt. (1 Samuel 25)
Ephesians 5:22-24 ESV Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Or the example of how God told Abraham to kill his own son as a sacrifice, even though murder is a heinous sin. God’s purpose was to test Abraham’s willingness to obey the Lord at the highest cost to himself and also to give us a foreshadow of how God Himself would one day sacrifice His own Son, Jesus, to pay for our sins.
Exodus 20:13 ESV “You shall not murder.
The Holy Spirit reveals God’s thoughts and intentions
Obeying God’s commandments to the letter like a “recipe,” a “formula,” or a set of “best practices” does not lead to eternal life. Even atheists can apply the “best practices” they pick up from the Bible and appear godly and righteous. A believer’s salvation is based on “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”, rather than “works done in righteousness”.
Titus 3:4-6 ESV But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
A true follower of God will worship Him both in spirit and in truth. When we worship God in spirit, we rely on the infilling of the Holy Sprit and “put no confidence in our flesh” for the truth. God’s Word, therefore, is not ‘open for interpretation’ by people. No matter how learned we may be, our thoughts will still be limited or hindered by our subconscious desires, cultures, family backgrounds, upbringings, and general lack of knowledge of all things and of God.
John 4:23 ESV But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.
Philippians 3:3-4 ESV For we worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more:
Rather, the Bible is ‘open for revelation by the Holy Spirit’. As we foster a personal relationship with Him, we will find that God’s Spirit will open our minds to understand God’s thoughts. His messages will sound very similar to the ways God speaks through the prophets in the Bible and He often uses verses from the Bible to deliver profound answers for our everyday questions in life. He communicates with us deep inside our spirits.
Ephesians 1:16-17 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him,
Proverbs 20:27 ESV The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord, searching all his innermost parts.
We can study the Bible for selfish reasons
Referring to the Bible for “best practices,” on the other hand, can grieve or even anger God when we make our relationship with Him merely about a set of processes or standards.
Many can fall into such temptations for reasons that sound very good and rational.
For example, we may earnestly study the Bible out of a desire to:
- fulfil the expectations of a good Christian (like a checklist)
- meet the expectations of our families
- fit into Christian circles
- be seen as knowledgeable and righteous
- outdo other Christians
- impress God so that He will bless us
- become the “best version” of ourselves (God’s truth: we are called to die to ourselves: Galatians 2:20, Colossians 3:3, Romans 6:8, Mark 8:35)
- avoid going to hell
- find the keys to success e.g. a successful marriage
- discover the keys to miracles
- find healing and deliverance etc.
Such desires lead us to sin against God when our motives are more about satisfying ourselves than about loving God with all our hearts, souls, and minds.
Matthew 22:37 ESV And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
We can even fall into the very same mistake as the scholarly and learned scribes and Pharisees. Jesus pointed out that in their hearts, the scribes and Pharisees were “full of greed and self-indulgence.” Similarly, we can study the Bible out of selfish ambition when we make it about ourselves.
Matthew 23:25-26 ESV “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
Philippians 2:3 ESV Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
One way we can test if we have fallen into this trap is if we diligently apply biblical principles to our lives and yet still feel “empty” or joyless inside. There is little or no fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Galatians 5:22-23 ESV But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
Some pitfalls of looking for best practices in the Bible
Living our lives by Christian best practices will inadvertently lead us to compare ourselves with others because it is all about standards, practices, and outcomes. We can judge them or even ourselves for “falling behind” and become proud when we think we have fulfilled what is right in God’s eyes. This breeds self-righteousness, legalism, and religiosity.
2 Corinthians 10:12 ESV Not that we dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves. But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding.
God’s Word is the sword of the Holy Spirit, and He will teach us how to use it. In the wrong hands (ours), however, this sword kills rather than brings life.
Ephesians 6:17 ESV … the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,
2 Corinthians 3:6 ESV … a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
We can also presume to know what God wants in every situation when we take God’s Word as a set of guidelines or rules.
The account of Moses’ sister and brother, Miriam and Aaron, in Numbers 12 sounds a sobering warning for us. Both siblings judged Moses for marrying a Cushite woman (someone outside of their community — not a best practice!) and angered God. Miriam was struck with leprosy for seven days as a result of judging Moses and ultimately, for judging God because God did not fulfil their expected “best practices.” We can see how we too can end up sinning against others and against God ourselves when we fall into the temptation to think in similar ways.
Numbers 12:1-10 ESV Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed. When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous.
God is not interested in our best practices
God desires that we worship Him with all our hearts.
Isaiah 29:13 ESV And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
We will not find God merely the searching the scriptures alone, we find Him when we seek Him with all our hearts and “crucify our flesh with its passions and desires” — even the passions and desires that may appear good to us.
Deuteronomy 4:29 ESV … seek the Lord your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.
Galatians 5:24 ESV And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
It is when we realise that we are nothing and that we do not have the ability to what is right before God, that the Holy Spirit can then begin to truly renew and regenerate us in all our inner being, using scripture to teach and convict us.
Romans 7:18 ESV For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.
God’s Word is meant to help us “discern the thoughts and intentions of our own hearts” as the Holy Spirit convicts us of our own sin. This is not to condemn us but to correct us when we are wrong and teach us to do what is right.
Hebrews 4:12-13 ESV For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
John 16:7-8 ESV Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:
2 Timothy 3:16 NLT All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realise what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.
Receiving the Holy Spirit’s teaching through the Bible requires us to be contrite and humble, for God dwells with those “who are of repentant and lowly spirits.”
Isaiah 57:15 ESV For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.
A humble heart prays, “Holy Spirit, please open my eyes and heart to what You wish to teach me through Your Word today. I will not presume to know how You think or what You desire for me to do on a daily basis. Your ways are higher than my ways! Teach me how to walk out this life with both Your Word and Your Spirit guiding me. Thank you, Lord. In Jesus’ name.”
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