Is there a universal method for getting to the biblical heart of sin?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

Question: How could I identify a specific sin in my life biblically? For example, if my attitude lately is that I am getting very aggravated and very impatient, how could I identify the source of this issue biblically? That goes for any sin. How do you get to the heart of the issue of that is causing these attitudes?

Answer: Greetings friend. I appreciate this question because you are looking to the Bible for practical answers about how to root out sin. Now there’s an attitude! Bravo! However, I am not entirely sure if you are using your personal issues as an example, or if this example is for illustration purposes only. Either way, I shall pray, because these types of problems are endemic in America — and unfortunately, they show up in the Christian culture too.

As a Christian matures he should realize more and more that the Bible is sufficient for all his needs. But even the Bible has design limits. For example, it does not offer the Christian an insert-tab-A-into-slot-B level of instruction as would a technical manual. Nor is it a Swiss Army knife — vibrating with instant handiness — as would be true of dictionaries, encyclopedias and the like. In way of comparison, it takes some time to understand the Bible, and there is no substitute for a systematic and energetic study. Hey — it is the most important book in the world! Unfortunately, few people (and even few believers!) treat it that way. Although the Bible is largely instructive in purpose and in tone, it leaves the methodologies up to the believer, and that seems to be what you are looking for. Your question is asking about a universal method, an algorithm for finding biblical perspectives. I am sad to report that there is none.

Take heart, though. God left us some other tools. Prayer, for instance. Every believer has the option of free and easy discourse with God the Father. That, my friend, is how you get to the heart of any issue, and that answers your final question. In a case like the one you presented where you have already identified the symptoms of some underlying problems, the sufferer should bring these to God first. Information from the Bible is good, but Bible study should not be the initial response to sin. Prayer, confession, repentance, forgivingness — these are the first activities — and doing these first will help any subsequent study of the Scriptures.

Now, concerning the study of the Scripture, I am at an awkward point, because I disagree with many of my studied and honorable brethren as to how we should proceed through the Bible with such questions as yours. Many Christians would recommend a topical study as a way to attack topical problems. To your question, one would research what the Bible says about the topics of impatience or aggravation, and this is not bad in itself. A Christian must understand, however, that the results of such a method are sterile when compared to an exegetical method of study, where you work through an entire book of the Bible at a time. A topical study will always cheat the context, and its results present themselves as encyclopedic rather than as living, which better represents the word of God.

“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.” (Hebrews 4:12, ESV).

Not only are the results of topical study intrinsically limited, but its methodologies are cumbersome. For instance, how would you even begin to explore what God thinks about impatience or aggravation? When using a topical approach, you might begin with a topical index, which is an alphabetical listing of biblical topics, each of which points to the germane biblical passages. The problem is that these works are always limited in scope. Editors must decide which topics to include… but they must draw the line somewhere. For instance, I cannot find either aggravation or impatience in my recent sampling of topical indexes. I did find patience, however, but that leads to a study of the positive virtue — and impatience is much more than just the absence of patience. As you can see, this approach is very limiting concerning your two suggested topics.

You could also consult a concordance. If a concordance identifies itself as complete, then it has considered every word that appears in the Bible. But a concordance is a mere mechanical listing of word appearances and does not assign categories or topics to its lists. So, to use a concordance, you’d have to check every appearance of a particular word in the Bible and determine its topical value for you. This is very time-consuming. Now, impatience does appear eight times in the Old Testament (in the ESV). This is a small sampling, but you might glean out something about the heart of this problem by reading them, but the word aggravation is not in the Bible at all. So now what? You must then try to “normalize the data.”

We normalize words by turning them into their biblical equivalents. This is necessary because we often mean something different by our use of words than did the biblical authors. So, what are some synonyms for the word aggravate? Bother, irritate, exasperate, provoke, pester, etc. You could then take these synonyms and try again both with the topical indexes and the concordance. Now, let’s say that you get some kind of satisfactory “hits” in the Bible passages. You are not done yet. Remember, all English Bibles are mere translations of the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, and to be thorough, we must take a further step, because the original Hebrew or Greek words were not always translated into the same English word every time it appeared in the Bible. Translation is not as simple as one word equaling another. Contextual translation is complex, and cultural nuance is often a casualty.

So now, through lexicons or study-bible helps, you should find the best Hebrew or Greek words from the many choices, and create an inverse pyramid with the original language word on the bottom, expanding it into its several English renderings on the top. Then, study those English words using the aforementioned methods, and then, perhaps, you would have an honest product.

Doesn’t this sound like a lot of work to garner such tepid results? True, you’d have mastered the topic, but at the expense of synergy. All authored writings are said to be in synergy because their parts work together to make a greater whole. The Declaration of Independence, for example, is more than the sum of its words and ideas. This is why I recommend exegetical, as opposed to topical, study. It is the best way to understand the author’s intent… and that is the essence of synergy.

To learn what is at the heart of impatience and aggravation, study the entire book of 1 Corinthians. This is a troubleshooting book written by the Apostle Paul. The Corinthian church was the most immature and worldly church in the Bible, and its main problem was divisions among the brethren. How were these divisions manifest? The Corinthian believers were so aggravated by their petty grievances and so impatient toward the processes of God, that they were taking each other to civil court! (Chapter 6) Can you imagine that! As Christians, we are supposed to act like grownups and work these things out within the Church. So, what was at the heart of these divisions? Immaturity among believers. Therefore, if you find yourself acting-out through impatience or aggravation, you are likely immature. I’m not sure if I would ever come to that conclusion using topical methods, and in general terms, I know of no shortcuts to knowledge.

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV 1900)

We should be smart about how we do things, of course. It is good to be efficient. But shortcuts are never God’s will. That being said, this is the only algorithm that makes sense to me: Enter life. Mess up. Find salvation. Pray. Fellowship. Study. Serve others. Die. Go to Heaven.

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