When I was on the debate team in high school, we learned one helpful truth pretty quickly—if you look hard enough, you can find a statistic to prove just about anything. See, in debate, you have to be ready to argue either side of a position at any moment. So you learn to find “truth” that can be looked at from several different angles. Depending on the source, there is “proof” of anything we want to find proof of.
That this is so has never been more evident than in the last couple months.
Yet, don’t we Christians play that game just a bit, too?
How many times have you had someone tell you they found the perfect Scripture verse for your situation? (And how many times has it not been perfect at all but seriously guilt-inducing? I see those hands.)
How often have we wailed, “I don’t understand why God didn’t keep his promise! I claimed that verse as my own.”
How many people have told you, in trolling comments or to your face, that whatever you are doing, want to do, or are contemplating doing, it is wrong and this is the one verse in the Bible that proves it?
Well, maybe I get that more than you do, being a female preacher and all.
When it comes to truth, how often do we play Bible roulette, able to find a verse for any situation that will prove anything we want it to prove? And…is that really truth? Or is it our debate-style proof of what we already wanted to believe?
Yes, God can and does give us the word we need to hear on a certain day for a particular time. But what if we’re sometimes playing Pin-the-Tail with the Holy Word, finding it simpler to open and point to what God wants me to hear that day than to pursue both a deep and broad knowledge of his story and our place in it?
Like finding a Shakespeare quote on Pinterest and thinking we know all of the Bard’s work now.
“That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas to Berea. When they arrived there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. And the people of Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica, and they listened eagerly to Paul’s message. They searched the Scriptures day after day to see if Paul and Silas were teaching the truth. As a result, many Jews believed, as did many of the prominent Greek women and men.” Acts 17.10-12
See what they did there? They heard a good thought. They liked it. Then they searched the Scriptures. They figured out how this new idea fit with God’s whole story. They determined if it checked out against all they had been given.
They sought context.
I mean, if we really want to play Stick-the-Finger-in-the-Bible and find our verse for the day, what happens when these come up?
Go marry a prostitute and have children with her. — Hosea 1:2
Throw the first stone. — John 8:7
There is no God. — Psalm 14:1
Go to Bethel and sin.— Amos 4:4
You can see the problem.
But what about a few others, a few we are far more used to taking on their own and making can we say almost idols out of?
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.—Philippians 4:13
Judge not, that you be not judged.— Matthew 7:1
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.—Proverbs 22:6
Do those words you keep using really mean what you think they mean?
When Philip came across the Ethiopian eunuch reading the Scripture, he asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Then, he gave the whole story.
Why does this matter?
There are a lot of teachers out there. I try to be one of them. The reality is, some Christian teachers are dishonest. This should not surprise us. Some plumbers, carpenters, doctors, and lawyers are dishonest. Some people in any profession will tell us lies. Some will mislead us out of the best of intentions, not even realizing they too are victims of pick-and-choose verseology.
The truth has nothing to do with the size of the person’s audience or the feeling you get when you hear him or her speak.
The truth is in the whole story.
It matters, because in a world of alternative facts and fake news, we need more than ever to know what the whole arc of God’s story has to say about something. We do not need to know one or two or five carefully chosen verses chosen to sway an argument the way a person wants it swayed.
God help us, we do not want to live our faith out by a few verses we like best and miss the rich context God has for us.
So how do we do that? How do we be like the Bereans (that sounds like a great dance move, by the way) and find context to the story?
—Ask questions of the teachers you listen to and read. Don’t be afraid to interact.
- What is the writer saying?
- Can he/she draw that conclusion?
- Is the generality of Scripture in agreement?
- Does this contradict any command of God?
- Does this make logical sense?
- Would believers I respect agree?
- Is there someone who teaches the opposite? What does that person say? How do they inform one another?
- Would Jesus say this?
Seriously, can you imagine Jesus uttering the words you are reading??? If not, take a pause.
—When reading Scripture, real large bits of it, not just a verse-a-day devotional.
—Make a reading list for yourself so you can get a but of the whole picture progressively. Like this one we use at our church:
Mark, Matthew or Luke
Paul’s letters–Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians
1, 2, 3 John
1 and 2 Peter
1, 2 Corinthians
1, 2 Samuel
1, 2 Timothy
But keep it in context! God didn’t put verse numbers in, after all. He gave us a love story, a whole one.