Most Often Abused Bible Verses #2

October 21, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

It was the summer of 1993 and I was in Dallas for a discipleship project before my senior year of college.  That summer the 4th of July was on a Sunday and I had never experienced before what happened that day.  I had never been a part of a patriotic themed church service.  Instead of the traditional hymns that you usually sing, you sing the sort of patriotic/sort of Christian songs like, of course, the Battle Hymn of the Republic.  I wasn’t exactly sure how I felt about it.  I loved America but at the same time, I was in this very intense discipleship project and I was wondering why we seemingly had abandoned Jesus as our primary topic for the day.

ii chron 714There was a theme verse for the day.  It was on the bulletin cover and prominently a part of the service and ultimately was also the primary passage of the sermon.  It was after the sermon that I knew for sure that I was not a fan of what was happening.

The Verse:

If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. II Chronicles 7:14

What we think that it means:

If Christians in America will simply follow the clear pattern in this verse, humble yourselves, pray, seek God’s face and turn from wickedness, then God will bring healing to America.  This is not a call for all of America to repent, just those who are called by his name–the believers.  America is under judgment from God because we have turned from God.  If the church repents and turns to God, then God will forgive and heal America.

Why that is a bad interpretation:

It is abundantly clear to me that we have no idea how to interpret the Old Testament and so we wing it.  We take verses that we like completely out of context and apply them to whatever context we want to apply them.  We are not sure which OT commands apply to Christians, so we all, and I mean ALL, pick and choose based on what happens to fit our current desires best.  (Read about that more here.) When God makes a specific promise to Israel, we ask how do we apply it?  The answer is we don’t know but we like what it says, and so we wing it.

So what is going on in II Chronicles 7?  King Solomon has just dedicated the temple and God appears to him and tells the king that he has heard his prayer.  He then gives Solomon a warning and tells him that there will come a time when God will bring a plague or drought to the land, the literal land that God had long promised them and in which they now lived.  When such a thing happens, the people need to pray and humble themselves and repent.  Then God will bring literal healing to a cursed literal land.

So what does this have to do with America? Nothing. Israel was God’s chosen people with whom God made a covenant that involved land.  He promised this land to them, but some of his blessing is conditional on their obedience.  If they fail, they will be punished.  If they repent, God will bless them again.

America has no such arrangement with God.  America did not make a covenant with God and Americans are not his chosen people in any sense of any of those words.  America began in rebellion against Romans 13:1-6 and has no divine origin.  While it is true that some of the founders wanted to establish Christian ethics and devotion to God into the founding, that is a far cry from being God’s chosen people who were promised a land.

Israel never means America.  It is more likely to mean the church, but not America.  That’s what some people are trying to make this verse mean, in part, when they say that “those called by my name” isn’t talking to all Americans but the American church.  Ok, then let’s follow that through.  If God’s church will humble themselves and pray, then God will heal the church’s land that has been cursed.  What literal or metaphorical land does the church have that has been cursed and needs healing?  Whatever land may mean, the church has not been promised American land or any country.  God’s promises to the church are in the spiritual realm not in physical land.

What this verse means:

By all means, pray for your country.  Pray for your country’s leaders.  Pray that repentance and revival will break out in your country.  Pray that God will heal people, both individually and collectively, both physically and spiritually.  All of those are great things, but do not need to be confused with the bad theology of placing America as God’s replacement for his covenant people.  That is neither helpful nor true.

There are times in the New Testament where it would seem that because of sin, people are cursed in some way.  The passage in Corinthians about the Lord’s Supper indicates that.  If you believe that you or a group you are a part of is under judgment from God, then there are some amazing principles here for us to apply.

We need to be humble not proud.

We need to pray to God.

We need to seek his face, a relational connection with him.

We need to confess sin.

If we do those things, our relational connection with God will be restored.  For the individual and the church it is fellowship and blessing.  For the country of America, there are no promises of blessing that God has made to that country or any country apart from his chosen people, Israel.  Be excited about what God has promised you and the church.

Don’t get distracted by a false narrative about what your home country is or it’s special placement in the heart of God.  Be proud of where you are from but don’t allow it to cause you to study the Bible poorly or worse yet, divide your loyalty.

Most Often Abused Bible Verses #1

October 13, 2015 by cloften  
Filed under Bible, Church and Leadership

Starting a new series here.  Don’t let the number one confuse you.  I’m not saying that this is the most misused, just the first in the series.  For a similar series, check out Stuff Christians Need to Stop Saying from 5 years ago.

more-than-handle-1It seems far too often that the more often we quote a Bible verse and the more often it shows up on inspirational posters, the more likely that verse is being abused in some way.  Sometimes we misquote it.  Sometimes we take it out of context.  Sometimes we just misunderstand what it is saying.  Sometimes we abuse a verse to say something that is true, and other times to we make the Bible say something we want to be true but isn’t.  I encourage you to follow along with this series over the next few weeks.  This will help our theology and our Bible study skills.

The Verse:

No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful;he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it. I Corinthians 10:13

What we think that it means:

“God will never give me more than I can handle.” The circumstances of my life will never get so overwhelming that I won’t be able to handle it.  In fact, when my circumstances feel overwhelming, I can take some pride in that because it shows that “God thinks a lot of me and what I am able to handle.”

Why that is a bad interpretation:

This verse is not talking about the circumstances of your life.   Paul is talking about the temptation to sin.  The temptations that you experience are common to everyone and will not be more than you can bear.  He is talking about temptation not the trials and challenges of life. The challenges of life can be sources of temptation but Paul is not speaking to simply the times when life is overwhelming

Even if we get that right, Paul is also not talking about your ability to bear those temptations.  He does say that God won’t give you more temptation than you can bear, and if the verse ended there perhaps we could take some pride in our ability.  However, the verse doesn’t end there.  Paul says that God is the one that delivers us.

Furthermore, if this verse is talking about temptation and my ability to bear it, then it is verifiably false.  I am tempted beyond what I can bear all the time, because I choose the temptation.  I fail to take the way out that God is offering.  Instead, I choose sin.  It is dangerous to believe that this passage speaks highly of our abilities to withstand temptation because it puts the emphasis on the wrong person. I begin to look to myself as the source of my freedom from temptation.

What this verse means:

The temptation to sin is significant, but whatever temptation that you are facing is not uncommon.  In fact, the temptation, no matter how severe, will not be more than you can bear.  You will never be put into a situation where your only choice is sin.  Because no matter how severe the temptation to sin is, no matter how much the sin seems inevitable, God will provide a way out.  Again, God will provide the way out.  We experience the power of this verse, not when we take pride in God’s view of us in believing we can handle adversity, but when we are in the middle of great temptation and we choose God and his way out.

Sin is never inevitable.  Way too many of us become completely overwhelmed.  Even now, many of us feel like there is a recurring sin in our lives that we will never defeat.  We have resigned ourselves to continual defeat.  However, Paul has made it clear here that is not the case.  God has provided a way out for you.  When we choose to rely on our own strength to fight temptation, when we falsely believe that we can bear it, we end up deeper and deeper in trouble.  So when the potentially overwhelming temptation comes, do not look to your strength to bear, humbly look to God and ask for him to give you the way out.

So, by all means, make an inspirational poster of this verse.  Use this verse to inspire you when you are hopeless and sin seems to be getting the best of you.  However, when you look at the poster, your next look needs to be to God.  With that look, you will see the way out.

Understanding the Bible #2–What Am I Looking For?

July 13, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

I was not good in high school English.  Before you start evaluating the grammar of that first sentence, let me tell you what I mean.  I was not a good person in English.  I did well, but I was not good.  I didn’t get it.  I didn’t like it and that may or may not have caused me to have a bad attitude.  The story that 17 yr old Cloften would have told you is that all English teachers were out to get him.  I’m not sure what he would have said to why, but I’m sure it would have been creative.

Thirty-nine soon to be thirty-ten year old Cloften would tell you that the 17 yr old was an obnoxious punk who didn’t like the class or the assignments, resented being in there and only wanted to get an A and get out.  I did make good grades, but, primarily because of the attitude, I never really “got it.”  We would read these plays or books and then have to talk about themes and foreshadowing and imagery.  There was some story where a dude woke up as a cockroach and we were supposed to talk about the symbolism.  “Don’t know, don’t care.  Just tell me and I will gladly repeat it back to you on the test.”

I came to believe that I just didn’t know how to do it and that I wasn’t capable.  In college in my one obligatory English class, we were to read books and write a paper on them.  I asked the professor what we were supposed to do.  He said, “read the book, come up with a theory and prove it.”  I thought in response, “What?”  I did not do well in his class.

Then one day, after my 10th or so viewing of Braveheart, it all kind of came to me–the theme of the movie, symbolism, etc.  Now I see it in movies all the time. (I mean not movies like Con Air, but you know movies with a point.)  Now amazingly, I can analyze books as well, and simultaneously discovered that my problem had been attitude (Isn’t it always?).

It’s that same “Can’t Do” attitude that follows most of us to reading and understanding the Bible.  “OK,  I read a passage in the Bible, which means my eyes went over all the words on the page, so what?  What am I supposed to learn? What am I supposed to think? What’s supposed to happen?  Or is nothing supposed to happen–I just do it and say I did it?”

There are two ways of approaching the Bible (Obviously there are more.  We will focus on 2), and I would like to suggest that they are intertwined.  The two ways are literary and spiritual.  The spiritual approach is to pray before you read and ask God to show you something, to teach you, encourage you, change you, etc.  You then read it and expect God to do just that.

However, it can be difficult for that to happen if you really don’t know what you’re reading or how to read it.  This is why even the most spiritual people can get discouraged reading the Bible or well-intentioned people can misinterpret the Bible and/or misapply it.  So let’s talk about what to be looking for as you read it, understanding that what God does in your life is the most important part.

Is it possible to sum up the Bible in 3 sentences? Sure, if they are complex sentences.

The Bible is the story of God who created the universe for his pleasure and created people to be in fellowship with him.  These people rebelled against God, and the God that created them and loves them wants to redeem them and restore fellowship with them.  This is accomplished ultimately through sending his Son, Jesus to die on our behalf.

“Break that down for me please.”

1) The story is about God not us.

2) We were created to be in relationship with him not so that we could do whatever we wanted

3) We have rebelled against the God that created us.

4) God is pursuing a relationship with all people.

5) This is being done now through His Son, Jesus.

So when reading, there are a few questions you can ask yourself.  Writing down the answers can be helpful.

What do I learn about God?

What do I learn about the nature of people?

How is God trying to reconcile people?

How are people who have relationships with God supposed to feel/think/act?

Old Testament: Does any of this point to/foreshadow Jesus?  New Testament: What do I learn about Jesus and his sacrifice for us?

Every passage that you read will deal with one or more of these themes/questions.  Take down notes on anything you notice.  There is no insight too simple.  As with most things, practice will make you better.  When you combine these kinds of insights with God working in your heart, you will notice tremendous spiritual benefits and God changing your life.

Soon you’ll be a regular scholar noticing all sorts of great insights into yourself, God, sin, people, etc.  You’ll be a literary genius.  (Did I mention Braveheart really is the story of Robert the Bruce? Ask me later.)

Understanding the Bible #1–Where to Start

July 5, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

A friend asked me recently a very important question.  They were wanting to introduce their children to the Star Wars movies–a noble goal indeed. They asked, “Where should we start?  Should we start with Episode IV since it was released first or start with Episode I and take them in chronological order?”  A deep and significant question.  I hope I didn’t minimize the significance of the question by how quickly I answered.

The answer, quickly given, was that they should watch them in order of release date.  This is the story of Darth Vader, although you would be inclined to think that it was about Luke.  Vader is the most evil movie villain, evah (read more here).  Then he turns out to be the hero’s dad and then, well you know.  Empire Strikes Back has perhaps the best plot twist of all time, with all due respect to Keyser Sose, dead therapists and Rosebud (Boom! Dated reference!).  You lose that plot twist by watching the 1,2,3, first and it’s harder to care about what’s going on in 1,2,3 if you don’t know who Annakin/Vader is.

A similar and, shall we say, more important question is where do I start reading the Bible.  In part there are two lines of thought that, ironically are the same as the Star Wars question.  Some say start at the beginning and read chronologically.  Others say start with Jesus, the centerpiece of the big picture story of the Bible.  If you are not a Christian and want to understand the story of the Bible, I would start with Jesus.  The best place to do that is the Gospel of John.  That is the fourth book of the New Testament.  Gospel means “good news” and in the Bible has become a title for four different semi-biographies of Jesus.  (I say semi because that is not their primary purpose.  Talking about Jesus’s ministry, death and resurrection are their main goals.  3 years out of the life of a man who lived approximately 33 years).  The Gospel of John was written specifically to focus on the stories and sayings of Jesus that deal with people coming to faith.  So it is a great book for non-believers and new believers.

If you are a believer and know the story of Jesus, I’d suggest a more chronological approach–start at the beginning.  What I am going to outline here is starting with the books that tell the story of the Bible, the history books.  In future posts, we will break down the big picture story into sections and place all of the books into one of those sections.  For now, we will put together an approach to reading the Bible that will give you the big idea.

Genesis (Creation, Noah, Tower of Babel, Abraham-Isaac-Jacob/Esau-12 sons, most notably Joseph)

Exodus (Jews are slaves, God raises up Moses to free them and take them to a promised land)

Leviticus/Numbers (Warning! Can be tedious.  Lots of rules, lots of repetition. Story gets bogged down. Can be difficult to read.  Hang in there.  Jews headed to promised land, receive God’s law, rebel, are punished and have to wander around)

Deuteronomy (Don’t read the whole thing.  They are back to the promised land.  Moses giving them the law again.  Read Chapters 1-2 and then skip to Chapter 29 to the end)

Joshua (Taking the land, establishing themselves)

Judges (Living in the land…poorly)

I & II Samuel (God ruling the Jews through prophets, but they want a king, God gives them a king.  It doesn’t go well.  1st 3–Saul, David, Solomon)

I & II Kings (Note, these books are essentially repeated in I & II Chronicles but from a different perspective. Over simplification, but just read one pair for now. The kingdom is split into two, Israel (north) Judah (south).  It’s still not going well. It ends with both nations being conquered and exiled.)

Ezra and Nehemiah (The people are coming back from exile to rebuild Israel.)

Gospel of Luke (Jesus comes to Israel to restore the people and to die as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.)

Acts (The story of Jesus’s disciples who take his message to the world.)

We have left out some great books and great stories and great poetry, basically a lot of cool stuff that you absolutely should go back and read.  But once you understand the big story, the question of where and how do these other books fit will make more sense.

How much should I read?  That’s a great question.  However, it’s one we rarely ask in any other context.  “Hey, I checked out a novel from the library.  How much do you think I should read at a time?”  “Well, I don’t know.  Until you want to stop and then pick it up when you’re ready to read again?”  How about just read the Bible?  When your eyes/mind start to glaze stop.  When you pick it back up the next day (Reading the Bible every day is a great thing), review what you have read, remind yourself of where you are in the story and read some more.

I understand that the Bible can be challenging to read.  Understanding the story can be difficult and make take some time. You may only be able to read in small chunks.  I get that. This is a guy who doesn’t like blog posts to be more than 900 words, so I need

Understanding the Bible (Preview)

July 1, 2011 by cloften  
Filed under Family and Parenting

On occasion, I have been known to do a little math tutoring. Not only do I have two young scholars in my house, but also I’ll help random people in the church and such. What I’ve noticed is that most, if not all, people who say that they are struggling with math, know a lot more math than what they believe they do. Their problem is not comprehending the problem or doing the work. Their problem is what I will call math anxiety.

It’s similar to test anxiety and it certainly manifests itself during the tests. Math anxiety is when someone who is not naturally gifted in math or doesn’t like math declares, “Math is impossible,” “Math is stupid” or my favorite “Math doesn’t make sense.” I love it. The problem can in no way be me. The problem is math. Math is wrong. If math were right, then I would easily get it. Raise your hand if you’ve thought that. (Looking) Hey, everyone in my house just raised their hand. (I’m questioning if math acumen is genetic, or perhaps math-hating is the dominant gene. Looking at you HLoften).

I believe that we also struggle with Bible Anxiety. We have been convinced or have convinced ourselves that the Bible is impossible to understand. “I’ve tried reading it, and I just don’t get it.” “The Bible just doesn’t make sense.” I think pastors over the years have contributed to the problem. While on the one hand we say that you should read and study the Bible on your own, on the other we make it seem like you have to be a trained scholar with a working knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to truly understand it.

“Well, you make think this verse says blah, blah, blah, but that that Greek verb is an intransitive pluperfect gerund, and what it really means is wah, wah, wah.” While many of these scholarly insights are helpful, often there can be the unintended consequence of making reg’lar folk believe that they aren’t smart enough to understand the Bible. If were a blog for pastors, there would already be a post entitled “Tone Down the Scholarly Rhetoric, Einstein.”

This is the beginning of a new blog series on understanding the Bible and before we really get started, I want to first say, “You can do it.” You on your own, with a pen, piece of paper, Bible and occasionally a dictionary, can understand the Bible. If you sat down and just read the Bible, you could get the basic idea 90+% of the time.

All you have to do is use basic reading comprehension. Things like understanding the subject, verb, descriptive words, if/then, cause/effect, etc. You’ll notice if there are ever sentences that are just fragments (See previous sentence), and there won’t be. You’ll ask yourself what is the point the author is trying to make, just like when you read the newspaper (Ha, ha, ha. He just said newspaper. He might as well have said papyrus). You’ll connect with characters and find the morals in stories, just like when you read novels, you know on your Kindle (Trying to reclaim cool points). Context will tell you the definition of words you don’t know or you will look them up in the dictionary, just like you always do when you read.

“Wait, wait, wait. Cloften this is the Bible. Bible is hard. The rules are different for the Bible. You can’t just read the Bible.” Right and wrong. (Another sentence fragment). You are right in that the content is more weighty and the source of the content is God. It is more important that you understand the concepts of grace and salvation, than whether or not you are Team Edward or Team Jacob (At least it should be).

However, it is still a book, a book with words, English words, English words you know, put together in sentences that you can understand. There will be parts you don’t understand immediately. Write down your questions and read some more. Some questions will be answered in the next passage. Others can be answered by friends when you get together and talk about it. (In a small group or Sunday School. It’s like a book club, but, you know, with the Bible.)

I’m not saying that it is as simple as “believe in yourself and go for it.” That’s why this will likely be a 20 part series. We need to understand what the major themes of the Bible are, how it fits chronologically, how the different books of the Bible relate to each other, understand the different genres, etc.  These are things that help us understand the Bible better.  These are not things that we must grasp perfectly before we should even start reading.

However, the biggest issue we have is confidence.  “I believe that God wants me to understand his word, and I am smart enough to read a book and understand it.”  You really can do it. I mean, it’s not calculus.

Digging Deeper

Last summer I did 8 miserable weeks with a workout called Insanity.  It was awful.  It was the best shape I’ve been in for at least 20 years.  Was it worth it?  Yeah.  Should I go back?  Yeah, I guess.  Leave me alone.  Why are you nagging me?  I know I’m not working out like I need to be.  Get off my back.  It’s been quite a transition, ok?  I’ll get into some good routines when we get out of this apartment.  What do you mean, “no excuses?”  I’m starting to not like you.  And by “you,” I of course mean the voices in my head.  Yes, I’ll get on with it.  Stupid voices.

The guy that was leading these workout DVDs had an inspirational catch phrase (Don’t they all?).  It was “dig deeper.”  He didn’t say it every time I wanted to quit, because that would fill each DVD, but he did use it at strategic times to inspire us.

I have heard many times in my years in ministry from people that they wanted to go deep, dig deep into the Bible, that they wish the study, sermon, etc. would be deeper.  I have often been a little put off by that, because often I wonder what they really mean and what they are really looking for.  What do we/they mean when we say we want to go deeper into the Bible or we wish sermons were deeper?

Now what I’m going to say next has been deemed controversial by some.  I don’t know that it is, but some consider it so.  In fact, I was once accused of being a heretic that didn’t believe in the Bible.  I’ve got your attention now, don’t I?  It was during a small group leaders meeting, one of my first at this particular church (if you are trying to guess, you have a 1 in 5 chance, I suppose).  We had done a pretty basic study on what community is and how to build it in your group.  Some from the groups and some of the leaders said they wanted something “deeper” next.  Here is what I said (paraphrased).  “When we think of going deeper, I don’t want us to think of going deeper in knowledge and trying to learn more facts.  I would like for us to think of our groups going deeper in how we apply God’s word in our lives.”  The words of a heretic apparently.  I bring this up now, because I brought it up yesterday a little bit at the Grove as we kicked off our series on the parables.

Honestly, I didn’t think it was that controversial at the time, but I have come to realize that for a lot of people it is.  There is a culture out there in some Christian circles and churches that the sign of depth is knowledge of relatively obscure Bible facts and Greek verb tenses.  My overwhelming concern is not that we learn new facts as much as that we deeply and fully apply the truths that many of us consider “basic.”  “Forgive as God in Christ has forgiven you.”  “Let no unwholesome word pass from your mouth.”  “Be anxious for nothing.” “You are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus for good works.”  “Let you light shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”  Most “basically,” “Love God with your heart, soul, mind and strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Before you petition to reinstitute heresy panels, let me say this.  We need to know the Bible well.  Too many of us don’t know the basic chronology/story of the Bible.  We don’t deeply understand the depth of the Gospel and why Jesus died for us.  We can’t even begin to explain the complexity of  the dual truths that God loves you unconditionally and God expects holiness from you or similarly, God is sovereign and we must choose to follow after God.

However, if we constantly appeal to the mind and fail to drill deeply into our hearts, our walks with God become an intellectual exercise, where the person who can win Bible Trivia is deemed the most spiritual.  It is easier, much easier, to learn a new fact than it is to ask how “Love my neighbor” applies to my boss whom I don’t like and don’t trust or how forgiveness applies to that person that wounded me so deeply so many years ago.

When we gain new knowledge, let’s just be on guard to let our hearts also learn new patterns of feeling and our lives new ways of behaving.  When we think of going deep, let’s think about giving God deep access into our hearts, minds, souls and lives.  Let him drill deeply into those parts of our lives where if I were honest, I wish he wouldn’t meddle.

Let’s dig deeper.