The Bible gives much insight into the love and goodness of God, and these truths are incredibly positive and reassuring. But it’s a mistake to isolate personally gratifying scriptures and treat these truths as if this is all the Bible has to say about God; as if he is always this way and cannot be any other way.
The definition of cherry-picking is to choose and take only the most beneficial items from what is available. This approach to the Bible is a temptation that is quite easy to fall into, but it results in a distorted view of God himself, and an inaccurate assessment of where we personally stand with him. If we value an honest and healthy relationship with the Lord, we must persistently seek and welcome everything that God says to us throughout the scriptures.
The following verse is an excellent example of how people sometimes cherry-pick the scriptures.
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. (Jeremiah 29:11 NIV)
This verse is sometimes treated as a guarantee of God’s heart and intention toward anyone who reads it and claims this promise for themselves. The problem with this approach is that elsewhere in the book of Jeremiah are scriptures declaring God’s heart and intention to be completely opposite of what is stated above.
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will fulfill my words against this city for harm and not for good, and they shall be accomplished before you on that day. (Jeremiah 39:16 ESV)
Therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I will set my face against you for harm, to cut off all Judah. For I am watching over them for harm, not for good; the Jews in Egypt will perish by sword and famine until they are all destroyed. (Jeremiah 44:11, 27)
What an alarming declaration from God! He says he is watching over them; but it’s for harm, not for good. We must understand that the verses that promise harm and not good are just as valid as the verse that promises good and not harm. So how can both be true since they declare opposite things? God is promising different things to different people based on how they have responded to what He commanded them to do.
The verse that promises good and not harm was written to the exiles in Babylon who had listened to the word of God and humbled themselves under his hand of correction. But the book of Jeremiah reveals two other groups who rejected God’s plan for them. Rather than humbling themselves and obeying God’s instructions, they arrogantly trusted in their own plan for survival, forfeiting God’s plan for good and not harm.
This brings us to how we should personally relate to Jeremiah 29:11. This really is a wonderful scripture. It reveals the goodness and kindness of God. It declares God’s desire to prosper his people and not to harm them. But having God’s desire fulfilled in our life requires more than just reading a scripture and believing it. In Jeremiah’s time there were people who qualified to receive good from God, and there were people who qualified to receive harm from God. It’s not enough to simply read a random scripture and claim it for ourselves; we must meet the conditions of humbling ourselves before God and submitting to his ways.
The story that begins in the book of Jeremiah continues into the book of Lamentations, which was also written by Jeremiah.
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23 ESV)
I love this verse. I love to quote it to myself. I love to quote it to other people. Sometimes, in thanksgiving, I even quote it back to God. This verse reveals a great truth about God and is one of the most encouraging scriptures in the Bible. But to properly apply this truth we must understand the context in which the verse was written.
For years God had warned Judah that they would be conquered by the Babylonians and carried away into exile. He specifically told the people of Jerusalem that this was His doing and they needed to accept defeat and surrender to their captors. He warned that if they holed up in the city, they would die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence1. He warned that Jerusalem would come under siege and the ensuing famine would be so bad that the inhabitants of Jerusalem would eat the flesh of their sons and daughters2. But in their religious arrogance3 they refused to humble themselves and submit to God, and the book of Lamentations recounts, after the fact, the horrors that took place during the siege and conquest of Jerusalem.
Not every promise of God has the condition immediately attached to it in the scriptures, but the principle of “promises have conditions” is a fundamental truth that runs throughout the Bible. As emphatic as the above scripture is (God’s steadfast love never ceases, His mercies never come to an end) these declarations still come with conditions; conditions that the people of Jerusalem could have met, but instead they willfully persisted in arrogance and disobedience, and forfeited the steadfast love and mercy that could have been theirs. While God himself never ceased to have steadfast love, the people of Jerusalem ceased to experience his steadfast love. While God himself never ceased to have mercy, the people of Jerusalem ceased to experience his mercy.
I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love. For he said, “Surely they are my people, children who will not deal falsely.” And he became their Savior. In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit; therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them. (Isaiah 63:7-10 ESV)
This passage reveals in detail the great goodness of God. Four times it proclaims his love for his people; describing his love as steadfast love, and the abundance of his steadfast love. It proclaims his compassion, his pity, and his empathy. It affirms God as their Savior who lifted them up and carried them. I find great encouragement and comfort in these truths about God’s heart toward his people.
But this passage is also a striking example that these things come with conditions, that there is more to God than just his goodness, and that our response to God is crucial to what kind of relationship we will have with him.
The following words of Jesus are another example of how we tend to pick and choose our truth.
I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Luke 12:4-7 ESV)
One part of this passage is an encouraging insight into how attentive God is to us; revealing that God is aware of the smallest detail of our lives. The other part is a strong warning that carries fearful and eternal implications. Both truths are valid, both truths are real, and it’s not like we must choose between the two. But if we rated these two truths on their degree of significance, a warning with eternal implications should certainly outweigh an encouraging insight. Yet it’s common to hear references to the encouraging insight, and rare to hear any mention of the grave warning. It’s appropriate to find strength and comfort in the positive things the Bible says, but it’s dangerous to take lightly the serious warnings that are also in the Bible. It’s disturbing how easily we tend to do this.
The challenge isn’t just knowing how to correctly interpret individual scriptures. The challenge is to have a correct approach to God. And how we approach the Bible will mirror how we approach God himself. We can get into the Bible seeking what pleases us, or we can get into the Bible seeking what pleases him. We must have a genuine desire to know God as he is; including the things we may find confusing, challenging, and even disturbing. We must diligently maintain an openness to see ourselves in the revealing light of his truth. We cannot simply rely on how we feel about these issues, because scripture warns that the heart is deceitful above all things4. We desperately need the Bible to speak truth to us.
“Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” is an old hymn dating back to 1758. It has a candid line that goes: Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Even though we may love the Lord, and be truly grateful for all that he has done for us, and sincerely want to live to please and honor him; living for him is a struggle and it’s a battle, and the Bible frequently addresses it as such. We consistently need the firm guidance and correction of the scriptures.
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)
Notice the benefits of scripture that are listed:
- teaching – learning, education, changing the way we think
- reproof – to rebuke, to reprimand
- correction – to adjust, to put straight
- training in righteousness – disciplined to live right before God
According to this verse, the primary purpose of scripture is to challenge us, with the goal of maturity and being equipped to do the work of the Lord. Yet, today’s Christian culture seems to use the scriptures primarily to comfort us, with the goal being a personal sense of serenity.
Preachers will sometimes pull positive, reassuring scriptures from the Bible and proclaim to a crowd: this is who God is, this is how he feels about you, and this is where you stand with him. This is often done indiscriminately, with no regard for their listener’s personal attitude toward God, and no clarification for what is required to be a recipient of the promises they are freely dispensing. What God intends to be glorious, life-changing truths, can become dangerous half-truths that alleviate any sense of unease5 and give instead a false sense of security and well-being.
The life-giving promises of God are not up for grabs just because someone calls them self a Christian and regularly attends church services. The promises of God belong to true people of faith. And the Bible says our faith is something that can and should be tested.
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. (2 Corinthians 13:5-6 ESV)
Paul does not assume that everyone who identifies with Christianity, is in fact a believer. He challenges people to examine themselves and to test themselves to see whether they are in the faith, to see if Jesus Christ is in them. Testing and examining means we don’t just assume that we’re saved, instead we look for evidence that confirms we are saved.
It can be challenging to hear all that the Bible has to say to us. But the alternative is very dangerous. The two most important questions we will ever need to answer are: Who is God? And where do I stand with Him? We cannot afford to settle for superficial, pleasant answers to these questions. Our eternal state will be determined by how we respond to what the Bible says regarding these two issues.
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires. (2 Timothy 4:3 NASB)
“Doctrine” is instruction; that which is intended to be taught, learned, and obeyed. “Sound doctrine” is doctrine that is healthy. Not only must doctrine be without defect, it must also be whole, thorough, and complete. Healthy doctrine is not always pleasant and comforting. Often it challenges us and pushes us beyond our comfort zone. Sometimes it gets in our face and confronts us. This is why the Bible says that sound doctrine must be endured.
I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. (Acts 20:20, 27 ESV)
Twice, Paul states that he “did not shrink from declaring”. It’s challenging to declare the whole counsel of God. It’s easier to cherry-pick and choose reassuring messages, and the Bible can be a limitless source of reassuring messages. But Paul was committed to declaring everything that was “profitable”, and all truth has great value, even truth that admonishes and challenges. We all have shortcomings in our walk with God, but it’s only when these things are exposed by the truth of God’s word that they can be changed by the power of God’s word.
The Bible faithfully proclaims who God is, and throughout the scriptures very distinct and diverse aspects of God’s nature and attributes are revealed. It’s possible to pick and choose through the scriptures and create a version of God that we find appealing. But the problem with having a personalized view of God, is that one day we will meet the real thing. The Bible makes it clear that we will all stand before God6. Our entire life will come down to that one moment when we stand face-to-face with the living God. And in that moment that completely defines our entire life7, He will be who he is, and whatever we may want him to be will not alter in the least who he actually is. I pray we will live now in the reality of who God is, so that on that day we can stand before him with great confidence8.
And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. (1 John 2:28 ESV)
- “He who stays in this city shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence, but he who goes out and surrenders to the Chaldeans who are besieging you shall live and shall have his life as a prize of war.” (Jeremiah 21:9 ESV)
- “And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.” (Jeremiah 19:9 ESV)
- “Then I said: “Ah, Lord GOD, behold, the prophets say to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place.” (Jeremiah 14:13 ESV)
- “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)
- “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10 ESV)
- “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:12 ESV)
- “each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.” (1 Corinthians 3:13 ESV)
- “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Matthew 25:21 ESV)
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