Pulling the Trigger (Verse)
I read the other day that the most quoted Bible verse on Twitter is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Ok, fine, I can’t say I am surprised. If you go to a Christian book store you will find all sorts of posters, wall art, key chains and whatever about this verse in the “Jesus junk” section of the store.
Close behind that verse are two more than don’t really surprise me either. One is Jeremiah 29:11, “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.” This too is a perfectly fine verse. After all, who wouldn’t want God to have good plans for them?
The third is II Chronicles 7:14, “if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” You hear this verse used a lot in a cultural/political sense.
These, and other verses like them, are trigger verses. They are the verses that, when quoted, give immediate comfort, encouragement and strength. There is nothing inherently wrong with that; it is always good to have a few verses in mind to pierce our hearts in times of trouble. But I do have a problem with these verses being taken out of context, particularly when they are used to motivate others.
The key difficulty with trigger verses is two-fold. First and foremost is that taking these verses out of context distorts their meaning. The second is that the idea of me-centered interpretation; the assumption that every verse in the Bible is about me (or at least “us”), makes for some strange readings. This latter, distinctly American, idea reaches its apex with the Personal Promise Bible where you can have your own name replace all the personal pronouns. “For God so loved Tom….”
But let’s look at these three verses in context. With Philippians 4 Paul’s clear message is contentment in whatever he faces. As he writes this he is under arrest and facing an uncertain future. While we tend to see 4:13 as a motivational verse promising us victory but it is not. In contemporary terms his is saying that when he has a new luxury car, God is good; when he has lost his job and his car has been repossessed, God is still good.
In Jeremiah the verse is spoken to the prophet directly. They don’t call Jeremiah the weeping prophet without reason. He was shunned by his brothers and imprisoned by the leaders for the messages he delivered. Before his time ended the people he loved were scattered and in captivity. It is not a promise that everything would be wonderful, it was a verse to give him strength when everything was as far from feeling wonderful as it could be.
The II Chronicles verse is the one most ill-used in a corporate sense. Someone is upset about a cultural condition or government action and uses this verse to urge us to pray that those evil people who are ruining our country repent. If there is any personal application at all it is that we need to repent of not praying hard enough that those evil people be thwarted. This reading takes the verse and directly applies it to 21st century America, or at least to Christians in America.
Because this verse is more widely used in a political/social sense it bears taking time to look it, particularly to determine if directly applying it to us today makes sense. First note that this is a direct message to Solomon, and through him Israel, in response to his prayer at the dedication of the temple in chapter 6. It does damage to the understanding when we rip one verse out of a passage that is talking about Israel, and in specific the temple, and say that it applies to contemporary America.
Added to this is the meaning of “my people” and “land” in this verse. What gives us the right to claim those apply to me and America and not Israel? Frankly, nothing. For example, what does “heal their land” mean? Those who want to use this verse to spur contemporary political/social action say it refers to some sort of revival or spiritual healing. Revival is all well and good but is that what God means?
The meaning is found in the preceding verse, verse 13, which is actually the first half of the verse 14 sentence. “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people…” This is clearly a physical restoration.
The consequences of disobedience make this even clearer. Verses 19 and 20 say “But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples.” Not even the most Americanized proponent of contemporary application expects God to “pluck [us] up from” America.
Memorizing trigger verses is fine. Using them for self-motivation is fine too. Applying principles from these verses is ok but we always need to be aware that our applications are not, and can never be, inerrant. Be particularly alert to others saying or implying that their application is always right.
Frankly trigger verse obsession can be a bit dangerous. You can prove almost anything if you treat the Bible like a grocery store where you go down the aisles (books) and place the item (verses) you like in your cart. You can even convince yourself you are doing “systematic theology” as you simultaneously scorn those who have “proven” different, even opposite, points with their own shopping cart of verses.