When I was a freshman student in Bible college I had a conversation with a senior who was excited to graduate and plug into pastoral ministry. One day he said to me, "I don't need this theology crap. I just need my degree so I can get to work." I was shocked when I heard that then, but am concerned because I have repeatedly heard similar sentiments over the years from people entering into (or who are already in) the pastorate. For them, theology is at best an unnecessary garnish on the plate of ministry. By way of contrast, I have loved theology since my conversion; the longer I work in pastoral ministry the more I see the need for applied theology as the centerpiece of pastoral work. It is at the heart of shepherding God's people both from the pulpit and over coffee. Simply put, there is no hope of making disciples–and presenting men and women mature in Christ–without robust, experiential theology.
But even among those of us who agree that theology is essential, it can feel a bit overwhelming as we seek to counsel others. Systematic theology, as one necessary theological discipline, is broken down into dozens of categories and subcategories. Where do we start? Over the years I have found that there are four basic questions that I have to answer when serving others; the bulk of theology falls into these categories: Who is God? What does he want from me? What is he doing/has he done? What is the point of all this? These theological questions form the primary grid through which I speak to others about their life and circumstances.
The Person of God
Understanding God's character helps us to know who God is, that is, what He is like. Is he good, loving, sovereign, involved, and present? What does He love and hate, and why? Often times this is what people need to hear. It gives an answer to their afflictions, fears, doubts, and temptations. For example, when someone feels the weight and pain of difficult circumstances they want to know who this God is that has allowed "___________" to happen. In this case we must step in with applied theology that not only explains the nature and character of God, but what that means for them. God is involved, sovereign, and good–and therefore you can trust Him even though you are walking "through the valley of the shadow of death." But not everyone is asking the "who" question even when walking through similar circumstances.
The Will of God
When walking through difficult circumstances some find themselves confused and conflicted. They want to know what God wants them to do. Do they fight or flee? Do they remain quiet or speak up? The will of God–His law for his people–is what they need to hear. This, of course, is not all they need to hear; but Jesus our Prophet speaks and calls us to action. The Lord has always been faithful to instruct his people. "I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you" (Psalm 32:8). We ignore His commands at our own peril.
The Works of God
Perhaps the most common question I get has to do with the works of God. "What is God doing?" Even if people aren't asking that particular question they still need to know the answer to it. Whether people are hurting or hopeful, starving or satisfied, they need to be connected to the truths God's works of providence or discipline. "Is God out to get me? Is he against me?" These are questions people ask when they are enduring significant suffering. They need to know the works of God. He convicts, leads, provides, withholds, and much more. But whatever he is doing in a Christian's life he does for their good secured through the death of Jesus Christ. So whatever befalls them they need to be able to say, "I belong unto my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by his Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me sincerely willing and ready, henceforth, to live unto him." (Heidelberg Catechism A. 1)
The greatest work of God is his work of redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and by that we are forever reconciled to God. We are his people, and he is our God. Whatever God is doing he is doing in light of what he has already done for us in his Son.
The Glory of God
But even the answers to the previous questions, as good as they may be, must be connected to another question. The why question. "Why am I going through this? Why is God doing this?" Christians are often ready with the right answer. "For the glory of God." But we need to walk people through the answer to its meaning and application.
The glory of God is the beauty of his being, the reflection of all that he is enjoyed by himself and his creation. His beauty on display (his glory) is the end for which he works in all things. I am where I am in this stage and station of life for the glory of God. My pain and pleasure both are designed with this in mind. But what does it mean to glorify God? How do we do it?
To glorify God is not to add to his glory, but to honor him by believing, obeying, and reflecting him in all of our lives. Wherever we are–and whatever we are going through–we are called to believe Him–that is, to believe what he says about himself and ourselves. We are to trust in his Son. We glorify God by faith, and faith is worked out in obedience (Rom. 1:5). We glorify God by obeying him where we are (1 Cor. 6:20; Jn. 15:8-10). Like the old Children's Catechism says,
Q. How can you glorify God?
A. By loving him and doing what he commands
We glorify God by reflecting Him in all of our lives–in our explicit obedience as well as our thoughts, affections, and attitudes. Jesus teaches us this when he said, "In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16 ESV). And Peter learned this well from his Master as we see when he said, "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation" (1 Pet. 2:12).
To lead and serve God's people demands that we feed them the truths of God's word; that is applied theology! For the most part I find myself busy helping people to see the person of God, the will of God, the works of God, and the glory of God.