We must exercise great care with our words — all of them. This is especially true when it comes to conveying the truths of what we believe about God, His Word, and ourselves. While there is some truth in many of our Christian expressions, there is often far more error, revealed as we filter these sayings through the grid of infallible and holy Scripture.
This is a challenge that the Lord has been working in my heart and life over the past several years. The more I am taught and learn of God’s wonderful truths, the greater responsibility I have to accurately and precisely communicate such when I speak. Here are just a few common Christian clichés and phrases that God has impressed on my heart are not biblical and why.
1. “God will not give you more than you can handle.”
While it seems this statement is trying to encourage the believer to remain steadfast in trials and keep the faith, it’s message simply isn’t true. First, God will give us more than we can handle because in all truth, we cannot handle anything. We are finite, weak, and in desperate need of God’s grace, both for salvation and daily living.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
Second, this statement is not true because God regularly gives us adversities, all of which are beyond our capability, but not His. He grows us in our faith through these trials and reveals our need for dependence on Him.
This saying is likely a misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 10:13. “[God] will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.”
The misinterpretation occurs because the verse is taken from its context and so its meaning is at best obscured and at worst completely altered. In this passage, Paul is giving very direct teaching on sin and temptation. He is speaking to believers living in a community of idolatry and instructing them how to overcome such temptation. When observed in its context, two things become very clear about this verse:
Even on our “best days” we cannot handle life in a fallen world. If we are to encourage each other to remain steadfast, let us do it with statements of the truth of God’s faithfulness and character and not our own.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6
2. “What this verse means to me . . .”
If you’ve ever been in a Bible study or small group, you’ve likely heard, “What this verse means to me is . . .” I know I have. In fact, I’ve often been the one saying it. As the Lord has grown me and brought many faithful teachers into my life, I have come to understand that it does not matter what a verse means to me. What matters is what the verse means.
Scripture is clear we have a serious responsibility to rightly study and interpret its words.
“Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation.” 2 Peter 1:20
One the best examples we have in the Bible of believers dedicating themselves to an accurate and thorough study of God’s Word is the church in Berea found in Acts 17:10-15. These believers made the Word their authoritative standard for truth. As Paul and Silas taught them, they didn’t just accept their words outright, but rather they tested them against God’s Word and “searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so.”
So how do we emulate the Bereans? How do we rightly handle the Word of truth and avoid making ourselves the standard for interpreting the Bible? Here are just a few guiding questions as we seek to study and know the God’s Word:
1. Who is the original audience? It is very easy to filter Scripture through a Western and American cultural grid. But in order to truly understand what is being taught, we must discard these filters and seek to understand the original audience and what they were dealing with. This will give greater clarity to the passage’s meaning which will ultimately lead to proper application.
2. What is the author’s intended meaning? One of the most profound lessons I learned as a student in Bible college came from my Hermeneutics professor. As he endeavored to impart the principles by which we study and interpret Scripture, he would regularly remind us, “The text has one and only one meaning.” His class was a huge turning point for me as a believer because for the first time in my Christian life I was forced to take myself out of the equation when it came to studying the Bible. It does not matter what I think the text means. Rather, the question I need to pursue is “what was the author’s intended meaning?” This is the meaning and it does not change because of time, culture, or individual experiences. What the author meant then is what the passage means now.
3. What is the context? In order to correctly interpret the Word, we must avoid taking one or two verses out of its passage and trying to understand and apply it apart from its context. When we fail to study and interpret Scripture without considering the overall context, we will undoubtedly misunderstand and distort its meaning.
In Matthew 18 we find a perfect example of a verse that is often plucked from its context and misinterpreted as a result.
Matthew 18:20 - “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
I have often seen this verse given as an encouragement and confirmation that the Lord is present in a church service, prayer meeting, or small gathering of believers. But when we look at the context of the verse it quickly becomes evident that this interpretation is flawed.
The context, which includes Matthew 18:15-20 is all about church discipline and how we are to deal with those in the church who refuse to repent. The first step is to confront such an individual privately. If he does not respond to the plea of one, then two or three witnesses come together to make a second plea for repentance; then, if he is still unwilling to repent, he is to be removed from the body in order to maintain the purity of the church. Understanding this context allows us to see that verse 20 is actually a statement that God confirms discipline that is carried out according to His Word and also adds Christ’s divine approval.
“To use this statement to claim the Lord’s presence at a small worship service or prayer meeting,” says Pastor John MacArthur, “does not fit the context of church discipline and is superfluous. Christ is always present with His people, even with a lone believer totally separated from fellow Christians by prison walls or by hundreds of miles.” Understanding the context of a passage is crucial to determining the meaning, which will ultimately lead us to how we can interpret and apply it.
4. What is the purpose of the passage? Only after we have sought out the author’s audience, meaning, context, and other historical factors, can we begin the work of interpreting and applying God’s Word. Application is never the first step in Bible study. We must be good students of the Word and do the work to unpack the truths God has for us. As we faithfully pursue Him in our study, hH has promised His Spirit will guide us and give us understanding.
3. “Marriage/Parenting is the most sanctifying thing in the life of the believer.”
When I was engaged to my husband, I was often told, “Marriage is the most sanctifying thing in the life of the believer.” Years later, as my husband and I waited for the birth of our daughter I repeatedly heard, “Parenting is the most sanctifying thing in the life of the believer.” There is truth in both of these statements. God does intend for Biblical marriage to be a means of growth, refinement, and sanctification. The same is true for parenting. As both a wife and a mom, I have had patterns of my sinfulness exposed as well as attitudes and behaviors that are not becoming of a child of God revealed. I’ve experienced God’s grace through showing me my sin and enabling me to overcome temptation and grow in my faith as a result.
Both marriage and parenting are important tools God uses to expose areas of weakness and to grow us in holiness. But to say they are the most sanctifying things just isn’t true. Why?
First, God does not call all believers to marriage. There are those he has designed for singleness. God has not called all married couples to parenting. There are those he has set apart to childlessness.
Second, neither singleness nor childlessness is a second-class experience. We are often prone to think of marriage and children as “God’s best.” This is because they are good gifts from God and appear as such to our human understanding. But even though they may lack the appearance of being good or a gift, singleness and childlessness are still God’s best for many believers in the church.
We know this because God has promised us His best. He has promised to sanctify us and make us more like His Son. In fact, He is utterly committed to it.
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24
To say that any one tool of God’s sanctification is the highest, the best, or the most is to imply that that God’s doesn’t give His best to every believer, that there are second-rate or lesser tools that some must resign themselves to. This is not Biblical thinking. God gives all believers His best as He works to grow us in holiness. Just because it does not appear to the human eye as good doesn’t mean it is any less than God’s absolute best.
I greatly appreciate the challenge of Jeremiah Johnson when he says,
“Doctrinal precision matters. And it will remain elusive and unattainable for God’s people as long as we lazily lean on Christian clichés that confuse and corrupt the truth. For the sake of our own spiritual growth, and for the sake of the watching world that needs the clear truth of Scripture, we need to tidy up the way we talk about God and His work in our lives.”
How can we begin to live and speak in this way? We must immerse our hearts and minds in the truth of God’s Word. Bankers don’t make a practice of handling counterfeit bills. Rather, they become so well acquainted with the real thing that anything else is obvious and quickly recognized as false. Similarly, the more we study and know the Bible, the more quickly we will recognize error.
In any and every situation, we must ask ourselves, “What does God’s Word say about this?” Search. Seek. Study. Lord, help us to be faithful Bereans who love your Word and make it our authority for living and our standard for truth. And may our words always reflect this.
What careless Christian cliché have you discovered?
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