04/01/2016 by Chris Green
I’ve had it with the Bible being quoted at me. Or, to be more accurate, I’ve had it when I have the Bible misquoted at me. It’s not just tactless, it’s spiritually damaging, because it makes God seem to promise something which he doesn’t – and then we get angry with him for not delivering on a promise.
It happened to me, and it happened to people I know. In at least one case, because someone believed that misquotation, their faith was crushed when God didn’t seem to come through.
When I’m as vulnerable as serious illness and its treatment made me, I’m open to grabbing any lifeline. But giving me a lifeline which isn’t attached to God the rock is just cruel.
Runner up, in the prize for the most misquoted bible verse is Jeremiah 29:11
‘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.’
The trouble is, people means so well when they give it to you – they want it to be a powerful reassurance that the cancer (or whatever it is) will go away and life will get better. But it’s not that at all.
Look at the fuller quotation:
This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my good promise to bring you back to this place. 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. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,’ declares the Lord, ‘and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.’
In other words, it actually says that lots of bad stuff is going to happen first, and only then will God prosper and not harm; harm comes first. And if you do your sums, 70 years means than any adult who heard that promise could expect to be long dead before the good stuff happened.
In a gospel frame, of course, it all makes sense: God has a great plan to bless, to give a hope and a future. But for all of us the only guarantee lies the other side of our own personal death and resurrection, just as the people of Judah had to go through the miniature death and resurrection of Exile and Return in Babylon. We might have pleasant lives before then, as did many ofJeremiah’s contemporaries.‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease.’ (Jer. 29:4-6)
But all of that was in Babylon, the place of judgment. Blessing, proper blessing, only occurred when they were given new life in the land – which only happens, of course, in the gospel, and only fully happens in the new Heavens and the New Earth.
Context, as always, is king. Otherwise, how do you know which verse to point people to? ‘Then tell them, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: drink, get drunk and vomit, and fall to rise no more because of the sword I will send among you.” But if they refuse to take the cup from your hand and drink, tell them, “This is what the Lord Almighty says: You must drink it! (Jeremiah 25:26-8)
People want it to be a reassurance. A spiritual get-well-soon card. A magic wand to make horrid things go away.
And the winner is…
But top prize must go to Romans 8:28-29
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Again, people want it to be a reassurance. A spiritual get-well-soon card. A magic wand to make horrid things go away.
But says nothing of the kind. Look again:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.
What is ‘the good’? It isn’t health, or long life, or comfort, or prosperity – It’s conformity to Christ. And we know, because Paul says it here, that that conformity only happens after our resurrection: Christ is the firstborn (his resurrection status) of many – we go through the same journey as him, with him, and in him, to end up in the same place, like him.
So not all things that happen to us are ‘good’ – it’s being Christlike, which is ‘good’, and even in the tears and distress of life, God is working for ultimate goal of the Christian life. But the context he’s working in, and the reality we face, is the result of sin, fall and judgement.
And not all bad things which happen to us fade away to be replaced by something ‘good’ a few years later, although that is what people mean when they say ‘you’ll find out why; there’s a purpose’. Well, there is a purpose – Christlikeness. The purpose isn’t that I’ll write a book, speak at conferences, set up a new ministry or even have a critical conversation with someone after church. God uses our weaknesses, and as Paul says in 2 Corinthians, the comfort of Christ cascades between hurting Christians, but that isn’t the ultimate purpose. And even though it has a place in helping us help each other grow in Christlikeness, we’d still have to notice that it’s only hurting Christians who really help other hurting Christians. Not the victorious ones. Not yet.
The thing is, this kind of ‘feel-good’, ‘your best life now’ teaching is cruel because we’re desperate for it. I mean, I’m sure there are some people who love health-and-wealth teaching because it allows them to be rich, but most of us crave it because we want it to to be true to rescue us from our current messes. Doesn’t God want us to be prosperous and healthy? Isn’t that what Jeremiah 29 says?
Yes it is, most definitely. In the new creation we’ll live forever. And have crowns and kingdoms. But anyone who promises that now, has wrenched a ‘tomorrow’ promise into ‘today’, and made us suckers for buying their lines.
Some people do it out of ignorance – please don’t do it again.
Some people do it out of a misplaced sense of trying to be nicer than God – please don’t do it again.
And some are just out to fleece the sheep.
If you want to help someone who is seriously ill, give them the gospel. Both those passages do it, but they are so often misquoted I’d have been liable to chuck the Bible at you if you’d opened it with me and read them out.
Don’t make promises on God’s behalf which he did not make.