I keep notebooks in my kitchen to write down the things my children say, such as the fact that bare (bear) feet say “Grrrr.” I want to remember the time we ate “flamingo” for lunch in our mango and watercress salad. Mistakes like these are a way children learn about language, and though it’s adorable when they’re 3, I certainly don’t want a 23-year-old calling a mango a flamingo.
But I wonder if this inability to mature in our contextual understanding is a bit like what has happened regarding some statements from or attributed to the Bible. One Christian misunderstands a text, it goes viral, and one day, I’m at the store and see a sign that says, “Flamingos: 99 cents!”
It’s easy to change a sign. But is it as easy to reinterpret some notoriously misunderstood texts?
1. “God won’t give you more than you can handle!”
Sometimes, a stranger or friend who hopes to offer encouragement will tell my friend Laura, “Well, you know God won’t give you more than you can handle.” Jonathan, Laura’s third child, was born premature and lived his first five months in the NICU. Since then, he’s spent more time in the hospital than many septuagenarians. Laura honestly tells me, “I have definitely been given more than I can handle.”
The oft-quoted statement “God won’t give you more than you can handle” isn’t actually in the Bible. Rather, it’s a misquoting of 1 Corinthians 10:13. Here is the passage in context:
If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall. The temptations in your life are no different from what others experience. And God is faithful. He will not allow the temptation to be more than you can stand. When you are tempted, he will show you a way out so that you can endure.
So, my dear friends, flee from the worship of idols.
Paul’s passage is specifically about the problem of temptation, not suffering.
Not the Gatekeeper of Suffering
There is something appealing about the idea that our suffering or trials could be worse but that God holds it back. The problem with imagining more than you could handle and then being thankful that you don’t actually have that much is it undermines real suffering and struggle (like Laura’s and Jonathan’s), and it casts God as the Gatekeeper of Suffering. To put our own circumstances into perspective, we might say, “It could be worse”—and then we think of images we’ve seen of starving children or of homes flattened by hurricanes. But in the process, we negate both our own story and the stories of others.
Christian hope is not hope because things could always be worse. Christian hope lies in the past, present, and future work of Jesus Christ! This hope is in the good work God has done through Christ and the Holy Spirit, not God’s work in holding back the reigns on our suffering.
Jesus spoke of God as a loving father, who gives good gifts to his children. Parenting isn’t about pushing our children to the limit all the time! While a parent has some control over the negative circumstances her children may face, being the gatekeeper to suffering is not primarily what parenting is about.
Good parents relate to their children, they love them, they enjoy them. Our heavenly Father is with us, loves us, and gives us good gifts! Though God uses suffering, pain, and sickness, these are not burdens God piles upon us until we’re a step away from breaking. Mysteriously, it is in the midst of suffering that we may find ourselves more aware of God’s presence and goodness, as Laura told me: “God does not abandon us when we do not succeed. Instead, he upholds us.”
And it’s this upholding, this strengthening, that reminds me of another oft-quoted sentence from Scripture that is just as often misunderstood.
2. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
This sentence is frequently bandied about as a Christian superhero motto. “All things” sounds pretty awesome. There’s lots of “all things” I’d like to do through Christ who strengthens me: be an amazing dancer (I’m not), play in a rock band (I don’t), and have successfully made it into an MFA program when I was 23 (I didn’t).
In the book of Philippians, the apostle Paul wrote a very famous sentence, surrounded by many lesser-known sentences. Here it is, in context. Remember: Paul is writing this letter of friendship from prison.
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble.
Here we see Paul remembering the extremes of his life: the times he has had much or little. It’s within the contrasts of life that Paul remembers Christ is sufficient in every situation. Gordon Fee notes that this is one of many passages “that indicate the absolute Christ-centeredness of Paul’s whole life. He is a ‘man in Christ.’ As such he takes what Christ brings. If it means ‘plenty,’ he is a man in Christ, and that alone; if it means ‘want,’ he is still a man in Christ, and he accepts deprivation as part of his understanding of discipleship.”
It’s Not About Us
This passage really isn’t about what we accomplish (or, in turn, don’t accomplish). It’s about our identities in Christ. If we were reading this aloud together, the word to emphasize is Christ, not I or me. This is about being in Christ: rich or poor, clumsy or graceful, cool or nerdy, extra-talented or marginally talented. Our identity isn’t in “all things” that we do or don’t do. “All things” don’t matter as much as we like to think. It’s all about Christ. If we find our identities in Christ, our own whims or dreams of success don’t matter so much anymore!
Perhaps, though, some of the most misunderstood statements are the ones that seem pretty clear cut, such as . . .
3. “Don’t judge.”
In Matthew 7:1 (and also in Luke 6:37), Jesus says, “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged.” This phrase is often used as a jabbing weapon in conversations about morals or admonishment. But it seems clear, right? Some may think it means this: “Do not judge; do not infringe on people’s freedoms. And if you do, you will be judged by God, even more harshly than if you had not judged at all.” But is this what Jesus was talking about?
What’s fascinating about Jesus’ teaching is that he follows a very heavy comment (“For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you,” 7:2, NIV) with a pointed joke:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3–5, NIV)
This passage about judgment is embedded in the Sermon on the Mount which, Matthew points out, was primarily directed toward Jesus’ disciples. And as he used humorous hyperbole to clarify, his teaching about judgment isn’t primarily about strangers judging one another; it’s about brothers (disciples) judging one another. Rather than undermining Scripture’s consistent teachings about morality and accountability, fundamentally, Jesus’ words here are directions for how his followers are to relate to each other in an intimate community of God.
For Living in Community
When living or working in community, it’s easy to become frustrated and irritated with those who surround us. Sometimes personalities clash or we have different understandings of a situation. It is within these moments that I may begin to silently judge another’s faults. Then, after I have bolstered my complaint with several pop-psychology books (likely written about said culprit) and made a list of the infractions to prove I am right, I am ready to get down to business and get out that speck that is ruining everything for everyone, especially me.
What we forget, though, is that sometimes when others irritate or frustrate us, it may be our own problem. For example, my brother-in-law is a wonderful man, but when we go somewhere, he is always late—and it irritates me to no end. But as I have gotten to know Ben, I have learned that he has a different understanding of time than I do. He does a task until it is finished and this is how he shows his love. And my own “get-er-done” nature is the log in my eye as I tend to prioritize “productivity” or “punctuality” over people.
We’re not to judge others because that breaks community. Jesus calls us to first examine ourselves. And when we honestly examine ourselves, God’s Spirit illuminates our own ridiculousness and lovingly invites us to restoration.
As Christians we have a special relationship with the Bible because we believe that it is God’s Word to us. We love Scripture and embrace its power in our lives. Yet because God spoke the Bible to a particular people and place, a context very distant from ours, the Bible can easily be misunderstood. Learning to understand the context of biblical passages is a critical part of spiritual maturity. Thankfully, we can all exchange our flamingos for mangos.
Copyright © 2015 by Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence and Christianity Today