There’s something I touched on in passing in a recent post, and have ranted about in the past, but I feel it deserves a proper post all on its own – not an emotional vent and not a brief passing comment, but a real good look at the issue, to clarify what it is that I’m concerned about and why.
In my recent post I mentioned this issue in the context of holding on to God’s promises, I was talking about how we sometimes can’t sense God’s presence in any way but we need to hold on to his promise that he will never leave us, trusting that he is there despite being unable to see/hear/feel his presence. Whilst on the subject I mentioned the need to hold on to what God really has promised us and not just pluck Bible verses out of context and claim them for ourselves.
Sometimes people hear me say stuff like that and accuse me of being legalistic, nitpicky, as though I’m being a spoilsport, denying them the joy and comfort they can get from those nice verses.
Now, I do know that I have a tendency to nitpick (that’s why people pay me to do proofreading), and even without that tendency I know I’m human and perfectly capable of getting things wrong. So just because I say a certain verse means X that doesn’t mean it really does. I’m not setting myself up as an authority on what each verse in the Bible means. I’m talking here about general principles to do with how we relate to God.
But let’s for the moment leave God out of this and let’s look at promises in the context of human relationships.
A mother takes her little girl to school for the first time, and says she’ll come and fetch her at the end of the school day. “I’ll wait for you by the gate,” she promises. The child may find the first day at school quite scary, but she can comfort herself with her mother’s promise that mummy will be waiting by the gate at the end of the day. And she has good reason to believe that her mother really will be there. (Though of course her mother, being human, may not always live up to her promises, but that’s another story.)
Now let’s fast forward a bit – say this scenario has been repeated daily for a few months, but one day mummy isn’t well and daddy has to take the little girl to school as a one-off. He drops the child off at the school gate and promises to come and fetch her. Daddy says he’ll do his best to be there on time “but you know what traffic is like” (she doesn’t, she’s a six-year-old, but grown-ups forget sometimes and talk like that) and so he tells her to wait for him by the swings. But the little girl doesn’t take in the complex instructions, which are different to what she’s been used to hearing from her mother every day. She’s used to her mother being there by the gate when she comes out of school, and in her little head she has it that daddy promised to come and fetch her (true) and therefore daddy will be waiting for her by the gate when she comes out (not true). At the end of the school day we’re going to have a very disappointed little girl, crying her eyes out by the time daddy gets there, saying, “but you pwomised”.
So in this second scenario, where the child got daddy’s promises a bit muddled, she still gains comfort from these promises during the day – if she’s picked on by teachers or by the big kids or whatever, if the day is tough she can comfort herself with the thought of her big strong and loving daddy being there at the end of the day. But what’s going to happen when he isn’t there waiting for her as she had expected? Huge pain and disappointment, plus a dent in her relationship with her father because she feels he’s let her down, and she will probably be less likely to trust him – and other people – in future. She may become more anxious as a result – once you’ve learned that even your daddy can let you down, life looks very different.
Analogies are limited but still… a Christian out there in everyday life, at work or in the shops or on the internet or wherever, is a bit like that child at school – we face difficulties, we sometimes have people being nasty to us, there are situations we find painful, unpleasant, or even just boring. Reminding ourselves of stuff God has promised us can be a huge comfort, it can give us strength to get through the pain and difficulty, it can give us courage to cope with the taunts of people who hate us – but if we think God is going to be waiting at the gate at 3pm when he actually said we should wait for him by the swings as he may be a while, then we’re not holding on to something solid, we’re holding on to a straw that will break very quickly under pressure. And we risk ending up crying our eyes out and wondering: where was God? why wasn’t he there? can he really be trusted?
That’s why I feel it’s important to nitpick at the verses people take as promises from God, to look at each verse and ask: did God really say what you think he’s said? and did he say it to you? because otherwise what you’re holding onto is just nice words.
It’s like if you were to come to me all excitement and say you’ve won a huge prize, you’ve received a cheque in the post for a million pounds – I’d want to see the cheque, I’d want to see that the amount really is what you say it is, and I’d want to see the signature on the cheque, before I could believe it and be pleased for you.
There is, however, another reason why I’m particularly sensitive to this issue, and it’s because I’m Jewish and it horrifies me to watch people take promises God made to my people and claim it for themselves without justification. This is a bit more complex, and probably deserves its own Bible study, to look at which of God’s promises to the people of Israel can be applied to others too – off the top of my head I’m pretty sure there are some promises which can now be applied to all believers, whilst at the same time there are those which are specific to us. I haven’t studied it enough to say what the ratio is – I just get the feeling that generally Christians are far too eager to grab these things as though they do automatically apply to all believers. But maybe it’s just the circles I’ve moved in? That verse from Jeremiah about plans for a future and a hope gets bandied about a lot – and it’s not that I don’t think God has good plans for all of us, it’s just that I don’t see how you can take that specific verse to be saying that… Another example that makes me bristle is at the beginning of Isaiah 43 – God is very clearly speaking to someone in particular, and when Christians speak as though this is not addressed specifically to Israel, I feel robbed.
And I can’t help wondering how come Gentiles seem so quick to take all the positive stuff as though it’s obviously meant for them, and yet when it comes to the negative stuff they’re quite clear that those things are specific… and when it comes to God’s commands people seem quite quick to dismiss them as stuff that was given just to the nation of Israel…
but that’s a side issue – just thought I’d better include it, in the interests of honesty, to be clear about why this subject bugs me personally, why I have such strong emotional reactions beyond the concern for people not to be holding on to straws.
And being aware of the emotional, personal side myself means I know I have to be a bit careful before jumping up and down and yelling that people are misinterpreting a verse. The personal issue can cloud my judgement. But like I said earlier – I’m not setting myself up as an authority. I’m just standing here and waving a warning flag, urging fellow believers to check and see what they’re holding on to, because if you’re clutching at a straw you’re not going to have much strength in the storm.
Something I find useful in these situations is to try and paraphrase the verse, to say in my own words what it is that God is saying. It’s so easy to just rattle off bits of Scripture without thinking, especially if we’ve heard them so many times they’ve become familiar, and if everyone around us is using them in a particular way. But if I stop and look at a verse and try and say in my own words a sentence that starts with “God says that…” then I sometimes find that actually no, he didn’t really say what some are suggesting…
And to clarify: I’m not trying to say that each verse in the Bible has just one meaning. I’m aware that often there is more than one layer of meaning. I wouldn’t want to discourage people from looking for those. A verse can be saying both X and Y. It can be speaking to a certain person or group of people and also, in a slightly different way, to everyone. And when God is speaking specifically to the people of Israel, if he’s put it in the Bible then there’s something we can all gain from it – a principle, something we can learn about how God behaves, something we can learn about what he expects of people, something we can learn about his character, his relationships… all sorts of things. (see I Corinthians 10:1-13) But there’s a humungous difference between saying “this verse seems to indicate that…” and saying “God has promised that…” – and this goes beyond the issue of promises, it’s also to do with putting words into God’s mouth. If you say “God said XYZ” then you are telling people something about him, and if he didn’t say XYZ but actually YZW then you’re misleading people, giving them a false impression of what God is like. (Of course we sometimes – probably often – do this unintentionally, I’m not suggesting this is usually malicious.) Which goes back to one of my pet peeves – the rules that some people burden others with in the name of God when God hasn’t made those demands, thus sometimes putting people off God. I come from a culture that has quite a lot of that.
But perhaps I’ve rambled enough for now.