The Overquoted

Even though we’re warned about false teaching and isolating portions of the Word, the minister and the every-day Christian alike enjoy “riding” particular Bible verses.  We hear or see a verse that appears more palatable or personally relevant and place high priority on it, elevating certain passages over others. These verses become marketing slogans for churches and books, and then they’re taken out of context and even rephrased.

This is both dangerous and wrong. On a personal level, it’s also irritating.

So, because I’m highly opinionated and I hate seeing the Bible messed with, I’ll be presenting “overquoted” Scriptures and discussing the error in their common interpretation and misuse, then (hopefully) accurately re-establishing their proper meaning and value.

If you have any additions or corrections to this list, please don’t be afraid to comment.  I’d rather know I’m wrong and make the proper changes than to continue on in ignorance.

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4) Romans 8:28 – “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”

Why it’s popular:
The verse is embedded in one of the more powerful chapters of the Bible. It talks about God doing good things for us, demonstrating His reciprocating love to His kids. The word “purpose” is in it, which reminds us of megachurch pastor Rick Warren, author of one of the greatest selling books of all time. Eight years ago, Jesus Culture wrote a song about this verse; the song was recently covered by the Newsboys and is currently #3 on Air1’s top songs chart. The core message of this verse is very attractive to all believers.

The problem:
How often have you heard this verse quoted from the pulpit? Many pastors use this verse, correctly attributing two important clauses to its overall message of goodness to all believers: to those who love God, and according to His purpose. When those two elements are removed, however, it becomes incredibly dangerous.

The feel-good message looks even better when it’s a blanket statement for all people, even those who just pay lip service to God every Sunday or so. God’s love is unconditional; however, all things will NOT work together if we don’t love God in return. We’ll be led into a false notion of God being magic genie, perpetuating doubt both within ourselves and others who have bought into it.

We also expect what’s good in our own sight to be exactly what God would consider good. We think about a job promotion or higher pay and think “good” when God might need us for another mission. For example, I have little doubt that God kept me at particular jobs for so long for specific relationships with people rather than for an income. When we misinterpret a verse like this to fit our own view, we miss out on what God really wants.

The solution:
It’s built into the verse. Is it your purpose, or is the Lord’s? Are you returning His love for you by obeying what He says? (He actually suggested that. Multiple times.) It’s the same premise behind answered prayer: people often wonder why God doesn’t answer prayer when they’ve conveniently omitted the Lord’s prevalence in both the prayer and their daily lifestyle. If you want God’s purpose for your life, you’re required to make Him Lord first. Everything else is taken care of thereafter.
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3) 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 – “Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez, saying, “Because I bore him in pain.” And Jabez called on the God of Israel saying, “Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!” So God granted him what he requested.”

Why it’s popular:
Bruce Wilkinson wrote a book in 2000 called “The Prayer of Jabez.”  It has sold over 20 million copies, drawing attention to a very obscure portion of the Bible and steering church sermon content nationwide for years henceforth. The Bible study version of this book is apparently still a big seller in Mr. Wilkinson’s bookstore, indicating the fire hasn’t quite gone out.  Countless other books have since replaced Wilkinson’s best-seller suggesting the same kind of formulaic self-empowerment. (this one and this one come to mind in particular)

The verse itself talks about a guy named Jabez (which means “he makes sorrowful” in Hebrew, referring to the nature of his birth) that asks God for more land, for God to be closer to him, and to keep him from evil. The book suggests praying this particular prayer in repetition to have the same effect in your own life.  The prospect of more stuff is highly appealing, especially to American Christians surrounded by ridiculous affluence. Praying for God to be closer and for evil to be further away is awesome too.

The problem:
Much like many of the verses featured in my list, it starts with context. The beginning of the verse should never be overlooked: “Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers.”  Why was he honorable?  The verses don’t say, exactly, but we can safely infer that his peers and family perceived him as someone of high character — and subsequently, his prayer can be considered pure in nature based on his standing and reputation. If you ever plan on praying something similar to Jabez’s supplication, you’d better have a clear conscience.

Praying this verse verbatim repetitively, however, is all bad. Matthew 6:7-8 says if we repeat prayers and get attention for it, the attention we receive is the extent of our reward. God knows what we need — you don’t have to chant something over and over again to get it done.

The solution:
Our chief goal while on this earth is to glorify God.  This might not require us to have more stuff.  We’re promised what we need — that’s it. To suggest God owes us more is outright disrespectful.

How should we pray, then?  The previous verses in ch. 6 bring up a model, but we are simply to pray with sincerity and an already thankful heart. Talk to Him as your Lord and your Father, which means we should maintain both reverence and great love when approaching Him.

Also, recognize that the prayer of a righteous man isn’t always going to lean toward greater wealth or even “victory”.  Would you pray the prayer of Job? Or how about the prayer of Jesus? Most people wouldn’t. But humility is at the core of both prayers — something God finds quite awesome.

Some other interesting stuff: You might know who Caedmon’s Call is, but you probably don’t know one of their lead singers, Derek Webb.  He wrote a song about the idea of steering God where we want that contains strong language for the Christian market.  Take a look at the lyrics if you’d like.

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2) 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.”

Why it’s popular:
Many of us would like to have more money or improve our overall circumstances (which typically translates to more money.) We know God cares about us; Matthew 6:25-34 makes that clear.  But this verse is money — can’t stay away from that word for some reason — because it means God cares about our welfare AND wants us to have an awesome future. In an affluent American culture, this resonates like the 12-inch subs in the back of your dream car.

The problem:
Where do I start?
1) The context of this verse makes our interpretation seriously problematic. Without getting too gritty, start by reading the entirety of Jeremiah 29.  What is going on?
– Israel is in captivity because of their blatant sin.
– Jeremiah is writing a letter to Israel to explain what to do about it.
– After 70 years, they will be rescued from their captivity.
It’s clear that the passage is not written to “you and I”, but to the nation of Israel.

2) The translation I quoted, which is the most familiar one to a Christian who might use this as their “life verse”, is the NIV.  I could go to town on why the NIV should never be quoted, but many people use that translation and they’re doing fine, so whatever.
But let’s take a look at the New King James Version (NKJV):
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.”
They’re not “plans” anymore; they’re thoughts. And “prosper” isn’t even in there.  What happened?

How about the OLD King James Version?:
“For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.” 
Expected end?  Whose ideas are expected?  And what end are we referring to?

Okay, so I’m going old school.  What if I went contemporary? The beloved Message “Bible” even tells you what’s up:
(they group verses 10 and 11): “This is God’s Word on the subject: “As soon as Babylon’s seventy years are up and not a day before, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.”

Always check your translation before you go to town on an isolated verse.

3) Bad doctrine, as Paul warned several churches and Timothy throughout his letters, is not born of the devil, but of man himself.  Jeremiah 29:11 is the perfect catalyst for men to take a verse and twist it to fit a particular stance. Many, many churches use this verse, among other passages, to promulgate the idea that we’re entitled to a whole bunch of money, and that we just have to ask God for it.

The solution:
There are several other verses that discuss how God takes care of us, but we need to get rid of the obviously incorrect notion that we’re entitled to great wealth.  We are to identify with Christ’s suffering — He didn’t die to make us comfortable, but to demonstrate the degree of love we are to imitate.
As for the verse, look at the broader context to create application: we have freedom in Christ; much like Babylon held the nation of Israel in captivity, so did we once remain captive in our sin only to be freed by Christ’s sacrifice.

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1) Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Why it’s popular:

It’s short.  It’s easy to memorize.  It looks good to quote and even better on a t-shirt.  It makes Jesus look good too.  How could you go wrong with Jesus strengthening you?

If you are friends with church-goers on Facebook or other social networking sites, you’ve likely seen this post:
“Traffic was tough this morning, and I had to endure a nagging boss the whole day.  But I can do all things through Him!  Praise God!”
How about this one?:
“There’s so much cleaning to do around the house, it feels like it’ll never get done.  It is He who strengthens me; otherwise I’d probably be sitting on the couch all day!”

The problem:
Over time, we’ve applied this Scripture to our first-world problems that don’t come anywhere close to qualifying as truly difficult circumstances. In the previous verse, Paul says, “…I have learned both to be full and hungry, to both abound and to suffer need.” We call inconveniences “persecution,” taking away from what real suffering looks like.

The solution:
Jesus is not a magic word.  He is simultaneously our Lord and the epitome of humanity and suffering. To use “His strength” for our personal comfort is borderline slanderous.  Instead, we should look upon His suffering, and praise the Father for the non-stop blessings we continually overlook

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1 Timothy 3:16-17: All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.

Acts 20:25-31: (Paul says to the church of Antioch) “And indeed, now I know that you all, among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom of God, will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men.
For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.”

Matthew 5:18: “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”

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