Christians sometimes say that it is important to “think biblically.” That is, in fact, the title of a book by a well-known American Christian leader. But how does one do that? Does one try to fill one’s thoughts with passages of Scripture? Or does thinking biblically have to do with remembering and referring to biblical teaching on all the various subjects that come up during the week? Or is it really about making decisions that conform to biblical doctrines or commands?

Thinking biblically probably involves all these things, but it also goes beyond them. One can routinely refer to biblical passages and even use Bible verses in the decision-making process and still fail to think biblically. Worse, one can use Bible verses to support decisions that are antithetical to biblical thought.

For example, people used biblical verses to support slavery in Europe and America. People have used biblical passages to support polygamy. When Jesus was teaching in Israel, people felt justified in opposing him because of their convictions about Bible texts.

I have occasionally been asked to view teaching videos and provide a critique. The teacher relies exclusively on the Bible, I have been told. Yes, the teacher referred to Bible verses constantly, but many of those verses were lifted out of their context to support a point of view. Further, the teacher disregarded important passages that did not fit the argument being promulgated. The teaching turned out to be counter-biblical despite the profligate use of Bible verses.

Biblical thinking does not start with using the Bible to support a doctrinal or ethical position. The truth is, if one comes to the Bible looking for support for a previously assumed position, he or she will probably find it. Such an approach, which has been all too familiar in Christian history, has been disastrous. The Holocaust, one must never forget, happened in a “Christian country” where some of the world’s best biblical scholars and theologians lived and worked.

Making decisions that are consistent with biblical teaching is of course important, but that is where biblical thinking leads, not where it begins. People who try to begin there will fail to make biblically-coherent decisions because they have got things in the wrong order. Biblical thinking does not try to force the Bible into our story but rather brings our lives into the Bible’s story, that is, the God’s.

Seeing oneself and one’s world as an ongoing part of the biblical narrative is the first step toward biblical thinking. To do so obliges a person to ask, “Where are we in God’s story?” It requires a person to accept the fact that he or she is not the story’s protagonist but is in a supporting role.

But there are other stories, competing narratives, which make this first step toward biblical thinking difficult. In the West, and particularly in America, there is another narrative that is told, a ubiquitous tale about the autonomy of self-made individuals. It is a story about freedom and self-actualization and the removal of limits. In this narrative a person makes not only his own way but his own self. People do not discover their purpose in life; they create it.

This narrative, which is always playing loudly in the background of our lives, can temporarily drown out the biblical narrative. Worse yet, it — the very short story of contemporary life — can be mistaken for the one true story of the world. Giving credence to its tale of autonomy and self-creation has led moderns and post-moderns to the irrational belief that they can shape the world to suit their fancies. It has undermined the concept of the common good, exacerbated the loneliness of 21st century American life, and led to confusion over gender identity and healthy sexual expression — for a start.

The cure for these troubles is not found in marshaling Bible verses but in entering the biblical story and submitting to one’s place in it. It is a great and exciting story, a Divine Comedy, where good triumphs over evil and love outlasts hate. Within this story the Bible makes sense and its truths shine like a lamp to our feet and a light for our path.

— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County (Mich.). Read more at shaynelooper.com.