It is a very common practice to use a bible verse to express whatever thoughts we have about God. One of the tragedies of the single verse principle is that the context of the passage is often ignored. Well this is important. If you were writing a story about something that happened or a letter, you would cringe if someone sliced an isolated sentence out of the body and made it mean something you never intended. Yet, there is a rampant tendency to do this today and the accompanying danger of establishing shaky foundations of faith. It’s why I’ve been impassioned to engage in ministry that exposes Christians to how the Bible was put together and how it tells God’s complete story from Genesis to Revelation, his personhood, character, work and promises.
A good example of a verse commonly taken out of it’s context would be 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 a hope and a future”. Now if we step back and see the immediate context, we see that Jeremiah is addressing Israel held in Babylonian captivity because of repeated transgressions against the Yahweh. But he is reminding them of his covanental promises. There is something beyond captivity for them and this leads to the overall redemptive work that is accomplished in Christ. Well, I confess that I have often cringed at the repeated use of this verse applied to a present day setting.
But the reality is we have a tendency to focus on contemporary settings and especially settings that have to do with wherever we find ourselves in life. We apply that verse to ourselves because it gives us hope, just as it gave Israel hope. And let’s face it, we need hope. We need to remember that whatever trial, drought or storm we may be facing is not all there is.
One of my classmates and fellow bloggers posted this wonderful piece today about God redeeming lost and broken years…“For I will restore the years the locust have eaten” (Joel 2:25). As I read the post, it reminded me of how much I use that phrase in my prayers with earnest hope of experiencing God’s redemptive hand in my earthly sojourn. Yes, I am aware that the prophet Joel is addressing a specific situation concerning Israel and restoration according to covenantal promises that have nothing to do with the restoration and redemption that pertain to my own life situation. Yet, the concept of God restoring ravaged years speaks to God’s mercy and heart for his people.
I want to be cognizant of the how each verse corresponds to each paragraph to each book to each author’s theme and how that fits in the overall trajectory of God’s story. There is a danger of basing Christian doctrine on isolated passages disconnected from the whole and distorting something in the process. But, there might also be the danger of making the text so far removed from us that the only thing that matters is context. We should not be Deists, Fatalists or text Nazis, treating the Biblical text like a wrote textbook in which the only purpose is to know about God. But the purpose is to know him, to see his heart for his creation and to understand that his plan eventually involved us, his people who are united in Christ, reconciled to the Father through the work of the Holy Spirit. Yes, understand the context but also see the bigger picture.
For those of us who really care about how the Biblical text is handled with care, I can’t help but see a greater reality. We who were dead and trespasses and sin, by the undeserved merit of a loving Father are reconciled to him through the sacrificial gift of his Son. We will eventually spend eternity with him. But in the meantime, we get troubled with life. We experience defeat. We make mistakes. We long for hope. While God in his infinite wisdom condescended to craft an intricate piece of work that serves as his testimony, will he be so troubled if we happen to use a verse out of context to give us hope and reminders of his goodness as we contend with the tensions of the already but not yet?
So I don’t know. Maybe it’s ok to cite Jeremiah 29:11 with the awareness that it was related to a specific situation but it speaks to a greater hope. Maybe it’s ok to pray for restoration of years the locust have eaten with respect lost and broken years that we longed to see redeemed. That is my heart’s cry. And I think something would be lost if my only concern was to restrict it to the immediate context.