The Bible is such an integral book to Christianity, yet we often take verses out of context. While it is written for me and you and is relevant for our everyday lives, each of the books of the Bible also had an intended audience in a specific time and place. And that’s easy to forget.
Imagine, for example, you found a letter from your mother to your father. She was writing to tell him that he should stop eating chocolate because it was displeasing God. Your mother realized that the brand of chocolate they had been buying was produced by child labor, and she didn’t think it was right to support it. You (or someone who reads this letter a thousand years later), could take this direction out of context and assume that 1) all chocolate is evil, 2) God hates chocolate and 3) no one should eat chocolate if he considers himself a Christian — even though eating chocolate isn’t a sin.
This seems like a ridiculous example, but we can make similar blunders when we read the Bible and pull a verse out of context instead of considering the surrounding text and why it was written. Here are seven verses that are commonly misunderstood, and what they really mean.
- “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
Jeremiah wrote this specifically to the Israelites as a promise to end their exile, but it is often quoted to individuals who are going through difficult times. As someone who has a chronic illness, I can tell you this is not helpful to hear. God does not promise health and happiness to His followers in this life. There is a lot of suffering in the world that we have to face, though of course, we as Christians do have an eternal hope which we rest in.
- “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
This verse is often misquoted as “God will never give you more than you can handle,” which not only suggests that we are strong enough to face anything without anyone’s help but also that God is the one who drops misfortunes on our laps. However, there will always be challenges that are overwhelming to us, which is why we rely on God and community. This verse is specifically referring to temptation, and goes on to say that God will provide us a way out, meaning that we can choose His way over temptation.
- “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
Taken out of context, this verse suggests that whatever I want to do — run a marathon, make a million dollars, become famous, solve world hunger — I can accomplish it if I just believe! But if we read the surrounding verses, we discover Paul is talking about contentment, not achievements. He’s actually saying that God gives him the strength to be content despite difficult circumstances.
- “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:4)
If you’re single, this verse is often taken out of context regarding your relationship status. You’re told, “You just need to delight yourself in the Lord, and then He’ll give you a spouse.” But God isn’t Santa Claus — He doesn’t give us what we want if we are good enough or love Him enough. Rather, we receive the desires of our heart because as we grow closer to God, our desires will conform more and more to His desires. And maybe that still includes marriage, but it also means our hearts’ desires will become focused on pleasing God and growing His kingdom.
- “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant.” (1 Corinthians 13:4)
We’ve associated this passage so much with weddings that we may forget Paul isn’t just referring to romantic love. In the preceding chapter, he instructs the Corinthian church to work together as a community and respect others’ gifts. Then he points to how they can love one another here. Consider what would happen if we read these verses as instructions on how to interact with all people instead of just our spouses.
- “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1)
If we take this verse out of context, it means we have to agree with every politician, every decision the government makes, because they’re put there by God. Does that mean government is infallible? Does that mean people protesting the holocaust were “disobeying” God? Of course not. We’re called to obey the government, yet if a law is in direct opposition with God’s law, then of course, we’re to follow God’s law and disobey the ruling authority. We see this example in Daniel, when he disobeyed King Darius’ law.
- “The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.” (James 5:15)
This verse is particularly harmful when taken out of context because people can use it to suggest that if you’re not better, then you must not have enough faith. Yet sickness is part of this world and, though miracles happen, God doesn’t make everyone better. “Raise him up” can mean a lot of things, not just restored health. James is pointing to the power and impact of prayer here, though God doesn’t always answer prayers the way we expect.
It’s easy to take a verse out of context, yet it’s vital to consider each command and passage in light of the surrounding verses and the overarching story of redemption. And of course, by remembering the first great commandment — to love God — and the second — to love others as ourselves — we can look at the Bible through the lens of relationship and consider how to treat each other the way Christ would.