YouVersion tells us that these are the most popular Bible verses by country:
I feel guilty for complaining about people’s choice of Bible verses… But not so guilty that I’ll stop yet. You may guess, as I did, what people are looking to these verses to do. Listen to them—without context:
- “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
- “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
- “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
- “Thus says the Lord who made the earth, the Lord who formed it to establish it—the Lord is his name: Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” (Jeremiah 33:2–3)
With the possible (though not probable) exception of Philippians 4:8, these verses are classically abused by prosperity gospel, self-help users of the Bible. The verses still have precious meaning, but not necessarily the meaning I’m guessing Americans, Canadians, Mexicans, Brazilians, South Africans, Nigerians, Australians, and South Koreans are looking for when they call them up in their Bible software.
- Does God address His “plans for welfare and not for evil” to everyone? I mean, directly? Yes, the Bible is profitable reading for everyone, especially every Christian. But does God have good plans for what Proverbs calls “fools”? Does he have “hope and a future” for what that same book calls “the wicked”?
- Is Philippians 4:8 a divinely inspired mantra for positive thinking?
- To whom exactly does God say, “I am your God; I will strengthen you”?
- To whom does God promise to reveal “great and hidden things”? And do they have anything to do with promotions, cars, and luxury vacations?
Joel Osteen makes hay, and a lot of it, with verses like these. I can’t know that everyone looking for them is misusing them, and I hope I’m wrong. But how do we “use” these verses faithfully, in submission to what God actually intended by them?
A few thoughts:
- Never read a Bible verse. At the very least, read the paragraph. If you do that in Jeremiah 29, you’ll see that God’s “plans for welfare and not for evil,” were directed specifically to the Israelites in Babylonian captivity. There are several references in the paragraph to the Israelites’ specific situation that simply can’t be generalized to include Christians today. God simply doesn’t promise to gather Christians from the nations and bring them back to Israel (at least, not in this age!). It isn’t right to steal a promise God gave to them and claim it for ourselves. The general picture of God you get from hearing these merciful, compassionate promises is still excessively valuable. But that value must be refracted through a redemptive-historical lens.
- Educated non-Christians very commonly argue that Christians have a cafeteria religion in which they choose the parts of the Bible they want to believe (see GodHatesShrimp.com). Failure to show contextual sensitivity—both textually and historically—hands them proof for their view. We’re making the Bible say what we want it to say rather than submitting to it.
- If an evangelical Christian book ever gets mega-popular, my suspiciometer goes high. I think it’s possible to do a straight-up exposition of a passage that, read within an orthodox understanding, is totally fine—and yet sounds like self-help, prosperity gospel, positive-thinking twaddle when read by non-Christians. Perhaps that’s part of what happened with Bruce Wilkinson’s Prayer of Jabez. (I saw people in line at the DMV reading it in its heyday.) But another part was this: I read the book, and I think Wilkinson failed to forestall self-helpish, moralistic therapeutic deist readings of the prayer. In an Oprah’s Book Club world, we have to write not to be misunderstood.
- There’s nothing wrong with looking for comfort. When I open my Bible without any real purpose in mind except browsing (nothing wrong with that) I almost always gravitate toward the Psalms. But there is something wrong with a steady diet of “the Lord is my shepherd” if it neglects “the Lord is angry with the wicked every day” and “the Lord disciplines the one he loves.” We need the whole Bible to shape us.
Devil’s advocate alert! “Never read a Bible verse” sounds well and good, but it might sound like “never listen to a Bible verse”–which Jesus’ own hearers (as well as Paul’s, and Peter’s) would have struggled with. How does the NT’s use of the OT inform this topic? How about the rhema as makaira in Eph. 6? I’ll quit:-)
Good devil. “Prooftexting” isn’t inherently wrong. You don’t have to quote the whole Bible anytime you quote any of it. =) The New Testament authors quoted the Old Testament with contextual sensitivity (of various sorts—sometimes they merely made allusive references). See Hebrews, especially.
Context delimits the possible meanings of a given statement. I suppose one of the goals of a teacher of God’s word, and even a reader, is to provide enough context to eliminate bad possibilities for interpretation.
On a semi-related note, I’m told there was a statistic published recently in CT that “the more 18- to 29-year-olds [say they] read and trust the Bible, the more likely they are to strongly believe it teaches that ‘God helps those who help themselves.'” Yikes. Maybe the problem is not that they read the Bible, but how.