This post contains affiliate links.
A few weeks ago I did a mini-series on my Instagram stories regarding the misapplication of popular bible verses – verses like Jeremiah 29:11. The ensuing conversation in my community was both exciting and discouraging. In one sense, it was exciting to see how many believers recognized the problems with taking verses out of context and misapplying them. But it was saddening to see how many people had learned these verses in their wrong context, and how many of them were overwhelmed and discouraged when they found out this was the case.
Misapplying Scripture is easy to do with the western approach to literature. Our culture wants to read a passage and immediately apply it to our lives. Our concern with productivity spills into our time with the Lord, where we tend to minimize the metanarrative in search of immediate application. This causes several major issues in our faith and walk with the Lord, five of which I’ve shared below.
Limited or Incomplete View of God
When we pick verses out of the context in which the author wrote them, we’re not just mishandling Scripture from a literary standpoint. We’re changing how we view God in His Word. The authors God inspired to write the Bible intentionally phrased their work in specific ways. Like any writer would, they built the narrative thought upon thought, purposely arranging the accounts to send a message about who God is, was, and will be. When we pluck verses out of the story – e.g Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you…” – we miss out on the true meaning of those verses. We might be getting a partial truth from the out-of-context version, but it’s not the whole truth. We’re missing the big theological concepts that teach us the most about God.
When people do this repeatedly with the Word, they end up with a limited, incomplete view of God Himself. This is how believers end up looking to God as a cosmic vending machine (prosperity theology) or as all love and no justice (Rob Bell, for example). This is the primary problem with many women’s ministries and conferences, which focus on being “beautiful in God’s eyes” but never talk about what Jesus did to provide that identity (more on that issue here).
For more on who God is and how we can understand Him better, None Like Him by Jen Wilkin is a good resource.
Exalted View of Self
The second consequence of misapplying scripture is an exalted view of self. This is the natural outcome when we start with an incomplete view of God, because any view of God that isn’t complete naturally tends to glorify humans.
People today want to feel good about themselves. Because the bible talks so much about God’s love for humanity, it’s quite easy to proof-text Scripture and accomplish this. All you have to do is quote verses about God’s love, peace, and joy. All these things ARE part of following Jesus, but there is so much more to the story. If this is all you know about Christianity, you’ll be devastated to discover that trials, pain, and persecution are promised to those who follow Christ. You’ll also struggle to submit to the exclusivity of Christ because the bible you were taught revolved around… you.
If you read a book or attend a study where Scripture is constantly used to focus on yourself, that’s your first clue that something is wrong. The bible should continually redirect our attention to who God is, what Jesus has done, and how the Spirit is working in this world. If you’re not coming away with a greater view of God, you’re not asking the right questions in your bible study. The bible is not about us; it’s about the Lord!
Surface-level Understanding of Scripture
When we read the bible looking for things to immediately apply, it leads to a surface-level reading of Scripture. The bible is not meant to be read like a self-help book. It is our means of knowing God, how God chose to reveal Himself to us. But to know Him as He chose to reveal Himself, we have to dig into those difficult books and passages that don’t make good Instagram captions.
We’re drawn to books like Psalms and NT epistles because they seem practical or relateable. And while these books ARE just as inspired as the others, reading them alone gives us an incomplete understanding of the bible and of God. When we take the time to read the Old Testament, we get a better understanding of what was going on in David’s life when he wrote the Psalms. We get a clearer perspective on why Jesus came to earth. We understand the imagery and context Paul is referring to in his letters to the early church. When we take verses out of context, read quickly and only for application, and focus on the “easy” books, we miss out on the full picture of God’s Word.
A great book on this is Women of the Word by Jen Wilkin.
Risk of Theological Error
One of the greatest dangers of misapplying Scripture is the risk of theological error. Let’s use Jeremiah 29:11 as an example. This well known verse often gets written in graduation cards:
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.
What a nice verse! Of course we want to apply it to our lives, our plans, our post-graduate endeavors. The problem? This verse was not written to us. In context, it was written to Israel right before they were taken into Babylonian captivity. They would spend 70 years as strangers in a foreign land, a consequence of their repeated disobedience. If you read the verses before Jer. 29:11, you will see just how dire the situation was. And if you read Jeremiah 29:12-14, you find something even more challenging:
“Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.”
God had a plan for Israel; that’s true. But God’s original, perfect plan – their obedience in the Promised Land – was prevented by their disobedience. If they had obeyed Him, they would have received this glorious blessing of peace. But because of their disobedience, God altered His plan to include captivity. Israel had to learn the consequences of rejecting God. This whole passage is about Israel removing themselves from God’s plan and God’s grace in spite of it.
Not something we want to write on a coffee mug.
When you take Jer. 29:11 out of its context, you come away with, “God has good plans for me.” But in context, we see that God’s good plans are fulfilled AS WE OBEY HIM. And it is possible to remove yourself from His original, perfect plan, and for Him to alter the course, if we choose to reject Him. This is a very serious passage, not one to be taken lightly. And when we take verses out of context like this we risk even greater theological error.
For more on context and understanding the bible as it was originally written, check out Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes.
Missing Out on the Full Meaning of God’s Word
Ultimately, misquoting, misusing, and misapplying Scripture causes us to miss out on the full meaning of God’s Word. While none of us will have a perfect understanding of God or His Word this side of heaven, we should be perpetual students of it. As we diligently seek the Lord through Scripture, He grants us His Holy Spirit to understand what we read. That same Spirit teaches us how and when to apply the concepts. We must do more than pick up pithy statements for our mugs and tattoos. We must seek to grasp the fullness of God’s story in humanity.
And when we do, we will find a God far greater, grander, sweeter, and better than we ever before imagined.
For personalized posts to your inbox and an update on new resources, ebooks, and courses, sign up for my newsletter in the box below!