The Fortune Cookie Bible

Considering my inquisitive nature, I tend to ask a lot of questions when political and religious topics arise in conversation.  It might surprise you but my most intense conversations are held with other Christians.  Granted I am usually responsible for elevating the conversation, but not always because of my approach, often it is because I ask questions like “is that taught in the Bible?” or “are you sure that means what you think it does?”.  I tend to challenge long ingrained Christian interpretations of passages which seem to be misapplied by the Christian (1).  For example, critics of Christianity will often cite Matthew 7:1, the infamous ‘judge not’ passage, intending to “remind” the Christian they ought not be offering judgements on moral issues.  In context the passage is an admonition of hypocritical judgement of others, rather than a blanket command to withhold making moral judgements.  However, Christians have a tendency to do this as well, but in the opposite direction.  They will often cite certain promises given by God or specific passages intended to bring comfort in a time of distress.  Is this a valid process?  Does simply being a believer entitle you to every promise God has given?  I will examine four of the most popular passages misused by Christians who, to their credit, usually have the best of intentions in mind.

I believe the event which most contributed to the misuse of Bible passages in general is the advent of chapter breaks and verse numbers, a feature the original manuscripts did not contain.  It made for easy citation and location of specific Bible passages for discussion and theological debate.  This feature allowed readers to render certain sentences, now verses, in isolation from the larger paragraphs and chapters in which they are found.  Thus effectively giving the reader the ability to take any verse as if it were in the book of Proverbs.  Bible verses were not intended to be taken as individual ideas (excluding Proverbs, which was specifically intended to be read in this fashion).

My goal is not to unease the Christian’s comfort or ability to rely on God.  I am not seeking to “put God in a box” or “quench the Spirit”.  In fact, it should do nothing of the sort.  If the passages do not mean what you or I thought they meant, then we really cannot lose something we never had.  There is sure reason to believe we are able to rely on God for comfort and strength in times of distress, and plenty of Scripture which provides those reasons.  Nevertheless, the four verses I most often encounter cited for this purpose, do not apply in the way they are commonly used today.

Joshua 1:9 – “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous! Do not tremble or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.”

This passage ought to be enough to encourage and motivate fearlessness in the heart of any believer.  But is this the message the author of Joshua is intending for his readers?  The passage in question is actually contained in a larger monologue from God to Joshua.  Moses had died (v 1) and Joshua is being given charge over Israel (v 2).  Joshua is being reassured by God that he will be protected when taking the Israelite armies to reclaim the promised land (v 3).  God is urging Joshua to be obedient to the law, study it, meditate on it, and rest on the might of God (v 8).  In Joshua’s faithfulness to God and His law, he need not fear in his endeavor (v 9).

Unfortunately for the believer, this passage in Joshua is not intended to provide comfort for Christians, generally speaking.  But it is part of the charge given to Joshua over the people and armies of Israel.  The point is, this passage is a narrative record of Joshua receiving encouragement and comfort from God.  It certainly is reassuring readers of God’s faithfulness in one sense, that when God commanded Joshua to take control and reclaim the promised land, he could be certain God would provide divine protection.  What we today can learn from the passage is that God is faithful; when He gives a directive, He will also provide the means and ability.

John 8:32 – “…the truth will make you free”

The context in which I most often encounter this reference is that of honesty.  Telling the truth.  Usually there is a burdensome feeling when you know you are not being upfront with a person or situation, a sense of guilt.  It can be a very nagging and draining experience, your conscience is telling you know you’re doing wrong.  Most often, this passage is cited by a Christian while advising someone to come clean, that there is a freedom – a release of the burden and guilt by telling the truth.  “The truth will set you free”, is how it is usually quoted to me.

John is recording the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees.  Jesus is explaining to them they are missing the fact that He is the Messiah, He is the truth.  That redemption is in Jesus, not by simply being of the lineage of Abraham.  It is being explained that they (and broadly) everyone is a slave to sin, and in that state, will not be redeemed.  Therefore it is the truth (Jesus) that will make you free from your bondage to sin, not your ancestry.

I whole heartedly agree there is a feeling of relief from being honest, having your conscience lifted of its burden.  It can be very stressful and instigate high levels of anxiety when you know you are being less than truthful, especially to someone for whom you care a great deal.  There is something to be said for having a clear conscience, nonetheless, this passage is not meant to be a reference for such advice.

Romans 8:28 – And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God…

Romans 8:28 is used in a similar fashion to John 8:32 in that the one quoting the passage is usually making an attempt to reassure or comfort someone in a time of distress, or more often, a time of misfortune.  “Don’t worry, it’s all for the best, ‘God causes all things…'”.  The user of this passage is partially right.  Paul is informing his readers of the freedom from the bondage the law once held (v 2).  That though the law served a purpose, the ultimate application of which brought death, but that was the necessity of Christ and His fulfillment of the law.  The law we could not keep.  Now the old system, the law, was quite a burden meant to show our sinfulness.  I for one, cannot imagine having to be under that system; the sense of guilt it must have produced in the Israelite, for some could have felt unbearable.  But not to worry, God causes all things to work together for good for those who love Him.  There is nothing which can separate a believer from God, that even though things may look bleak, God has not abandoned you, it is all part of the plan which God has designed for those who are His.  And while the passage is not for comfort when your house burns down, or your car is stolen, that “it will all work out in the end, because we know that God causes all things…”, it should comfort the believer in their salvation.

Jeremiah 29:11 –  “For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope”.

I saved this one until the end because it is, in my estimation, the most widely misused passage by Christians today.  It is most often used in the context of urging the Christian in the belief that God desires health, wealth, and happiness for the believer.  That God’s plan involves only good things for your life, and any mishap or tragedy is not part of God’s plan.  It is easy to see how it is misapplied by Christians in times of trials.  Many times it is offered as “something the Spirit is giving me for you”.

The problem is this promise is given to a specific group of people, the elders of Jerusalem exiled by God to Babylon.  Verse 4 states clearly, “thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon” (emphasis added).  Jeremiah is informing the elders to not worry, build houses and start families (vv 5,6); make the best of it, look out for the welfare of your city (v 7); you’re going to be there for a few generations, 70 years (v 10).  They are being warned of false prophets who will be telling them of dreams, visions and prophesies, all of which God has not given them (vv 8, 9).  I am speculating here, but I believe the false prophesies are that God will not come to their rescue, that they have been forever delivered into their captor’s hand.  I infer this from the passage in question, verse 11, essentially God is saying: ‘don’t lose hope, it seems bad now, but I (God) will redeem you from your captors, you won’t be here forever, it’s going to get better when you pray to Me and seek for Me.  I’ll Give you back you land and restore your money (vv 12-14)’.  Further confirmation this passage is not for us, the prophet Daniel claims the fulfillment of this prophesy for himself and his generation in Daniel 9:2-4.

You see, context is everything when it comes to understanding the Bible.  It is practices such as this which lead a skeptic (and some Christians) to say something like “that’s just your interpretation”.  In reality, there are very few passages which are difficult to understand and need fervent investigation.  Reading the surrounding narrative, above and below the passage to which you are referring, will shed light on what you are reading and whether you are understanding it properly.  Verses are part of a paragraph, which is part of a chapter, as part of a book.  Verses were not meant to be read as you read a fortune cookie, short pithy bits of advice and wisdom (apart from Proverbs).

Mike Horton on an edition of the White Horse Inn radio program said something to the effect of “You don’t likely get a newspaper and number the sentences on the front page, then memorize sentence number 17 and assume you understand the entire article.  Why then do you do it with the Bible?”.  I think this is illustrates the point exactly.

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(1) See my articles Laying Down The Law and The Unworthy Manner for examples of other common Christian beliefs which I challenge.  I believe the Bible verses traditionally used to defend the ideas I take issue with in these articles are taken out of context and are simply passed along, and absorbed by the Christian culture.  Not that they are intentionally used out of context to teach an incorrect idea.  The beliefs are passed along for such a period of time that they just become the accepted understanding.

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Related Article: Speak Your Mind, Literally

Comments

  1. Me personally The Bible is very plain as to what it says. I agree that to many use it out of context and tend to use their interpretations of it. But Jesus said for us to rely on The Holy Spirit for guidance. Most dont even pray before they read for the guidance of The Holy Spirit. But i agree with your Blog totally. Ive had many people when you try to counsel from The Bible on their UN Christ like behavior. They use judge not lest ye be judged like it a pistol. They have no clue what their talking about and if you try to explain the scripture to them they use another one. The remove the mote from your own eye before you remove the splinter from your brothers. Another scripture misused. Because personally we can see by their actions that the UN Christ like behavior is there. But they have no clue that that scripture only applies if i have a mote in my eye(Committing the same sin) Thats the trouble today everyone using The bible out of Context. Anyways Excellent Post.

  2. You’re right Jesus never told us to decypher our feelings. He never said we would get impressions which we would have to figure out. References to guidence of the Holy Spirit seem to be used in living for Him, being guided by the Spirit is being directed in our actions and attitudes, not being guided in our interpretations of the bible or interpretations of inklings and feelings of urgings, or “signs” pointing to God’s “will for our lives”.

  3. One of my favorite little sayings (in regards to bible study) is “What is the Therefore there for?” Although it’s not always a “therefore” it’s a good reminder to read the whole passage. As far as in response to ur tweet…the title of that video was clearly written to be an attention getter. I don’t recall at the moment but I think Jefferson Bethke says something to the effect of “one of the most” rather than “the most” in reference to phil 413 and its misuse. Jefferson Bethke also has a vid referencing if tatoos are or are not acceptable….id link it, but i dont want to get my comment flagged as spam before u ever even see it. I really enjoy his YouTube channel, he challenges new seekers in ways they may not have thought and he eloquently calls the church out on their bs. I can’t stand church politics and religious garbage. He’s got a new book titled Jesus> Religion coming out in Dec. Did u watch any other vids on that channel? (Bball1989) I’ll give you a list of my faves later when I’m not on my cell.

    • I hope you dont think I was sayingbhe was wrong. I think when it comes to something like “the most…” in the context of your tweet youre speaking from experience.

      I ran across someone recently who was applying the Jer. 29:11 to all people. They said they didnt care what the context was God loves man. Its very frustrating.

      My spam filter works pretty good at not flagging real comments. But I do have it set to hold comments with more than one link. I havent disapproved a comment for too many links I just didnt want a drive by commenter throwing a dozen links in there.

      If you write a post that touches the subject of something ive written feel free to link to your post for the discussion’s sake.

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