“If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you had asked almost any of the great Christians of old, he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” -C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
Unfortunately, such verses are often difficult to find. You dig and dig and dig to have that special sentence pop out at you from the pages, but to no avail. Then suddenly you see it, the verse your should has been longing for. It’s like God is sending a tweet directly to you. It’s exactly what you were looking for. Just the sight of the black letters on the page is enough to make the strings of your heart play a heavenly lullaby.
Elated, you take your newfound revelation and proclaim it to those closest to you. Do you see? Can you feel it? The baby-skin-soft love of God has come and started a ballroom dance in my soul through this verse. Come and dance with us too!
Your friend looks incredulously at the passage and shakes their head. “It doesn’t mean what you think it does. It’s about circumcision, not a promise that you will find a husband in eight days.”
Crestfallen, you drag your feet back home like Charlie Brown. You were dead certain about the interpretation. How could you be so wrong when you were so sure?
Your buzzkill friend says it’s because you took the verse out of context. They explain:
The Bible, just like any other message communicated, needs to be understood within its specific context. Each sentence is a part of a paragraph. Each paragraph is a part of a book. Each book is a part of the whole. They cannot be separated.
The Bible is not a collection of codes to be deciphered or a string of individual philosophical statements conveniently in large print. First and foremost, it is a story—the truest of stories. When you are trying to understand a specific aspect of a story, you cannot lose sight of the whole. The revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father (spoiler alert) carries no weight if you don’t know everything that had taken place previously.
It is a fact of language that anything communicated must be understood within its context. The word “love” means something different if it’s next to the word “ice cream” instead of “wife.” This is how humans communicate, and conflict usually occurs if context is not respected and understood. We don’t want people taking statements from our contracts, love letters, or instructions out of context. If I’m on a plane, I sure hope my pilot has taken every single dot of his flight manual within context. God’s Word deserves the same treatment.
But if none of that really matters to you, here are a few easy ways to continue taking verses out of context:
1. Ignore the verses surrounding your passage.
A good rule of thumb to find the context of a verse is to read the twenty verses that came before and the twenty verses that come after. “Jesus wept” (11:35), could be about your recent break-up if you don’t ready the Lazarus stuff.
2. Ignore what book of the Bible you are actually reading.
A book’s genre and overall themes really affect a verse’s meaning. Poetry is understood differently than a history book, which is understood differently than a personal letter.
3. Ignore the fact that the Bible comes from a different culture and was not originally written in English.
Americans do just about everything different compared to someone from the first century Middle East. Something that would make absolute sense in our minds would sound like lunacy in theirs.
4. Ignore the Bible as a whole.
Because the Bible is one big story, there’s an overall theme, message, and hero. If your interpretation somehow ends up elevating you and not Jesus, then it’s probably out of context.
5. Ignore all the scholars who came before you in the past two thousand years.
Color me impressed if you find a truth that none of the billions of Christians, all equally filled with the Holy Spirit, for thousands of years could think of. There are plenty of cults who have paved that road.
6. Ignore the more obvious contextual interpretation for one that aligns with your feelings.
If all else fails and you don’t like what the context says, you can always make up a new meaning for the verse.
I mean, you never know. Does that verse have to be about circumcision?
[Update: Matt Slick recently wrote on the CARM website that basically everything shown on The Daily Show segment was taken out of context and intentionally edited to make Slick look bad, even after being reassured that he would be fairly represented.]
Monday night on television, a segment was run where Boise, Idaho pastor and radio host Matt Slick made the case that Christians are victims of “bullying” by gays. Unfortunately for Slick, the segment was for the fake news program, “The Daily Show” (TDS) which runs on Comedy Central, and the
comedian news anchor interviewing him was Samantha Bee. The interview was setup to mock Slick for his viewpoint and make him look unreasonable and paranoid (including a cut of him making crazy eyes).
Pastor Slick told Bee, “The Christians that I talked to are intimidated. They’ll often get intimidated, they’ll often get persecuted…for just saying that they believe that homosexuality is wrong, or that homosexuals are sinful—just like adulterers, just like pedophiles, just like liars, just like thieves.” Slick even told Bee that some Christians are getting targeted and “beat up” by gays.
For most of the interview, Bee conspicuously made sarcastic faces at Slick, who was seemingly unaware about being mocked.
The second half of the segment focused on outspoken gay, Todd Clayton (who is clearly in on the joke since he helped write the segment with the “TDS” writers). Clayton claims to be a Christian and so Bee wanted to hear his view on the issue. Clayton told Bee, “Evangelical Christians are not experiencing bullying. It’s essentially a giant temper tantrum that they don’t get to be in charge anymore and that they have to share their toys.”
The intent of the segment clearly was to show Slick as a paranoid man making wild claims. Bee asked slick, “At what point has your right to express yourself been infringed upon?” Slick replied after a long pause, “I don’t know if it’s going to happen…but I’m concerned about it.”
My first reaction to the interview was to actually feel bad for Slick. The poor guy seemed to mean well and he didn’t say anything that was antithetical to traditional Christian doctrine—Slick just seemed so naive. To his defense, the editing was dubious. Slick’s statements and even facial expressions were obviously edited to be taken out of context to gain the biggest laughs (they’re a comedy show after all, so there’s no reason for them not to). “TDS” exists to make people they disagree with look stupid, but that’s exactly why Slick is so naive. He should have known that before even getting on the show. Feeling gracious, I want to try and give him the benefit of the doubt and say he worked really hard to make a compelling case and that the show’s targeted editing was too much to overcome—although with some statements he didn’t really help himself.
My second reaction to the interview was actually some agreement with Slick. Do I believe there are Christians being persecuted for their beliefs about homosexuality? Yes I do but not necessarily with bodily harm, as it seems Slick states. Look at what happened to Louie Giglio, Ben Carson, or Greg Laurie and the public vitriol against them for voicing their beliefs. It doesn’t have to be bodily harm for it to be persecution. Verbal and written insults work just fine. Jesus stated, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matthew 5:11).
But my final reaction was actually some agreement with Clayton. While I do think some Christians are being persecuted for their beliefs, I also believe that some Christians are throwing a “giant temper tantrum” about it. I’m not negating the fact that we may be persecuted now or in the future. But that shouldn’t surprise us. Persecution is guaranteed all throughout the Bible (John 15:18-20, 1 Peter 4:12-19). If it’s not going to be over the issue of homosexuality then it is going to be over something else.
The question should not be, will Christians be persecuted but how are Christians to react in the face of persecution? You’d be hard pressed to find a verse where Christians are complaining that they’re being persecuted. Jesus didn’t utter a word in His defense. Paul sang while in prison. The apostles rejoiced after being beaten.
We are not called to complain or state our rights. It’s actually more American to complain when we’re offended than Christian.
Instead, you see verses encouraging perseverance. You see actual joy over being counted worthy to be persecuted. I understand that it could mean actual harm for people to stand for the truth. I understand that your business or reputation could be at stake. But we are called to something greater. “If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed…if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Peter 4:14, 16).
If the church can learn to do this in the face of any persecution, I believe that will make a far stronger statement about the Gospel than any outcry over rights ever could.
For further reading, check out Matthew Lee Anderson’s guest post for CNN on a similar issue.
This year’s NBA Finals is shaping up to be a pretty intense battle. With the Miami Heat’s win over the San Antonio Spurs last night, the series is now tied 2-2. (Side note: I call the Spurs to win it all in Game 6. I love seeing the Bugatti Veyron lose to the John Deere tractor)
Every time a championship series or game comes around for a major sport in America, it’s fascinating to see how people get caught up in it. They celebrate the players. They paint their faces. They don the jerseys of twenty-year-olds. They gladly pay hundreds and thousands of dollars to watch these games. After huge plays, grown men with jobs where you have to wear a tie to the office scream and dance around like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert (If the Oregon Ducks make it to the National Championships in football, I’ll be right there with them).
Why does something like the NBA Finals—sweaty men in tank tops rolling around a rubber ball—draw out such behavior from millions of people?
It’s because humans have an innate desire for transcendence. We were created for it. We want to be a part of something bigger, something beyond ourselves. We want others to join us for that same mission—there’s automatic camaraderie and fellowship among fans like I’ve never seen before. Ultimately, we want to celebrate that which is greater than us, that which is glorious.
This truth goes beyond sports. This is why those teenage girls faint at the sound of Justin’s girly pipes. This is why families travel to the Grand Canyon just to stare at it. This is why billions of people engage in some form of religious practice.
We know we were meant to be a part of something greater. In those moments, we don’t mind being small. We’re just grateful to be a part of it.
The reason we feel that tug is because it’s supposed to be fulfilled in God. The Finals is not the end of our desire to touch glory. Instead, we were created to celebrate God’s transcendence—His glory, His might and power.
The Bible describes some pretty awesome displays of God.
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of His robe filled the temple. Above Him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of His glory!”
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. Isaiah 6:1-4
That is true transcendence. That is what we were made for.
Is it bad to enjoy the Finals? Only if we see it as an end to itself—as glorious within itself. Please enjoy the Finals, but understand that the glory of anything on this earth is a dim candle compared to the blazing sun. See it as a signpost directing our attention upwards, a reminder that we were made for a greater glory and transcendence. May it be like an appetizer, creating an insatiable hunger for God and His glory. Then go home and watch the Spurs win.
There’s a trend running around the American church that devalues theology’s place in an individual’s life. It holds that a relationship with God will produce all the truth needed. Theology may be for some people, (dusty academics hidden behind mountains of rotting books and pious pastors who have no people skills) but not for them. It says theology only engages the mind but not the heart. Because God is a relational God, He wants us to experience Him—He wants us to drown in His love like it’s a big love-ocean. They say you simply can’t get that kind of passion if you treat Christianity like the SAT’s.
While there may be some legitimate concerns underlying these sentiments, there is a subtle danger here.
They are right that what matters more is heart-transformation, not information infusion. What they don’t realize is that a Christianity entirely based on experience and feelings alone will lead people astray.
It’s a false dichotomy to think the mind and heart are exclusive. God created us to engage Him with our whole being. Focusing on one side can make the other suffer.
Here are a few warnings about focusing solely on spiritual experiences:
1. Spiritual Experiences are not unique to Christianity.
Buddhists fall into trances as they commune with the spirits. Through prayer, Mormons receive the “burning in the bosom,” a gut sensation that’s supposed to confirm the veracity of the Book of Mormon. Hindus and New Age experience tranquility through their yoga and meditation. The pagan Greeks experienced an “ecstasy” that would take over their body and mind, causing them to speak in tongues.
Those spiritual experiences are real, and they are real because the spirits behind them are real—and they’re definitely not of Christ. There is an enemy at work and they would love to distract people with real experiences that confirm lies. This is why John warns, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
He wouldn’t say that unless believers were already falling for it.
2. Experience is very individualistic.
Many times when experience is emphasized, it’s just individualism and consumerism wrapped up in spirituality. It’s all about experiencing God in your own personal way.
The customer is always right.
The problem is everyone experiences things in different ways. If one person experiences God as a mother figure, another hears God’s audible voice in the wind telling them words to write down in a journal, and another sees Jesus in bodily form at the local Denny’s every other Tuesday, how are we to decide whether or not these are accurate representations of God? Based on experience alone, there is no way. They have felt the emotions and cried the tears, so it must be true.
Following such logic, the aim of church then becomes about feeling God, not about gathering to know and praise Him. Inevitably such a perspective transforms from being about God into being about self.
3. Elevating experience can bring about a low view of Scripture.
A failure to anchor experience to the truth of the Word is why we have whole denominations throwing snakes at each other during church. They take one verse out of context and it’s reinforced by the intensity of their experience. Holding a rattlesnake may be one of the biggest adrenaline rushes you can feel, but that doesn’t mean your heart and God’s are hugging.
This goes beyond bizarre religious practices. If how I feel matters more than what is written, then it will affect how I live—how I view things like sin. A dating couple can justify sleeping together and co-habitating because they think they love each other. A person who was abused can justify their hate because they were hurt by an evil man. A husband can justify leaving his wife because he believes another woman is his soulmate.
When how you feel matters more than what is written, anything goes. This is why Jesus called us to “die to ourselves;” there’s something more important than how you feel. If you’re a Christian, it can’t be about you anymore.
A BETTER WAY TO GO
Theology is literally “the study of God.” If you want to have a vibrant relationship with God you must study Him—you must grow in theology—because what you believe about God will influence how you experience Him.
It really doesn’t matter if someone says they don’t “do” theology. Everyone is a theologian. The question is whether or not they are a good one.
A good theologian is not someone who has all the answers. A good theologian seeks to know God as He wants to be known, as revealed through His Word. A good theologian has a heartfelt faith and an intelligent one.
Filter everything through Scripture. God must be worshipped “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). It’s our duty to draw deeper into that truth, and allow it to transform our hearts.
- Here’s a fascinating look into why so many child stars go crazy.
- A thorough examination of the Christian music industry—something I have ranted about before—showing what we should love about it and what we should change.
- What are young atheists saying about Christians and what can we learn from it?
- Here is a list of things every twenty-something needs to know.
- It is hard to be a leader, but a leader must never become a whiner.
- How should Christians date? Here is one of the best answers to that question I have ever read.
- For you nerds out there, here’s the new trailer for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Tweets of the day:
‘Duck the Halls,’ the Duck Dynasty family Christmas album, will be an instant Christmas classic. relm.ag/11wAQaA
— RELEVANT Magazine (@RELEVANT) June 11, 2013
To jockey for position, to “get yours,” to look first for glory in an end-run around the cross is to be shriveled down to darkest nothing — jaredcwilson (@jaredcwilson) June 11, 2013
Grace is given to heal the spiritually sick, not to decorate spiritual heroes. Martin Luther — Burk Parsons (@BurkParsons) June 11, 2013
My secretaries don’t know that I monitor their email. They also don’t know I dock their pay for each cat video they watch. #LeadLikeNSA
— Celebrity Pastor (@CelebrityPastor) June 11, 2013
On May 21st, I became a father. My daughter, Madeline, was born weighing a mere six pounds and three ounces. She is a tiny human being. Her hands are shorter than my thumbs. My hand is as long as her torso. When I carry her, I can tuck her into one arm like a football. She can’t defend herself. She can’t feed herself. She can’t even hold her own head up. When she gets hiccups she sounds like a chipmunk. She is completely helpless without my wife and me (mostly my wife). She controls nothing of her own life.
Madeline depends upon us for survival but I’ve also learned that my wife and I aren’t in control either—and it is terrifying. We can try to feed her on schedule, rock her to sleep, and give her vitamins and vaccines but none of that guarantees her safety or survival. None of that keeps her tiny heart beating and lungs pumping. Yes, her survival is dependent upon us in many ways, but in many ways it also isn’t.
I don’t have control and I know it, yet I still try to grasp for it. I freak out about every little sound Madeline makes while she sleeps. I always wonder if I’ve poked her soft spot too hard. I’ve never been much a of a germ-a-phobe but no one is coming near my daughter without having an acid-scrub bath. All of it is a futile attempt to bring about a desired outcome.
This isn’t the first time I’ve longed to be in control, and to my wife’s chagrin, it probably won’t be the last.
Why is it so hard for me to be out of control? I think it’s because there is something in me that would rather succeed (or fail) on the basis of my own efforts (That something is pride, if you were wondering). This is why I have a hard time accepting grace— or God’s sovereignty. I want control and I want say in the matter. The laughable thing is that it really is a denial of reality. I’m like a man locked in a mental institute who thinks he’s Napoleon Bonaparte, commanding my troops to honor and glory from within the padded white walls.
It takes a truly delusional person to think they can actually influence every aspect of their life.
The truth is, I can barely control myself, let alone a city (a state, a country, a world, etc.) full of autonomous human beings who are also trying to control themselves and everyone around them. Don’t forget about the weather.
I definitely don’t have this figured out yet, but I do know this: we don’t need to be afraid. In fact, the most common command in the Bible is, “Do not fear.” Although we don’t live in a world ruled by Kyle Hatfield (a hard to accept but probably comforting thought), we also don’t live in a world ruled by chance and cruel indifference to suffering. This is God’s world and He’s got a plan worked out. It’s a plan that’s far greater than anything my puny brain could cook up.
We’re like my daughter, a helpless baby, too small and too fragile for this world. We also have a Father who is watching over us. But this Father is in complete control—and He loves you.
So for now, I can rest from my worry and hold my daughter as her little heart beats.