In fundamentalist evangelical Protestant preaching it is common to drive every sermon to an application so the listeners can change their lives after the sermon. Having heard thousands of such sermons I don't recall ever changing my life in the slightest except to feel more and more like I was in a cult dominated by a controlling overlord.

An example...

(Psalms 91:4) He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.

The usual explanation of the meaning, the application if you will...

  1. Of course God doesn't have wings or feathers so this image is to be interpreted figuratively.
  2. We are to imagine the kind of protective instinct hens have for their chicks as illustrated by their covering them with their wings.
  3. Application: In times of trouble, we are to feel safe knowing that God is protecting us.

The problem is, applying the verse in this way doesn't make me feel safer. Just as the chicks are not necessarily safe when covered by the wings of the hen, so also we are not always safe from troubles; and this whether we remember the metaphor of God protecting us under his wings or not. So what good is it to apply the verse this way since it proves useless in real life?

Another point to note: there is a certain cerebral intellectual exercise involved in translating the image from the Bible verse into this application. I have to go through several interpretive stages until I finally arrive at the proper application. And ignoring that there can be many different applications from the same image, the final image in my mind is dry and colorless, lifeless. Yes, I already know that God loves me and desires the best for me. How does it help me to translate the image of God's wings into this same thing I already know? It becomes very repetitive.

Here is another way of viewing verses such as these...

Yes, God does have wings which he uses to cover us with. Every possible aspect of life, every created things derives from a part of God's nature. God is Spirit it's true, and so the wings of God are also spiritual, but this doesn't mean they don't exist. Just as we have a spiritual body in addition to our soul residing in the spiritual realm,so also God manifests his nature in the spiritual ream via all kinds of tangible and real images, ideas, symbols, and other kinds of things often called by us as "figures of speech".

You might object this is not what the original writer had in mind, and that is a valid concern. But I doubt if the writer ever intended for people to create an application from their words. Likely what occurred is: they wished to express something about God, about their feelings about God. The image came to mind and it fit so they included it. They did not start with the application they wanted the readers to take away and try to find images that could be interpreted to mean that application; this is not how creativity works. In calling to mind the image and pondering over it, we are communing with God just as the original writer was communing with God in writing the words.

Similar to various Catholic devotions involving all kinds of images and objects, by absorbing our mind into the image, our soul is refreshed and our spirit nourished. Thus, we enter into a mystical experiential union with God by merely meditating on the words, images, ideas, and etc. of things originating from God's Word (I'm not limiting this to the words of the Bible.) Thus, we don't have to figure out the application of every Bible verse we read, rather, we can listen to the words and allow God' Spirit contained in the words to wash over us like waves at the beach.

If you are afraid of the word "mystical" think of it this way: experiencing a movie is mystical; discussing it afterwards is intellectual (although this discussion itself can also be mystical.) The mystical is experiential and leads to the sense of the presence of God, of a spiritual union with him. The problem with trying to find applications is that it turns this into a self-help, self-improvement project.

Another example...

(Proverbs 18:10) The name of the LORD is a strong tower: the righteous runneth into it, and is safe.

The usual explanation of the meaning, the application if you will...

  1. Of course God isn't really a strong tower so this image is to be interpreted figuratively.
  2. Application: Just as a soldier in battle can run into a strong tower for safety from his enemies, so also we can run to God for safety in times of trouble.

As with God's wings, I have never felt safer thinking about the strong tower metaphor. I already know God loves me and seeks the best for me. The image of the tower makes me wonder why God thinks of my life as a war zone?

When I ponder this verse without trying to construct an application my mind thinks of David and other warriors in those harsh Old Testament times running for their lives pursued by enemies; how they rush to their strong tower and quickly lock themselves inside; how they worry about whether this time the walls will protect them; how they call out to God, "please protect us this time". Notice how I have not formed an application, yet I am communing in my spirit with those of many centuries before in their life situation and their relationship with God. I naturally reflect on God's interaction with me in my life, about whether this day will be my last and I will finally go home to be with him. The cerebral intellectual exercise is side-stepped in favor of the mystical experience of the words and images as they interact with my mind when I hear them.

The problem of translating figures of speech into their "true" meaning is it robs the original words of any intrinsic meaning. We are looking for substitute meanings to replace the actual words. We don't believe the original words mean what they say so we replace them with the corrected words. We can't understand the original words until we replace them in our mind with the improved substitute words.

Think of a poem. Do you translate all the words and images into prose having no figures of speech or do you, rather, allow your mind to bathe in the push and pull of the images on your preconceived ideas about the topics mentioned. For example, consider the line "good fences make good neighbors" from Robert Frost's poem Mending Wall. After all the activities of the two men this line jumps out in its incongruence by explaining the shallow relationship of these two neighbors. I don't need to translate it to have another meaning, to form an application. Doing so would ruin the line and the purpose for the line; in fact, doing so would ruin the purpose of the poem. The purpose of the poem is that final line understood after embracing all the preceding images. Creating an application for everything is as useless as trying to create an application for every movie you see. We don't do this. Why do preachers insist on doing it? Why can't we just enjoy the experience?

Notice the common theme in all this emphasis on application is that we are not to interpret it literally.But once you interpret it figuratively it can mean almost anything.

This is why I am not a Protestant; it is all too much verbal and mental gymnastics and contortions. My mind doesn't require this imposed external structure in order to benefit from God's word. Listening to all these sermons just makes me bored of the whole thing, and shouting it louder with pounding on the pulpit just makes earplugs a necessity. But God's word is alive!