I’ll never forget Sue’s declaration to the class that day. “If you knew what my ex son-in-law did to my daughter, you could not love him either!” One sympathetic lady tried to help through assuring words, “I’m sure God understands how a mother’s heart hurts when someone hurts her children.” Then another jumped in, “We understand how you feel. Some people are just mean and find joy in hurting others.” This class had just finished studying God’s Word that clearly teaches us to love one another, but now they were helping a friend justify not loving others. The verse that spurred the Sue’s outburst was in 1 John 4.
If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. 1 John 4:20 (HCSB)
The case study I used at the beginning of the session helped learners understand how they could apply this familiar teaching. Sue surely was being convicted by the Holy Spirit to rid her heart of the hatred she had for this man who hurt her daughter. She obviously knew it was hurting her relationship with God. But when the rest of the class turned their minds toward what they felt instead of what scripture taught, something had to happen.
In a caring tone of voice I thanked her for sharing how studying God’s Word was challenging her in an obviously painful way. I added how I also understand how moms and dads hurt when their children hurt. I honestly admitted I would prefer someone hurt me instead of anyone else in my family. After a short pause, I held up my Bible and asked everyone to look back at 1 John 4:20. I said, “But what does scripture say about this? Does it say you don’t have to love someone who hurts you or someone you love? Does it list exceptions or other circumstances? Let’s prayerfully read that verse again. We did.
Sue is now crying quietly. I walked over to her, placed my hand on her shoulder and said, “Living the Christian life is hard, isn’t it. I can tell you from personal experience I don’t have all the answers to loving others either—especially when they mistreat you or those you love. Let’s use this time to think of our own situations when we found reason to justify why God would not expect us to love one another. Let’s also use this time to surround Sue and pray specifically for this circumstance.” I asked Sue how she wanted us to pray for her. She repeated her statement but acknowledged she knew God wanted her to love this young man. I responded, “Okay, so can we thank God for reminding you of His truth from scripture, acknowledge that today you don’t want to love this man BUT you want God to change your desires so you can come to want to love the young man?” Sue said certainly.
The class surrounded Sue and desperately prayed for her. I turned to Phil. 2:13 and quoted one of my life verses. I told Sue that verse helps me when I know what I’m supposed to do but I don’t feel like doing it then. I claimed that promise for myself, Sue and the rest of the class.
For it is God who is working in you, [enabling you] both to will and to act for His good purpose. Phil 2:12-13 (HCSB)
That day some will think that was a failed Bible study. I think it was one of the best experiences ever because adults wrestled with what they studied when the truth was very painful. Some think application is a learning activity that ends with the Bible study session. Regardless of the age of learners, I say application is begun during Bible study and continues for hours, days, weeks, months, and maybe years following as we wrestle with how to do what we know God wants us to do through the study of His Word.
When painful application occurs in your Bible study sessions, thank the person for sharing something so personal and painful. Acknowledge all Christians wrestle with how to live the Christian life. ALWAYS go back to scripture and focus on the truth from God’s Word. Pray with and for the person. Try to include at least some brainstorming for ways to begin trying to do what you know God wants you to do. In Sue’s case, she could only commit to asking God to change her heart. Others in the session chose to talk to someone they really didn’t love. Some decided to start behaving like they loved someone by inviting them to an activity with friends, spending time with them trying to get to know them, etc.
God does work in us and through us to help our desires match His good and perfect will. What better place to make some of those discoveries than in life changing Bible study that includes applying scripture to life.
Belinda Jolley serves as the Director of the Adult Ministry Office of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Belinda and her husband, Steve, enjoy starting new classes at First Baptist Church in Rock Hill, South Carolina.