Inconvenient Verses

Scripture Reading in Park_smallThis week, I want to address a potential temptation for Christians: using God’s Word simply as an emotional crutch, as a kind of spiritual “motivational poster”. Friends, don’t relegate the Bible to such a low position! The Bible is one consistent story, from beginning to end, of God’s restorative grace. What it is not is a vault of feel-good pick-me-ups to pull out whenever you’re feeling down. Certainly,there is a lot of encouragement in there, but more importantly, there is truth. And sometimes the truth is harsh and doesn’t fit very well in a picture frame with inspirational pictures of eagles and waterfalls and sunsets and such. So what do you do with those uncomfortable, challenging verses? If your Bible is an emotional crutch, you ignore them. You skip over to the passages you like. But be warned, you do so at your own risk. So what should you do?

As Greg Koukl is fond of saying, “Never read a Bible verse” (meaning don’t read just one verse). Context is critical. Remember, the books of the Bible weren’t divided up into our current chapters until 1205, and verses were only introduced for ease of reference in the mid-1500’s. Many of these texts are in the form of letters addressed to someone in particular. Would you pick individual sentences out of a letter to someone else and claim those as applying to you? Of course not! Let’s look at two examples today. A lot of people like to “claim” Jeremiah 29:11, which says, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’“[1] That’s a wonderful verse that exemplifies the omnibenevolence of God, but it also had a specific audience in a specific time. Looking back at verse 1, we find this was a letter sent from the prophet Jeremiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. Verse 4 tells us that God is the one who sent the people into exile for their disobedience. Over the next few verses God tells them to get comfortable – they’re going to be in exile a while. Verse 10 reminds them that their exile is to last 70 years, but then God will fulfill His promise to them to bring them back, which leads to the encouraging verse 11 so often quoted by itself. But this was written in approximately 597 BC, while God’s “plans for good” for them wouldn’t come to pass for roughly 39 more years. While he did bring back the exiled Jews as He promised, there were likely many exiles who died in Babylon, never seeing the promised prosperity. This passage is one example of the restoration demonstrated throughout the Bible, but it very well may not be the manner in which God restores your life.

Now let’s look at an example very few people claim for a “life verse”. The book of Acts tells the story of Paul’s conversion from zealous persecutor of Christians to perhaps their greatest advocate and certainly the most prolific writer of the New Testament. But it starts with God telling Ananias “…for I will show him {Paul} how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”[2] Not a very uplifting statement, but it truly summed up the rest of Paul’s life of beatings, imprisonment, shipwrecks, and eventual beheading. Paul couldn’t claim Jeremiah 29:11 as being for him; God’s plans for Paul involved suffering, not prosperity. In fact, 26 out of 27 books in the New Testament tell us to expect persecution, suffering, trials, tribulations, hatred, etc. because of our devotion to Christ.

How do we apply this in our lives? Remember that any intelligent communication always has a specific meaning intended for the recipient by the sender.[3] While there may be many applications of the information in a message, look for the original meaning first.  How can we determine original meaning? Always read the context around a passage. Also, try (if possible) to determine the background. Who was it written to? What were the circumstances? Were there specific cultural issues or other problems being addressed? Many verses have very plain, straightforward meanings, but when it’s not apparent at first read, the context and backstory can often make it plain. Regarding this particular issue of looking for Scripture to confirm our desires, the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647 puts it well in it’s opening question and answer pair. “Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”[4] Not to be happy, not to be prosperous, not even to be healthy. If the Lord grants those things, wonderful, but His long-term plan may involve using our suffering to bring about good beyond the imagination of our finite perspective. If our faith is built only on the convenient verses we like, what will we do if, like so many of our brethren around the world, we find ourselves in a North Korean slave labor camp, an Iranian prison, or with a jihadist’s knife at our neck? Will we falter at the apparent lack of “blessings”? Or have we studied all of God’s Word – even the challenging passages – and matured in our trust so that we can say with Job, “though He slay me, I will hope in Him.”?[5] Don’t settle for a crutch when God is offering so much more.

[1] Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)
[2] Acts 9:16  (NASB)
[3] Werner Gitt, Without Excuse, (Atlanta, Creation Book Publishers, 2011), Ch. 2 -“The 5 levels of information” (particularly the sections on Semantics, Pragmatics, and Apobetics).
[4] The Westminster Shorter Catechism, 1647.
[5] Job 13:15 (NASB)

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